Coleridge as the Poet of the Supernatural Depicted in "The Ancient Mariner"
Coleridge is regarded as the greatest poet of the supernatural in English literature and The Ancient Mariner is regarded as a masterpiece of supernatural poetry. His supernatural is controlled by thought and study. Cazamian says, ”The very center of Coleridge art lies in his faculty of evoking the mystery of things, and making it actual, widespread, and obsessing. Even better than Wordsworth, he knows how to handle that species of the supernatural whose essence (spirit) is entirely psychological…. The supernatural element in The Ancient Mariner is a hallucination, the outcome of remorse; by the most sober of method.” His skill in dealing with the supernatural in this poem is two-fold: first, he has fully achieved his aim of making the supernatural appear to be natural; and, second, he has employed suggestive, psychological, and refined (sophisticated) methods of producing the feelings of mystery and horror in the poem, not crude and sensational like that of the writers before him, i.e. Horace, Walpole, Mrs. Radcliffe, and Monk Lewis.
The greatness of The Ancient Mariner lies chiefly in the technique by which the supernatural has been made believable and convincing. There are, no doubt, a number of impossible, incredible, and fantastic situation in the poem, such as: the mesmeric (magnetic) power in the mariner’s gaze, the sudden appearance of the mysterious skeleton ship, the spectre woman and her mate, the coming back to life of the dead crew, the seraph-band making signals to the land, the sudden sinking of the ship, and the polar spirit commenting on or influencing the course of events. But this supernatural phenomena are so skillfully blended with the perfectly believable and natural phenomena that the whole looks real. The sun shinning brightly at the outset, the mist and snow, the freezing cold of the polar regions, the floating ice bergs floating in the water, the torrid (very hot) fierceness of stagnant water, the slimy things crawling on the sea, the moon going up the sky, the roaring wind, the rainfall—such are the natural phenomena in the poem. The realistic effect is enhanced by a description of the state of mind of the ancient mariner; that is how he tried to pray but he could not, how lonely he felt on a wide, wide sea, how he wanted to die but in vain (useless), how he suffered mental and spiritual anguish (torture). This psychological study of the mariner adds to the realistic effect because we are made to feel that any man would suffer in the same way under similar circumstances.. Again, the details of the ship’s voyage have such a diary-like air that we accept them as a faithful recording of facts. There is, too, the logic of cause and effect in the poem. The punishment and torture have a convincing cause behind them. The realistic effect achieved by Coleridge in The Ancient Mariner is one his great achievements which makes the poem not only convincing and exciting but also in some sense a criticism of life.
There are a large number of situations and episodes in The Ancient Mariner, which fill us either with a sense of mystery of a feeling of horror of with both. The first situation that strikes terror in the heart of the Mariner (and also the reader) is the appearance of the skeleton-ship. When this skeleton-ship is sighted in the distance, the sailors feel happy to think that they will now get water to quench their burning thirst. But in a few moment they discover the reality of this ship. The description of the ship with its “ribs” and its “gossamere-like sails” fill us with terror. It is a strange mystery that this ship should sail on the sea without wind and without a tide, while the Mariner’s ship stands still “like a painted shop upon a painted ocean”. Obviously it is a supernatural force, which drives the ship, and the crew also consists of supernatural characters.
The feeling of terror is heightened when a reference is made to the crew of this ship. The crew consists of Death and Life-in-Death. But Coleridge creates the sense of horror in this poem not by describing a direct and crude description but by employing suggestive and psychological methods. For instance, he does not describe the physical features of the spectre woman and her death mate or other external phenomena at length, but he simply portrays the effect of those external things on the mariner’s mind. The appearance of Life-in-Death is described in the following three lines:
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy.
These three lines are followed by these two:
The night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
Coleridge, after giving us only three lines of description, conveys the horror by saying that the sight of her would have the effect of freezing a man’s blood. In other words, he leaves it to us to imagine for ourselves the horrible appearance of Life-in-Death that personifies the unspeakable torture of a man who cannot die. Coleridge merely offers a few suggestions to be developed by the reader himself. The effect of the skeleton-ship with Death and Life-in-Death on board again conveyed to as by the following two lines:
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!
That is, instead of giving us a detailed description of the whole horrible sight, Coleridge refers to the effect of that horrible sight upon the mind of the Mariner and says that fear sipped his life-blood. Another situation that produces horror in the poem is the death of the two hundred sailors who dropped down one by one, and each of them looked at the ancient Mariner with a curse in his eyes:
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.
The ancient Mariner heard a whiz-like sound every time a soul left its body:
The souls did from their bodies fly,—
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!
What a horrible experience it must have been for the ancient Mariner and how horrible for the reader too. The agony and spiritual torture of the lonely ancient Mariner on a wide wide sea when he could not pray or die are, perhaps, the most terrifying and horrifying elements in the poem. The following stanzas convey some of the horror of the Mariner’s state:
I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rooting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
What makes the situation still more horrifying is that the curse in dead men’s eyes had never passed away:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.
Here, again, no ugly details are provided. We are to imagine the horror of the situation ourselves. We shudder (tremble) with fear to think of the Mariner who is left alone after seeing “four times fifty living men” dropping down one by one, “with heavy thump, a lifeless lump.” It is at this stage that the Weeding-Guest begins to experience a sensation of fear because he thinks that the Marines himself must also have dropped down dead and that it is the Mariner’s ghost who is now speaking to him and so he says:
‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand, so brown.’—
Next, the groaning, stirring, and coming back to life of the dead crew must have been a terrifying experience for the ancient Mariner till he discovered that the bodies were inspired not by their original souls but by a troop of angelic spirit. We are certainly terrified when we read:
The dead men gave groan,
They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools
We were a ghastly crew.
In real life, if a dead man happens to open his eyes (because he has not really died), all the mourners get terribly frightened and run away helter-skelter. In this case two hundred dead men got up on their feet and started working at the oars. The horror of the situation can well be imagined.
Again, towards the close of the poem, the poet wishes to tell us how horrifying the Mariner’s face appeared after he had undergone his strange adventures. The poet does not describe the features the face; he simply describes the effect of the face upon the Pilot’s mind:
I moved my lips—the Pilot shrieked
And fell down in a fit;
In other words, the Mariner’s face was ghastly like the face of a dead man, and it struck so much terror in the Pilot’s heart that the Pilot fainted. The Pilot must have thought that the Mariner was not a human being but some horrible spectre. The effect on the Pilot’s boy was that he went crazy with fear:
I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
As for the Hermit, he too was terrified but, being a holy man, he sought courage from God:
The holy Hermit raised his eyes,
And prayed where he did sit.
The Hermit is, indeed, badly shaken and, on stepping forth from the boat, could scarcely stand because of fear:
The Hermit stepped forth from the boat,
And scarcely he could stand.
In a nervous state of mind, the Hermit asks the Mariner to tell him immediately what manner of man he is. In short, the horror of the Mariner’s face is conveyed to us through the reactions of the Pilot, the Pilot’s boy, and the Hermit.
Coleridge’s treatment of the supernatural is quite different from that of such writers as Horace, Walpole, Mrs. Radcliffe, and Monk Lewis. The difference between Coleridge and the others is the difference between the maker of horror and the maker of horrors. Coleridge creates the atmosphere of mystery and fear by indefiniteness and by subtle suggestion, while the others employ crude description and they pile horrors in order to send a cold shiver down the reader’s spine and to curdle the reader’s blood.
The theme of this poem is crime, punishment and reconciliation. In this poem the Mariner did not act but was only acted upon and he was the recipient rather than the doer. He is the recipient of the odd and of the fate. There is a tragic flaw for the Mariner as the killing of the bird starts his suffering. The suffering endured by the Mariner is due to killing the bird that represents imagination, and by killing the bird the Mariner kills the imagination and the loss of the imagination is a kind of death. The Mariner suffers mentally and spiritually, and he is isolated. Then in his suffering, he sees water snakes and blesses them, which eventually releases his suffering.