"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is much revered in Western poetical tradition, and it has survived despite the fickle reading audience's drastic turn towards the novel and other forms. Poems were once the acknowledged leader as a written form, but they have long been secondary, or even tertiary, because a novel is said to be easier to read, and, recently, graphic novels are enjoying a more prominent place as well. However, there are poems that have enjoyed continued success either because literature teachers continue to see their efficacy as teaching tools or because they have a bit of legend on their side. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" has some of both. Reading it, people see the value of the poem due to its aesthetics, but it also offers a journey into philosophy and psychology that transcends time.
Aesthetics is generally at the heart of poetry. Many still think of the medium as one used to tell a lover of her beauty, or describe nature in its wonder, or some other such rapturous examination of a subject of which the writer is particularly fond. But, it does not require a profound scrutiny of the genre to discover the truth. Poetry is emotion, in all of its forms, and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is not exclusive.
The poem does include beautiful language and some transcendent scenes, but, for the most part, it is an enigma. One critic said that it is "a work poised between a blessed vision of unity and the catastrophe of chaos [...], between a cribbed nightmare of centripetal monomania and a redemptive resort to the free existence of other things" (Hiller). The truth of the poem, and the fact that most of the scenes describe the doom faced by the sailors, does not lend it to a discussion of beauty for the most part. Critics talk about how Coleridge describes "two antithetical universes, the one expressing communion or harmony and oneness, the other a universe without pity" (Hiller). It is in this separation of the two worlds of the poem that the beauty exists. Another writer says of the poem;
"it is a poem to be felt, cherished, mused upon, not to be talked about, not capable of being described, analyzed, or criticized. It is the wildest of all the creations of genius ... its images have the beauty, the grandeur, the incoherence of some mighty vision. The loveliness and the terror glide before us in turns" (Stokes).
So, in his mind, the beauty of the tale and the horror of it reside together. There is no separation between the terror the mariner experienced and the beauty he occasionally sees.
The mariner has gone through a horrific ordeal, and the person he must tell his tale to in order to calm his mind is the wedding guest. It is as if the spirits that controlled the ship still require a lasting penance from him because of his actions. It may be the very fact that the mariner sees the beauty of the coming spectacle and the "gaiety" of the wedding party that urges him to tell his tale (Thompson). Throughout the tale there are little bits of beauty such as the sea snakes, the angels and the wedding party, but these are greatly overshadowed by the death, destruction and dire circumstances of the rest of the story. The aesthetic view of the story would be one of seeing the beauty of the natural world and not taking it for granted.
Many who analyze this poem see Christian images played throughout. Granted religion and philosophy are more cousins than direct relations (philosophy being grounded on evidence and religion on faith), but this is a method of showing Coleridge's philosophy. He was obviously very knowledgeable concerning the Anglican and/or Catholic varieties of service because he mentions them throughout the tale. In one instance the mariner talks about the sailors saying vespers, which one analyst says relates to the condition the sailors found themselves in. He says "The Roman Catholic vespers, like the Anglican equivalent of Evensong, involved heavily penitential elements [such as] & #8230; "Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep" (Stokes). The ship was lost and wandering because it had chosen to leave the shore protected by "kirk and lighthouse" (both of which can be seen as providing guidance), so this was not only an issue that plagued the ancient mariner, but the entire crew. Coleridge may also have been relating this to all sailors who are said to debauch quite regularly upon their travels. They had strayed from the safe bounds of their God and the shore which were known, to the unknown of sea and suspect practices.
Besides these signs of Christian philosophy, Coleridge apparently uses language that seems distinctly Christian. One writer believes that he "purposefully uses King James English in his commentary in order to create a "religious" tone throughout the work" (Rearick). He is talking about the use of the suffix eth in place of the more modern -- ed or -- s. The thought here is that Coleridge is telling a tale that is classically religious in origin. Namely, that the mariner is lost, and then repents, or as the writer puts it of "spiritual loss and reclamation" (Rearick).
Coleridge also seems to be expounding his belief that everything in the world is precious, and that people should regard all creatures are such. The death of one albatross caused the deaths of 200 humans (Howson). In the scene in which death and the lady life-in-death are gambling for the souls of the sailors and the ancient mariner, she wins the mariner and death wins all of the others. Coleridge seems to be saying that there is a consequence, and in this case it is extremely dire, for blithely harming nature (Curran). Since this poem was written when the industrial revolution was just heating up in England, it is reasonable to assume that Coleridge was lamenting the damage caused to the pastoral quality that had been so common in the country. This time of change caused people to leave the ideal of country life and seek out the better paying jobs of the cities. Thus, Coleridge could have been speaking of the voyage that the country was taking which could only be reclaimed by all realizing that worth could be found in everyone and everything rather than just the new technologies and promise of better employment.
The psychological side of the tale may be the most interesting part. Currently, there is a disorder that has received much press because of the current conflicts in the Middle East. Soldiers are returning home with an ailment that is much more mental that structural. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is caused by the bearer experiencing an extremely traumatic event and being unable to move past that event (Ribkoff & Inglis). The problem is that it is basically impossible to forget, or "move past," a traumatic happening; the individual has to learn to integrate what occurred into the story of their life. As Ribkoff and Inglis relate "the survivor seeks not absolution [from others], but fairness, compassion, and the willingness to share the guilty knowledge of what happens to people in extremity. In other words, the goal of recounting the trauma story is integration, not exorcism." The ghosts cannot be taken from the mariner, that is why he has to find someone whose "face I see" and tell them the tale. The integration is his punishment, and it is obviously a long process.
Where the psychological departs from the philosophical points of the story is in the physicality of the experience. To many researchers, the tale is a dream that the mariner has that he is bound to continuously recount because of his sin, but the tale is useful as a look inside the tortured mind. The mariner had a traumatic experience that he related to the killing of the albatross. Somehow, out of 200 people on board, he alone was saved from death. Sailors are to this day known as a superstitious bunch. This is probably so because the water covers so much that is unknown to the eye, a humans most reliable window to the world, so the superstition comes from humans trying to fathom the unfathomable. Of course, not there are instruments that can be used to plumb the depths (so to speak), but in the mariner's time, there were none. The sea was a great and terrible mystery that was always at work trying to waylay the people who dared tread upon it. The ancient mariner witnessed the deaths of all of the then the doldrums experienced in the mid-Atlantic. These are two conditions which sailors have had to deal with since they started sailing (Columbus crew nearly mutinied because of the doldrums), and…