The Rime of The Ancient Mariner: A Great Poem

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      Coleridge's bold use of marvellous, without even the decent pretext of allegory or personification, exasperated the critics and did not please the one man who give the poem lofty and adequate praise. "I dislike all the miraculous part in it," wrote Lamb, "but the feeling of a man under the operation of such scenery has dragged me along like Tom Piper's magic whistle." Wordsworth, who seems to have conceived him on the lines of his own human murderer in Guilt and Sorrow, has enumerated among the "grave defeats" of the poem that the Mariner has no character. Nor, has he is only a soul that has been "alone on a wide, wide sea," and remains but an embodied memory of what he had undergone. Southey has spoken disparagingly of the poem as "a very Dutch attempt at sublimity."

      Except for these discordant notes, critics in all ages and at all times have given the highest praise to the poem The Rime of The Ancient Mariner. Relying largely on the effect which has been produced by psychological truth, Coleridge can afford to subdue the supernatural, and refine it to the utmost Scenery, atmosphere, even the colouring of the phrase and rhythm concur in giving to the supernatural the harmonious unity of a possible experience. "He did not need," says Dowden, "as Monk Lewis did, to drag into his verse all the horrors of the churchyard and the nether pit of hell... In The Ancient Mariner, where the spectre bark approaches the doomed ship....a verse full of charnel abomination occurs in the original text which is afterwards judiciously omitted. Coleridge feels that these hideous incidents of the grave only detracted from the finer horror of the voluptuous beauty of his 'White Devil', the "Nightmare Life-in-Death." His tender and keen sense of what is right and delicate makes Coleridge reject from his work, the horrors while producing artistically the terrors of death.

      The Ancient Mariner affords ample illustration of the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature. Coleridge always loves nature and has a profound sense of her beauty informs and sounds, for the sudden charm, accidents of light and shade which moonlight or sunset has diffused over a known and familiar landscape. Clearly, connects with this is the extreme simplicity and terseness of expression. Coleridge's words have an unashamed nakedness of scripture, of the Eden of diction are the voluble serpent has entered.

      The terseness and simplicity has never degenerated, with Wordsworth, into baldness and prosaic narration. The magically wonderful, vision is made real which suggests and describes in words that have been chosen with an art that conceals art. Traill has well described these characteristics: "Coleridge had undertaken to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and semblance of truth, sufficient to prose for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief, for the moment which constitutes poetic faith. But it is easier to undertake this than to perform it and much easier to perform it in prose than in verse with the assistance of the everyday and the commonplace than without it. Coleridge triumphs over his difficulties by sheer vividness of imagery and terse vigour of descriptive phrase, two qualities for which his previous poems did not prove him to possess by any means, so complete a mastery... In The Ancient Mariner, his eye never seems to wander from his object, and again and again, the scene starts out upon the canvas in two or three strokes of the brush. The skeleton ship with the dicing demons on its deck; the setting sun peering "through its ribs, as if through a dungeon grate", the water snakes under the moonbeams, with the 'elfish light' falling off them 'in hoary flakes' when they reared: "the dead crew who work the ship and raise their limbs like lifeless tools", everything seems to have been actually seen, and we believe it all as the story of a truthful eye-witness. The details of the voyage too are chronicled with such order and regularity, there is such a diary-like air about the whole thing, that we accept it almost as it were a series of extracts from the ship's log. Then again the execution - a great thing to be said of such a long poem, is marvellously equal throughout; the story never drags or flags for a moment; its felicities of diction are perpetual; and it is scarcely marred by a single weak line.... Perfect consistency of plan; in short, complete equality of execution, brevity, self-restraint, and an unerring sense of artistic propriety - these are the chief notes of The Ancient Mariner, as they are not the chief notes of any other poem of Coleridge." Swinburne went into ecstasies over the poem. This poem is beyond question one of the supreme triumphs of the poetry, he wrote. "For the execution, I presume no human eye is too dull to see how perfect it is, and how high in kind of perfection. There is not the elaborate finish which shows, everywhere the fresh rasp of file or chisel on its smooth and spruce excellence; this is faultless after the fashion of a flower or a tree."

      Has the poem any moral? Mrs. Barbauld has complained that the poem has two defects — it is improbable, and has no moral. Coleridge commenting on this, roundly declared that the poem has too much of the moral element, that it openly obtrudes on the reader as a principle or cause of act on. As Stopford Brooke declares: "The poem illustrates the simple religion of Coleridge.... Its religion is all contained in the phrase - He prayeth well who loveth well, both man and bird and beast. On this the changes are rung throughout; the motiveless slaughter of the bird is a crime; the other mariners who justify the killing of the bird are even worse sinners than The Ancient Mariner. They are fatally punished; he lives to feel and expiate his wrong." Mrs. Oliphant remarks in almost the same strain; "And then comes the ineffable, half-childish, half-divine, simplicity of these soft moralisings at the end, so strangely different from the tenor of the tale, so wonderfully perfecting its visionary strain. After all, the poem seems to say after this weird excursion into the very deepest, awful heart of the seas and mysteries, here is your child's moral, a tender little half-trivial sentiment, yet profound as the blue depths of heaven."

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