Moral of The Poem The Rime of The Ancient Mariner

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      Every story including The Ancient Mariner has a moral. No story, written in verse, can be without a moral in its wide and comprehensive meaning. The conclusion or the moral may either be implied or expressly stated. It is not always that an expressly-stated moral lessens the artistic merit of the poem or the story. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a clear illustration of the truth of these remarks. E.M.W. Tillyard, C.M. Bowra, R.P. Warren and a host of eminent critics agree that the poem has a very serious moral and spiritual bearing on human life and they are certainly right.

      The Significance of the Albatross and its Killing. Cheers and sees off at the harbour, the ship with The Ancient Mariner and his two hundred mates steers its course to the region of the icebergs, too easily. There the ship is encircled temporarily by the ice. The crew are much depressed when all of a sudden an Albatross appears through the mist and fog. In itself, the Albatross represents the animal world, another of God’s creations. In their lonely gloom, the sailors hail it as though it is a Christian soul. The bird is an auspicious bird, a bird of good omen, which has brought with it a favourable south wind. Thus the Albatross represents the animal, the human and the spiritual worlds. The sailors are right in being hospitable and grateful to it. The Ancient Mariner, overlooking all that the bird stands for and the good that it has brought for the sailors, shoots it is dead with his cross-bow. He kills it out of ignorance and wantonness. We are not told why he is killed the bird. It seems to have been an arbitrary and irrational act. On the human level the killing is cruelty and criminal because it is their guest; on the spiritual level it is a sin. The gravity of the Mariner's misdeed consists in its being at once cruelty, crime and sin. It is a misdeed against animals, human beings and God. The sailors know that it is so. But, when the mist and fog clear, they praise the Mariner and his misdeed. Thus they not only partake of the Mariner's guilt but also become more guilty than the Mariner, because their approval of his misdeed is not due to their ignorance but due to a wilful indifference to their knowledge. The whole crew including the Mariner are now guilty and liable to be punished.

      The Consequences of the Killing of the Albatross. Cruelty to living things has its unpleasant consequences. Crime involves punishment, so the sailors are punished with death and The Ancient Mariner is tortured with Life-in-death. The Ancient Mariner has isolated himself and his sailors from the only representative of the living world and symbol of God's love in the region of mist and fog. Consequently, he is in turn cut off from all the living sailors and is left alone on the wide sea. The only living things he can see are the slimy things in the slimy sea. But he recoils from them in horror. As long as he hates them he has no hope of salvation. In hating them he again refuses to acknowledge the worth of God's creation. Naturally, he cannot pray and no saint shows any pity for him.

      The Significance and Love of the Slimy Things. The slimy, things by themselves represent again the animal world. Since they are living things, they are the only link between The Ancient Mariner and the rest of life or the living world. The Ancient Mariner at last perceives their beauty and admires them. Love gushes forth spontaneously from his heart for life and living things. He blesses the beautiful things unawares just as he kills the Albatross in utter ignorance. He now not only recognises the beauty of the water-snakes but also the fact of the worth of their existence. Now he is able to pray. Thus love dislodges the cruelty, the unconscious blessing replaces the criminality and prayer expiates the sin. Now The Ancient Mariner can hope for salvation.

      The Way the Moral is Worked Out. Salvation at this stage is only at hope and not a certainty. The Ancient Mariner shows ignorance in killing the bird and liking the slimy things unconsciously. He has not become a self-conscious man. He has not attained realisation. He still has to do penance. The penance consists in his confession to the hermit, to the wedding guest, and to all those he could tell the story of his crime and sinfulness to. It is through this long process of penance that he can achieve self-consciousness and self-realisation which in their turn would make his salvation a certainty.

      The Summing up of the Moral. Thus, appreciation of beauty in the living things however ugly they may seem to be and love of all living things whether they are great or small are the best of all prayers. Prayer and penance are but an expression of the appreciation and love of God's Creation.

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast
...           ...          ...           ...
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small,
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all:

      Is this moral inadequate? Does the punishment seem in excess of the crime committed? Our view will depend on our entire attitude to life. The Albatross may be a bird, but who is man to judge that he has the right to kill it wantonly? A bird, a water-snake, a man each has a place in the scheme of life as God has created all of them. If we do not take the killing of the bird at face value, we at once realize that the Mariner has violated the inviolable sanctity of life. Thus seen, the moral of the poem is not inadequate. Man must not be arrogant enough to assume the role of judging what deserves to live or die.

      The Moral is not a Defect. Some critics argue that Coleridge's statement of the hare moral in the lines quoted above detract from the artistic merit of the poem. They support their view by quoting Coleridge, who says: "... the only or chief fault, if I may say so, is the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination". This statement is not quite acceptable. It proves nothing more than the fact that Coleridge is being humble in estimating his work. The moral scheme is inherent and central to the very structure of The Ancient Mariner. Coleridge believes that all creatures are part of One Life. There is a careful regulated moral atmosphere in the poem which gives it an added dimension. Without it, the poem would merely be a collection of supernatural incidents. But as it is, the poem's structure marks a development in clear stages from crime through punishment to such redemption as is possible in this world. Humphry House is correct about the explicit moral when he says: "But coming in context, after the richness and terror of the poem, it is no more a banal moral apothegm, but a moral which has its meaning because it has been lived."

University Questions

It is said that the moral of The Ancient Mariner gives the poem a centrality and added dimension. Do you agree?
How far is it true to say that The Ancient Manner has no morals?
Do you agree with the view that the explicitly stated moral in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner lessens the artistic excellence of the poem?
The purpose of The Ancient Mariner is "to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth." Discuss.
"The moral of The Ancient Mariner is in general conformity with Coleridge's views on 'life in nature' and the essence and function of poetry." Discuss.

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