FOR PALM SUNDAY : THE DONKEY

          
Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorns, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
   And ears like errant wings, 
The devil's walking parody 
  On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth 
  Of ancient crooked will,
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
  I keep my secret still.

Fools for I also had my hour 
  One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears
  And palms before my feet.

G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936

I love the way this poetic monologue gives a sense of the astonishing oddity of the donkey. The picture is humorous, self- mocking without ever being self-abusive. There is an inner self-worth that is to be justified by the finale.

The first stanza offers a fantasising version of an evolving creation with its outlandish projection of a world in which “fishes flew and forests walked”. The alliteration underlies the playful amusement of the picture The comic strangeness anticipates the weird creature presented in the second stanza.

It is worth noting , however, that the spiritual significance of the climax of the poem is suggested as early as the first stanza with the line “And figs grow upon thorns”which will remind all Biblically- literate readers of Christ’s saying (Matthew 7:16) “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” The witty suggestion of Chesterton is that there was a nascent stage of creation where this confusion was possible and it was from that kind of state the donkey emerged.

The comic strangeness of the creature develops in the second and third stanzas. “Sickening cry” is followed by the excellent phrase “errant wings”. “Tattered outlaw of the earth” reminds us we might expect to see a handsome horse but rarely a smart-looking donkey. “Outlaw” confirms its oddity. But the third stanza moves to the reaction to the “outlaw” of public condemnation. “Scourge” and “deride” point to the unfolding connection with the passion story-to the One who, made an “outlaw,” was also scourged and derided. The poem as it moves towards “the secret” is revealing the donkey as a victim- primarily a victim of public scorn and this is preparing for the paralleling of the creature with Christ, the victim of the Easter story with which the donkey is to be connected. But if the victim triumphs, if Christ triumphs through the Resurrection, then his chosen creature has the confidence to tell its story as one of vindication. Because of Christ the one who was rejected is no longer incongruous:

Fools for I also had my hour 
   One far , fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears 
  And palms before my feet.

  

On a first reading we await that revelatory final line for the full meaning of the poem to come home to us. It is only then we realise the significance the poem has been so skilfully leading us towards. The donkey owes its sense of worth to being an important participant in a drama of universal human significance.

The poem leaves us with a very interesting question to which the Easter story proffers a possible answer: “If I am made a victim, in what might my sense of self -worth consist?”

THE LANGUAGE OF THE SUN AND MOON : DRAWING ON BOEHME.

You may have noticed in our readings of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” how the sun and moon are significant presences in the poem. Coleridge thought deeply on the subject of symbols and symbolic language. He saw Nature as reflecting the language of God the Creator and he also conceived that the poetic imagination, given that Man was created in God’s image (Gen.1: 26-27), was a means of discerning the meaning of God’s language working through Nature.

Many of the poem’s first readers were shocked by the description of the Sun::.

Nor dim nor red, like God's own head
The glorious Sun uprist. 

According to Malcolm Guite in Mariner (Hodder &Stoughton 2017) one contemporary viewer wrote the likeness “makes the reader shudder…with religious disapprobation.” For the second edition Coleridge was persuaded to remove “God” and replace the phrase with “like an angel’s head” but when he produced the Sibylline Leaves edition (1817) he brought back the original phrasing.

The association of God and the Sun is of course both common and apposite. Without the sun there is no life, with light and heat the Sun enables growth; God the Creator acts to give light. Guite argues that the identification of the Sun with God as source of light is vital for Coleridge’s “sacramental” view of Nature. If God is creator, then the universe should not simply be seen as a mass of dead objects but as vital elements expressing God and our attitude to the universe should not be of its instrumentality or usefulness to us but reverential. As we have seen this is the message the mariner’s experiences teach him.

Guite here brings in Blake because Blake, like Coleridge, was profoundly opposed to what both saw as the deadening effects of the Newtonian view of the universe, Deism and Locke’s empiricism. For both poets, humans are creative participants in reality , not passive recipients of a reality presented to them. Blake has an interlocutor asking, “When the sun rises, do you see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea” and replies” O no,no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Why then readers of the poem might ask is the God-like invocation of the Sun followed by a more negative picture? :

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand 
No bigger than the moon.

 

The answer to this is suggested by Coleridge’s reading of a German mystic, Jacob Boehme 1575-1624 (also an influence on Blake). John Beer in his work “The Mysticism of Coleridge (Chatto & Windus 1970).

The heat of the sun is an essential element in the speculations of Jacob Boehme. Boehme’s insistence on the benevolence of God led him to the doctrine that if God sometimes seems angry, this was no more than an appearance engendered by the diseased imagination of fallen man. Cut off from the light of God, he could experience only the heat of his presence: and an exposure to his full glory would therefore be felt as nothing less than exposure to unendurable fire,

In relation to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” this is clearly relevant to the expression of the Sun as not only ” glorious” but also as oppressive, “bloody” and by implication condemnatory. The mariner’s guilt metaphorically expressed by the blood on his hands is projected on to a “bloody” sun representing an angry, vengeful God as Judge. ( The idea has a wider relevance when we consider the way in which the Israelites in the Old Testament project their guilt on to a God who is perceived as vengeful and angry with them for their misdeeds). Guite points out that the sense of blood-guilt is expressed later in the poem when he longs for forgiveness:

He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away
The Albatross's blood.     

It is the action of the Moon that saves the mariner from living under what he feels as oppressive judgement. As noted in my commentary on Part 4 there is a rhythmic shift of the verse when the Moon appears. The presence of the Moon is set against the shadow of the ship :

But where the the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charmed water burnt away
A still and awful red.
 

While the “awful red” is associated with judgement and condemnation when the mariner looks beyond the shadow he sees the action of the moon on the water and his vision is transformed. The water-snakes, hitherto rejected with disgust are now seen as creatures of beauty. As Coleridge’s marginal gloss puts it: “By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”.

Beer considers that as the moon is reflected sunlight the moon is interpreted by the poem acting as a mediator between God and Man in his fallen state. The moon is associated with radiating grace. It can also be seen in its traditional form as female; there is a Marian element in Coleridge’s poem. In part 3 when the skeletal ship comes between the Sun and the mariner’ s ship the mariner appeals to Heaven’s Mother:

"And straight the sun was flecked with bars
(Heaven's Mother send us grace)"  

This corresponds to the mediating action of the moon in Part 4:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared the elfish light 
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship,
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green and velvet black 
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

 

As we have seen in the previous post it is the sight of the hitherto abhorred water- snakes in the beauty of the moonlight that enables the beginning of the redemption of the mariner. As Coleridge’s later-added gloss puts it:”By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”. He sees what he did not see with the albatross when he killed the bird, that these are God’s creation. The moon, then, as reflector of the Sun’s light, Heaven’s mother, bringer of grace, mediates the mariner’s transformation.

Guite points to an entry in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks which has relevance to the meaning he is addressing here: “Quiet stream with all its eddys [sic] and the moon playing in them; quiet, as if they were Ideas in the divine Mind anterior to Creation.”

Guite goes on:

For Coleridge, the meaning of the moon and moonlight is not a purely human invention. It is a symbol, but it is not a randomly chosen or arbitrarily constructed human one; it is a symbol which is moulded by and participates in the reality it represents.

Guite refers to a late work in which Coleridge writes: The Symbol is characterised by… the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which renders it intelligible, and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity of which it is representative. (The Statesman’s Manual).

The Sun and Moon then in Coleridge’s work point to the spiritual and transcendent dimension working in Nature. They represent God’s creative glory, the expression of His Word, Logos, within Nature. Coleridge sees his responsibility (as does Blake) to challenge the materialist view of Nature as a mechanism, with God as the absent clock maker who has created the laws of operation and then retired from the scene. Reality for Blake, the visionary and Coleridge, the idealist, is God-penetrated and the creativity in Man is continuous with what God has created in Nature. Coleridge’s use of the Sun and moon as symbols in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”brings together the life within and the living reality of the external world.

They represent for us, these Romantics the first great creative reaction, developing the Christian world-picture to fight against the reductive tendencies of scientism and materialism. In a world still so reduced we still can find inspiration in these poets.

RIME OF ANCIENT MARINER: PART 4 COLERIDGE, ADDICTION, RELEASE.

                        PART 4
"I fear thee ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long,and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.

I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand so brown."-
Fear not, fear not thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropt not down.

Alone, alone, all,all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on 
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand, thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting 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 eyes 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.

The cold sweat melted from their limbs:
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.

An orphan's curse would drag to hell 
A spirit from on high:
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up
And a star or two beside-

Her beams bemocked the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charmed water burnt away
A still and awful red.


Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship,
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gusht from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure some kind saint took pity on me 
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off and sank
Like lead into the sea. 

Coleridge was not an opium addict when he first wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but by the time he published a re-edited version in the collection “Syballine Leaves” (1817) his life had been transformed for the worse by the severity of his dependence.

Nevertheless while in the first version he had had medicinal recourse to laudunum for pain relief (he suffered from early in life from rheumatoid arthritus) it is very striking that the poem imaginatively describes effects on the mariner that Coleridge was to come to know through his drug misuse. Look at the experiences Part 4 shows of the mariner’s isolation, his self- hatred and disgust, his profound sense of guilt, his fear, his reaction against the world around him, his inability to pray. These are all elements of Coleridge’s state of mind that his dependence induced in him.

Just look at the way this variety of feelings is expressed. First profound isolation and agony:

Alone, alone, all,all alone, 
Alone on a wide, wide sea! 
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

Without doubt the mariner’s agony is real ; enough has been shown to demonstrate this. Likewise Coleridge’s isolation and agony are terribly real when we read of some of his experiences of addiction; yet it is also possible to see in that complaint of others to take pity a tendency to self-pity. This of course is also bound up with the addict’s dependence on a drug creating isolation where the other is both held at a distance and yet regarded as being indifferent. for failing to break down the wall of self-protection the addict has surrounded himself with. For actual pity when it is presented is often resisted like an insult.

The many men so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie 
And a thousand, thousand slimy things 
Lived on; and so did I. 

I looked upon the rotting sea, 
And drew my eyes away; 
I looked upon the rotting deck 
Where all the dead men lay. 

  

Here we have idealisation put in contrast with a profound sense of self-disgust, which brings together the mariner’s feeling of antipathy from the repulsive-appearing creatures imagined to be slimy with a squalid sense of self-failure. The men who are dead are seen as beautiful, now they are safely dead, in contrast to the perceived rottenness of self. Guite in his analysis (in Mariner) has pointed also to survivor-guilt: “Why am I alive when they are dead?”

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;  
But or even a prayer had gusht,  
A wicked whisper came, and made  
My heart as dry as dust.  

We are reminded here of the wicked king in Hamlet. Claudio ( note how the name emphasises the word ” clod”) tries to pray asking forgiveness for his murder of the King, Hamlet’s Father but he cannot. Governed by self-disgust, neither the King nor the mariner feels they can escape their condition sufficiently to cry out to God. The spontaneous gushing forth of prayer is prevented by the accumulation of feelings of self-protection, lack of self-worth, self-hatred which make a mockery of the self seeking to pray. The heart remains as dust, as ground that lacks irrigation, the renewing action of spontaneous emotion.

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.
 

In total, the experience is one of oppression. The outer world, the world of the senses weighs upon the inner which is as we have seen crushed. There is no restorative balance of selfhood within, that engages with the world of sense-experience. The eye is “weary” , not only from the glare of the day but because there is no inner self re-energising it. Life has no purpose; the movement is towards death.

An orphan's curse would drag to hell 
A spirit from on high: 
But oh! more horrible than that 
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.   

We develop in society, we need others to be who we are. But added to the weariness of oppression of the senses is the awareness of the affliction, of being despised and cursed by his fellow crew. This is the reality of the” Nightmare Life-in -Death” where life is a continuing nightmare from which there is no release, not even that of death. Coleridge’s affliction as an addict was the perception he was a burden on those he loved and the fear that he had become unloveable. Locked in nightmare you cannot reach out to the other and the other cannot get through to you.

Then suddenly after that build- up, stanza by stanza of life become unendurable there is a shift of focus. The “moving moon” takes over as subject. The perception is turned outwards from damning daylight replaced by the radiance of the moonlight. . The signal of change in the mariner is the word “Softly”

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up 
And a star or two beside-

Whose voice are we hearing? With the shift in subject to wider description we might think it a more objectively placed more distant narrator. But when we reach the word “Softly” we know we are not hearing another voice, but that of the same mariner. For“Softly” is not objective description. -what objectively would it mean to say the moon moves softly? It is a word that denotes rather a movement of interest beyond the self in the mariner towards the peaceful heavens, away from clamorous oppressed feeling towards the quietness of the skies and a watchfulness aware of slow, stealing, gentle movement: hence “Softly”.

The inner movement is an apperception of a world beyond the ship’s ” huge shadow” where the water is “a still and awful red” -red associated with fiery judgement and condemnation- towards a greater world of beauty beyond the immediate. It is thus scarcely understood by the reader at the time of first reading, but we are being prepared for a dramatic change in the mariner.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes: 
They moved in tracks of shining white, 
And when they reared, the elfish light 
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship 
I watched their rich attire: 
Blue, glossy green; and vevet black,
They coiled and swam: and every track 
Was a flash of golden fire.

    

The revelation of beauty; the movement in perception is brought by watching in wonder. The peaceful heavens, the movement of the moon replacing the oppressive daytime sunlight has enabled a shift of attention which has re-focused the mariner’s attention beyond the self- bound enclosure of the condemned ship, in shadow, towards what Coleridge, in his “Syballine Leaves” marginal gloss, calls “God’s creatures of the great calm.” He is thus prepared for revelation:

O happy living things! no tongue 
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart, 
And I blessed them unaware: 
Sure my kind saint took pity on me, 
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free 
The Albatross fell off, and sank 
Like lead into the sea.



   

How much to notice here! You will see how Coleridge picks up on earlier words and phrases to demonstrate change. Thus the “saint” is now acclaimed for his pity. But more wonderfully is the repetition of the verb “gushed” The verb emphasises a welling up like water from a fountain or a stream, it cannot be held back. Love cannot be calculated or deliberate; it breaks through spontaneously. We noticed before how feeling, the desire to pray, was too repressed to express itself; here, however, the expression is no longer held back. Attentiveness, has led to openness to beauty, developed into wonder and now into love. The heart is no longer dry. The soul is open to pray. He is freed of the burden of guilt.

Only the very greatest poets can do what Coleridge in this Part does. He does not state, he does not tell us, he internalises, dramatically realises, the movement of wonder and the moment of revelation. To read this part with anything like justice the reader is induced, because drawn to empathise with the mariner, to experience that movement within themselves. That is why the greatest poetry is spiritual; it has the capacity to change who we are.

“WIST YE NOT…”

Language is not natural but a young child’s love of language, of words, of rhymes, of rhythms seems to be part of who they are, as essential to their development as learning to eat, to walk, or to explore. They absorb the words spoken to them and seek to repeat those words. They are taught nursery rhymes and told fairy stories. This love of rhythm or desire to explore words is not something that children should be weaned away from, as babies from the breast, to be replaced by sturdier more prosaic studies it is something that should be fostered through all levels of schooling.

“Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business” said the twelve year old Jesus to his bemused parents when they lost him and rediscovered him in the Temple engaged in discussion with the clerics there. When I first heard the word “Wist”, no doubt read out from the pulpit, I was puzzled and fascinated. What could this word mean? I loved the sound of the word. It caught my attention, made me wonder.

“Wist” is of course, now I can put it in more learned words is the past participle of the verb “to wit”. It is an ancient word deep rooted in Anglo-Saxon. “To wit” was the verb to know; from “witan” (cognate with German wusste, past tense “wissen” to know”). So I learn from an etymological dictionary .

It has been a disastrous error of both churches and schools to say “We must simplify the language of possibly difficult texts so that they are within the easy understanding of all children, especially the less bright”. Good language read with feeling will attract children even when they do not understand particular words. From the context, given age-careful choice of reading, they will grasp enough of the meaning and will find pleasure in seeking to feel their way into what the word might mean.

The important thing that teachers should instil into children is a love of language and from that a readiness to follow unfamiliar language because the sound of it awakens something in them, that makes them keen to follow. There are many stories of gifted teachers able to teach supposed limited learners Shakespeare with amazing success.

I will always be grateful that I emerged from school with a varied knowledge of Shakespeare plays and some acquaintance with the major English poets. I also was fortunate as a church-going youngster of hearing the Authorised Version of the Bible read every week.

Making the word alive for children does not mean keeping close to the language that is familiar to them and relevant to their lives but leading them into places they would otherwise not know about .

So love your language, find what is deepest in it and pass the love on to the children in your care!

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON PART 3

headpiece vignette to part 3 herbert cole. boston 1900 archives.org

Coleridge in his young twenties was an active supporter of the anti-slavery movement. Editing a radical newsletter, The Watchman, which argued for anti- slavery legislation and other causes raised by the French Revolution he would go round Bristol Harbour talking to ships’ captains and their crews about their experiences of the slave trade as well as their wider sea-going experiences. (A post on Coleridge and the Slave Trade will follow sometime soon). During these discussions he would hear tales about vanishing ships.

Perhaps you have heard of ghost ships You may remember Wagner’s opera called The Flying Dutchman. It tells the story of a legendary ghost ship which never makes it to port and is doomed to sail the seas for ever. The sighting of such ships is taken as a doom for the crew of the viewing ship. Such stories were traditional in sea-going areas; which is hardly surprising given the likelihood of visionary experiences for seamen, used to long sea voyages, with exhausted and thirsty crews.

However, it was Wordsworth who both supplied the seed of the actual story of the poem by relating to Coleridge a story of the shooting of an albatross from Shevlocke’s book (see post on Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Part 1) and then a friend John Cruikshank who told him of a nightmare he experienced in which he saw a ” skeleton ship with figures in it” which helped to inspire this part of the poem. In addition Coleridge heard of a very relevant Dutch story of one Falkenberg:

Who for murder done is doomed forever to wander on the sea, accompanied by two spectral forms, one white, one black. And in a ship with all sails set the two forms play at dice for the wanderer’s soul. Mariners that sail on the North Sea often meet the infernal vessel. (See Note below).

We can see how these ideas and stories helped form the development of Part 3 and indeed they changed my attitude towards it. For I must confess when I first read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” I felt some disappointment in reading Part 3. It seemed to me the supernatural additions brought in material that stretched too far what had been up to that point a narrative, within the limits of realist convention allowing for a deep symbolic associations to develop. The supernatural machinery of Part 3 seemed at first a somewhat overwrought elaboration and machination perhaps necessary for the movement of the narrative (Coleridge had the problem for the ongoing narrative of detaching the crew from the narrator’s tale so that the focus would be on his isolated experience) but excessively Gothic.

However, on the influence of travellers tales suggests that Coleridge is not so much seeking a form of Gothic sensationalism but drawing upon material that was widely present to those aware of the genre and is suitably linked to the theme of evil and judgement.

Early on in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s discussions of their joint enterprises one of the earliest themes for a drama was the wanderings of Cain, the Biblical first murderer. While Coleridge eventually abandoned this, the theme of the origin of evil was very much in his mind as he reviewed various possibilities including the tale of the Wandering Jew and the story of Jonah. We can see connections between these various examples and the great poem he is to produce.

Coleridge of course is not simply writing a poem to illustrate a theme or two. The livingness of the poem-and all discussion of poetry must start with the alive or dead question- does the poem live or does it not? This comes from the depth with which the poet has internalised the themes so that they live for him, as profoundly needing to be worked out for his own sake-and for his readers. What the influences discussed above do suggest, however, is that our “willing suspension of disbelief” is helped- at least mine is- by knowing a little more about the justification for the use of what might be regarded initially as the gothic horror elements of Part 3.

NOTE: I am grateful once again to Malcolm Guite’s excellent study of the poem. This quotation from Mariner 2017 Mariner is further discussed in John Livingstone Lowes The Road to Xanudu 1927.

THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER PART 3

( This is the third part of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. New readers may wish first to read the earlier blog posts introducing the poem and then on the first two parts. Alternatively you might wish to plunge into this section of the poem).

PART 3

There passed a weary time. Each throat 
Was parched, and glazed each eye. 
A weary time! a weary time! 
How glazed each weary eye, 
When looking westward I beheld 
A something in the sky.

At first it seemed a little speck, 
And then it seemed a mist; 
It moved and moved, and took at last 
A certain  shape, I wist.

A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist! 
And still it neared and neared: 
As if it dodged a water-sprite, 
It plunged and tacked and veered.

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked, 
We could nor laugh, nor wail; 
Through utter drought all dumb we stood! 
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood, 
And cried, A sail! a sail!

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked, 
Agape they heard me call: 
Gramercy! they for joy did grin 
And all at once their breath drew in, 
As they were drinking all.

See! see! (I cried) she tacks no more! 
Hither to work us weal; 
Without a breeze, without a tide, 
She steadies with upright keel!

The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave 
Rested the broad bright Sun 
When that strange shape drove suddenly 
Betwixt us and the Sun.  

And straight the sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears)!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun
Like  restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death and are there two?
Is Death that Woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free.
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice:
"The game is done! I've won! I've won!
Quoth she and whistles thrice.

The Sun's rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark:
With far-heard whisper o'er the sea;
Off-shot the spectre-bark.

The stars were dim and thick the night,
The steersman's face by his lamp gleamed white;
From the sails the dew did drip-
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The horned Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.

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.

Four times fifty living men
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump, 
They dropped down one by one.

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.  

You cannot read poetry with half a brain! You can read factual reports making statements with the rational minded logical half of the brain; no feelings involved. You can skim newspaper articles to get the gist. You cannot skim poetry-not if it is real poetry. Poetry requires slow reading. It involves taking in the emotional associations of words. Your whole mental equipment, rational logical thinking, intuitions, feelings are required. The heart is present.

Coleridge moves quickly. At the same time there are any number of transitions of mood from exhaustion to enervation, to hope, to fear, to horror, to accusation, to guilt The poem flows strongly using a steady ballad metre and rhyme pattern.

Look what he does in the first stanza! We moan about lockdown! Here is a ship becalmed with the sun pouring down on it relentlessly. The crew is exhausted. More than that the narrator is aware of his isolation. After a very brief interval where his killing of the bird was, on second thoughts, accepted by the crew as the right thing to do, he is again blamed for it not working out. The albatross has been hung round his neck. There is no escape, no movement, intense thirst, exhaustion. For the condemned mariner, isolation while in community. Merciless lockdown on the ocean!

What does Coleridge do? First to get the misery he extends the first stanza from four to six lines. He gets the word “weary repeated four times. Not only that he has the same phrase using the word repeated twice in one line “A weary time! a weary time!” The metric pattern is exactly the same as for a fast moving line (iambic tetrameter) but how slowed down by the word “weary” (long vowel “e” sounds repeated)! He emphasises the glazed eye: “glazed each eye” in line 2 becomes “glazed each weary eye”in line 4. Why does he do this?

So that we, as readers, can enter into the situation, so that we can feel it in our bones.(which is to say he is seeking to get us to recreate what it is he is feeling as true to what they are feeling). Poetry is imaginative re-enactment.

Say, Coleridge had made it the traditional four- line stanza and had brought lines five and six up to three and four the time to absorb the crew’s condition would have been lessened and the effect Coleridge achieves would have contracted .

The narrator sees something that gradually takes the form of a ship. We enter into a speech of suspended curiosity. What does mean? Does it bring hope? The whole process is marvellously realised by the use of rhetorical questions and monosyllabic words that get repeated to build up the effect of recognition: ” a speck, a mist, a shape, I wist.” The word “wist” goes deep into our language as a past participle of the verb to “wit”, to know. Here “wist” means knowing in the form of “recognising, distinguishing, discerning”(S.O.E. D.) It is, even in Coleridge’s time archaic, but would be known as a term used in ballads from the Middle Ages and from the the Bible 1611. (“Wist ye not I must be about my father’s business?” Gospel of St Luke 2:49). To know with your wits is to know on the pulse. We follow the ancient mariner’s mind as he quickly seeks to work out what is happening.

Gradually hope develops, as the movement of the perceived vessel appears to be purposive “It plunged and tacked and veered” with the three verbs in the one line standing out against the becalmed enervation of the opening stanza.

The narrator’s reaction has to be communicated despite the conditions, giving a powerful impression of how the crew has been physically affected by their ordeal:”With throats unslaked with black lips baked” . Look at the power of the sound of the words. “Baked” of lips gives the effect of their burning dryness. But see how “baked” already rhymes internally with unslaked and also is alliterative with the powerful “black”. Then again the line is repeated at the head of the next stanza.

The mariner goes to what might seem to an exaggerated extent to pass on the news. He bites into his arm to drink the blood that enables him to break silence to call out “A sail! a sail!” Coleridge in his marginal gloss of the poem , which now appears in most versions of the poem writes: “at a dear ransom he freeth his speech from the bonds of thirst”. The use of the word “ransom” (as well as the use of Coleridge’s gloss) brings an element into the poem which we shall discuss in a later part.

As the mariner perceives that the approaching ship is no true ship and therefore likely to bring harm the danger is brought out by placing the Sun symbolically in opposition to the portent. Already the sun has played in the poem a significant symbolic role. In Part 2 we read the lines: “Nor dim, nor red like God’s own head The glorious Sun uprist:

The sun, the provider of life, is given a God-like property. But now “that strange shape drove suddenly Betwixt us and the sun”. The effect is to create a force that is shutting off the light of the sun, which is also the light of God, or making the separation felt by introducing the image of a dungeon:

And straight the sun was flecke with bars
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!) 
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

The wonderful interjection by the narrator, a prayer for protection (“Heaven’s Mother send us grace)” helps to carry this understanding. There follows the gradual unfolding of the portentous significance of the ship through the narrator’s series of questions leading to the horrific taking-in of the answers: sails like “restless gossameres” and skeletal structure: “Are those her ribs?”

When Coleridge and Wordsworth first collaborated to create “The Lyrical Ballads” they decided that while Wordsworth would focus on poems based on common rural life drawing on language “such as men do use” Coleridge would introduce more strange, romantic poems often with a supernatural element requiring what Coleridge famously called “the willing suspension of disbelief”. The supernatural element of the poem introduced by the appearance and movement of the ship is advanced by the game of dice between the “Nightmare Life-in -Death” and “Death”. When we read the first two lines of the description it might be as if we are in a traditional ballad describing a heroine of beauty:

" Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold". 

 So it is a shock when this association is undermined by the grimness of the next lines: 
"Her skin was white as leprosy, 
The Nightmare Life-in -Death was she 
Who thicks man's blood with cold"

The associations of life and vitality is suddenly switched to their negation. What does it mean to be represented as a Nightmare-Life-in -Death? The thought of it is suggested by the instinctive reaction: “Who thicks man’s blood with cold” . It is hard not to see the presentation of “Nightmare-in-Life” as an influence on John Keats’ ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”.

The nature of the “game” and the revelation of its consequences is be gradually revealed while the becalmed crew is left in terror. The sinister is again marvellouly conveyed through the disappearance of the Sun, life-provider. Again we notice the shocking speed of transition: “The Sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out: At one stride comes the dark“. This is marvellous poetry, so devastatingly simple. As commentators we might grope for meaning and come up with a cliche “The crew were left in the dark!”. If we apply that to the actual poetry however we see that the poetry is enacting the complete sudden lostness of the crew living in fear of their lives.

Every stanza has a power of suggestion. Throughout the Part we are living with the effects of judgement. Something God-given has been wantonly destroyed. The crew is subject to the same judgement because they only judged the act in terms of how they think it benefits or does not benefit them. As Malcolm Guite points out in his perceptive discussion of the poem the crew has taken “an instrumental rather than a sacral view of nature”.(see discussion of Part 2)

I shall discuss the actual point of the “game” between Death and Nightmare-Life-in-Death and Coleridge’s use of it in a follow- up post.

Let me finish off with a few further comments on the effects here. There is only one three line stanza in the poem, use to evoke the appalled suspense the disappearing ship has brought them all. The immediate effect on the narrator is the startling representation of “Fear” : “Fear at my heart, as at a cup My life-blood seemed to sip“. We might see some kind of link-but what?- with the earlier ransom of blood-giving : “I bit my arm. I sucked the blood”. There it is voluntary self-sacrifice. Here it is terror, forced upon him. The terror is shared. We have the vivid picture of the steersman , automatically, one assumes, at his post:

 "The stars were dim and thick the night, 
The steersman's face by his lamp gleamed white". 

Notice how both “thick” and “white” pick up from their use in the Nightmare-Life-in -Death stanza where man’s blood “thicks” and deathly “white” stands out.

The full risen Moon is clearly the sign (nightfall?) for something to happen. Where first there is the almost reassuring picture of the “horn-ed Moon with one bright star Within the nether tip” in the next stanza that becomes the “star-dogged Moon” with the harsh sound of “dogged” blotting out the gentler earlier impression. From outward vision we are taken back into the narrator’s perspective, with the vivid recording of the death moment: “Too quick for groan or sigh” (even this experience happens at speed). He feels the curse of each man:

 Four times fifty living men,   
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)   
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,   
They dropped down one by one. 
 
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! 

The build-up is towards that last line. Here sound takes over from sight as the determining effect on emotion. The absence of sound from their deaths is succeeded by the the thumping of dead bodies. Rhyme patterns in this part are interesting. While often the traditional ballad abcb is followed in the penultimate stanza there is no clear rhyme ending pattern but there is the internal line rhyme of “thump” and “lump” emphasising lifeless body mass. But this stanza is followed by a final stanza with a perfect abab pattern.

The onomatopeic whizz marvellously gives the aural impression of the parting soul but also the sound of the fired arrow. It is notable that every final stanza of every part but the last of this poem recalls in some way the albatross round which the poem is centred.

A follow-up post will deal with where Coleridge derives the supernatural elements of the poem from.

Note. Reference is made to Malcolm Guite Mariner Hodder&Stroughton 2017