Symbols and Symbolism in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Length: 2465 words (7 double-spaced pages)
Need writing help? Check your paper »
Symbols in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
A close reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner will reveal that the Ancient Mariner-who is at once himself, Coleridge and all humanity-having sinned, both incurs punishment and seeks redemption; or, in other words, becomes anxiously aware of his relation to the God of Law (as symbolized by the Sun), and in his sub-consciousness earnestly entreats the forgiveness of the God of Love (represented by the Moon-symbol).
... For Professor Lowes, while he has disclosed a Coleridge of amazing intellectual grasp ... stops short on the border line of purely imaginative experience. In his long study of The Ancient Mariner, he seems to miss the essential allegory.... when all is said, his unsparable book is content to be a review of Coleridge's intellectual and creative relation to his available sources in books, in conversations and in his life history, not (save on occasion as supplying a casual argument) to articulate part with part in the poetic intention as a whole ....
... There is nowhere here or elsewhere in the book [The Road to Xanadu] a hint of the history behind the Mariner's glittering eye, a suggestion of the poet's bold transfer of the glitter in the dead seamen's eyes (Death) to those of the Mariner (Life-in-Death). The poet introduces the Mariner abruptly and repetitively as one with a glittering eye. A similar emphasis is given to the epithet bright-eyed (as in the penultimate stanza of Part VII); and when the fearful question, "Why look'st thou so?", is asked, our thoughts revert to that sinister glitter. Now consider this stanza in Part III:
One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye,
and these stanzas also from Part IV:
The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.
An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But ohl more horrible than that
Is a curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die;
and these again from Part VI:
All stood together on the deck,
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fixed on me their stony eyes,
That in the Moon did glitter.
The pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never passed away:
I could not draw my eyes from theirs
Nor turn them up to pray.
All that Professor Lowes says about the glittering eye is true, but it inadequately vindicates Coleridge's unerring choice of the adjective as expressing that uncanny communication of quality between the dead and the quick.
But to return to my thesis-that the Sun (with the Polar Spirit and the First Voice) is conceived in Coleridge's imagination as suggesting the stern, just, masculine, punitive side of the nature of God; and that the Moon (with the Hermit and the Second Voice) normally symbolizes the gentle, feminine, redemptive side. The whole ballad presents a tale of sin and salvation, of crime and compassion, of the operation of inflexible Law and the intervention of inexhaustible Love.
The passages quoted above from Coleridge's own works, considered cumulatively, seem to reinforce this interpretation of the symbols we are considering. In the poem itself it will be noticed that there are eleven references to the Sun and fourteen to the Moon, and that these are the chief recurrent symbols. In the first edition there are ten references to the Sun and fifteen to the Moon. The total number of references to Sun and Moon in the editions of 1798 and 1817 is, however, the same-namely, twenty-five. None of these appears in Part VII in either version, and this, as we shall see, for a reason.
In the pictures of the Sun he appears first as the ship drives southward across the Equator-the Sun coming up upon the left, shining bright, and setting on the right. "The vertical sun," as Professor Lowes explains, "stands over the mast for an instant at noon, to mark the crossing of the Line." After the vessel rounds Cape Horn the positions of sunrise and sunset are reversed. Both passages are temporal and positional in content, Saxon and almost monosyllabic in diction. God is present and omnipresent.
The third reference is more significant. After the wanton slaughter of the Albatross,
Nor dim nor red, like God's own head,
The glorious Sun uprist.
The majesty of the Divine slowly and steadily reveals itself until the Sun has climbed to the meridian. Then there appears one of the most impressively symbolic stanzas in the poem:
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
The avenging process has begun; the ship is suddenly becalmed; the Polar Spirit plagues the sailors; the dead Albatross is hung about the Mariner's neck; weary and menacing days dawn and die; the crew are suffering from drought and fear; when at last the phantom vessel is descried:
Seel Seel (I cried) she tacks no more!
Hither to work us weal,-
Without a breeze, without a tide,
She steadies with upright keel!
The western wave was all aflame,
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.
And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?
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?
Guilt and Fear have interposed themselves between God and the sinful Mariner and his mates, who find themselves now wholly in the power of Death and of Life-in-Death. The crew become the prey of Death, while the Mariner falls to the lot of Life-in-Death. She whistles thrice, and a that sinister signal the sense of the Divine presence is wholly lost:
The Sun's rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper o'er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.
One after one, under "the star-dogged Moon" (distorted symbol, for the moment, of an alienated Love), the sailors perish, and the Mariner is abandoned to the horror of utter separation from his Creator. By his own act he has become a castaway. No saint takes pity on his soul in agony. Like Claudius and Macbeth, he seeks to pray and fails to pray. Divorced altogether from hope or help, for seven days and seven nights he watches the curse in the dead men's eyes, and yet, like the Wandering Jew, he himself cannot die. As he declares to the Wedding- Guest in Part VII:
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide, wide sea:
So, lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
All is foul and fixed, as though for ever. Suddenly in this static horror pair something moves,-the only moving, hope-renewing object w t n that wilderness of sea and sky. It is the normal, familiar Moon -symbol, as we have seen, of the inexhaustible loving-kindness of God. No contrast could be greater than that between the misery of the Mariner in his ominous surroundings and gentle rising of the friendly Moon. Rossetti was always eloquent in his praise of the first stanza of Part V:
Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.
But it is hard to find in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner more beautiful lines than the following, especially as related to their context:
The moving Moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside-
Note the word softly and note its reappearance when the poet describes the Second Voice:
The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
But tell me, tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing-
The moonbeams, says Coleridge,
... bemocked the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread!
But where the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charmed water burnt alway
A still and awful red.
That is, all is now bathed in moonlight save the shadow of the ship. The Mariner looks beyond the shadow, and for the first time sees from the Point of view of the God of Love those sea- creatures whom he had previously despised and condemned as "a thousand slimy things." Beheld in this moonlight aspect, they reveal unsuspected grace and charm:
O happy living things no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware;
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
Seen thus from the higher point of view, the Mariner sees them thus thereafter, even within the shadow of the ship. "The spell," says the gloss, "begins to break."
Corresponding to the transfiguration of the water-snakes comes soon afterwards, in Part V, another change. The souls of the Mariner's companions "that fled in pain" are replaced by "a troop of spirits blest." The sounds of their singing are sustained with an exquisite sweetness, and they renew that sweetness by darting to their source in the Sun. But there is another spirit who does not sing. "The lonesome Spirit from the south-pole," says the gloss, "carries on the ship as far as the Line, in obedience to the angelic troop, but still requireth vengeance." The Polar Spirit and the Sun are at one in this, for, as the poet immediately declares:
The Sun, right up above the mast,
Had fixed her to the ocean:
But in a minute she 'gan stir,
With a short uneasy motion-
Backwards and forwards half her length
With a short uneasy motion.
Then like a pawing horse let go,
She made a sudden bound:
It flung the blood into my head,
And I fell down in a swound.
How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But ere my living life returned,
I heard, and in my soul discerned,
Two voices in the air.
The two voices, let it be repeated, simply vary the symbols of Law and of Love, of Retribution and of Redemption. The First Voice relates the story of the crime, and knows full kinship and stern sympathy with the wrongs of the Polar Spirit. The Second Voice pleads gently that the Mariner
hath penance done,
And penance more will do.
The Second Voice also reveals the power of the prime corresponding symbol, the Moon:
Still as a slave before his lord,
The ocean hath no blast;
His great bright eye most silently
Up to the Moon is cast-
If he may know which way to go;
For she guides him smooth or grim.
See, brother, seel how graciously
She looketh down on him.
The voices fade away; the Mariner awakens; the Moon is high; the dead men stand on deck with that eerie punitive glitter in their eyes, the spell of which the Mariner, even when redeemed, can never wholly forget. But for the moment the spell is snapped, and the Mariner views the ocean, no longer as slimy, or rotting, or painted, but as fresh and clear and green. "The curse," says the gloss, "is finally expiated." The two motives of Retribution and Redemption are drawing together and a great wind bears the ship towards her haven.
It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring
Dread expresses itself in the next line:
It mingled strangely with my fears,
and hope in the fourth line:
Yet it felt like a welcoming.
The almost magical manner in which the poet combines these opposing motives here and in the next stanza deserves especial attention. Dread appears in
Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
and hope in the reappearance of the familiar reassuring word softly
Yet she sailed softly too.
Hope is augmented in the line:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
But lingering dread lifts itself again in the melancholy reflection:
On me alone it blew.
The Mariner prays (for he has learned long since to pray) that his incredible homecoming may not be as the vision of a dream. "He beholdeth," says the gloss, "his native country." And he loves it as never before, not only for the welcoming that its familiar landmarks offer his heart, but also because the Moon still accompanies him, steeping in calm and silentness the bay, the rock, the kirk, the steady weathercock. He had not heeded the white moonshine that glimmered through night and fog when he slew the Albatross; but now he knows the meaning of the Moon-the eternal Love of God-and he turns to the Hermit for confession and absolution. Confession made, he is duly shriven, but, says Coleridge in the gloss, with penetrating intention: " - Th penance of life falls on him. And ever and anon throughout his future life an agony constraineth him to travel from land to land. And to teach by his own example love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.
It should be added, in conclusion, that the resolved dualism of Part VII does not require the final presence of either Sun or Moon, since both of the Divine functions which these two respectively rep. resent have been harmonized as necessary and interdependent. This persistent dualism, monastically resolved, is of the very bones and blood of the ballad as a whole. The major symbols, Sun and Moon, First Voice and Second Voice, Polar Spirit and Hermit, and the chief supporting symbols (not considered here)-the unselected Wedding Guests and the one of three, the Albatross and the skylark, the ship and the home country, the corpses and the seraphs, and the reluctantly listening Wedding-Guest of Part I as against the sadder and wiser man of Part VII who "turned from the bridegroom's door"-these constitute an imaginative harmony, a parabolic wholeness that we dare not ignore, for the poet does for all humanity what the Mariner does for the Wedding- Guest. He speaks to the idealist in each of us, and makes us poets too.