The Sun now rose upon the right: Out of the sea came he, still hid in mist, and on the left Went down into the sea, And the good south wind still blew behind, But no sweet bird did follow, Nor any day for food or play Came to the mariners' hollo. And I had done a hellish thing, And it would work 'em woe: For all averred I had killed the bird That made the wind to blow. Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay That made the breeze to blow! Nor dim , nor red, like God's own head, The glorious Sun uprist: Then all averred, I had killed the bird That brought the fog and mist. Twas right said they, such birds to slay, That bring the fog and mist. The fair breeze flew, the white foam flew, The furrow followed free; We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea! Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down, Twas sad as sad could be; And we did speak only to break The silence of the sea! All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody sun at noon, Right up above the mast did stand, No bigger than the Moon. Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. Water, water, every where, And all, the boards did shrink; Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink. The very deep did rot: O Christ! That ever this should be! Yea, slimy things with legs did crawl Upon the slimy sea. About, about, in reel and rout The death fires danced at night; The water like a witch's oils, Burnt blue and green and white. And some in dreams assured were Of the spirit that plagued us so; Nine fathom deep he had followed us From the land of mist and snow. And every tongue, through utter drought, Was withered at the root; We could not speak, no more than if We had been choked with soot. Ah! well a day! what evil looks Had I from old and young! Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung.
The poem marvellously combines a strong driving narrative appropriate to a ballad with a developing spiritual narrative focused on evil, guilt, isolation and the possibility of redemption. The narrative is brilliantly carried by ballad-style rhythm, rhyme, diction. There is repetition and echoing. For instance the first stanza “The Sun now rose upon the right Out of the sea came he” matches one in Part 1 “The Sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he” showing the contrast between the ship moving south in the northern hemisphere and the ship sailing north in the southern. The paralleling and contrasting works throughout the poem. Thus, in Part 2, as we shall see, the two six line stanzas hold together in contrast.
The drive of the narrative is shown by a series of stanzas of descriptive brilliance. First the ship flows freely: “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew” where the long e-vowel and the alliterative “f” sounds and the internal rhyme enable a verse of rapid movement with the second internal rhyme of “First” and “burst”” celebrating the excitement of discovery. Then follows a sudden collapse into a becalmed state of absence of movement. So from rapid movement we come upon the heavy slowness of “down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down”. There is the predominance of stillness: “And we did speak only to break The silence of the sea” reflected by the vivid clarity of the simile “As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean”. Also heat “All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody sun at noon” increases thirst and leads to the desperation of “Water, water, everywhere , Nor any drop to drink” Then there is the mariner’s disgust and recoil from the living world of Nature: “The very deep did rot : O Christ, That ever this should be! That slimy things did crawl on legs Upon the slimy sea” We see here, presumably, the transference of his own disgust with himself placed on the living world. There is a horror of fascination expressed in that repetition of “slimy”. But the negative feelings are not only his but those of the trapped crew. They find their release however in making him the scapegoat : “Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung.”
The crew, however, are not allowed to escape guilt. In the first of the two six- line stanzas they condemn the mariner for his action but it is for the wrong reasons. They saw it not as wrong in principle but in its effect. Because the bird was linked with the favourable external conditions-the encouraging breeze that drove the boat forward- the mariner’s action is seen as evil: “Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, That made the breeze to blow!” But when next day conditions change and the mist clears and they make further progress their gratification is expressed in approval of what has been done: “Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, That bring the fog and mist.” That bring the fog and mist.” Coleridge’s marginal gloss- about the gloss more in a later post- indicates that in doing so they have become “accomplices in the crime”.
Within the development of the narrative we see the development of themes of guilt, with its effects of revulsion, isolation, scapegoating. Within this Part we move from a glorious heightened and daring identification of the Sun with God the Creator :
Nor dim nor red , like God's own head, The glorious Sun uprist.
to a shrunken Sun a few stanzas later:
All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody sun, at noon, Right up above the mast did stand, No bigger than the moon.
If we take the sun as representing God, what is reflected here is the shrinking of the Sun to a damning God of Judgement. The shrinking ,however is within the consciousness of the self-condemned Mariner as one bearing guilt. The blood red of the sun emphasises his crime of slaughter . The description of the outer world reflects the spiritual condition of the mariner in self-blame “For I had done a hellish thing” and his accusatory fellows. sharing a fallen world.
The ship is no longer a community of men in unity. When the albatross first appeared, coming through the fog in a threatening world created by the surrounding ice with its range of strange and threatening sounds the bird is welcomed as a harbinger of grace: “At length did cross an Albatross/ Thorough the fog it came; As if it had been a Christian soul, We hailed it in God’s name”. With that final phrase a sense of religious togetherness is created which brings together gratitude for the appearance of the sign of grace and hope. This brings along with it a spirit of hospitality as it is treated as guest provided with food. The release is not just inward but external: “The ice did split with a thunder-fit;The helmsman steered us through.”
However, this unity has been wrecked by the mariner’s deed. Malcolm Guite in his wonderfully helpful guide to the poem in his work Mariner argues that the crew members’ attitude to the bird moves from being sacramental to being instrumental. The albatross is no longer seen gratefully as a revelation to rejoice in but as an instrument whose role is to benefit the crew. So it is that the fellow crewmen are seen not as innocent but, in accepting the killing, as sharing in the denial of the harbinger from heaven.
Part 2 then shows the disintegration of community. The becalming brings out the sense of spiritual isolation. The wonder of God is changed to judgement and condemnation; gratitude towards creation is replaced by disgust, sharing of food with overwhewlming thirst, speech is followed by choked inarticulacy, unity of purpose with scapegoating.
The final action is the hanging of the albatross round the killer’s neck: “instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung”. The connection here is not that as Christ is condemned to the Cross so the Mariner is condemned ; it is that the cross is the sign of grace that Christ brings as the Albatross has brought grace to the crew. The sign has been rejected. As Christ has been condemned so has the Albatross. Christ as enactor of grace Is condemned and placed on the Cross. The albatross as a sign of grace is used by the crew to condemn the one on whom they want to place all blame for their condition.
This whole development signifies not simply a poem of the extraordinary and supernatural but a profound exploration of the Christian mystery.
Note. As mentioned above I have found the following work invaluable in developing my argument:
Malcolm Guite Mariner A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Hodder and Stroughton 2017