Pilgrimage at Sea

By Louis Markos - Houston, Texas, USA - Pentecost/Assumption 2011



Of all the great poems written by the British Romantic poets, the one that never fails to provoke immediate and fond recognition amongst non-English majors is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  On the simplest level, this engaging and well-plotted poem invites us on an exotic and fantastical adventure that crisscrosses the oceans of the globe.  This external, geographical journey, however, represents only one layer of the poem.  Beneath this surface layer lies a deeper and richer one, an internal, psychological journey that draws us into and through the Mariner’s tormented psyche as he first breaks and then restores his fellowship with God, man, and nature.  Though the reader experiences pleasure mingled with horror, wonder, and awe as he accompanies the Mariner on his primary journey, his participation in the secondary journey brings with it a different kind of delight and fear.  As we travel along the internalized landscape of the Mariner’s unconscious mind, we are impelled to peer into our shared human capacity for sin, despair, and isolation and our equally shared need for redemption, penance, and self-knowledge.



We cannot choose but hear


Like the great epics of Homer and Virgil, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins not at the beginning but in medias res (“in the middle of things”).  Without warning or preparation, we are cast headlong into the poem and left to find our own bearings -- a task rendered even more difficult by Coleridge’s use of deliberately obscure diction in his opening stanza:

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?” (1-4)

The stanza is so well known that we risk missing the strangeness of the first line.  It is simply not proper to use “it is” when referring to a human being.  We would not say “it is an old professor” or “it is a preacher’s daughter.”  We might use “there was” or “she is,” but not “it is.”  That Coleridge nevertheless uses the phrase to introduce his Mariner has the effect of transforming him from a man of flesh and blood into something akin to a force of nature.  And yet, at the same time that the phrase sinks the Mariner below human consciousness, it also raises him above it.  The starkness, simplicity, and eternality of the phrase cannot help but remind us of the name of God: “I am that I am.”  Coleridge’s Mariner is a figure who endures, godlike, without change.

And the first action we see him perform is itself godlike -- that of choosing or calling an individual in a way that seems arbitrary to us yet clearly conceals some deeper purpose known only to the chooser.  In actuality, the Mariner has come upon a party of three young wedding guests and detains one of them, but the phrasing of the second line seems to refer to a grander, apocalyptic form of divine election that will one day sift the nations.  The confusion and tension into which the first two lines catapult the reader are shared by the one whom the Mariner chooses.  He too is knocked off his guard by the suddenness and strangeness of the Mariner’s actions, and insists that his outlandish “abductor” explain the reason for his behavior.

When the Mariner makes no reply to his question, the wedding guest pleads the urgency of his situation: 

"The Bridegroom's door is open wide,

And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.”


He holds him with his skinny hand
“There was a ship,” quoth he.
“Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!”
Eftsoons his hand dropt he. (5-12)

The wedding guest yearns to join the feast, but the Mariner holds him fast on the threshold of the banqueting hall.  In the same way, Coleridge will hold his reader, for the duration of his poem, on the threshold between the real and the fantastical, the natural and the supernatural, innocence and experience.  Both Mariner and poet will compel their listeners to hear their tale.  Terrified by the single-minded intransigence of the Mariner, the wedding guest demands that he release him, and the Mariner immediately complies.

But the wedding guest's victory is a short lived one.  No sooner does the Mariner release his physical grip on the wedding guest than he exerts a stronger mental/psychological grip:

He holds him with his glittering eye --
The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three year's child:
The Mariner hath his will. (13-16)

By the power of his eye, and the overwhelming, if tormented self-consciousness that lies behind it, the Mariner so mesmerizes the wedding guest as to covert him into a passive receptacle.  As the Mariner begins his tale, the weddings guest, who hears nearby the sounds of the feast, twice “beat[s] his breast” (31, 37) and longs to join the revelers, but he is held fast by the glittering eye of the teller and the mesmerizing power of the tale. 

He “cannot choose but hear” (38), and neither can we.



Fall into division


The Mariner explains to his rapt audience how his ship sailed south past the equator only to be caught by a storm that drove it further southward toward the Pole.  His description of the frozen desert that greets the crew immediately establishes that his tale will occupy a literary no man’s land between natural realism and supernatural fantasy:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald....


The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound! (51-54, 59-62)

Though Coleridge was clearly influenced by the sea voyages of the Odyssey and Aeneid, his Rime, written in a medieval folk stanza known as ballad rhythm rather than in the stately blank verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost, is modeled less on the epics of antiquity than on the popular romances of the Middle Ages. 

Like Coleridge’s Mariner, the heroes of medieval romances journey, usually on horseback, through exotic landscapes that are as beautiful and deadly as the one described above.  While journeying through these imaginative spaces, they participate in marvelous adventures that lie outside the ken of everyday life and face moral, emotional, and spiritual challenges that test them on every level.  In the case of Coleridge’s Mariner that test comes in a form that is as bizarre and unexpected as it is strangely familiar.   

As the ice floes grow more menacing and the crew begins to lose heart, an albatross appears out of the fog.  No sooner does the bird appear than the ice breaks around them, and a strong, steady wind pushes the stalled ship northward.  The Mariner’s shipmates, their spirits lifted, treat the albatross as an honored guest aboard their ship.  But the Mariner reacts in a different manner.  Rather than hail the bird as a gift from God, he takes up his crossbow and shoots the albatross.  Neither the Mariner nor Coleridge supplies us with a reason for this heinous and unnatural crime.  His act of murder is as senseless as Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit.   

In later editions of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge, perhaps fearing that readers would misinterpret the allegorical aspects of his poem, added marginal glosses, three of which offer important insight into the meaning of the Mariner’s crime.  The Mariner recounts that after his shooting of the albatross the crew initially attacks him for his foul deed: 

And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.

Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,

That made the breeze to blow! (91-96)

However, when the weather changes, they change their attitude:

Nor dim nor red, like God's own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird

That brought the fog and mist.

'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist. (97-102)

Lest we miss the point of these two stanzas, Coleridge explains his purpose in the form of two glosses, one appended to each of the stanzas: “His shipmates cry out against the ancient Mariner, for killing the bird of good luck”; “But when the fog cleared off, they justify the same, and thus make themselves accomplices in the crime.”  According to the Christian doctrine of original sin, all human beings after Adam participate in his act of rebellion against God and thus share in his guilt.  So here, the crew, in becoming “accomplices in the crime,” share equally in the guilt of the Mariner and can thus be punished fairly alongside him.

However, if we read as well the gloss that Coleridge appends to lines 79 through 82, in which the Mariner confesses to the wedding guest that he shot the albatross, we will see that the poet meant to imbue the killing of the bird with a second level of significance.  “The ancient Mariner,” the gloss reads, “inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen.”  In the moral and aesthetic writings of Greece and Rome, a high value was placed upon the relationship between guest and host.  If this guest/host relationship was breached by either party, vengeance and destruction generally followed.  When he “inhospitably” kills the albatross, who is a guest aboard his vessel, the Mariner breaks the guest/host relationship.  As understood in both the biblical (Judeo-Christian) and classical (Greco-Roman) sense, the Mariner’s crime constitutes not only a morally reprehensible act but a rupture in the delicate weave that binds man to God, man to man, and man to nature.


That is why when the Mariner’s punishment begins, it manifests itself in the form of utter isolation and despair.  Not only does the corrupt soul of the Mariner begin to wither within him; the very sea itself falls prey to corruption:

Water, water, every where
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.


The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!

Yea, slimy things did crawl with leg
Upon the slimy sea. (119-126)

In the Old Testament, leprosy is understood not only as a punishment for sin, but as an external illustration of what sin does internally.  As leprosy devours the skin, so sin devours the soul.  Just so, the putrefaction of the water manifests physically what is happening within the tormented psyche of the Mariner.  His punishment, in fact, is as much psychological as it is physical.  In addition to beholding with his bodily eyes the externalization of his inner depravity, the Mariner must face the exquisite mental torment of dying of thirst while being surrounded by water. 

And he must face as well the condemnatory looks of the crew who take it upon themselves to mark him with their own version of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter:

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung. (139-142)

Too conscious of his own guilt to refuse, the Mariner agrees to bear the symbol of his shame and is transformed into a living scapegoat -- an object lesson of the dread consequences that must follow when the moral law and the guest/host relationship are breached. 





Baked by the merciless sun, with nary a drop of water to quench their parched throats, all give way to despair and a veil of silence shrouds the ship.  Suddenly, in the distance, the Mariner catches sight of a sail.  He yearns to share the news, but is at first unable to do so:

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!

I bit my arm, I sucked the blood

And cried, A sail! a sail! (157-161)

Coleridge likely intended the Mariner’s sucking of his own blood to function as a metaphor for the Romantic poet who speaks out of his own anguish and pain -- an image to which he will return with a vengeance in the closing section of his poem.  However, this lurid example of “self-vampirism” serves a second function, that of preparing us for the greater horror to come.  

Far from bringing rescue, the sail that the Mariner spies belongs to a ghost ship piloted by a two-person crew whom Coleridge identifies (in his gloss to lines 185-189) as a “Spectre-Woman and her Death-mate.”  Coleridge describes the former thus:   

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold :
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold. (190-194)

In contrast to the Mariner’s sucking of his own blood, the Spectre-Woman feeds on the blood of others.  She carries in her wake not death itself but a perverse anti-life that dooms its victim to wander hopelessly, cut off from redemption, regeneration, and resurrection.  The life-in-death that she inflicts upon her victims imprisons them in their own anguished, guilt-ridden psyches so that they become, quite literally, their own tormentors and executioners.

In the poem the male and female fiends cast dice for the soul of the Mariner, and Life-in-Death wins the game.  Shortly after, her sinister mate claims his ownership over the remaining crewmembers, who succumb, each in his turn, to a swift death:

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.


Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.
The souls did from their bodies fly,—
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow! (212-223)

Two hundred men die as the Mariner looks on helplessly; each curses the slayer of the albatross with his eye until the weight of guilt becomes almost unbearable.  One by one, the souls fly to their final judgment and from there to heaven or hell.  In the whizzing sound made by their fleeting souls, the Mariner fancies that he hears the sound of his crossbow.  His eyes and ears, controlled now by the inner torment of his soul, interpret all they perceive in terms of his own shame and remorse.  The full measure of his life-in-death punishment has begun.

As the wedding guest listens to the Mariner’s tale, a sudden fear seizes him.  Perhaps the man who speaks to him is not a man at all, but a dark spirit sent to drive him mad and lure him to his doom:

“I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.


I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand, so brown.”—
Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropt not down. (224-231)

Unlike the Mariner, the wedding guest still dwells in the world of innocence; he is ignorant of, and therefore fears, the danger and horror that lurk in the world of experience.  But the Mariner assures the wedding guest that he is no ghost but a living man.  He alone of the crew of that ill-fated vessel did not succumb to death. 

Instead, he lived on to experience the profound alienation that is the fate of all those who are cursed with life-in-death:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.


The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I. (232-239)

Cut off utterly from the life of men, abandoned to his own existential torment and despair, the Mariner is left with none to commune with but the loathsome vermin of the sea. 

So isolated and companionless is he that he finds he cannot even lift a prayer to God:

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust. (244-247)

Like Shakespeare’s Claudius, who, though he feels some remorse over his unnatural murder of his brother Hamlet, finds that he cannot connect with God in prayer, the Mariner finds that he too is trapped within the confines of his own guilty soul and cannot move outward in prayer.  His heart, chilled by the curse of the Spectre-Woman, has been left physically, emotionally, and spiritually dry. 

And then something miraculous occurs:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.


Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.


O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware. (272-287)

The water snakes that the Mariner first gazes upon and then blesses are not in themselves natural symbols of beauty, love, or delight.  The elfin magic and sinuous charm that accrue to them in the quoted stanzas come ultimately from within the Mariner who, by divine aid, is enabled to perceive them through new eyes. 

Granted these new eyes by his “kind saint,” the Mariner is able to move out of himself toward the water snakes and even to feel a harmony and kinship with them -- something he had not previously felt toward the albatross.  Community, though it be with the lowliest of God’s creatures, is restored, and the Mariner is freed, if only for a moment, from his egocentric focus on himself and his guilt. 

The result of this movement out of the self is immediate and profound:   

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea. (288-291)

“The spell,” explains Coleridge in his gloss to this stanza, “begins to break,” and indeed, though the Mariner’s penance is far from over, from this point on the crushing weight of his guilt is lifted from his soul.  If the albatross be interpreted as a symbol of original sin, and Coleridge seems, at least in part, to intend this, then the Mariner is here saved from both the direct and ultimate consequences of his crime.  Still, we must be careful not to confuse -- either aesthetically or theologically -- salvation with sanctification.  The Mariner, like the protagonist of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, still has many miles to tread if he is to reach the Celestial City.  As we shall see in a moment, the indirect and ongoing consequences of his sin will continue to pursue him throughout his journey and his life thereafter. 



The circular journey home


Over the next 150 lines of poetry, the Mariner recounts his further adventures, recording as he goes moments both of ghastly horror and scintillating beauty.  Out there, in that strange and terrifying world that lies beyond the borders of innocence, dwell wonders untold, but to see the angelic visions one must face as well the darkness that chills the bones.  Just so, the same Dante who hears the heavenly choirs in Paradise hears first the groaning of the damned. 

In the end, after his ship has been driven northward by benevolent spirits, the Mariner looks up from the deck to see -- wonder of wonders -- that he has returned home: 

Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?


We drifted o'er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway. (464-471)

His journey has been a circular one, but, like Odysseus returned to Ithaca or a questing knight returned to Camelot, it has left him on a higher level of wisdom and understanding.  Even so, the human race had to lose Eden that they might, after millennia of weary searching, find a new, but surpassingly greater Eden that the Book of Revelation calls the New Jerusalem.  Or, as T. S. Eliot explains it near the end of Little Gidding (the fourth of his Four Quartets): “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

Coleridge’s Rime is divided into Seven Parts.  His first sight of home occurs midway through Part Six, but it is not until Part Seven that his ship nears the harbor and he sets foot again on his “own countree.”  In both the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions the number seven is imbued with great spiritual meaning, signifying, among other things, wholeness and completion.  For the Mariner, whose supernatural journey has not only brought him self-knowledge but opened his eyes to the mystical cords that bind the natural, the human, and the divine, his homecoming marks his attainment of the final, culminating level of wisdom.

But his special penance is such that he cannot stop there.  The man whose crime it was to destroy fellowship and exacerbate the alienation between both man and beast and the natural and supernatural realms must not be allowed to hoard his hard-won knowledge.  He must share that knowledge, must become, like the prophet Ezekiel, a living, breathing allegory (see Ezekiel 12).  The teller must become his tale. 

The moment the Mariner sets foot on land, he turns to a hermit who lives by the sea and ministers to sailors and begs the holy man to hear his confession, to absolve him of guilt, and to set forth his penance:

“O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!”
The Hermit crossed his brow.
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say --
What manner of man art thou?”


Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.


Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.


I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach. (574-590)

Henceforth, the Mariner will live the life of a pilgrim, wandering from land to land and telling his cautionary tale to all who have ears to hear.  Partly like Abraham, partly like the Israelites in the wilderness, and party like Cain, he shall live as a stranger and a sojourner, a border figure belonging to no one and no place.  He shall endure what Coleridge, in his gloss to lines 574-577, calls “the penance of life,” but his endurance shall prove a blessing to mankind.  As the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2) were granted the power to speak in other languages that they might share the good news with the whole world, so the Mariner is gifted with a “strange power of speech” that allows him to communicate his tale to those in distant lands.

Earlier, I argued that the scene in which the Mariner sucks his own blood that he might free his lips to speak was meant by Coleridge to function in part as a metaphor for the Romantic poet who writes out of his pain.  Here, in detailing the Mariner’s life-long penance, Coleridge clarifies and develops this metaphoric link.  Neither an artisan nor a patronized member of the court, the Romantic poet creates because he must create, because the feelings and passions within him compel him to create   Just as the word of God burns like fire in the bones of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:9), so does the fire of inspiration rage within the breast of the Romantic poet-prophet.  The Romantic poet’s ability to externalize in words his internal struggles and moods is, in some senses, a blessing and a gift.  But it is a gift that is also a curse, for it drives him relentlessly to relive and re-experience his deepest and most personal anguish.  At times, he, like the Mariner, is verily possessed by the inspiration that seizes him and drags out of him the words he may not always wish to speak.

Nevertheless, he must speak, and as he must speak, so we must listen, mesmerized, as the wedding guest is by the Mariner.  His tale complete, the Mariner explains the simple yet profound lesson that his journey -- both external and internal -- has taught him: 

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seeméd there to be.


O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
'Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company! --


To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!


Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
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. (597-617)

Though this “moral” may seem somewhat trite to modern readers, and even a bit anti-climactic, it does flow naturally out of the Mariner’s crime and penance.  As Coleridge explains in his gloss to lines 610 through 613, the Mariner’s poetic-prophetic commission is “to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.” 


In killing the albatross, the Mariner violated the sacred relationship between guest and host and breached the delicate balance between God, man, and nature.  In fulfilling his calling, he witnesses to the need for unity, fellowship, and mutual regard and respect for all forms of life.  And he witnesses to something else, something more personal that his trials have taught him: that a congregation at prayer can be a more joyous thing than a wedding feast; that when people of all ages join hands to praise the great Father in heaven, their unified voice composes a hymn that surpasses in beauty, sweetness, and resonance even the marriage song of bride and groom.


So shares the Mariner his high Romantic vision of fusion and synthesis; then, like a phantom or a dream, he disappears into the night:

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,

Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn. (618-625)

Through the vicarious ministry of the Mariner, the wedding guest has passed safely from innocence to experience without having to suffer the pain that such a transition usually entails.  In that sense, the Mariner truly functions as a scapegoat, as one who bridges the gap between death and renewal and who buys us wisdom at a terrible price.  And in that sense too, the Romantic poet is himself something of a scapegoat, subjecting himself to the terrors and the anguish of human passion that he might bring back to the world a message of hope, of beauty, and of joy.




Nota bene: This article has been adapted from a chapter in the author's book, The Eye of the Beholder: How to See the World like a Romantic Poet (Hamden, CT: Winged Lion Press, 2011).