What do "Death" and "Life-in-Death" stand for in Coleridge's The Rime of Ancient Mariner?
The mariner kills the albatross and the crew eventually decides that the mariner is to blame for all their thirst, so they make him wear the albatross. (This is where the concept of “albatross as a burden” comes from).By killing the albatross, a symbol of purity and the Christian soul, the mariner has offended God and nature. In the Romantic and Transcendental philosophies, there was an inherent connection between nature and spirit; connected via the Imagination. On the surface, this sounds like an animal rights poem, but Coleridge was making a Christian/Romantic statement that harming nature is harming ourselves as all are interconnected.
So, all these supernatural events are caused by the mariner’s senseless killing of the albatross/symbol of Christian soul. They eventually pass a ship. This is right after they make the mariner wear the dead albatross around his neck; his cross to bear. On the ship they pass, Death (actually representing death) and Life-in-Death (representing suffering in life) are playing dice. They were betting for the lives or souls of the men. Death won all the men – they all dropped dead. Death-in-life won the mariner and he subsequently has led a life full of suffering because his killing of the albatross led to the death of his men. But the impression is that the death of the albatross is the initial crime and as offensive as the men’s deaths.
It is clear that these two spectres that appear on the ship and play a chilling game of dice for the life of the Mariner represent what their names say they are. Death represents complete death, and Life-in-Death represents a state of death that exists in life, that the Mariner has to suffer because Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, whereas Death wins the life of the sailors, resulting in their deaths. Note how they are described:
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman's mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.
Clearly focusing on their descriptions, and in particular the description of Life-in-Death, shows they are deeply suggestive of what these figures represent. The fact that Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, and the way that we are presented with how the Mariner lives--doomed to wander the world and share his story thanks to an uncontrollable compulsion--shows the life-in-death that he has to endure as his punishment.
My view is a little different - a translation into a modern context: To begin, observe that these two figures present as if one is a supplemented version of the other -- that is, death is accompanied by visage that also appears in the field of 'death', but with an additional component, 'life', foregrounded, as it were, in its appearance. We are tempted, and not wrong, to regard both visages in their chilling aspect. But, instead, consider them as you would consider the night sky - a mask of black upon which the stars ('life in death) are able to exist and show forth. Or consider the fact that modern science has found our normal biological state to be one of being asleep, and that it actually takes neurochemical inhibitors (not stimulii) shut off 'sleep' and put us into a 'waking' state. So if one approaches the visage of life-in-death, they may regard her features both as properties of life and as properties drawn from the background of death. Still a chilling visage - a sober realization that we are here and animated with all that lilfe offers owing to the fact that we are embedded in the landscape of death, from whence we come and to whence we go. Death then becomes that background, without which we would not exist; but life-in-death becomes a paradox in which we must choose sides -- both sides (Gregory Bateson said that about paradoxes, not I). If one thinks about that view of life and death and their combining properties I think you will find other parts of the Rime that become interesting in new ways.
While this view of matters takes us on a slightly different course with respect to understand the Mariner's plight, I don't believe it conflicts with anything actually said within the work. It simply changes our fixation from the completely sombre tone to the encounter, and introduces a necessity (i.e. this is the way life works) into the equation. In writing a sequel to the work, I found it paid some extra dividends in charting the course of Mariner's journey.
(reference to the work is given - the encounter with Life-in-Death is about half-way through it and begins, "On the skeleton's deck she stood....")
If you will notice, what the new view of matters permitted me to do was escape the fixation about crime and punishment (which often overwhelms discussions of Coleridge's poem) and turn instead to a simple fact of life and the importance of death to even experiencing it. ' Life in Death ' takes on a very different character under those terms. My 'mariner's protege will still have the compulsion to tell the tale (write it, rather than bother people with having to listen to it); the crew needn't be killed off, but rather appear as phantoms, haunting ports and looking for the course back to redeeming themselves; and the mariner serves as their beacon, helping the locate a pilot that can take them to fullfil their obligation and end the curse. Things like that, that emerge from just a slight variation on interpretation. Some will agree, some won't; but I still think its a useful exercise and opens new avenues for appreciating this truly great work we have been given to enjoy against a background of all kinds of things we read daily, but have no life in them at all. - happy reading (for anyone who would like to read my sequel, "The Monkey's Paw', be my guest - reference give...