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 as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare 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.
We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!
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 crossbow!”
About this poem
Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.
Francis Bickmore on 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner':
I first met this poem at exactly the time I discovered The Yellow Submarine. It pushed all the same gleeful buttons in my fifteen-year-old brain. Just like The Beatles' animation, The Ancient Mariner is a psychedelic sea voyage, a tale of the unexpected and a playground of sight, sound and uncertain mysticism.
But while the The Yellow Submarine revels in acid-steeped distraction, constantly losing the plot, Coleridge's poem is a masterpiece of narrative. It's a cracking yarn, full of rambunctious twists and swashbuckling thrills: a ship blown off-course, sea-monsters, wracking thirst, a ghost-crew, dead men's curses, isolation, visions in the sky, rescue by a wild mystic and a man transformed. And unlike so much poetry, where the focus is on the abstract or internal, the Mariner revels in colour and vision. It is a celebration of seeing things. No wonder then that it is the most illustrated poem in the English language.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free ;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.'
Without the Mariner there could have been no Dr Seuss: the 'bright-eyed', enigmatic mariner was ancestor to the Lorax surely, and Seuss could easily have penned such lines as 'When looking westward, I beheld/ A something in the sky.' It seems to me Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is also the Mariner replayed as gleeful child power fantasy. Like those two twentieth century geniuses, Coleridge takes us on a journey of the imagination floating on currents of dream logic, the subconscious, and steered by pure delight in language. It cries to be read aloud, and the visions come to life in synesthetic surround sound. Take the ice the ship encounters: first it floats by 'mast-high' and 'green as emerald', before morphing into a floating prison:
'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!'
As a listening experience, Coleridge delights in repetition and rhyme: 'Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide wide sea!' or 'the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky / Lay like a load on my weary eye', not to mention the famous torturous quandary: 'Water, water, every where, / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink.'
And how beautiful is the vision of the Mariner's helpless vessel stuck without wind, 'As idle as a painted ship / upon a painted ocean'?
Considering how far-fetched the Mariner's adventures become it is a wonder we buy into it. And yet we can't help but be sucked in. Coleridge really knows his narrative onions. The primary I of the poem, who recounts everything, is just a regular guy trying to enjoy a wedding. We sympathise with his unease as he hears the party kicking off inside, while he is locked in conversation with the demented Mariner (note to self - must try to use the phrase 'Unhand me greybeard loon!' more often in conversation). He's not claiming any of the tale is true, just that this is what he heard from the lips of this enigmatic old man. It's a brilliant framing trick - 'My best friend's uncle told me this story about someone he knew in the navy' etc etc. And having set up the series of removes between teller and action we surrender our disbelief willingly.
The oddest thing in the poem for me is not actually the sea monsters or lights in the sky but the rather uneasy Christian morality in what is elsewhere a celebration of the mystical, pagan, anarchic and the occult. I read in it a curiosity for religious alternatives, or what we would now call comparative religion. Yeats saw Coleridge as a mystic tormented by his Christianty, and that unreconciled debate plays out through the poem, which assumes that prayer, God and Christ are the inevitable cornerstones of the reader's world view, and yet gives them an unresolved position in the story. Coleridge takes us to a less governed, less certain realm, beyond the mores of his age, which I always imagined his own opium trips had exposed him to.
Is the Albatross Christ? It's certainly an innocent, the love of which brings faith and hope. And the way the Mariner must literally wear his sins around his neck is both Christian and also reminiscent of eastern ideas of karma. It's a shocking moment though when our Mariner shoots the albatross, and feels like much more than an analogy for the killing of Christ in the New Testament. It comes out of nowhere and apart from the fact the bird was doing no harm, the sailor is going against the will of all his shipmates, who adore it. The impulsiveness always affected me, playing out, as it does, the possibility of destroying the things we hold dear, on a whim. This anticipates the Nietzchean hero - a man acting independently in a world of uncertainties, answerable only to himself. And beyond Nietzche, it paves the way for the nihilism of Sartre's Mersault, killing an Arab. Sometimes our desires seem irrational. But Aleister Crowley's 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law' also exists in the Mariner's arrow, and there's nothing to stop us doing anything. Our desires may get us into trouble, yet by giving expression to them and seeing where they lead us, we are encountering the god within, rather than delegating authority to the rules of some god above. In its uncertain moral compass the poem explores how wisdom lies within experience rather than beyond it.
Perhaps this is what unsettled Wordsworth so much. He even suggested this poem be cut from the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads in favour of something ‘ more likely to suit the common taste' . Though the poem was kept in the book, Wordsworth dropped Coleridge's other gothic gem ‘Christabel' instead, sending its author into a spiral of self-doubt. As Byron had it, Wordsworth, Turdsworth.
Impropriety is bound up with the fate of the poet and storyteller. The Mariner's telling is unrequested and inappropriately timed, but he is compelled.
'Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale ;
And then it left me free.
'Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns :
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.'
Even if not always wracked with quite such 'wo' I'm sure a lot of writers would support this vocational idea of storytelling,- the sense that they can't not. On another level the telling is a public service - people need to hear this tale to rid themselves of the illusions in their own lives. Writing for Coleridge, like the other Romantic granddaddy Blake, was a shamanic expression, for the common good:
'I pass, like night, from land to land ;
I have strange power of speech ;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me :
To him my tale I teach.'
It's a horrific burden. And, in another way, in its melodramatic voyage to the haunted extremities of the mind, the Mariner's journey is proto-horror writing. 'Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea' always did freak me out - something about the 'with legs' bit... And nemeses don't come much more chilling than the Spectre-Woman:
'Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.'
I saw a few goths at a recent Nick Cave gig still working this look. Come to think of it, the Mariner gets referenced in Cave's mordant anthem Tupelo. Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Fleetwood Mac are amongst the host of other bands who borrowed imagery or tales from Coleridge.
It is no surprise to find that those cornerstones of horror lit Dracula and Frankenstein both quote lines from the poem. Heart of Darkness follows a similar psychological journey, upriver rather than out to sea. Even Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen includes a story within a story Tales of the Black Freighter, a supernatural tale of a mariner's impending doom.
Beyond horror, another favourite novel of mine, Life of Pi, is one more wonderful reseeding of the Ancient Mariner's flower-heads, a seafaring survival tale that marries trauma and faith. Both can be read on many levels and can be enjoyed by young and old alike.
What is the appeal of such soul-wracking agony for readers in the first place? It was Auden who observed that 'the so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but an opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting ... in order that its life become a serious matter'. This poem tells of the horrors of getting lost, thrown drastically off-course, but confirms that not only is this unavoidable, but actually essential for growth.
Our Mariner's redemption comes when he blesses the ugliness around him, specifically the water snakes:
'O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare :
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware'
His curse is broken, and the albatross drops from his neck 'like lead into the sea'.
The Mariner finds transcendence haplessly and without a map. It is the Romantic path. The 'wisdom, magic, sensation' of the story - those aspects Yeats loved about the poem - are such that not only is the Mariner affected by the voyage but everyone who hears his tale finds themselves arising 'a sadder and a wiser man'. The poem becomes a eulogy to the power of words and narrative to change lives. Coleridge's own curiosity for interpreting literature in the Biographia Literaria and elsewhere, asking, What does it mean?, demonstrates this faith. It is interesting too that T. S. Eliot and James Wood both credit Coleridge's other writing as giving birth to what we now know of as literary criticism.
The Mariner asks us to trust myth over reason, stories over science. Wittgenstein reckoned several hundred years later, 'Man has to awaken to wonder. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.'
If there is a better invitation to awaken to wonder than Coleridge's phantasmagorical masterpiece, I haven't encountered it yet.
Senior Editor at Canongate Books, Francis Bickmore has also run the Edinburgh acoustic cabaret Kin since 2001.