How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.
PART 1 It is an ancient Mariner And he stoppeth one of three. "By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, Now wherefore stopps't thou me?" The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide, And I am next of kin; The guests are met, the feast is set: May'st hear the merry din." He holds him with his skinny hand, "There was a ship" quoth he. "Hold off! Unhand me, greybeard loon!" Eftsoons his hand dropped he. He holds him with his glittering eye- The Wedding-Guest stood still, And listens like a three years' child: The Mariner hath his will. The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone: He cannot choose but hear And thus spake on that ancient man, The bright-eyed Mariner.
It is an opening that startles with its dramatic immediacy.- It has the suddenness of dramatic confrontation of two opposed set wills : the one with a mind to go to a wedding , the other with a will to apprehend him. There is a moral tussle to gain the upper hand, then the one by a series of stages gives way to the more dominant one. Yet the form is simple ballad narrative -a genre that stretches back to the Middle Ages, with metric structure and rhyme scheme to match and the use of terminology fitting for a more archaic style. (Had you heard the word “eftsoons” ever before ?). Despite that the situation immediately rouses our attention. For a wedding invitation-especially as kin-is to us still something special. The attraction of the event- the alternative setting that is never to be fully realised is brilliantly put before us in the second stanza and elsewhere. So to be stopped on our way to such a wedding! That is the kind of shock none of us might relish! We are with Wedding-Guest in his frustration. Yet the the over-riding power of story, the enchantment it offers, the strangeness of the teller and the enthralling power his “glittering eye” wakens deep interest in us all-perhaps rooted in memories going back to earliest childhood when story quietened us before bedtime. Certainly this story so enchants the the listener that he moves from angry, unwilling and protesting hearer to becominging quiescent “like a three year child” sitting passive on a stone. What has the man to tell that is so extrordinary, justifying such an interruption? The poet has us caught.
It is, as I say, the ballad form. The traditional narrative ballad is in stanzas of four lines(quatrains) with four and three stress lines, the second and fourth rhyming. The rhythm is basically iambic. Thus:
The Bride/groom’s doors/ are op/ en’d wide/
And I/ am next/of kin/
The guests/ are met/the feast/is set/
Mays’t hear/the mer/ry din.
The phrases are short, simple , direct. The Wedding-Guest is here making his appeal to the ancient mariner’s understanding of the urgency of his position as guest. The structure enables the process. The broad accessibility requires the longer line :”The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide” : the following concise urgency of explanation “And I am next of kin” the shorter.
The diction follows traditional patterns: the old use of personal pronouns, and verb forms, the archaic vocabulary (That word “eftsoons” by the way means soon afterwards.). But right from the start deeper resonance are suggested. “One of three”, (we never hear again of the other two); the capitalised “Wedding-Guest”; even the capitalised “Bridegroom”; “glittering eye”. The first three touch on associations with the Gospels-not necessarily relevant specifically but suggestive of the level of significance the tale will draw on. The “glittering eye” especially along with “ancient” points to the seer, the sage.
In his work Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Malcolm Guite points to Coleridge’s interest in the Wandering Jew myth as one in which he was interested during the period in which the Ancient Mariner poem was being prepared. In a Notebook Coleridge jots the following note: “He was in my mind the everlasting wandering Jew-had told his story ten thousand times since the voyage, which was in his early youth and fifty years before”. He also had been “reading, absorbing, remembering and re-imagining almost every story of travel, sea-voyage, sea-discovery and shipwreck that was available to him.”
There are seven parts to the poem and I plan to go through the poem part by part, following its development. I invite you to join me in a fascinating journey.