“THE MARRIAGE AT CANA” : A POEM. (1)

The following poem gives a wonderful sense of the mysterious vitality of the story of Christ’s first sign or miracle from the Gospel of St John.

THE STEWARD’S TALE”

We did not usually run out of wine;
My chief, a stern man, took his stewardship 
So very earnestly. There had been, 
You might say, an administrative slip.

This was, you understand, a marriage feast 
Of consequence. The guests had come from far 
And wide. I startled when I saw the last 
Drops slowly draining from my serving jar.

Word of the shortage had not got around; 
The chief knew nothing. How could I tell him? 
Then the voice of one who knew his own mind 
Bade me fill up six pitchers to the brim.

I turned to see a young man standing there, 
One of the guests, quiet, knowing, benign. 
Do as I bid he said, and have no fear. 
You bring me water I will give you wine.

Strange to say I did not hesitate, though 
Even at this time it seemed absurd. 
Those pitchers were so heavy it took two 
To lift them. I obeyed without a word.

It was with trepidation that I took 
A sample for approval to the chief. 
He sipped, nodded and with a puzzled look, 
Sent me away. Imagine my relief.

Later, as the feast progressed, I heard 
Him laugh and chat, politely tease the groom 
Uncannily an atmosphere of  shared 
Peace almost of blessing had filled the room. 


I often wondered about that young man, 
When I left Cana for another place, 
Another life. Until today, watching 
Them unfix the Nazarene from the cross,
 I recognised at once his gentle face.    

Chrsitopher Morgan in this poem (in the short collection Stalking the A4 The Brynmill Press 2009) is presented by critic Ian Robinson as one of the few contemporary poets whose work continues to “haunt” him

. “He is the best practitioner of English verse I have read in our time. Especially in the twenty first century it is not faint praise to call a writer a supreme master of the iambic pentameter and Morgan’s fluency in other forms is amazing.”

The Marriage of Cana in St John’s gospel is one of the great tales of the gospel. Rich meaning is distilled through Jesus’ direction leading to the transformation of water to wine.

The steward’s predicament here gives another perspective: the telling the tale from another imagined angle, through a dramatic monologue of one who has no previous knowledge of the man Jesus, so giving a fresh view on the power of his influence in creating an atmosphere of “shared Peace, almost of blessing” through the room. Behind this feeling is the cryptic and powerful prediction the Lord has made: “You bring me water I will give you wine“.

The steward speaks in exact, measured terms as one seeking to describe the events simply for a hearer. The precise account and the sure poetic use of enjambement (last Drops), the surprise of the single word active verb for “startled” (it is usually in passive voice) enables us to focus on the steward’s predicament. The introduction of Jesus is striking: first by unexpected voice-he is heard before he is seen- “ the voice of one who knew his own mind“- and then his appearance “quiet, knowing, benign” confirming the authority of voice when the steward is at a loss as to how to break the news. The decisive command is intriguingly reinforced by the fine chime of “wine” with “benign”.

The immediate effect within the poem is witnessed by the steward, in trepidation as he watches the master of the feast imbibe that drink he knows was poured out water. His relief at his master’s reaction is developed into wonder by the transformation wrought in the room.

This is beautifully wrought poetry. The steward’s wonder is prepared for by “uncannily”. As we return to the word we realise it is a stretched four syllable word drawing out the sense of the steward’s feeling as he sees the transformation gradually taking place. Note how the enjambement throws the emphasis on the keyword “Peace”( rhythmically elongated) . We are seeing the room through the steward’s eyes. His additional “almost of blessing” reminds us this is the voice of one who does not know Jesus, trying to find the right word and lighting on the powerful word “blessing” with its strong religious implications (of grace, of revelation) to describe the effects of his action.

That could have ended the poem but there is an additional five line stanza bringing us up to date linking the forgoing story with the crucified Jesus. The one who brought blessing and new life, the one whose “cup” he invited his disciples to drink as his blood at the Last Supper, is the one whose potential is declared in that opening miracle of John’s gospel.

The poem is thus an inspired re-telling of the first sign the inspired gospel writer, John brings of one who continues to have the power to transform.

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART VI

FIRST VOICE
"But tell me,tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing-
What makes that ship drive on so fast? 
What is the ocean doing?" 

SECOND VOICE 
Still as slave before his lord, 
The ocean hath no blast; 
His great bright eye most silently 
Up to the moon is cast-

If he may know which way to go; 
For she guides him smooth or grim. 
See, brother, see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him." 

FIRST VOICE 
"But why drives on that ship so fast, 
Without or wave or wind?"
SECOND VOICE 
"The air is cut away before, 
And closes from behind. 

Fly, brother fly! more high,more high! 
Or we shall be belated: 
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner's trance is abated. 

I woke, and we were sailing on 
As in a gentle weather; 
Twas night, calm night, the moon was high;
The dead men stood together. 

All stood together on the deck, 
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fixed on me their stony eyes, 
That in the moon did glitter. 

The pang, the curse, with which they died, 
Had never passed away: 
I could not draw my eyes from theirs, 
Nor turn them up to pray.

And now this spell was snapt: once more 
 I viewed the ocean green, 
And looked far forth, yet little saw 
Of what had else been seen-

Like one that on a lonesome road 
Doth walk in fear and dread, 
And having once turned round walks on, 
And turns no more his head; 
Because he knows a frightful fiend 
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me, 
Nor sound nor motion made: 
Its path was not upon the sea, 
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek 
Like a meadow gale of spring- 
It mingled strangely with my fears, 
Yet it felt like a welcoming. 

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too: 
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Oh! dream of joy is this indeed 
The light-house top I see? 
Is this the hill? Is this the kirk? 
Is this mine  own countree?

We drifted o'er the harbour-bar, 
And I with sobs did pray-
Oh let me be awake, my God! 
Or let me sleep alway. 

The harbour-bar was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn! 
And on the bay the moonlight lay, 
And the shadow of the Moon. 

The rock shone bright, the kirk no less, 
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness 
The steady weathercock. 

And the bay was white with silent light,
Till rising from the same, 
Full many shapes, that shadows were, 
In crimson colours came. 

A little distance from the prow 
Those crimson shadows were: 
I turned my eyes upon the deck-
Oh, Christ what saw I there! 

Each corse flat, lifeless and flat, 
And by the holy rood! 
A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph- band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart-
No voice;but oh, the silence sank 
Like music on my heart. 
But soon I heard the dash of oars, 
I heard the Pilot's cheer; 
My head was turned perforce away 
And I saw the boat appear. 

The Pilot and the pilot's boy, 
I heard them coming fast: 
Dear Lord in heaven! it was a joy 
The dead men could not blast. 

I saw a third- I heard his voice: 
It is the Hermit good! 
He singeth loud his godly hymns 
That he makes in the wood. 
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.

 

  
  

It seems to me there are two ways readers might regard Part VI. If the poem is seen as simply story, plotting a development from a wicked misdeed, with gothic incident, spells, supernatural visitations thrown in to create a tale of fantastic incident, then the ending of the poem over this part and the next might seem a malingering. What has to be done is after all becoming clear: the mariner has to be got home, an exit has to be arranged for the corpses, a moral neatly relayed. For such readers Part VI might seem unduly extended. But increasingly I have become aware that this is a spiritual poem in every sense, that it is an organic poetic unity and I am more and more impressed by the way in which mythological and cosmic elements give depth to the redemptive process. The mariner- and we along with him -has to learn that his crime is meaningless destruction; it is something that goes against not only the natural order but the spiritual interconnectedness of living beings. The conclusion has therefore to be given time for working out.

In terms of the poem’s unity note how effects are repeated. Stanzas and phrases are repeated, recalling earlier stages of the (spiritual) journey. The mariner although on the way towards home and redemption has flashbacks which threaten to immerse him. Once again he cannot escape the accusing eyes of the dead, he is trapped by the inability to pray, he is, as before ( in Part 1), like one pursued by a foe. In effect, Coleridge is maintaining dramatic interest as we shift between the possibilities of the mariner being trapped and finding escape. An example of this is the invocation of Christ ( another echo, this time from Part 2) which leads us to expect the worst when in fact, this time, it leads to a wondrous seraphic visitation.

Coleridge knew -if anyone knew-that the road to spiritual redemption is not linear. Malcolm Guite in his marvellous book on the poem (Mariner) and Coleridge’s life which I would encourage every reader interested in this series of posts to read, links these reversions to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Guite connects this condition with the agonies and self- recriminations the opium- addicted Coleridge had to contend with. It is true when Coleridge first wrote the poem (which appeared with Wordsworth’s in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads) he was not an addict but Guite argues that imaginative fore-seeing is one of the powers at work within the poem. It is certainly remarkable the extent to which the mariner’s journey towards redemption reflects that of the great poet. as Guite so effectively shows..

The Part re-invokes the spiritual and redemptive qualities the Moon retains throughout the poem (see earlier parts of the discussion):

See, brother,see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him.

  

The supernatural aspect is brought out by the seraphic -band:

A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph -band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart- 
No voice; but oh! the silence sank 
Like music on my heart.   

This has a spiritual beauty underlined by the redemptive effect of a silence compared with the power of music. The passage seems to me to possess a wondrous quality which is nevertheless connected with a practical purpose. The ship having reached the harbour-bay would normally signal by light to the harbour pilot for guidance for entering the harbour walls.

The Part then continues the marvellous interplay of story with spiritual symbolism, with the regressive pull of defeat mixed with the progressive urge towards redemption encouraged by the ever present gracious Moon and the startling supernatural sublimity of the seraphic presence. It ends with a note of hope- on the mariner spying the Hermit on the pilot boat with the inevitable final recall of the last stanza to the (always capitalised) Albatross:

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

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART 5. COLERIDGE’S MYTHOLOGY.

O sleep ! it is a gentle thing.
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven
That slid into my soul.

The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were filled with dew;
And when I awoke, it rained.

My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams,
And still my body drank.

I moved and could not feel my limbs:
I was so light- almost
I thought I had died in sleep,
And was a blessed ghost.

And soon I heard a roaring wind;
It did not come anear;
But with its sound it shook the sails,
That were so thin and sere.

The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.

And the coming wind did roar more loud, 
And the sails did sigh like sedge;
And the rain poured down from one black cloud;
The Moon was at its edge.

The thick black cloud was cleft, and still
The Moon was at its side:
Like waters shot from some high crag,
The lightning fell with never a jag,
A river steep and wide.

The loud wind never reached the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes:
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen the dead men rise.

The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools-
We were a ghastly crew.

The body of my brother's son
Stood by me knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope,
But he said nought to me.

"I fear thee ancient Mariner!"
Be calm thou Wedding-Guest!
Twas not those souls that fled in  pain,
Which to the corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blessed.

For when it dawned -they dropped their arms,
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly from their mouths,
And from their bodies passed. 

Around,around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again, 
Now mixed, now one by one.

Sometimes a dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!

And now 'twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel's song,
That makes the heavens be mute.

It ceased; yet still the sails made on 
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.

Till noon we quietly sailed on,
Yet never a breeze did breathe:
Slowly and smoothly went the ship,
Moved onward from beneath.

Under the keel nine fathom deep,
From the land of mist and snow,
The Spirit slid : and it was he
That made the ship to go.
The sails at noon left off their tune,
And the ship stood still also.

The Sun right up above the mast,
Had fixed her to the ocean:
But in a minute she 'gan stir,
With a short uneasy motion-
Backwards and forwards half her length
With a short uneasy motion.

Then like a pawing horse let go,
She made a sudden bound:
It flung the blood into my head,
And I fell down in a swound.

How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But e'er my living life returned,
I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.

"Is it he?" quoth one, "Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low 
The harmless Albatross.

The Spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow."

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he" The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do."

  
  

Coleridge’s universe is vital: full of stir and movement and spiritual presences. The eighteenth century, by way of Newtonian physics, had presented a mechanical universe, run like clockwork, according to “regular motions” . The Deist God existed as a distant applicator of the workings of the machine, the Divine Clockmaker who designed the clock and left it to run. So when Coleridge writes:

The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro and in and out,
The wan stars danced about.

he is consciously reacting against the mechanical lifelessness of the Newtonian heavens.

The Romantics were fascinated by Science; for instance, by the new understanding of electricity and electro-magnetism.. The idea re-emerging in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley was of spirit interacting with matter. The discovery of Electricity, an unseen power with material effects, suggested the complementary association of universal Spirit with created Nature acting upon the mind. Wordsworth gives the idea expression in “Tintern Abbey” in these wonderful lines:

"                       And I have felt 
 A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: 
A motion and a spirit that impels 
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 
And rolls through all things.

What Coleridge does in “The Rime ” is to particularise within the unfolding of the poem what Wordsworth gives expression to in these lines of the interfusion of spirit, Nature and human thought; this is done by underlaying the story of the poem with a mythic depth. There is a bringing together of Christian and pagan elements ; or, perhaps more truly by demonstrating the development of Christian thought from pagan ideas. The Pagan worshipped- Sun, that which creates life, is made to symbolise the Christian God; the “moving” Moon of pagan mythology is given renewed life expressing the redemptive powers of the Blessed Virgin. (Male and female, it might be said, are given a living connection within the godhead which they lack in Milton’s Protestant epic “Paradise Lost”). Towards the end of Part 5 we are introduced to conversing spirits of the Polar region as a further element of the poem’s mythology.

It is the quality of the poetry that gives potent power to the mythology. This is invoked by the opening stanzas in explaining the renewing sleep of the mariner:

To Mary, Queen the praise be given! 
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven, 
That slid into my soul.

We notice the way in which the restorative power of sleep is created by the preponderance of s-sounds and especially by the alliterative “slid” that suggests the gradual peaceful movement of restoration. The redemptive movement that brought the previous part to and end with the water-snakes being blessed by the “Spring of love gushed through my heart” is confirmed first by sleep , then dreams of moisture and then the blessing of rain. Given that one of the most powerful effects of the mariners’ physical condition has been that of a desperate feeling of thirst ( “with throats unslaked, with black lips baked”) we empathise as readers with the joyful release of the rain on the mariner. And the release from burden is emphasised by turning the fearful implications of ghostliness to one of blessing:

I was so light- almost 
I thought that I had died in sleep,
And was a blessed ghost.

    

A similar transformation is made of the crew members where their corpses become spirits guiding the ship. The astonishing development here is to show these spirits not just in action but as a worshipping gathering. Hence, the wonderful lines:

"Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies passed.

Around,around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun; 
Slowly the sounds came back again, 
Now mixed, now, one by one."

A wondrous sense is created of sound being circulated and rising to the Sun and then being renewed and returned. To emphasise the importance of what he is seeking to convey Coleridge adds two stanzas on the nature of the sound, comparing it to a profusion of bird song and then to a sounding orchestra followed by the single note of a flute. This rises to the finale of “an angel’s song That makes the heavens be mute”. Coleridge is creating not so much a poetry of spiritual enchantment but a poetry in which transcendent spiritual life, extended throughout the universe, is given expression, so that we as humans are made receptive to other spiritual possibilities within a universe radiated by spiritual life.

Towards the end of the Part there is a further development in the mythological aspect with the re-introduction of the Polar Spirit. This spirit is linked to the Southern Ocean where the ship had earlier ventured when it was visited by the Albatross and it is this Spirit which seeks vengeance for the killing of the Albatross. In his marginal gloss which he added to the poem for further elucidation Coleridge has written alongside the conversation between spirits ending the part:

The Polar spirit’s fellow daemons, the invisible inhabitants of the element, take part in his wrong; and two of them relate, one to the other, that penance, long and heavy for the ancient Mariner hath been accorded to the Polar Spirit who returneth southward.

This conversation enables the ending of the part to bring together the mythological element with the spiritual direction of the poem. The two spirits in their talk bring out not only the need of accountability for evil but also of mercy for the redeemed soul performing penance, with the concluding stanza bringing out with a beautiful image, the tender compassion of the merciful spirit.

"The other was a softer voice, 
As soft as honey-dew: 
Quoth he: "The man hath penance done, 
And penance more will do." 

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.

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

THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER PART 1

ARGUMENT

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 stoppst 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, grey-beard loon!" 
Eftsoons his hand dropt 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.

"The Ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop 
Below the kirk, below the hill, 
Below the lighthouse top.

The Sun came up upon the left, 
Out of the sea came he! 
And he shone bright, and on the right 
Went down into the sea. 

Higher and higher every day, 
Till over the mast at noon-" 
The Wedding -Guest here beat his breast, 
For he heard the loud bassoon.

The bride hath paced into the hall, 
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes 
The merry minstrelsy.

The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear; 
And thus spake on that ancient man 
The bright-eyed mariner.

And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he 
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'er taking wings 
And chased us south along. 

With sloping masts and dipping-prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow 
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head, 
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast, 
And southward aye we fled. 

And now there came both mist and snow, 
And it grew wondrous cold: 
And ice, mast-high came floating by,
As green as emerald. 

And through the drifts the snowy clifts 
Did send a dismal sheen: 
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken-
The ice was all between. 

The ice was here, the ice was there, 
The ice was all around: 
It cracked and growled,and roared and howled, 
Like noises in a swound! 

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. 

It ate the food it ne'er had eat, 
And round and round it flew. 
The ice did split with thunder- fit; 
The helmsman steered us through! 

And a good south wind sprung up behind; 
The Albatross did follow, 
And every day, for food or play, 
Came to the mariner's hollo! 

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud, 
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white, 
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.

"God save thee ancient Mariner! 
From the fiends that plague thee thus!-
"Why look'st thou so"- With my cross-bow 
I shot the Albatross.

We follow the ship on its passage south down to the Antarctic with its ice-fields. I doubt if there is any poem with more graphic, or vivid description. No wonder it has had so many distinguished illustrators like Gustav Dore (see illustration above), David Jones and Melvyn Peake.

In emphasising the “STORM-BLAST” (capitalised for emphasis) the Mariner gives the impression of a driven ship as if the force of the force of the wind has a malign will to it. Certainly this is suggested by the longer six line stanza comparing the ship’s movement as that of one pursued by a foe. This is added to when the sailors find themselves trapped in the claustrophobic and threatening sounding ice-field “The ice was here, the ice was there,The ice was all around It cracked and growled and roared and howled, Like noises in a swound.” (“swound” is a deiberately chosen mystery word of uncertain meaning to give the effect-perhaps of the mixture of sound evoking nightmare trance-like experience: if you want to explore further see essay on the phrase “Noises in a swound” by Philip Cardinale in the Coleridge Bulletin 17 2001)).

The effect of this build-up of threatening imagery is to make the appearance of the albatross one of special blessing. Notice the curious phrasing : “At length did cross an albatross” . The internal-rhyme of “cross” and “albatross” is to be repeated throughout the poem and is obviously central to the theme and this is reinforced by the phrasing giving the arrival of the bird a sense of portent. It is thus seen as a sign of Christian grace with the bird identified as a visitor from God to be welcomed and received as a blessing. That is reinforced by the ice breaking and the ship finding a way through. The religious assocations are added to by the connecting the bird with the “vespers nine” -ie evensong-in these times a captain of the Established Church would have ensured the rituals being properly followed.

There comes the climax of the final stanza which reflects in the anguished expression of the ancient, as seen by the Wedding-Guest, the agonised re-living of the deed. “Why did he do this?” No rational explanation is given which indicates that for the poet such would be beside the point. It is-among other things a poem about human evil, its consequences and the possibility of release from a burdened conscience.

Interestingly one of the inspirations for the poem was -among others -laid by the subject of a book Wordsworth spoke to Coleridge of reading A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726) by Captain George Shelvocke in which a melancholy sailor is described as shooting a black albatross because considered a bird of ill-omen. (see Wikipedia on the poem’s inspiration) although in the poem the colour of the bird is undisclosed.

INTRODUCING “THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER”.

( RE-edited blog: For the benefit of new readers and followers I am revising and reblogging the Ancient Mariner posts. The posts on this poem were rather more scattered than I originally meant them to be so there seems a benefit in putting them altogether and as the third work in the series on Old Stories That Tell Us Where We Are Now following the earlier reblogged posts on The Tower of Babel and Plato’s Cave.)

ARGUMENT
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.

FACING GRIEF THROUGH POETRY

Isaiah’s “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” could well be applied to William Wordsworth in 1812 . For that year saw the death of two of William’s children: Catherine aged three and three quarters in June and Tommy of measles in December at the tender age of six. He wrote this poem as an epitaph.

 Surprised by joy-impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport-Oh! with whom 
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no vicissitude can find? 
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind- 
But how could I forget thee? Through what power, 
Even for the least division of an hour, 
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind 
To my most grievous loss!-That thought's return 
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 
Save one-one only, when I stood forlorn, 
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn 
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore. 

With Dorothy, grief perhaps was moderated by her frailty. She had never been a well child” (Bate J. Radical Wordsworth P363). Suffering convulsions when she was eighteen months, she was paralysed on the left side and at three and three-quarters she developed the brain fever that finished her.

With Tommy a great future was hoped for. “His sixth birthday came a few days after Dorothy’s death.” He was everyone’s comfort. The other children quarelled with each other but never with him. He was beginning to show a love of books and learning. His father loved him with what Dorothy (Wordsworth’s sister) called a “peculiar tenderness”. Wordsworth was hoping that this would be the son who would follow in his poetic footsteps. He would describe his boy of ” heavenly disposition,……… passionately fond of knowledge, ardent in the discharge of his duty but in everything else mild and peaceful.”(ibid. P. 365).

While not naming Tommy the poem seems suited to the child but its lack of specificity means that for every reader who has experienced grief a particular force of shared feeling.

FOLLOWING THE POEM.

Transported by delight you turn to share the emotion and the actuality of separation comes back to you with renewed force. The one with whom you are accustomed to share is no longer there. The renewal of the shock brings guilt-how could you ever forget?- and a vivid re-living of the first realisation of the death and the reconfirmed sense of the unalterability of what has happened.

The poem is a looking within at the emotions. We do not see out there. Until the final lines there is only the one central image of the tomb. We are not drawn to what looks striking about the scene that brings the joy; we are not invited to distinguish the one now dead, until with a summing-up epithet in the last line. And also we are not expected to commiserate with the poet, one William Wordsworth- he is not looking for our sympathy: he is too concentrated on attending to the grief working within him .

The poem is packed with a range of feelings which the poet has to work to understand. We as readers undistracted by images follow the confused to and fro of the poet’s emotions as they are worked into a fuller kind of understanding: and then, later, going over the poem in our minds we are given the freedom to relate these to ourselves and our own experience.

On first reading the last thing we expect on reading the first line and a half is a poem of mourning. The first phrase appears to promise a scene of wonder. When this is broken into by the next phrase “Impatient as the wind” we are probably confused. Then “I turned to share the transport” possibly more for us than Wordsworth’s contemporary readership puzzles us with “transport” until we recognise the appropriate meaning:

“the state of being affected by strong (now esp. pleasurable) emotion; exaltation, rapture, ecstasy. M17”. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

The external scene that has conjured up that “transport” ,that has roused the poet is brought down to the central reality of loss:

                                    Oh with whom 
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no viccisitude can find? 
Love, faithful love recalled thee to my mind-
But how could I forget thee?

 

“Vicissitude” is another surprising word. Checking the S.O.E.D. the meaning that seems most fitting is “change or mutability regarded as a natural process or tendency in human affairs”. Note how the poet, changeable “impatient as the wind” with that word negated, is brought to the recognition of the unalterable, against himself ,as it were. The power of the poem-the emotion driving the series of broken phrases brings the poet to this point of self- accusation: “But how could I forget thee?”

The rhetorical question leads to an expression of guilt- common in the grieving-a feeling that one has let the mourned one down.

The reflection takes the poet back to the original feeling; here, alone, the poet pictures himself “when I stood forlorn”. The phrase “heart’s best treasure” inevitably in a Bible-steeped culture reminds the reader of the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: “For where your treasure is there will be your heart also”(St Matthew 6:21). This passage from the gospel also connects with the phrase “heavenly face” in the poem. Notably Wordsworth has also, in the letter telling of the child’s death quoted above used the epithet “heavenly” there. In the gospel passage Jesus speaks of the need to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”(Matthew 6.20).

This consolation is not however in Wordsworth’s poem

That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
 

While the implication of “heavenly” is potentially one of reconciliation with the grief that is a stage which has not yet been reached. The fact of separation is too brutal and something which the poet has to continue to face stoically.

What the poem encourages then is not so much transcending grief but facing it with stoical courage. What is notable about the poem is the rhythmic power that carries the poem through its sequence of intense feelings to its final agonised recognition.

REFERENCE.

Jonathan Bate Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who changed the World. William Collins 2020