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Perspective and the Historical Influences in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Published on April 21st, 2016 at 03:39 am

By Kevin Needham

Right before the beginning of the 19 th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his friend and colleague William Wordsworth, both prominent and revered English poets, incited the Romantic Movement, a diversion from the preceding Enlightenment. In 1798, Coleridge published a long poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which would come to be a major influence on poetry with its novel presentation of Romantic themes and motifs. The poem’s narrative consists of a man—on his way to a wedding—who gets pulled aside by an old sailor, and is told a tale of the sea. The mariner describes to the guest his and his crew’s encounters with calm and rough seas, shortages of water in endless ocean, and an encounter with an albatross that gives the crew fortune and an even greater misfortune. The mariner sank to great depths; witnessing Death and the rising of corpses, blessing the snakes that infested the waters, and resorting to anything in desperation to be saved from his predicament. When the Mariner finishes his tale, finally free from the burden placed upon him by one of his saviors, he leaves the Guest, who is now “a sadder and a wiser man.” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” forces the reader to tap into their imagination with its presentation of the supernatural; the use of perspective in the thematic framework and the many historical influences that create conflict in the narrative.

One of the driving thematic elements in the poem is the use and shift of perspective between the Mariner, the narrator, the Guest, and Coleridge’s strange metafictional editor, and the subsequent, simultaneous union and dichotomy of these points of view. The first perspective to be discussed is that of the narrator, or the Minstrel. The Minstrel controls the introduction and the subsequent first impressions of the Mariner and the Guest, and builds interest before the plot takes form. The Minstrel uses techniques such as repetition and imagery to evoke a mysterious impression of the Mariner: “By thy long grey beard and glittering eye/…He holds him with his glittering eye—/ the Wedding Guest stood still/…And thus spake on that ancient man,/ the bright-eyed Mariner,” (Rime 3-16). Already, the Minstrel achieves the conveying of a symbol of presence about the Mariner, and more than effectively sets up the character to reveal his narrative. The “bright-eyed” description, additionally, is one of the only descriptions of the characters in the poem, as after the Minstrel describes the Wedding Guest, his role is taken over quickly as the Mariner and his listener begin their dialogue. “The Minstrel-Poet, like an omniscient narrator, has seen and heard everything. But he has not obtruded his views anywhere. The reader is challenged to begin once again, to hear, as it were, the story once more, to find out the source of its impact on Minstrel and Wedding-Guest,” (Dyck 1973). This omniscient perspective is only displayed for the first couple stanzas, and then in the last few, and this lack of knowledge about the characters and their pasts contributes to the thematic elements of mystery and the supernatural. One of the other perspectives is the point of view of the Guest, which, as shown by his reactions to the Mariner’s tale, seem to be very sympathetic to the reader of the poem. The Guest’s immediate reaction to the Mariner and his tale provides essentially a summary of his reaction to the majority of the tale:

“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.”— (Rime 225-230)
This reaction by the Guest comes right after the Mariner tells of his late crew, who rose when spirits entered their body, and once again features the Mariner’s bright eye. In this kneejerk reaction to the Mariner’s experience and story, the reader can’t help but sympathize with the guest as the tale requires the suspension of disbelief, a motif common in Coleridge’s literature and Romantic works similar to it. And on the opposite side, the perspective of the narrator and his telling of his events is what truly drives the theme of the supernatural, “The Mariner's tale admits of many levels of reading and constantly defies any one level of interpretation. It is simultaneously a tale of adventure, of romance, of horror, of joy, of comedy, of tragedy. It is a study in paradox,” (Dyck 1973). As Dyck explains, the tale of the Mariner is a very Romantic one, as with his endings come the large presence of emotion in his story, and the emotional burden he carries as well. This emotional effect that the Mariner has is present as the Poet closes the poem:
He went like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man He rose the morrow morn. (Rime 623-626)
However, the theme and the union of these perspectives is the most understood with the addition of the editor’s view; a strange trope that Coleridge uses to “simplify” the tale. With the addition of the editor comes the introduction of thematic and moral questions not presented in other points of view, and quite literally presents the supernatural elements of the poem. For example, when only the Mariner begins to cry out in desperation and thirst, does the editor state, “The Albatross begins to be avenged,” (Rime). In this sense, the editor is the only voice stressing the theme of penance, a theme that is present throughout the whole text. This trope, while seemingly out of place, in actuality unifies the three perspectives to convey the themes of penance and the supernatural in the most effective way. In addition to the unity and diversity of perspectives, there is also the unity of many different historical influences on the text.

An important aspect of the poem is the conflict between the Christian influences of penance and religious symbolism, and the psychological interests of nightmarish visions and new Romantic ideals. Clearly, the tale of the Mariner is driven by Christian influences, as shown by the affair of the Albatross, the bird coming to the mariners “as if it had been a Christian Soul,” (Rime 65). However, the Christian interest is not presented until the Mariner does his penance for his murder of the Albatross, and the burden lifted off of him with prayer and the blessing of the snakes, creatures believed to be the lowest of the low. “The Christian structures of authority governing the Mariner's world-- with their self-defined notions of humility, virtue, integrity, and so on-- are not static, universal, and absolute, however much they may appear to be; they are in vital conflict with antagonistic and apparently demonic forces which refuse to remain in the obscurity into which they have been cast,” (Watkins 1988). This shift from Christian power to demonic power is particularly present in the possession of the crew’s bodies by souls; the Mariner witnesses the supernatural as a result of his defiance of Christian authority. However, the tale of sin, penance, and redemption the Mariner presents deceives the true nature of his tale: the display of otherworldly powers and forces of change that rock the nature of human experience, even if one does not mean to encounter them. And with this diversion from Christian beliefs comes the interplay of psychological interests, particularly the psychology of fear. “Indeed, if the demonic element in the poem is as consistently drawn as I am arguing, the ‘Rime’ comes across as being schizophrenic to a degree beyond what even the most extreme psychological interpretations have suggested,” (Watkins 1988). As explained in this excerpt, the text presents psychological elements that aren’t native to literature up to Coleridge’s era; these concepts are entirely novel and in this way strongly contribute to the conveying of supernatural and mysterious themes, as the Mariner may even be struggling with his own conscience to recall what occurred out on the Sea. This combination of psychological and Christian influences is a conflict that in fact contributes to the thematic framework of the poem.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” presents a tale so mystifying that the reader is left just as puzzled as the Wedding Guest, as Coleridge utilizes shifts between four unique perspectives and a dichotomy between Christian and more modern psychological theories to drive a thematic framework that focuses on penance, transformations, and the supernatural. With all of these intricate elements, Coleridge achieves a new format of poetry, as the Romantic Era is kicked off with one certainly haunting, but monumental narrative.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "The Rime and the Ancient Mariner". The Longman Anthology: British Literature. Vol. 2. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Addison Wesley, 1999.
Dyck, Sarah. "Perspective in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13.4 (Autumn 1973): 591-604. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 197. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
Watkins, Daniel P. "History as Demon in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Papers on Language and Literature 24.1 (Winter 1988): 23-33. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 197. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.