Symbols In The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner
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A close reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner will reveal that the Ancient Mariner-who is at once himself, Coleridge and all humanity-having sinned, both incurs punishment and seeks redemption; or, in other words, becomes anxiously aware of his relation to the God of Law (as symbolized by the Sun), and in his sub-consciousness earnestly entreats the forgiveness of the God of Love (represented by the Moon-symbol).
For Professor Lowes, while he has disclosed a Coleridge of amazing intellectual grasp … stops short on the border line of purely imaginative experience. In his long study of The Ancient Mariner, he seems to miss the essential allegory…. when all is said, his unsparable book is content to be a review of Coleridges intellectual and creative relation to his available sources in books, in conversations and in his life history, not (save on occasion as supplying a casual argument) to articulate part with part in the poetic intention as a whole ….
… There is nowhere here or elsewhere in the book [The Road to Xanadu] a hint of the history behind the Mariners glittering eye, a suggestion of the poets bold transfer of the glitter in the dead seamens eyes (Death) to those of the Mariner (Life-in-Death). The poet introduces the Mariner abruptly and repetitively as one with a glittering eye. A similar emphasis is given to the epithet bright-eyed (as in the penultimate stanza of Part VII); and when the fearful question, “Why lookst thou so?”, is asked, our thoughts revert to that sinister glitter. Now consider this stanza in Part III:
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,
and these stanzas also from Part IV:
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 orphans curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But ohl more horrible than that
Is a curse in a dead mans eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die;
and these again from Part VI:
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.
All that Professor Lowes says about the glittering eye is true, but it inadequately vindicates Coleridges unerring choice of the adjective as expressing that uncanny communication of quality between the dead and the quick.
But to return to my thesis-that the Sun (with the Polar Spirit and the First Voice) is conceived in Coleridges imagination as suggesting the stern, just, masculine, punitive side of the nature of God; and that the Moon (with the Hermit and the Second Voice) normally symbolizes the gentle, feminine, redemptive side. The whole ballad presents a tale of sin and salvation, of crime and compassion, of the operation of inflexible Law and the intervention of inexhaustible Love.
The passages quoted above from Coleridges own works, considered cumulatively, seem to reinforce this interpretation of the symbols we are considering. In the poem itself it will be noticed that there are eleven references to the Sun and fourteen to the Moon, and that these are the chief recurrent symbols. In the first edition there are ten references to the Sun and fifteen to the Moon. The total number of references to Sun and Moon in the editions of 1798 and 1817 is, however, the same-namely, twenty-five. None of these appears in Part VII in either version, and this, as we shall see, for a reason.
In the pictures of the Sun he appears first as the ship drives southward across the Equator-the Sun coming up upon the left, shining bright, and setting on the right. “The vertical sun,” as Professor Lowes explains, “stands over the mast for an instant at noon, to mark the crossing of the Line.” After the vessel rounds Cape Horn the positions of sunrise and sunset are reversed. Both passages are temporal and positional in content, Saxon and almost monosyllabic in diction. God is present and omnipresent.
The third reference is more significant. After the wanton slaughter of the Albatross,
Nor dim nor red, like Gods own head,
The glorious Sun uprist.
The majesty of the Divine slowly and steadily reveals itself until the Sun has climbed to the meridian. Then there appears one of the most impressively symbolic stanzas in the poem:
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 avenging process has begun; the ship is suddenly becalmed; the Polar Spirit plagues the sailors; the dead Albatross is hung about the Mariners neck; weary and menacing days dawn and die; the crew are suffering from drought and fear; when at last the phantom vessel is descried:
Seel Seel (I cried) she tacks no more!