The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
There is no explanation at all given of why the Mariner chooses the person that he does to hear his story. In fact, the poem is full of actions and events that are left unexplained; indeed, one can say that a principal theme in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the ambiguity and ultimate mysteriousness of motive. The central crime of the poem, the Mariner’s killing of the Albatross, is a crime capriciously committed.
What kind of poem is ” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” from the point of view of structure and style? To what extent is the Mariner believable as a character? Does he have the authenticity of identity that a reader would desire? What symbolic purpose does the Albatross serve in the poem?
The poem is written as a ballad, in the general form of the traditional ballad or early Elizabeth times. Coleridge uses the ballad stanza, a four-line stanza, rhyming a b c b, but he varies it considerably, with some stanzas extending up to nine lines. He is able to achieve a richer, more sweeping sense of the supernatural through these expansions; he is able to move beyond the more domesticated kind of supernaturalism of the homey four-line stanza.
He starts with the usual ballad stanza in the first of the poem, in order to make the reader acquainted with the verse form and with the poetic ethos of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” These early stanzas seem to anchor the reader’s mind. But in the twelfth stanza, the pattern changes to a a a b c b. By this time the reader has become at home in the poem. Interestingly, the change occurs, certainly by Coleridge’s deliberate intent, at the point in the poem when the Wedding-Guest makes his last major protest to the Mariner. The action of the voyage is about to begin. One example of the variation of the ballad form is that Coleridge throughout the poem will occasionally insert a line that does nothing to further the story ( see stanza three, Part 2) but that enriches the emotional texture of the poem.
Coleridge’s attraction to the ballad form was probably owing in great measure to the liberation it afforded him from the confines of modern life, a freedom it gave him to move spaciously within the unbounded areas of imaginative creation.
To what extent is the Mariner believable as a character? Does he have the authenticity of identity that a reader would desire?
There is certainly behind the character of the Mariner in the poem the traditional story of the Wandering Jew, a figure that had considerable influence on Romantic literature, used by P.B. Shelly, for example, in the accounts of Ahasuerus in Queen Mab and the Revolt of Islam. The story has a Jewish tradesman refusing Jesus a moment of rest as He carried His cross to Golgotha; the Jew receives consequently condemnation to life-in death. He is condemned to wandering from place to place, where he must tell of his sin until the Second Coming of Christ. Coleridge used the story again in “The Wandering of Cain.”
William Wordsworth was among the first to say that the Mariner has no character. But Charles Lamb, another contemporary of Coleridge, said the ancient Mariner as a character with feelings, faced with such happening as the poem tells about, ” dragged him along like Tom Piper’s magic whistle.” John Livingston Lowes in more recent times spoke if the real protagonist in the poem as the element Earth, Air, Fire, and Water
Irving Babbit echoed Wordsworth’s criticism in saying that the Mariner does not really act, but is acted upon only, and that the Mariner is an incarnation of the Romantic concern with the solitary. George Herbert Clarke has interpreted the ancient Mariner to be at one and the same time himself as a real character in the poem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and all men; the Mariner is Representative Man, sinning, being punished, being redeemed.
One possibility, perhaps the best one, is to consider the Mariner as poet more than character in the sense in which we associate “personality” with characters in literature. As a poet who speaks (“I have strange