The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Analysis

  • Despite being first collected in William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” does not adhere to Wordsworth’s ideal of English Romanticism. Later, in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, it became clear that the two poets’ definitions of Romanticism diverged.
  • Coleridge may have had several real-world sources of inspiration for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” including eighteenth-century accounts by explorers such as Captain George Shelvocke and Captain James Cook.
  • The poem’s form, rhyme scheme, diction, and content give the poem an antiquated feel and its musicality evokes the tradition of using ballads to relate oral histories.

Analysis

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Last Reviewed on April 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 980

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was first published in William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798. This book of poems—especially in its second edition, which includes Wordsworth’s long explanatory preface—is often regarded as a manifesto for the English Romantic movement. Wordsworth expressed some reservations about whether “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was really true to the spirit of Romanticism. In 1799, he wrote,

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From what I can gather it seems that the Ancient Mariner has upon the whole been an injury to the volume, I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second Edition I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.

However, the poem was included in later editions, despite these uncertainties. Wordsworth’s reservations are understandable. Although the poem is written in ballad form, it is very different from the other ballads in the book, which are much shorter, more direct, and focused on “the heroism of everyday life” rather than the esoteric and the numinous, or tales of adventure on the high seas. It was also to become apparent in later years, particularly with the publication of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria in 1817, that the two poets did not see eye to eye on the objectives of Romanticism.

There have been numerous suggestions about Coleridge’s sources of information for the poem, including the voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s and the expeditions of Captain George Shelvocke earlier in the eighteenth century. In Shelvocke’s book, A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea, there is actually a description of a melancholy sailor shooting an albatross in the hope of gaining a fair wind. Wordsworth is known to have read this account and discussed it with Coleridge.

The poem was originally titled “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,” and even with the spelling slightly modernized, the archaism of the piece can seem rather self-conscious. Coleridge deliberately avoids including anything that would date the poem’s events too precisely, and many of his descriptive touches suggest a time several centuries before the poem was written. “The merry minstrelsy” nodding their heads, along with the other details of the wedding feast, are positively medieval, and so is such diction as “Eftsoons his hand dropt he.” The poem’s frequent repetition seems even more antiquated, since it evokes a time when ballads were recited and passed down orally, when repetition made matters easier for the bard. A line like “The Wedding Guest here beat his breast” reinforces this sense of antiquity in several different ways. First, it is repeated. Second, it contains an internal rhyme (which, like repetition, was used as an aid to memory by poets who recited or sang their ballads). Third, the very gesture of beating one’s breast is biblical and dramatic.

The rhyme scheme of each stanza is typically abcb, but the first and third lines often have internal rhymes, and occasionally a stanza which demands particular emphasis varies from the four-line pattern, usually with six lines rhymed abcbdb. One of the best-known stanzas in the poem takes this form:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

These lines are so famous partly because Mary Shelley quotes them in Frankenstein, as Victor is pursued by the creature. The thumping repetition of the end rhymes (all of which rhyme with “dead,” not to mention the heaviness of “lead”) combines with the anaphora, the polysyndeton, and the alliteration of “frightful fiend” to lend a rhetorical weight to this stanza that make it sound almost like a hymn or dirge.

The archaic, biblical language also gives proverbial force to many of the ancient mariner’s statements. This is particularly true at the end of the poem, when the mariner is delivering the moral to both the wedding guest and the reader:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The word “loveth” is repeated three times in four lines, and each phrase is gnomic and memorable. Coleridge and Wordsworth did not quite agree on their didactic purpose in the Lyrical Ballads, but they were both preaching, and Coleridge’s message here is clear and forcefully expressed, despite the obscurity of many other passages in the poem. Indeed, the simple final message is all the more powerful for having passed through so much mystery and terror. While Wordsworth talked about the effect of nature on the soul, Coleridge was concerned primarily with love and the way in which love formed the basis of prayer—as when the mariner’s love for the beauty of the sea snakes finally allows him to pray after that release had long been denied him.

The poem ends with another mystery. Just as the ancient mariner has to keep wandering, like the Wandering Jew who was perpetually punished for sneering at Christ on the cross (and who was a frequent figure in Romantic literature), so the reader has to keep searching for meaning. Although love is the answer, the poem does not end with love, but with sadness and wisdom on the part of the wedding guest. The reader is left alone to determine why the wedding guest is sad. Perhaps it is out of compassion for the ordeals of the ancient mariner, and further out of what the Roman poet Virgil called lacrimae rerum, the sadness of things. This sadness presents a reminder that the prayer and love stressed only two stanzas before must be constantly renewed to refresh the soul.

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