SYMBOLIC THEMES OF MYSTERY AND THE SUPERNATURAL IN SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE'S
RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," considered by many scholars as the quintessential masterpiece of English Romantic poetry, the symbolic themes of mystery and the supernatural play a very crucial role in the poem's overall effect which John Hill Spencer sees as Coleridge's "attempt to understand the mystery surrounding the human soul in a universe moved by forces and powers... immanent and transcendent" (157). Yet the Mariner himself appears to be trapped in this supernatural world as a result of ghostly manifestations which emanate from the realms of the unknown.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, a collection of poetry written and published jointly by Coleridge and his good friend William Wordsworth. Yet the text of the poem generally in use today appeared in Sibylline Leaves in 1817. The narrative in "Rime" is based on many sources and some of the ideas expressed in the poem were inspired by other pieces of verse read by Coleridge. The central action, however, seems to have been suggested by Wordsworth, who was familiar with Shelvocke's A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea (1726) which describes the killing of an albatross by an anonymous mariner during some very bad weather. According to the Reverend Alexander Dyce, a close associate of Wordsworth, "Rime" was initially based on a strange dream experienced by John Cruikshank in which he beheld a ship manned by a skeleton crew.
As Graham Davidson points out, the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" "reads as a supernatural poem in which the representation of the real... is secondary to the representation of spiritual realities" (134). This observation can be supported by examining a number of crucial stanzas that contain images and symbolic themes related to mystery and the supernatural, such as the strange weather encountered by the ship (1.11-12), the land of ice and snow (1. 14-15), the appearance of the albatross as a sign of good omen (1.16-18), the death of the albatross at the hands of the Mariner (1. 19-20), the revenge of the albatross (2. 9-11), death and Death-in-Life (3. 10-11) and the apparition of the dead crewmen aboard the ship (5. 9-10).
The narrative which describes the strange weather in Part One, stanzas 11-12, is the first instance where Coleridge begins to draw the reader into his haunting symbolism. "And now the Storm-Blast came, and he/Was tyrannous and strong" (lines 40-41) equates the weather as being a physical manifestation lorded over by a masculine presence with "o'ertaking wings" (line 42), much like an evil messenger that sprang from Hell itself. In his study on the Romantic imagination, J. Livingston Lowes notes that in this stanza "the natural and supernatural appear to merge" (57) which can also be applied to stanza 14 ("And now there came both mist and snow/As it grew wondrous cold," lines 55-56). Though this setting may at first appear to be strange and unearthly, it is indeed based on reality, such as crossing the Equator into the southern hemisphere during the winter months with "ice, mast-high" (line 57) floating in the open ocean "as green as emerald" (line 58). But the spiritual realm of the sea, long considered by mariners as benevolent and peaceful, will soon be transformed into an arena of terror and mystery when the ancient Mariner commits a heinous crime against nature herself.
With stanza 16, the reader is introduced to the albatross, a great, snowy-white sea bird which has long been considered by sailors in all cultures as a sign of good omen, especially when one's ship is caught in the clutches of a terrible storm. This form of exultation is best expressed with "And a good south wind sprung up behind/The Albatross did follow/And every day, for food or play/Came to the mariner's hollo!" (lines 65-68). And it is here that Coleridge begins to dwell on whiteness, like that of the bird, which symbolizes not only purity but also the terror associated with the unknown and the mysterious.
In stanzas 19-20, the death of the albatross at the hands of the ancient Mariner symbolizes far more than a crime against creation, for it assures that the Mariner and his fellow crewmen are doomed to wander the seas as living-in-death spectres. Richard Holmes notes…