What makes a good poem? What is the point of poetry? What defines a great poet? What is poetry? These are questions that people have been asking for centuries. Luckily for us, we have well esteemed poets. like Wordsworth, who are able to enlighten us with their knowledge of poetry. In his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," Wordsworth writes "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility,” and “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of knowledge."
The first time I read "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," I was a senior in high school. The words, emotions, and images that the poem ingrained in my mind has stayed with me even after four years. I cannot help but think that this is the type of poetry Wordsworth would have approved of.
One of the most prevalent themes in this poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is transgression and redemption. In the beginning of the poem the Mariner is compelled,by guilt, to share his story to the Wedding Guest. The Mariner explains that his ship was sent off course due to a storm and they ended up in the south pole. It is at this point that the Mariner and his crew see an albatross. Coleridge writes: "At length did cross an Albatross,/Thorough the fog it came;/As if it had been a Christian soul,/ We hail'd it in God's name" (63-66). It is important to note that an albatross was generally seen as an omen of good luck. Thus, it is understandable why the men rejoiced so much when they saw it--they are in a desolate land, and not only is there a sign of life, but it is an albatross. With the arrival of the albatross came a south wind which guided the ship northward. The albatross follows the ship every day, thus validating that it is a good omen.
The poem shifts when the Wedding Guest reenters the dialogue: "'God save thee, ancient Mariner!/ From the fiends, that plague thee thus!--/Why look'st thou so?'--'With my crossbow/ I shot the Albatross" (79-82). At this point, the reader becomes aware of the ancient Mariner's transgression: he inhospitably and irrationally kills the albatross. Initially the Mariner's shipmates are angry that he has killed, but by the next morning they have justified his actions saying that it was right to kill the bird who brought on fog. Thus the crew is partially responsible for the Mariner's actions. As a result, the Mariner and his shipmates begin to suffer: the wind stops, they are ironically surrounded by water, but it is water that they cannot drink, and he begins to see slimy creatures. The shipmates force the Mariner to wear the albatross around his neck: "Ah! well a-day! what evil looks/ Had I from old and young!/ Instead of the cross, the Albatross/About my neck was hung" (139-142). The reference to the cross illustrates that the Albatross is a burden, a symbol for the Mariner's 'sin'. In a sense, the Albatross is transformed from a good omen to a bad omen. In part three all of the Mariner's shipmates die, the Mariner must live with this guilt until he dies; this is his 'penance'. The Mariner even compares himself to all the slimy creatures of the sea: "The many men, so beautiful!/And they all dead did lie:/ And a thousand thousand slimy things/ Lived on; and so did I" (137-140). It is only when the Mariner's attitude towards living things changes, when he is able to seem them as beautiful, that the curse is broken and the albatross falls off his neck.
The poem ends with the Mariner explaining why he told the Wedding Guest his story: "I pass, like night, from land to land;/ I have strange power of speech; that moment that his face I see,/ I know the man that must hear me:/ To him my tale I teach" (387-391). While the Mariner was saved and the curse broken, he is never truly free from his past as he is obliged to tell the story to those who remind him of himself. Consequently, he is always reliving his past. The Mariner leaves the Wedding Guest with words that summarize the overall message of his story: "but this I tell/ To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!/ He prayeth well, who loveth well/ Both man and bird and beast" (611-614). But the poem ends on a positive note as the Wedding Guest wakes up as a wiser man. One can hope, even speculate, that he will not repeat the Mariner's mistakes.
There is so much symbolism in this poem, and relatively speaking, I only began to scratch the surface. After reading this poem, I would suggest picking up a copy and reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. If you have never read these two pieces of literature in conjunction with one another, you will have a whole new appreciation for both works, and will be able to delve much deeper into Frankenstein.
Oh! And for those of us who are visual learners....check this out!