Justify The Rime of The Ancient Mariner as a Ballad

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      The Traditional Ballad Form. A 'ballad' is in reality a dance song. In England, it was first introduced by the minstrels. It is first applied to the native 'sing-song' - a song in short rhymed stanzas. The name is also used for the other folk-songs, lays, gestes and nines. Later on the term come to be applied to short, vivid narratives, consisting of one or more cantos of four-line stanzas in rough rhyme and rhythm. Themes are drawn from the elementary aspects of life, tales of adventure, fighting, of prowess and valour.

      The Modern or Literary Ballad. The modern ballad is a literary development of the traditional form. Scott, Cowper, Wordsworth, Longfellow and Tennyson are prominent among those who have written in this style. Unlike the old ballads, these are consciously written poems in that style. As such they do not have that spontaneity, perfect sincerity and has rugged strength of the older ballads.

      An important element of romantic poetry is medievalism an interest in medieval subjects and a wilful copying of medieval literary methods. Coleridge, Scott and Keats are mainly responsible for the revival of the ballad form. Ballads written by romantic poets are called literary Ballads. They are a definite re-creation of the atmosphere of times long ago. Their main interest is literature.

      The Ancient Mariner: A Ballad. Coleridge combines many of the features of the old form with the modern. All the simple beauty of the old ballad is there with none of its extravagances.

      1. Story and Theme. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner tells a simple story. The old Mariner kills an Albatross and his sailor-mates applaud his misdeed. Retribution and punishment visit them. The sailors die and the Mariner barely survives a series of harrowing and terrible experiences. When at last he learns to love living things, he becomes free from the spell. In this way, the story is one of crime and punishment. But parallel to this theme, runs the theme of love. Love, in this story, is not man-woman love as in most ballads but love of God's creations, big or small, without discrimination.

      2. Adventure. Most ballads are full of feats of physical strength, fortitude and adventure. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner does not lack in them. The high seas are always an apt setting for adventure. From the time the Mariner kills the Albatross to the time he is rescued by the holy Hermit, the Mariner has a series of adventures or encounters with a host of supernatural beings, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, visible and invisible, like the Polar Spirit, the slimy things, the angels that inhabited the bodies of the dead sailors and finally Death and his mate Life-in-Death. In all these encounters, the Mariner's courage and fortitude are put to severe test both physically and morally. He survives them all by his love of living things and his penance. It is a spiritual adventure.

      3. Supernatural Machinery. Supernatural element is an essential element of ballads of all description. Coleridge in this poem has built a large supernatural machinery to draw an effective and purposeful contrast between artificial and natural things. The supernatural world or life has a logic of its own and once it comes into action it sets into motion a whole series of supernatural characters to impose the due punishment. It even controls, influences and takes advantage of natural elements like the wind, the stars, the rain, the fog and the mist.

      4. Primitivism. A frequent device in ballads to enlist our belief is to invest the story with a primitive setting and atmosphere. The poem is about an Ancient Mariner. The Albatross is believed to be a bird of good omen and the killing of it to be inauspicious. Together with these superstitions, the whole supernatural machinery, the long drawn marriage feast, the peaceful atmosphere of the church on the top of a hill, the holy hermit are apart of the medieval atmosphere in the poem. The elemental forces, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, like the sea, the wind, the sun and the rain makes the atmosphere more effectively primitive. Against this setting, the elemental passions like the Mariner's whimsical shooting of the bird, his hatred of the grimy, slimy things in the sea, the intense hatred of the sailors for the Mariners and the ardent universal love has preached by the Mariner make the primitiveness of the setting real.

      5. Technical Devices. Ballads employ certain technical devices to make the narration real, vivid and powerful. One such device is the dramatic touch.

      6. Abrupt Opening; Events Sudden and Romantic. In The Ancient Mariner for example the story has a very arrestingly dramatic beginning:

It is an ancient Mariner
And he stoppeth one of three

      No words are wasted on the description of the Mariner or on giving us information as to who those three are. Similarly, a little later on we are told:

He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship", quoth he.

      The Ancient Mariner begins his story abruptly paying no heed to the wedding guest's protest. Similar incidents, can be multiplied from the poem. The essence of these is that they are so sudden and so full of surprise that they make the story vivid and dramatic. Further, the story told by the Mariner to the wedding guest with his frequent protests and expressions of fear, and the dialogue between the Two Voices, between the Hermit and the Pilot gives the story a stage-conversational tone. The tense suspense that is created from the time the Albatross is killed to the time that Two Voices appear, makes the poem most dramatic.

      7. Convincing and Economic. The supreme concern of a ballad is to tell the story fast so as to make the surprise, the suspense and the suddenness of the events most effective. This quickness of narration is achieved by economy in words and simplicity of language. Coleridge is a master in both these arts of economy and simplicity. Besides his famous lines, "Water, water every where / Nor any drop to drink". The following lines illustrate his art:

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

      Only nine letters (a, d, e, i, l, n, o, s, w) have gone in to make these two lines and yet how vivid is the sense of loneliness we experience?

      8. Repetition. Repetition of words, lines and sometimes stanza is a frequent device in ballads, intended for emphasis or for reminding us of the essence of a thing. Coleridge makes use of repetition in a subtle way. Any number of examples can be given of the repetition that occurs in the poem. For instance, the mention of Albatross at the end of each part of the poem brings home to us the seriousness of the Mariner's crime. In the following lines, repetition is clearly meant for emphasis:

But in a minute she 'gan to stir,
With a short uneasy motion -
Backwards and forwards half her length
With a short uneasy motion.

      Archaisms. Finally, archaic expressions are frequently used to enhance the primitiveness of the story. Coleridge makes frequent use of such obsolete expressions and spellings-kirk for church, 'gan for began, skiff boat for light boat; quoth for say, or ever, for never, nor... nor fort neither... nor; wist, countree, holy rood, eftsoons are all out of date and out of use.

      9. The Poetic Form. A ballad is a poem in short stanzas. Usually, there are four lines in a stanza though Coleridge violated this pattern for change and variety occasionally. The lines are in iambic feet, that is, a short or unaccented syllable follows by a long or accented syllable though here Coleridge has took license to introduce a different syllable or an extra syllable occasionally to relieve the poem of monotony. Of the four lines, the first and the third lines consist of eight syllables or four iambic feet while the second and fourth lines have six syllables or three iambic feet.

      Coleridge very frequently employs internal rhymes in the first and third lines as 'blew' and 'flew' or 'first' and 'burst' in the following lines:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free:
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea

      Alliteration, in the case of the above stanza, of 'f' and 'b' sounds in sharp contrast to that of 's' sounds in the last two lines, is a fully exploited device in The Ancient Mariner.

      10. Modern Touches. The Ancient Mariner has a touch of modernity about it as a ballad. The psychological effect in which the poem abounds is something modern and original. In old ballads, entire emphasis is laid upon external events. In The Ancient Mariner, the poet describes not only the external events but also what happens in the mind of the Ancient Mariner. Thus we are told that The Ancient Mariner felt extremely fear-stricken when the ghost-ship disappears all of a sudden on the sea:

Fear at my heart, as at a cup
My life blood seemed to sip.

      Conclusion. In its form, The Ancient Mariner is obviously a ballad, though the traditional ballad stanza is far from being preserved throughout and is freely extended or modified to serve specific ends and to give greater variety. Its first text is littered with archaisms, which Coleridge wisely pruned; but he uses the direct, sometimes stark, language of the ballads, together with repetition and conventional epithets. The use of dialogue, with a little explicit characterization, the abrupt transitions in narration and, above all, the dramatic pace of a poetry has stripped for action are further characteristics of the ballad form. The marvels, the supernatural eeriness, the atmosphere of terror and superstition in The Ancient Mariner links, it in subject matter, too, with great ballad tradition of the late Middle Ages. Omen and weather lore, which play a prominent part in many ballads are used with great effect by Coleridge, whose ominous horned moon with a star 'within the nether tip' is probably suggested by Sir Patrick Spence. After all The Ancient Mariner is Coleridge's contribution to a collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads.

University Questions

Justify the statement that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a ballad.
Comment upon Coleridge's use of the ballad form in The Ancient Manner.
What is a literary ballad? Show how The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a literary ballad.

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