Samuel Coleridge’s poem entitled “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is written as a ballad, in the general form of the traditional ballad of medieval or early Elizabethan times. Coleridge uses the ballad stanza, a four-line stanza. He is able to achieve a richer, more sweeping sense of the supernatural through these expansions; he is able to move beyond the more domesticated kind of supernaturalism of the four-line stanza.
He starts with the usual ballad stanza in the first of the poem, in order to make the reader acquainted with the verse form and with the poetic ethos of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (Beer 34). These early stanzas seem to anchor the reader’s mind. But in the twelfth stanza, the pattern changes to a a a b c b. By this time the reader has become at home in the poem. Interestingly, the change occurs, certainly by Coleridge’s deliberate intent, at the point in the poem when the Wedding-Guest makes his last major protest to the Mariner.
The action of the voyage is about to begin. One example of the variation of the ballad form is that Coleridge throughout the poem will occasionally insert a line that does nothing to further the story (see stanza three, Part II) but that enriches the emotional texture of the poem. Humphry House writes that Coleridge’s attraction to the ballad form was probably owing in great measure to the liberation it afforded him from the confines of modern life, a freedom it gave him to move spaciously within the unbounded areas of imaginative creation (103).
My own reading and outside research make it quite clear that there is certainly behind the character of the Mariner in the poem the traditional story of the Wandering Jew. The story has a Jewish tradesman refusing Jesus a moment of rest as He carried His cross to Golgotha; the Jew receives consequently condemnation to life-in death. He is condemned to wandering from place to place, where he must tell of his sin until the Second Coming of Christ. Coleridge used the story again in “The Wanderings of Cain.
Maud Bodkin writes that another great poet, William Wordsworth once said that the Mariner has no character (22-3). But Charles Lamb, another contemporary of Coleridge, said the ancient Mariner as a character with feelings, faced with such happenings as the poem tells about, “dragged [him] along like Tom Piper’s magic whistle” (House 107). John Livingston Lowes in more recent times spoke of the real protagonists in the poem as the elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water (Bodkin 20).
Irving Babbit echoed Wordsworth’s criticism in saying that the Mariner does not do anything in the poem beyond shooting the Albatross, that the Mariner does not really act, but is acted upon only, and that the Mariner is an incarnation of the Romantic concern with the solitary (House 104-5). And a critic named George Herbert Clarke has interpreted the ancient Mariner to be at one and the same time himself as a real character in the poem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and all men; the Mariner is Representative Man, sinning, being punished, being redeemed (Beer 31).
I imagine that one possibility, perhaps the best one, is to consider the Mariner as a poet more than a character in the sense in which we associate “personality” with characters in literature. As a poet who speaks (“I have strange power of speech. . . .”), he does not have the obligation of a character to act. The poem should not be read really with the expectation with which one reads a novel. The Mariner is not what he is because he is involved with other human beings – but because he is alone. Evidently, another much debated question is about the role of the Albatross.
One critic, George Whalley, discusses the Albatross as a symbol of the creative imagination, and he makes this interpretation by way of associating the Albatross with the wind, because the Mariner “killed the bird/ That made the breeze to blow. ” Whalley also notes that the bird is often in literature associated with imagination or inspiration. John Livingston Lowes has spoken of the function of the Albatross as a unifying agent in the poem, binding together the voyage, the supernatural happenings, and the process of punishment that the Mariner must undergo; these, he says, are the principal structural elements in the work (Lowes 151-3).
G. W. Knight stresses that the Albatross is greeted as “a Christian soul,” and that the bird can suggest a force of redemption in creation such as Christ is confessed to be. The Albatross like Christ could be interpreted as leading man from his primitive origins to moral and spiritual improvement. The fact that the Albatross is hung around the Mariner’s neck (rather than a cross) may suggest the death of Christ (Lowes preface).
Robert Penn Warren directs attention to the way the killing of the Albatross in the poem is the compromising of the sacred values of hospitality; the Mariner “inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen. ” The killing of the Albatross becomes then symbolically a murder, for the bird loved the man who killed it. Because the crime has no motive, it has, Warren decides, symbolic connections with the original Fall of man. He points out a cluster of associations with the wind (creative force), the Albatross (friend and companion), and Mariner (imagination) (Lowes 152).
Apparently in this view, the killing of the Albatross has gravity far beyond cruelty to animals – it is Original Sin. Somewhat similarly, W. H. Auden relates the Albatross to the symbol of the Holy Ghost in Christian theology, the Dove, and then through the whiteness of the Dove to the White Lamb, Christ. Humphry House says that the prose gloss when added to the appearance, the character, and the power of the bird in the poem makes the killing of the Albatross as great as the murder of a human being.
He calls attention to all the human acts in which the bird is associated in the poem: the Christian greeting; the friendly, trusting response of the Albatross; the sharing of food; the play between bird and crew. The Mariner’s crime is a crime against the most precious qualities of humanity. Clearly, the most noticeable elements of religious faith in the poem are those of Medieval Catholicism: the Virgin Mary, the petitions to saints, and the practices of confession and absolution. But the poem is filled with religious ideas and religious feeling in a much larger sense.
There are demons and spirits, representations of religious consciousness in a much too primitive sense to be circumscribed within the bounds of any one denominational framework. In this regard, I find it to be remarkable that when Coleridge talks about the moral in the poem (Lowes 150), he does so not with reference to Medieval Catholicism nor to Biblical Faith nor to Protestant Christianity, but, rather, with reference to a story in the Arabian Nights, hardly a religious story in any orthodox sense.
In writing the poem, Coleridge does not stop being what he is as a person with ideas and attitudes. The basic theology in the poem, the pervading theological understanding underneath the trappings of Medieval Catholicism, is that of the Protestant Reformation generally and that of John Calvin more particularly (however, one may take Calvinistic theology and with certain clever, though ultimately dishonest, maneuvers turn it into a Greek scheme of Fate).
The world in which the Mariner has lived during the experiences that his story is about is more a nightmare world than it isn’t. But, then, whenever the Sovereignty of God, the God to Whom the Biblical Scriptures make testimony, is made ultimate and man’s will is in all things made subject to His Will, any world can become a nightmare world, and usually does. This is why the moral “tag” in the last Part of the poem is in line with the business of those inane sermons that say, “Love God and be happy.
The Ancient Mariner” is for one thing about the fact that if one loves God one most likely will be miserable. Because God does not make explanations usually for what he does, at least not in the terms that humans would consider intelligent, one may find himself living in a world where his best efforts at rationality are foolish, considering the terms in which the God Who Acts is acting. There is through all of the Bible the theme of God’s wisdom making man’s wisdom foolish. And in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge is apparently haunted by this fact.