( 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).
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