Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Crime of the Ancient Mariner

After seeing the reference to the ‘Albatross’ in William Hope Hodgson’s short story The Voice in the Night, I went back and re-read the famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  I have not seen this poem since high school, when it was required reading.  I suspect the poem’s references to Christian piety, guilt and penance have since gotten it banned from public school English classes.  This is unfortunate, because in addition to the moral it teaches, it contains scenes of genuine horror and weirdness.  Zombies, for example.

The poem is somewhat long, but an easy read because of the structure of the rhyming verses.  There are seven sections—a total of just over 600 lines—so there is need for some commitment on the part of the reader.  The narrative is compelling, and the work contains several familiar, quotable lines, useful in many situations:

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

“A sadder and wiser man…”

“…the Albatross about my neck was hung…”

“But oh! More horrible than that is the curse in a dead man’s eye!” 

(This last one is a little less useful than the others.)

Coleridge lived from 1772 to 1834, and was a contemporary of William Wordsworth, John Keats, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, (who wrote Frankenstein), Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake, among others.  They were members of the Romantic Movement in England.  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was originally published in 1798, but later updated with a helpful gloss in 1817—these are the marginal notes that help explain some of the more obscure verses.  

As the poem begins, a gentleman on the way to a kin member’s wedding is detained by an ancient sailor, who has a terrible story to tell him.  His ship had been blown far to the south by a storm, into treacherous icy waters.  Out of the fog flies an albatross “as if it had been a Christian soul, we hailed it in God’s name.”  The bird is a good omen and brings some luck to the desperate seamen; the ice clears, and a wind from the south takes the ship back towards home.  The Albatross stays with the ship and the sailors befriend it with food and games.  Evidently the bird can talk:  “God save thee, ancient Mariner!  From the fiends that plague thee thus!—Why look’st thou so?”  But the ancient Mariner perversely shoots the bird dead with his crossbow.

This cruel and callous act constitutes a kind of ecological sin, and causes a drastic change in the environment surrounding the ship—and brings about disaster for the crew.  The vessel stalls in the ocean for many days, under the hot sun, without any breeze.  Drinking water runs out, and in the stagnant water things begin to decay.

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

Crew members lose their ability to speak “And every tongue, through utter drought, was withered at the root.”  The crew blames the ancient Mariner, and the dead Albatross is hung around his neck as a symbol of his guilt.

Things go from bad to worse.  In an arresting scene, the ancient Mariner drinks his own blood to wet his throat sufficiently to speak.  On the horizon he sees a ship approaching!  But what appears at first to be a rescue ship turns out to be a skeletal boat carrying two dreaded individuals: Death himself and a woman named Death-In-Life. 

These two throw dice to determine the fate of the crew.  Death wins the men’s lives, but Death-In-Life wins the ancient Mariner.   Every one of the ship’s crew dies—“And every soul, it passed me by, like the whizz of my cross bow!”—but the bodies remain strangely preserved.  And each one, with eyes still open, appears to glare accusingly at the old sailor.

Just when he can take no more, he has an epiphany.  By the light of the moon, beyond the shadow of the ship, he is entranced by the movements of several water snakes.  He appreciates their various colors, and the play of light on their undulating bodies.  His perspective about nature and other living creatures changes.  “A spring of love gushed from my heart, and I blessed them unaware…”  Suddenly, the albatross falls off of him into the water, where it “sank like lead into the sea.”

His fortunes change.  There is rain, wind, and the ship begins to move again.  The dead crew is reanimated by spirits, and rise up to manage the ropes and sails.  “They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—we were a ghastly crew.”  He encounters the Polar Spirit’s fellow demons, who discuss what sort of penance he should have for his killing of the albatross.  Eventually he returns to his home port—his first task is to ask a religious hermit to wash away the blood of the Albatross from his soul.  He then receives his penance, an agony that drives him to tell his tale to those most in need of hearing it.  As he departs the wedding guest, having finished his story, he offers its moral:

                Farewell, farewell!  But this I tell
                To thee, thou Wedding Guest!
                He prayeth well, who loveth well
                Both man and bird and beast.

It is an old fashioned view that stories, in addition to the entertainment they provide, ought to serve as vehicles to convey some sort of moral teaching, or a deeper understanding of our fellow beings.  Both the poem by Coleridge and Hodgson’s story have this as a focus, in addition to the horrors depicted in their tales.  It may be that an underlying theme of moral or ethical concern even enhances the terrors involved—the reverse is also true.  In my view, almost all horror media is religious in nature, if for no other reason than it deals with ultimate questions about the purpose and end of human life.

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