The English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772 and died in 1834. He belonged to the romantic movement of that period and is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential literary figures of all time. In addition to the subject of this piece, he is known for other works, including “Kubla Khan”, “Christabel” and “France: an Ode”.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) is a supernatural ballad set at the immediate exterior of a wedding feast. An old man accosts a certain wedding guest, ‘one of three’, who is on his way inside to join the celebration. This wedding guest is put out by the old man’s temerity, as anyone would be who is about to join family and friends for a get-together but is stopped, apparently at random, by some crazy stranger who wants to tell him the story of his life. But soon after his initial resistance, the wedding guest yields to the old man’s wishes—‘his glittering eye’ holds him fast.
The gist of the ‘rime’ is the old man’s recollection of the guilty and fateful part he played in a doomed sea voyage. He describes how his ship was driven by high winds ‘tyrannous and strong’ before being deposited into a frozen and lifeless region of the southern hemisphere. For a time things looked grim for the ship and its crew—‘The ice was here, the ice was there, / The ice was all around…’—but the appearance of an albatross coincided with a positive change of circumstances. The ice broke and a good wind sprung up so that the ship was able to steer northward, back into the warmer climates. The grateful men befriended the sea bird and coaxed it into remaining with the ship; which it did—until the mariner shot it with a crossbow.
Why he shot the albatross is not explained. Was it simply a gratuitous act of cruelty? Or maybe it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt; and the mariner, while engaged in target practice, chose to shoot the bird because a live target was more interesting than an inanimate one. In any case, the poem links the killing of the albatross with the hellish situation that eventually developed—i.e., windless heat and deadly thirst:
‘Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.’
Coleridge maintains this hypnotic rhythm in each stanza of the lengthy poem, the whole of which is a nice blend of style and substance. The tale works its way, slowly and painfully, toward a moving resolution. In the words of my niece (who recently read it for the first time), “The Rime” is both creepy and beautiful.
Like Shakespeare, Coleridge wrote in an old style of English that takes some getting used to. But the effort is worth it, I’d say; especially if the reader is ‘one of three’.