Symbolism in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner

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      The Ancient Mariner, like all great poetry, is not confined to making its appeal at one level only. Even the natural description is not straight forwardly 'realistic', though it shows vivid accuracy. The appearances of sun, moon, stars, of storms and calm, of Antarctic and tropic seas are superbly portrayed and enhanced by the sharp contrasts they present. At a purely descriptive level, Coleridge captures the teeming splendour of the tropical sea creatures in memorable lines:

      They moved in tracks of shining white, and when they reared, the elfish light Fell off in hoary flakes.

      A superficial reading of such a passage is by all means pleasurable; but even the unsophisticated reader is likely to recall that the same creatures are described, forty lines earlier, as a thousand thousand slimy things. How is it that the same water-snakes are at one moment evocative of horror and at another evocative of beauty? We are obliged to refer to the Mariner himself, and are quickly forced to realize that we are not dealing with a poetry of simple natural description only. This is poetry in which natural description has a psychological, a narrative and dramatic function. The descriptive passages, far from being merely decorative, play a part in acting out the spiritual drama which the story, at its deepest level, symbolises.

      1. Several Layers of Significance. The Ancient Mariner is a symbolic poem, because it has not one, but several layers of significance. Below its specific surface meaning, there are other, more universal meanings. The awareness of a spiritual reality existing behind the surfaces of things is at the heart of all Romantic poetry, and the greatness of The Ancient Mariner lies primarily in the dramatic expression it gives to that awareness. It has been maintained that the story of The Ancient Mariner recapitulates the history of mankind, or of every man, or of man's inquiring spirit, or of Coleridge himself. While allowing that such interpretations may be at least partly valid, we shall look at the poem primarily in the light of Coleridge's remark that it has a moral. (He adds that the moral sentiment is obtruded 'too openly on the reader' and of his constant belief that 'the symbolical is always part of that whole of which it is representative'.)

      The moral of The Ancient Mariner is given explicitly in the lines:

He prayeth, best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all:

      2. Moral and Religious Symbols. A moral purpose is central to the whole poem. What it can best be understood by referring to the wedding guest. When he is first seen, he is impatient to enjoy the merriment of the marriage feast and resents being detained. After hearing the Mariner's tale, which concludes on a note of joy and fellowship in Christ, he significantly turns his back on the uproar rude and we are told he wakes next morning 'a sadder and a wiser man'. Neither strain nor ingenuity is involved in seeing the poem as a story of crime and punishment acted out in a framework of values supplied by medieval Catholicism, with its traditional symbols of saints and spirits, of repentance and absolution. So far, as it draws upon the great Christian 'myth' of sin redeemed by divine grace, it draws strength from that myth and the obscure forces in our life which it is the business of myth to explore and embody. In turning our attention to the action itself, we shall see that the religious and moral symbols used are of crucial importance to an understanding of the poem.

      3. Symbolic of a Process. Amid the 'merry din' of the marriage-feast, the Mariner relates a tale that goes back to time when, he carefree and merrily, set out on his voyage a traditional symbol for life itself. The story brings him to an unknown world of danger and ambiguous beauty. Here he kills the Albatross, which is significantly likened to 'a Christian Soul'. For Coleridge, there is only 'one life', which is at the same time 'within us and abroad', and it is just because all life is one that the Mariner cannot commit murder without symbolically destroying all life, including his own. The ship moves into the tropics where the breeze, age-long symbol of life, soon flags, and under an ominous dwarfed and bloody sun the Mariner's punishment begins. The crew by approving it have made themselves 'accomplices in the crime', and are doomed to endure with the Mariner the torments of hell, which are reflected in the entire visible universe. The sterility and corruption of the cardinal sin of lovelessness are conveyed in the vast waste of a rotting and paralysed ocean. At last a 'spectre-bark' appears in this purgatorial world, with its grim crew of Death and Life-in-Death. The figure of Life-in-Death is a harlot figure and, as such, personifies not love, but lovelessness in its disguise; not life, but its diseased semblance only.

      For seven days and nights the Mariner endures the hell of his own making. Theologically, hell is the condition of being cut off from God, and to the Mariner in his loneliness God "scarce seems there to be'. The symbolism of parching heat and drought uses to express life cut off from its source in God is as old as religion itself. It is only through divine grace and the agency of his 'kind saint' that he is resurrected into life and love. The Mariner 'yearneth towards the journeying Moon', which here again is used as a symbol for the imagination which Coleridge believe to be sustained by joy. Significantly, then, there in the light of the moon-of true, imaginative life-the Mariner "beholdeth God's creatures of the great calm' and spontaneously reacts to their beauty and happiness. In his lovelessness, the universe about him appears as a corrupt terrifying image of death. As a consequence of divinely-given love, he sees this same universe transfigures in beauty and alive with God's happy living creatures. Simultaneously, with love comes prayer, and the Albatross, symbol of his guilt, falls from his neck. Sleep, traditionally denies a guilty soul, is sent 'from Heaven', together with life-giving rain.

      The Mariner's physical and spiritual paralysis is at an end:

      I moved, and could not feel my limbs
The overtones of resurrection are reinforced by the doomsday imagery of the storm, and the 'roaring wind'. This suggests the wind of Pentecost, the breath of God himself. Though restores to living life once more, the Mariner must again endure the curse of the dead men's eyes: he has, to face the full significance of his guilt - a Christian condition of finding pardon. Soon the features of his native land re-emerge. There is neither cheering nor merriment, as there has been when the Mariner set out. He is himself a transforms man, and his calm vision is of something far deeper than mere merriment. The Mariner is rewarded by what is specifically called 'a heavenly sight'. It is with joy once more that he recognizes his rescuers. Through them he is restored to communion with his fellow men, from whom his crime has cut him off. Through the hermit he can make formal confession, accept his penance, and re-enter 'the goodly company' of men, seeking grace through Christ.

      4. Symbol of Imagination. The primary theme, which is the outcome of the fable taken at its face value as a story of crime and punishment and reconciliation, is "the theme of sacramental vision, or the theme of 'One Life'." The secondary theme is concerned with the context of values in 'which the fable is presented' and 'the theme of the imagination'. The two themes are finally fused in the poem. The Albatross, besides being associated with human nature on the level of the primary theme, is also associated with the moon, mist, cloud and fog-smoke, on the level of the secondary theme of the imagination:

In mist or cloud, on mass or shroud,
Is perched for vespers nine;

      Furthermore, the bird is associated with the breeze, which Warren takes to be the 'creative' wind, for which there are countless parallels in other poets. The sun is kept entirely out of the matter. The lighting is always indirect, for even in the day we have only 'mist or cloud' the luminous haze, the symbolic equivalent of moonlight. But not only is the moon associated with the bird, but with the wind also. Upon the bird's advent, a 'good south wind sprang up behind'. And so we have the creative wind, the friendly bird, the moonlight of imagination, all together in one symbolic cluster. This 'symbolic cluster' belongs to the imagination and all the imaginative side of man's activity. And in his shooting, the Mariner not only commits a crime against the other, natural and spiritual order of the world, but also a crime against creative imagination; and part of the penalty is, the loss of the wind.

      The dual character of the ice near the South Pole - the emerald and the dismal sheen also expresses the dual character of the imagination, that it is partly a blessing and a curse to him who lives by it. It is this cursing side of the imagination which accounts for the particular vengeance of the Polar Spirit on the Mariner as distinct from the punishment is exacted by the sun. And this dual character and special vengeance also explain why the moon is allowed to be the light by which the crew die.

      Conclusion. The poem's very richness at once tempts and defeats definiteness of interpretation; as we commit overselves to the development of one strand of meaning, we find that in the very act of doing, we are excluding something else of importance.

University Questions

"The Ancient Mariner, like all great poetry, is not confined to make its appeal at one level only Amplify.
"The Ancient Mariner does not state a result, it symbolises a process. Discuss.
"The description of The Ancient Mariner a story of crime and punishment is grossly inadequate. It does not do justice to the rich symbolism of the poem, especially in the later part. Discuss and illustrate.
"Below its specific surface meaning, there are other more universal meanings." Is that true of The Ancient Mariner? Discuss with illustrations.

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