Supernatural Elements in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner

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      The Ancient Mariner has founded on a dream of Coleridge's friend, Cruickshank, who fancied he has been a skeleton ship, with figures in it. It has begun jointly with Wordsworth who contributed a few lines and has suggested the killing of the Albatross, the revenge of the tutelary spirits and the navigation of the ship by the deadman, but he quickly separated from an undertaking upon which he have felt he 'could only have been a clog.' In fact, the poem's theme puts it into the category of the supernatural and romantic which feels to Coleridge in the division of labour on the Lyrical Ballads.

      What is the Supernatural? Through the ages phenomena which can not be explained by the known laws of nature have been attributed to supernatural powers and influences. If these happenings leads to the happiness of man they are attributed to benevolent powers; if on the contrary, they results in suffering and misery, they are ascribed to evil spirits. Literature has continuously been enriched by stories in which the supernatural plays an important part. The desire of hearing about the miraculous adventure is as strong in the civilized man as it is in his primitive ancestors, as it is in the naive child. The folk-lores of all ages and countries abound in tales of magic, fairies, spirits, ghosts and demons.

      The interest in the supernatural is an important aspect of the Romantic spirit that has appeared in the eighteenth century. The fashionable cult of the strangeness has turn inevitably to this alluring world of the unknown and exploits it with a reckless carelessness. To Coleridge the supernatural appeals with a special power. The supernatural machinery in The Ancient Mariner however, is not merely a series of interesting and often singular details. It works as a controlling imaginative design. The shooting of the Albatross sets the forces of the invisible world in motion. The action of these forces in turn is bound up with the normal evolution, in experience, of cause and consequence.

      Supernatural Details in The Ancient Mariner. The first supernatural element in the poem is the Polar Spirit who followed the ship from the land of mist and snow in order to avenge the killing of the Albatross. The Polar Spirit has brought the ship into a silent, still sea where the ship gets stuck, unable to move;

And some in dreams assured were
Of the spirit that plagued us so
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.

      Then comes the appearance from nowhere of the skeleton ship with gossamer-like sails, carrying Death and Life-in-Death being engaged in a gambling contest. This ship sails on the sea without wind or tide and it disappears as suddenly as it has appeared. The stanzas where this incident is described are horrifying in their effect upon us and send a cold shiver down our spine. The manner of the death of all the sailors excepting the Ancient Mariner is supernatural. As each man drops down dead, his soul passes by the old sailor like the whizz of a cross-bow. It is a strange mystery that while all other sailors die, the old sailor lives on. There is something supernatural about the way in which the dead body of the Albatross automatically falls down from the Ancient Mariner's neck into the sea. The moving of the ship upon the sea without a wind is supernatural. The ship is driven by the Polar Spirit, sometimes swiftly. The coming back to life of the dead crew is also a supernatural situation. The dead men gives a groan, they stir and then all gets up. What is more, it is a troop of angelic spirits that enter the bodies. It is to be noted that the bodies of the dead crew do not rot another mysterious element. The two voices talking to each other are also supernatural powers. The two voices relate to each other the long and heavy penance of the old sailor. The angelic spirits coming out of the dead bodies and appearing in their own forms of light is an other-worldly touch:

Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat,
And, by the holy rood
A mass all light, a seraph-man,
On every corse there stood.

      These forms of light make signals to the land in order to invite the attention of some boatman. At the end, the sudden sinking of the ship into the sea is a supernatural episode. A loud, roaring noise is heard under the water. This loud and terrible sound reaches the ship and "the ship goes down like lead."

      Intermingling of the Natural and the Supernatural. His supernaturalism is refined. He tries to create supernatural effects mostly out of the nature. He arranges the natural in such a clever manner as to achieve something supernatural. Professor Otto and Aldous Huxley call this type of the supernatural as the super-sensible something that is not within our everyday experience but is still within the range of possibility. The art of Coleridge lies in process of accumulation — placing together of some rather extraordinary natural details in such a manner as to achieve a grand super-sensible result. After the strange natural incidents have charmed the reader, Coleridge brings in a few supernatural touches. Even those touches are not decidedly supernatural. They can be considered as super-sensible. Coleridge creates a strange mixture of the sensible, the super-sensible and the supernatural. Therefore, Coleridge's supernatural is more convincing than the crude, horrifying stories of other supernatural writers of the 19th century. As the Mariner's ship goes from England to the Southern Pacific, from the known to the unknown, from the familiar to the unfamiliar, the change is effected with remarkable subtlety:

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

      With the same art he shows the scene when dreadful and unnatural things happen. Note the change in the sea when the Albatross first begins to be revenged:

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

      His artistic power and imaginative fidelity creates sensuous nature pictures which hold our faith and belief. Those little pictures of sunrise and sunset and the quiet beauty of the moonlight give additional power to the strange and fearful sight.

      Realistic Details. In The Ancient Manner, the poet's eye never seems to wander from his object 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 moon beams with the 'elfish light' falling off from them 'in hoary flakes' when they rear: '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 is a series of extracts from the ship's log.

      Coleridge's Supernatural is Suggestive. Coleridge do not describe unpleasant details but he simply suggests. Thus he appeals to the imagination and not to the senses. In The Ancient Mariner where the ghost ship approaches the sailors, a verse full of details occurs in the original text which is afterwards omitted. Coleridge feel that these terrible incidents of the grave does not add to the suggestiveness of his creation, the Nightmare 'Life-in-Death'. His keen sense of what is rightly delicate makes Coleridge reject all crude and horrible details. He works through suggestion. The Ancient Mariner says to have a skinny hand and a glittering eye. The Wedding Guest is hypnotised by The Ancient Mariner. His reactions suggest fear again and again but Coleridge will not describe in detail the cause. Thus he keeps his supernatural to a suggestive level.

      Remote Setting to Lend Credibility. In The Ancient Mariner the events are natural, but behind them lies a supernatural world. The thoughts which Nature's powers awaken in a sensitive soul are believed by Coleridge to have corresponding existences which derive their being from nature. These bodiless beings may be felt by us as enemies or friends and in circumstances made emotional by loneliness, they may themselves be felt as actual presences by man. But this can only be in primeval solitudes where dwell things to dream of not to tell, or in the midst of untravelled seas, or in the sleep forests of romance. In these remote mysterious seas and woods, Coleridge lays the scenery of The Ancient Mariner and Christabel. It is supernatural, but of the ancient, common, simple kind which belongs to all mankind. We feel the same thrill he desires to convey in Christabel if at night we are lost in a forest:

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread.

      The same expression of the possibility of marvel, and horror, of mysterious sins and their forgiveness, and of the chance of meeting some have forgotten spiritual life which is before man comes on earth, which creeps over us as we read The Ancient Mariner, belongs to sea men who have been lost in unvisited spaces of ocean, vexes with everlasting calm.

      Human Significance: Psychological Insight. The supernatural is not only made real and natural by its faithful picture of Nature and its psychological insight, but by the simple humanity with which it is saturated. C.M. Bowra says: "The triumph of The Ancient Mariner is that it presents a series of incredible events through a method of narration which makes them not only convincing and exciting but in some sense a criticism of life." Coleridge does not confine himself to an outworn dread of specters and phantoms, he moves over a wide range of emotions and touches equally on guilt and remorse, suffering and relief, hate and forgiveness, grief and joy.

      Weird Atmosphere Artistically Unifying the Poem. Among English poets, Coleridge stands out supreme in his uncanny ability to conjure a weird atmosphere whenever necessary in his poem. A cold-blooded analysis of it will perhaps reveal that it is full of improbabilities. In spite of this anyone who reads The Ancient Mariner will inevitably feel its fascination and be gripped by its strangeness and air of mystery.

      Coleridge has succeeded in the task that he assigns to himself of imparting to the supernatural an air of naturalness and realism. When we read through the poem, we are not conscious at all that there is a piling up of mysterious and improbable detail. Never for once is any detail clearly defined. The Ancient Mariner and the ship are both left unnamed. The seas that they sail, the lands that they must have proposed to visit are also left unnamed. In spite of all this, the surprising thing is that, grips by the atmosphere, no reader feels or is even conscious of the deficiencies. He breathes the air of mystery and romance and is whirled along by the stream of the narrative.

      Supreme art and all the gifts of the born story-teller are lavishly employed to conjure up the atmosphere which constitutes the chief fascination of the poem. Terror and beauty, weird mystery and pleasing romance are skilfully alternated in order to produce the necessary effect. The elemental forces of nature are also harnessed in order to conjure up the necessary atmosphere. In fact, it is Nature that is responsible for some of the marvellous and mysterious effects produced in the poem. When the Albatross, the bird of good omen is killed in a wanton fit of cruelty, all Nature protest in horror. The tides do not ebb and flow, the winds cease to blow and everything in nature comes to an absolute standstill. The ship is becalmed and lies still like a painted ship on a painted ocean.

      The introduction of specter-ship and the game of dice is played by Death and Life-in-Death, is perhaps the most mysterious and terrifying thing in the poem. Though this stands out as something supreme, other mysterious details, superstitious fears and supernatural occurrences are crowded into the poem. The killing of the Albatross by The Ancient Mariner fills the sailors with superstitious dread and they think that all the horrors and privations that follow are a punishment for this crime. The supernatural element is further emphasised when we are told that the bird is the favourite of the Polar Spirit who now wants to avenge its death. The death of the sailors and their mysterious resurrection for a while, the troop of angels filling the air with sweet sound, the speech of the two voices, Justice and Mercy, and a hundred other little details help in providing a strange and uncanny atmosphere for the poem.

      Coleridge has taken care to introduce what is lovely and pleasant so that the atmosphere may not be overwhelmingly terrifying and oppressive. The bride, red as a rose, the merry band of minstrels, the sweet jargoning of birds and the lovely moonlit harbour - all these relieve the grimness and the gloom, and make the poem beautiful and fascinating.

      Conclusion. The too palpable intruders from a spiritual world in almost all ghost literature, in Scott and Shakespeare even, have a kind of crudity or coarseness. Coleridge's power is in the very fineness with which, as by some really ghostly finger, - he brings home to our inmost sense his invention, daring as they are: the skeleton ship, the polar spirit, the inspiriting of the dead corpses of the ships' crew. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, says Walter Pater, has the plausibility, the perfect adaptation to reason and the general aspect of life, which belong' to the marvellous, when actually presented as part of a credible experience in our dreams. The modern mind, so minutely self-scrutinizing, if it is to be affected at all by a sense of the supernatural, needs to be more finely touched than is possible in the older, romantic presentment of it. It is this finer, more delicately marvellous supernaturalism, fruit of his own more delicate psychology, that Coleridge infuses into romantic adventure, it also is a new or revive thing in English literature, and with a fineness of weird effect in The Ancient Mariner unknown in those older, more simple, romantic legends and ballads.

University Questions

Discuss the use of the supernatural in The Ancient Mariner.
"No other poem in English creates so completely and independently its own atmosphere and order of being, or so merges the world of sense and simplicity with the other world of mystery and profundity as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Discuss.
Illustrate and explain the quality of enchantment in Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner.
What are Coleridge's distinctive features as a poet of the supernatural? Discuss with special reference to The Ancient Mariner.

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