The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Study Guide

Coleridge first published his famous ballad, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", in Lyrical Ballads, his 1798 joint effort with his close friend and colleague William Wordsworth. The collection's publication is often seen as the Romantic Movement's true inception. It was published anonymously - a move that contradicted its intensely personal and subjective contents. Purportedly, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was to be a joint effort on both poets' parts; Coleridge attributed the shooting of the albatross as well as several lines to Wordsworth. Nineteen years later, in 1817, he published an edited version of the poem in his collection entitled Sibylline Leaves. The poem's first version went against the emerging Romantic tradition of writing in contemporary, unrhymed language, something Wordsworth championed in his "Tintern Abbey," also published in Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge maintained that his use of a loose rhyme scheme and archaic language in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was deliberate and scholarly, intended to provoke thought about the use of such devices and invoke a sort of literary timelessness. However, the pressures of the genre he was helping to define may have contributed to his ultimate decision to remove much of the archaism from the poem for several revisions in the early years of the 19th century. In the 1817 version of the poem, Coleridge added another layer to the poem in the form of marginal glosses. These explanations not only amplify the allegorical feel of the poem, but work in place of the omitted archaisms to establish a nostalgic, fictitiously historical mood. They also state directly that spirits, and not just nature, are responsible for punishing the Ancient Mariner and his shipmates.

While "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" departed from Romantic stylistic tendencies, it exemplified many of the genre's themes. The most central of these is the subjectivity of experience and the importance of the individual. The poem is told largely from the Ancient Mariner's perspective, despite the minor involvement of a separate narrator, who describes the Ancient Mariner and Wedding Guest's actions. The Ancient Mariner tells his self-centered tale for a self-centered purpose: to allay his agonizing storytelling compulsion. The Romantics were some of the first poets to place a literary work's focus on the protagonist's empirical experience of the world, rather than on a didactic message (compared to, say, Spenser's The Fairie Queen). Wordsworth's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" also exemplified the Romantic fascination with the holy in nature. Romantic poets as well as painters like Caspar David Friedrich emphasized the natural world's majesty by dwarfing humans in comparison to it. Coleridge places the Ancient Mariner out in the open ocean for much of the poem, making him very small and vulnerable in comparison to the forces of nature. The Romantics also went against the earlier trend of championing religious institution and instead locating the spiritual and sublime in nature. Despite the Ancient Mariner's expression of love for communal prayer, his message reveals his belief that the true path to God is through communing with and respecting nature.

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is said to have been inspired by several historical sources. These include Captain James Cook's voyages, the legend of the Wandering Jew, and especially Captain George Shelvocke's 1726 A Voyage 'Round the World, in which he describes how one of his shipmates shot an albatross that he believed had made the wind disappear. Other sources claim that the poem was inspired by a dream of Coleridge's friend, Cruikshank, and still others believe that Coleridge wrote the strange, sensually-rich text under the influence of opium, as he did his famous "Kubla Khan." "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" has become an important landmark in the literary canon since its publication, and has also contributed certain phrases to common speech. The most notable of these is the secondary definition of the word "albatross," often used to denote "a constant, worrisome burden" or "an obstacle to success." Also in common usage are the poem's most famous lines: "Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink." The phrase has come to mean any situation in which one is surrounded by the object of one's desire but is unable to partake.