Allegorical Elements in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner

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      What is an Allegory? An allegory has been defined as a narrative description of a subject under guise of another suggestively similar subject It is a story within a story. The underlying story always has a moral significance. Allegorical composition serves two absolutely distinct purposes such as to amuse just as any other good piece of literature should, and also to preach as a religious sermon does. A piece of literature which has an apparent instructive purpose is only an inferior kind of literature. Inwardly it may have a moral end in view but outwardly it ought to satisfy the literary urge in the reader. Only a beautiful blending of the two purposes shall make a work of literature really great.

      Simple Allegory at the Lowest Level. Reduced to its lowest terms, The Ancient Mariner is a simple allegory of guilt and regeneration. It is divided into seven parts. Beginning with the commission of guilt in Part I, each part tells of a new stage in the process towards regeneration, till in Part VII the conclusion comes with whatever redemption is possible in the case.

      At the end of Part 1, the Mariner shoots the Albatross, but nowhere does he explain his motives in shooting it. This uncertainty of the motives is quite important. It, in fact, symbolises "the essential frivolity of many crimes against humanity and the ordered system of the world." In Part II, the Manner's companions become accomplices in the crime. With Part III the forces of retribution are set into motion. The Mariner's sin being greater, he is condemned to the more dreadful Life-in-Death. The Mariner's alienation from both God and His creations is shown at the beginning of Part IV

Alone, alone, all, all, alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!

      Then comes the spontaneous blessing for God's creatures, the dead Albatross falls from his neck signifying partial redemption. In Part V the regeneration continues. Sleep comes as the long-awaited rain. But The Ancient Mariner has to do more penance before he is reconciled to God. In Part VI there seems to be an obstruction to the healing process the Mariner is haunted by a dreadful fear. But this is remorse which brings repentance and humility; therefore the angelic forms appear to the Mariner's eyes. The last part brings the Mariner to his native land. Life-in-Death continues to work on him as it must for regeneration is a slow process.

      Working out of Guilt and Regeneration in the Poem. When the Albatross comes to the ship, the sailors welcome it.

As if it had been a Christian Soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

      Here is one of the key-phrases in the poem which explains why the killing of the Albatross assumes a sinister shape in the structure of the poem. 'It is not just killing of an ordinary bird which justifies the spectral persecution of the Mariner; the Albatross is here endowed with a godly personality; it is affiliated to a 'Christian Soul' and therefore demands the respect due to a creature of God. The enormity of the Mariner's crime is felt as much in the status of the life that is taken as in the unprovoked, unexplained nature of the Mariner's action. In the words of Mr. E.M. Bewley, "The transgression of The Ancient Mariner in killing the Albatross is a violation of that supernatural charity which shall rule throughout creation... The Albatross becomes, in effect, a person. It is given a kind of inviolability. It has been deliberately placed by the Mariner on the same plane of creation which he himself occupies, and the full play of the will to which this deliberation gives scope brings to the Mariner's act of violence a special guilt". Why the Mariner has killed the bird is a mystery, it is one of those impulsive acts which, by their very irrationality, give a blow to our self-esteem and dump us into the stagnant pool of dejection.

      For a moment the enormity of his crime is not brought home to the Mariner: the continuation of fair weather is an external hint that his self-confidence is still unshaken:

The fair hreeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free....

      And then there is the shock of:

We were die first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

      From that point onwards the Mariner's realisation of the nature of his guilt and his expiation for it by suffering supernatural punishment proceed together. The stagnating of the ship, the drought and the parching thirst, the coming of the skeleton-ship with its supernatural passengers, Death and Life-in-Death, throwing dice to settle the fate of the Mariner and the rest of the crew have an inevitability in which the natural and the supernatural become a piece. The mood of depression and self-abasement express in:

And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I !

      Begins to be charmed away by the magic of nature's vital beauty. The Mariner recovers an interest, in the simplest forms of life:

Beyond the shadow of the ship
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes....
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.

      This sympathy with life is the beginning of the man's spiritual regeneration. The sleep which comes to him after many sleepless nights the showers of rain which revive him, the navigation of the ship by 'a blessed troop of angelic spirits' that enter the dead bodies of the crew, the interest taken by other, supernatural beings in his spiritual welfare:

The man bath penance done.
And penance more will do -

      Mark various stages in the process of recovery. The supernatural agents and events perfectly harmonize with the natural motions of the man's spirit. The perfect simplicity and the air of conviction with which they
are narrated induce in the reader 'that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith'.

      The final expiation of the crime is registered in the Mariner's voyage 'coming full circle'—

Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? Is this the Kirk?
Is this mine own countree?

      The joy in experiencing reunion with the familiar and the intimate is paralleled in the joy and gratitude felt by the Mariner for the seraph-band that stood above the corpses in their own bright forms.

      In a mood of humble acceptance the Mariner now rejoins the simple forms and rites of social life from which he has sailed into the romance and the adventures of the uncharted seas:

O sweeter than the marriage-feast
'Tis sweeter far to me
To walk together to the kirk
with a goodly company!

      D.W. Harding in his masterly summing up of the theme of the poem conclude: ''The buoyancy of the voyager as he first set out....entails a self-reliant thrusting forth into the outer world and repudiates dependence on the comfort of ordinary social ties. But Coleridge's anxieties seem to have shown him this attitude taken beyond all bounds and leading to a self-sufficiency which wants only destroy the ties of affection. The Albatross is killed, and then the penalty must be paid in remorse, dejection, and the sense of being a worthless social outcast. Only a partial recovery is possible. Once the horrifying potentiality has been glimpsed in human nature, Coleridge dare not imagine a return to self-reliant voyaging. Creeping back defeated into the social convoy, the Mariner is obviously not represented as having advanced through his suffering to a fuller life, and he no more achieves a full rebirth than Coleridge ever could. There is nothing but the crushed admission that he will, after all, have done better to have stayed at home in humble companionship. Even the vigour and excitement of the marriage feast are too daring for him, he needs submissive trustful prayer to a great Father."

      New Dimension Through Myth of Guilt and Redemption. The Ancient Manner is a myth of guilt and redemption. Coleridge's introduction of this theme into The Ancient Mariner gives to it a new dimension. What might otherwise be no more than an irresponsible fairy-tale is brought closer to life and to its fundamental issues. The myth of crime and punishment provides a structure for the supernatural events which rise from it. The shadow cast by the Mariner's crime adds by contrast to the brilliance of the unearthly world in which it is committed, and the degree of his guilt and his remorse serve to stress the power of the angelic beings which watch over human kind. At the same time the Mariner's tale is a story of a voyage into the interior. Not only into the unfathomable depths of the sources of human action to be discerned in the unpremeditated shooting of the Albatross that cause him his suffering and the spontaneous blessing of the water-snakes that begins his restoration but the story also takes us beyond the human world altogether. Again it is a voyage of extreme contrasts, of suffering and of expiation, of the human and social world and an altogether alien cosmos with its own terrible, yet beautiful order. It is exactly right that the listener shall be a wedding-guest and that the Mariner denies him his expectations of the natural enjoyment of the music, the celebration and the happiness of the feast. It is also right that the guest should be afraid of the Mariner and feel that he is a being from another world; he is exactly that.

      More than an Allegory. The poem is of course more than an allegory of guilt and regeneration. In any ordinary sense the Mariner is very little guilty. But he has broken the bond between, himself and the life of Nature, and in consequence becomes spiritually dead. What happens to him when he blesses the water-snakes in the tropical calm is a psychic rebirth - a rebirth that must at times happen to all men and all cultures unless they are to dry up in living death, as Graham Hough says.

      Conclusion. Thus the story of The Ancient Mariner has a multi-faceted richness of meaning. It is a story of spiritual adventure, a story of crime, punishment and reconciliation, a story of sin, expiation and redemption, a story revealing the secret of communal and family harmony and the harmony of the natural order of the universe, all in one. Usually, in an allegory, we find one single current of meaning and moral underlying the superficial facade of the story. But in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner several levels of meaning are present pointing always to one single moral:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

      This moral is in fact the principle that guides the movement of the universe. Once the principle is broken, the whole order of the universe is broken, with far-reaching consequences. The Ancient Mariner has broken the principle by killing the Albatross, and has to suffer the consequences.

University Questions

What is an allegory? Examine in the light of your definition whether the story of The Ancient Mariner is an allegory.
Write a short essay on the allegorical meaning of The Ancient Mariner.
The main events in The Ancient Mariner have an ethical and allegorical dimension. Discuss.

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