illustration of the Ancient Mariner in the ocean with an albatross tied around his neck

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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Where is the Sublime evident in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

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The Sublime is the emotion of awe and terror we experience when we gaze on nature and feel both overwhelmed by its beauty but at the same time frightened and humbled by its grandeur and power. The Romantics were particularly drawn to the Sublime, for they believed it revealed God's...

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The Sublime is the emotion of awe and terror we experience when we gaze on nature and feel both overwhelmed by its beauty but at the same time frightened and humbled by its grandeur and power. The Romantics were particularly drawn to the Sublime, for they believed it revealed God's presence in the world.

A typical Sublime location was a snowy, misty mountaintop, where a person stands on the edge of a cliff or boulder looking down into a rocky gorge or at a valley far below. The scene is both beautiful and terrifying at the same time, impressing on the onlooker the enormous power of God, who creates both loveliness and frightening magnificence. We are small against God in such a landscape.

The Mariner's problem as the poem opens, as he sails to uncharted regions of the Antarctic that have never been explored, is his inability to feel the Sublime despite the immense beauty and frightening grandeur of his setting. We get a sense of the Sublime in the following passage:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

An iceberg as tall as the ship and green as an emerald floats by, but the mariner is unimpressed by its magnificence and does not see God in it. He is so blase and lacking in awe that he even kills the albatross, a messenger of God's grace, just because he can.

The Sublime moment comes when finally, after understanding nature only as something "painted," something apart from him, something that cannot slake his spiritual thirst, that does not give him one "drop" to drink, the mariner finally has his moment of deep emotional response to the sea snakes:

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
He can actually feel the Sublime in the awe he experiences as he watches the beauty and the power of the snakes. They are not "painted" and static but alive and full of fire. The Mariner thinks:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware

This Sublime moment, the ability to feel overwhelmed and filled with love—to perceive the divine in nature—releases the mariner from his curse.

To reinforce that experiencing the Sublime leads us closer to the divine source, we are told that:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
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The sublime is a common theme in Romantic literature. It describes the awe and terror felt by the individual in the face of great beauty. For the Romantics, nature was the greatest trigger of the feeling of the sublime, since it was so grand and untamed. Unlike works of art, which are created and controlled by humans, nature is never totally under humanity's control, hence the great feeling of terror and awe. You can even see it even in Romantic novels where nature is not a big theme, such as Jane Eyre.

In Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mariner experiences the sublime in this way. The mariner is at the mercy of the sea and the weather. Left the only man alive on the ship, this is a terrifying thing to him. But when the calm comes and he looks upon the creatures in the water, the mariner is astounded by their beauty. All of a sudden, he feels a sense of connection with all the living things around him, inspiring a "gush" of love in his heart. This love inspired by the sublime is what redeems him, acting as a kind of epiphany where he is able to see the divine in all things.

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The natural world is presented in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a source of the sublime. According to the standard definition of the sublime, it is something that invokes fear, awe, even terror in the individual, making him or her feel small and insignificant. We see this throughout the Rime where the mariner and his fellow crew-mates are subjected to the cruel forces of nature out there on the high seas.

But there is another side to the sublime. The almost religious conversion that the mariner experiences on seeing the sea snakes places him in a position of complete submission to God and his divine plan. It is at this moment that the mariner finally understands the part he plays in creation, how every living thing, from the humblest to the highest, is linked together as part of an elemental unity. To such a realization, there can be but one response, and the mariner's outpouring of love is at the same time an acknowledgement of the presence of the sublime at such a significant moment in his life.

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In Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, "Sublime" is defined (in the second definition) as "very beautiful or good : causing strong feelings of admiration or wonder."

In Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner the sublime event must refer to the moment when the mariner looks upon the water-snakes and finds them beautiful. This is a marked transition from his earlier impression of the sea creatures. "And a thousand thousand slimy things lived on and so did I" (234-236). The mariner says this in disparagement as he disdains the fact that he alone is alive among "The many men, so beautiful!" (232).

The sublime moment occurs when he realizes the beauty of the sea snakes and realizes they, too (like the men), are one of God's creations and worthy of admiration. "O happy living things! no tongue Their beauty might declare" (277-280). The mariner is so moved by his new insight that he states, "A spring of love gushed from my heart, And I blessed them unaware" (281-283).

This was the climaxing event that caused the Mariner's curse to be broken. "Sure my kind saint took pity on me, And I blessed them unaware . . . And from my neck so free The Albatross fell off, and sank Like lead into the sea" (284-287). 

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