Willing Suspension of Disbelief in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner

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      When Coleridge joins Wordsworth in the writing of the Lyrical Ballads, it is his aim to select remote, uncommon, or supernatural incidents and so to treat them as to produce an impression of realism. This aim has been achieved in The Ancient Mariner. In other words, although this poem contains several impossible incidents, the total effect is that of reality. In Coleridge's own words there is "a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. A willing suspension of disbelief obviously implies that the reader suspends the analytical function of the mind and is ready to believe what he is reading. He readily drops his scepticism and believes what he has disbelieved earlier at least for the moment.

      Devices Employed by Coleridge. The supernatural is not a part of belief for the readers of Coleridge as it is for the audience of Homer and Shakespeare. In order to win their confidence he has to relate it to something which they know and understand.

      1. Characteristics of Dream and Subtlety. Coleridge tackles the problem, in the first place, by exploiting some of the characteristics of dream. A nightmare is a known experience. Through it the people can be led to appreciate the remote mysteries which the poet keeps in reserve. Dreams have the quality, because of their vividness and single, absorbing impression, to stay in the mind. Coleridge is attracted by their strange power. In Christabel, he speaks of

Such perplexity of mind
As dreams too lively leave behind.

      The Ancient Mariner bears the marks of such a liveliness. On the surface, it shows many qualities of dream. It moves in abrupt stages, each of which has its own single, dominating tone. Its visual impressions are remarkably brilliant and absorbing. Its emotional effects change quickly, but they always come with an unusual force. When it is all over, the poem's essence clings to the memory with a strange force. The experiences of the Mariner haunt him and all those who listen to him.

      2. Inner Logic. Wordsworth criticises this poem and complains that "the events, having no necessary connection, do not produce each other." This criticism ignores the essential inner logic of the poem. The Mariner kills the Albatross and suffers for it. He violates Natural law. He has to do penance. His companions bless his action and are punished for becoming partners in the crime. Here Coleridge has asserted his belief that spirits watch over human action. It is an old belief and The Ancient Mariner may be supposed to have it. Once this is grasped the rest is easy. Both the figures on the skeleton ship and the spirits who guide the Mariner on his northward voyage are sufficiently real for us to feel that their actions are appropriate to their characters and circumstances. Nor is it absurd that, when the ship at last comes home, it sinks. It has passed through adventures too unearthly for it to have a place in the world of common things. The ship and the Mariner bear the marks of their ordeal. It is no wonder that the Pilot's boy goes mad at the sight.

      3. Imaginative Realism: Gradual Introduction of the Supernatural. This dream world of strange experience has also been given a life of its own by the exercise of imaginative realism on the part of poet. He has created the unnatural events from natural elements. We feel at home because their constituents are familiar. He uses the atmosphere of dreams to accustom us to his special world. Afterwards, at each step he takes pains to see that bis unusual subject is real both for the eye and for emotion. The voyage begins in a very cordial human atmosphere:

The ship was cheer'd, the harbour clear'd
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.

      Before our imagination is conjured an image of a little village harbour appears. The supernatural is introduced gradually. The storm-blast is given a living quality - a demoniac life. The sun is not a lifeless thing but bright and red like God's own head. Natural scenes take on a supernatural aura gradually in the poem and prepare us for the appearance of the phantom ship. At the end we are again brought back to the quiet harbour so that the happenings in between becomes an adventure into a nightmarish world.

      4. Natural Background. The background of nature that Coleridge paints is very realistic. Anything else may be unreal, but nature is always real. The natural and the supernatural coalesce so that the former makes the latter credible. As Traill has remarked, "Coleridge triumphs over his difficulties by sheer vividness of imagery and terse vigour of descriptive phrase. He writes with his eye on the object and displays a remarkable power of completing his word-picture with a few touches. Everything seems to have been actually seen, and we believe it all as the story of a truthful eye-witness. Commenting upon this quality of the poem Kathleen E. Ryod & remarks: "For vividness of imagery and descriptive power the poem is unsurpassed. We move in a world of unearthly weirdness whose mystery and charm are unbroken by any inconsistency. We see the invisible and almost touch the intangible in this realism, where the things that are too seldom 'dreampt of our philosophy' loom within our ken.

      There are quite a number of supernatural incidents. There is the mariner's hypnotic gaze, there is the sudden and mysterious appearance of a skeleton ship, the spectre-woman and her death-mate, the coming back to life of the ship's crew, the spirits talking to one another. The supernatural incidents are cleverly scattered in the poem. With these supernatural incidents the poet has artistically interwoven convincing pictures of Nature like the sun shining brightly at the outset, the mist and snow surrounding the ship, the freezing cold of the Antarctic region, slimy creatures creeping upon the sea, the moon going up the sky and a star or two shining beside it, the water snakes moving in the water in tracks of shining white. The blending of these two elements is so skillful that the total effect is realistic. The realistic, the natural and the supernatural, the possible and the impossible, have been so skilfully and artistically blended that the whole strikes us as quite convincing and credible.

      5. Emotional and Psychological Realism. The poem is made still more realistic by the masterly expression of the thoughts and feelings of the mariners; how at the appearance of the skeleton-ship fear seems to sip the old Mariner's life blood; how while suffering acute mental distress, he tries to pray but can not; how he felt the horror of the curse in the dead men’s eyes; and how the sky and the sea lay like a load on his weary eye; and how, finally, he feel relief. This is exactly what any man will suffer under similar circumstances. The poet makes us share the Mariner's experience by truthfully portraying his emotions and mental states. This psychological study, therefore, has its share in contributing to the realistic effect.

      Coleridge has given a very realistic treatment of the feelings and emotions of the persons in the poem. We feel that what happens to them might in similar circumstances happen to anyone. We respond readily to their pathos and their misery which is conveyed with a masterly directness. He Portrays the helpless agony of thirst in the crew:

And every tongue, through utter drought
Was withered at the root!
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

      And, this is how the Mariner expresses himself when his thirst is slaked as he sleeps:

My lips were wet! my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank!
Sure I had drunken in my dreams
And still, my body drank.

      What is true of physical sensation in The Ancient Mariner is no less true of mental states. The mariner passes through an ordeal so weird and fearful that it might seem impossible to make it real for us. Coleridge rises to the occasion and by concentrating on elementary human emotions makes the most of them. The sense of utter helplessness and solitude is fully conveyed:

Alone, alone all all alone
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony...

      This is the true feeling of pain of a guilty man who feels himself abandoned both by God and Man. On the other hand when the ship at last comes to land, the silent presence of the angels fills him with hope and joy:

This seraph band, each waved his hand,
No voice did they impart-
No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart.

      Coleridge distills the extremes of despair and of joy in these brief moments.

      6. A Higher Reality. Coleridge's power to convince, so far from being dependent on the back ground of the story, is most fully operative in the story itself, which triumphantly succeeds at the level of a simple tale of adventure. When we read The Ancient Mariner, the plain fact is that our disbelief is 'suspended', as it must be with all successful art, whether or not it is 'realistic' in the narrow sense. As Coleridge well knows, imaginative truth is no less real to our experience than is factual truth and it may be more real.

University Questions

"The first problem for any poet of the supernatural is to relate it to familiar experience." How does Coleridge solve this problem in The Ancient Mariner?
How far is Coleridge successful in bringing about "a willing suspension of disbelief" in the reader with his The Ancient Mariner?
How are the supernatural elements in The Ancient Mariner rendered probable or plausible or realistic? Has Coleridge succeeded in the attempt?

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