I think it’s useful to look at the play between the natural and supernatural elements in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) against the backdrop of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romanticism. Romanticism is an important philosophy that arose in literature and the arts from the late eighteenth century, with some of its main features being love for nature, love for imagination and thought, and love for revolution. Coleridge, sometimes considered a co-founder of the Romantic movement in England along with fellow poet William Wordsworth, is distinct from the other Romantic poets in the way he uses the supernatural to convey his ideas. In Coleridge’s poetry, the natural and supernatural elements, though discrete, occur in a continuum. For Coleridge, all metaphors and language already exist within nature, and it is up to the poet to use them to express the inexpressible.
In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for, a symbolical language for something within me that already and for ever exists, than observing anything new. (From Anima Poetae, The Unpublished Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1895)
Because for Coleridge, nothing is outside of nature, he uses realistic points of reference even when describing the supernatural. Further, he grounds the supernatural in realistic details to make his narrative all the more immediate and identifiable for the reader. We can see this at work in the “argument” that serves as an epigraph for the poem, where the poet describes an accurate, realistic nautical route.
How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean...
Keeping in mind Coleridge’s use of the supernatural, we can say that in “The Rime of the Ancient mariner,” natural elements like the mariner, his crew, the sea, the wind, the sea-snakes, and the albatross, and supernatural elements like the spirit Life-in-Death and her nightmarish crew, exist as part of a spectrum rather than as opposites. Further, some of the natural elements themselves take on supernatural hues. For instance, in the beginning, the sea has clear, icy water, but by the second part of the poem it is transformed into “witch’s oils.” Here, we must pause to consider the violent breach, which blurs the edge between natural and supernatural and lets in the fantastical in the poem: the killing of the albatross.
The albatross, a beautiful seabird known for its immense wing-span, was considered an omen or a supernatural sign at the time this poem was written. Sailors believed the great bird “brought” the south wind with it, which helped ships sail. Sailors were naturally prone to superstition since they dealt with the uncertainties and dangers of life on the high seas on a daily basis. An albatross was also considered to carry the souls of “good” sailors on its wings; they acted as guardian angels for traveling crew. Thus, sighting an albatross meant good luck. Conversely, because an albatross was meant to carry off souls, sighting it was also a bad omen, a sign that death was near. In Coleridge’s worldview, the albatross can be said to represent nature at its purest. The killing of the albatross by the mariner at the end of part 1 of the poem is a violent break in the natural order and lets in the supernatural into the story. In part 2, the world of the poem begins to sour and rot.
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon....
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white.
With the world around them changing and the auspicious south wind dying, so great is the crew’s revulsion at the mariner’s cardinal sin that he is condemned to wear the weighty dead bird like a cross around his neck. Though the crew punishes the mariner probably because of their superstitious beliefs, at the symbolic level, the mariner is being punished for destroying nature. The echoes of environmental conservation here are startling modern; this is one of the reasons Romanticism remains a relevant philosophy even today. As the mariner’s guilt deepens, so does the supernatural in the poem, now unfurling fully as the fantastical spirit Life-in-Death and her demon crew, who hound the mariner’s barge.
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.
Order can only be restored when the mariner understands that there is a careful symmetry between man-made, natural, and supernatural elements, which should never be disturbed. The crossbow that kills the albatross is a symbol of industry. If nature is not given primacy in man’s pursuit for industry, it will have its revenge. If we overlook the supernatural element of the poem for a moment, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” serves well as a warning about changing the balance of natural species. When the mariner begins to see that each natural creature matters, his very outlook shifts. The sea-snakes he earlier described as “slimy things,” he now refers to as “happy living things.” Supernatural elements intervene again to give him a reprieve of sorts, resolving the conflict between man and nature, and the mariner is saved. Having recounted his tale to the wedding guest, he parts from him with a chastened message on the importance of honoring every creature of nature.
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.