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Winter 2015

Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and the Faith that Comes by Hearing

“I readily believe that there are more invisible Natures in the universe than visible ones. Yet who shall explain to us this numerous company, their grades, their relationships, their distinguishing features, and the functions of each of them?”

—epigraph to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Pedro Blas González

Neo-Platonic in inspiration, romantic in the pathos that the ancient mariner’s “glittering eye” evokes, and epic in its redemptive efficacy, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a master stroke of literary brilliance that weaves a tale of metaphysical mystery, taut nerves, and one man’s encounter with his soul. Coleridge’s seminal poem is also an instructive literary example of Saint Paul’s conviction that fides ex auditu (faith comes from hearing).

More than a tale of seamanship and the hazards of ocean voyages, the poem is a work of Christian redemption. A warning to the reader of the poem’s metaphysical orientation appears in the epigraph, a quote taken from Archaeologiae Philosophicae, a 1692 work of theologian Thomas Burnet: “I readily believe that there are more invisible Natures in the universe than visible ones. Yet who shall explain to us this numerous company, their grades, their relationships, their distinguishing features, and the functions of each of them?”

While much has been written about the plot, rhyme scheme, and technical merit of Coleridge’s masterpiece, the same cannot be said about its philosophical acumen. In some ways this is understandable, if only because many commentators attribute the strength of the poem to Coleridge’s gifted imagination as a romantic writer. Regrettably, stereotypes also inform the annals of literature and philosophy. Lyrical and vibrantly true-to-life depictions of the world and the cosmos—through enlightened language—have long been the desired goal of poets. In many respects, Coleridge’s romanticism remains akin to the dominant motifs of prior metaphysical poets, especially in the embrace of Neo-Platonism by some of the latter. Combining core elements of Christianity with the ethos of the age of discovery—soon to blossom into the age of exploration—Coleridge’s romanticism, as evidenced in The Rime, is inspired by nature’s power to guide man’s imagination, but also by the supernatural, which transcends and frustrates many of our more forceful empirical explanations of human reality.

Nature plays a major role in the work of romantic writers, poets, and painters, but Coleridge’s focus is on nature as the logos, or order of things. The “invisible Natures” that the poem’s epigraph suggest serve as the superstructure of human reality, the paradigmatic identity that makes possible man’s quest for truth. Coleridge embraces the ancient Greek idea that the ordering of human reality is partially knowable. Reason, the poet contends, aids man in knowing the essences that serve as the foundation of nature. In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge attests that human understanding can attain knowledge of the world beyond its-here-and-now sensual qualities. The role of imagination is to demonstrate that creation is dynamic, which is to say ongoing. Imagination assists the act of creation because imagination is divine in its creative intuition.

The Rime was first published in 1798. Later, Coleridge republished the poem with marginal notes and a Latin epigraph. The poem explores qualitative phenomena as forming the foundation of human reality. Essence, along with soul and spirit, are central metaphysical components. These serve to individuate the metaphysical essence of man as soul, distinguishing personhood from merely quantitative conceptions of nature. The important distinction made by philosophers and traditional Christian theologians between soul and spirit does not go unnoticed by Coleridge. For instance, the invisible forces that propel the ship are always referred to as spirits. We can think of these as tutelary spirits of “the land of mist and snow,” who guard the sea. These spirits may be seen as protectors of places, regions of the world, and sailors:

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.

Later, the ancient mariner alludes to the spirit that guides the ship:

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.

In contrast to spirit, throughout the poem the ancient mariner refers to himself as a soul, especially when he experiences remorse for his actions:

I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.

O wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.

The invisible Natures mentioned in the poem’s epigraph suggest some of the essences, the existence of which Platonists and Christians, among other thinkers and writers, have pondered for millennia. Adherents of essentialism offer a vision of man in the cosmos as an intrinsically spiritual being who defies the contradictory logic proposed by the many variants of positivism. Part of the challenge in bringing these essences to light is that, while reality may appear to be closed-ended and deterministic in its sensual constitution, this is contradicted by a parallel condition which employs free will in relation to human affairs. Coleridge underscores the reality of free will in his treatment of grace and redemption. The Rime fuses elements of adventure and metaphysical mystery in its depiction of the seagoing voyage. The poem explores the nature of essence in relation to human reality, themes that Coleridge also addresses in his philosophical essays.

The work is divided into seven parts. This provides the poem with the narrative timing and pathos necessary to drive the work to its redemptive resolution. In addition, breaking up the poem into seven sections serves as a heuristic mechanism of the layers of discovery that the ancient mariner encounters in his quest for self-knowledge.

From the beginning of the poem the reader is made to understand that the ancient mariner is compelled to tell his story. His urgency is initially met with disapproval, though. One of the three wedding guests that the ancient mariner “stoppeth,” is “held” captive by the mariner’s glittering eye. The other two young men flee from the old mariner. Refusal to hear what the ancient mariner has to say suggests Coleridge’s conviction that truth and wisdom are passed along from generation to generation through pangs of apathy and much discomfort. This conviction can be considered a manifestation of fides ex auditu.

The mariner has a pressing need to tell his story, to convey what he has seen in the southern Atlantic Ocean. Why? It is essential to the story that the mariner be a very old man “with grey beard and skinny hands.” This signals the past and, more importantly, the unpredictable, often sinister travails that the passage of time has in store for human beings. Initially, the ancient mariner’s description of his seagoing voyage appears to be one of adventure and discovery. Only later in the poem does the albatross, which hangs around the old man’s neck like the cross that everyone must bear, become the central component of the story.

With a fair wind blowing, the ship sails south. This is evident in the ancient mariner’s description of the sun rising on the left—port side of the ship. The important event in the beginning stages of the journey is that the ship is pushed south by a ferocious storm: “And now the storm-blast came, and he/Was tyrannous and strong:/He struck with his o’ertaking wings/And chased us south along.” As the ship sails south through the southern Atlantic Ocean, the mariner begins to describe the region just north of the Antarctic circle—latitude 66° 33' 39" S. He describes the ice as being “everywhere,” and making crackling sounds. This is an accurate description of ice floes colliding with each other. He also mentions tall chunks of ice that float quietly by the ship. These are undoubtedly icebergs:

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

Initially, the ship’s southward drift may be considered as a romantic journey of adventure. However, neither the ancient mariner nor his sailors romanticize the treacherous sailing. Instead, what follows has the makings of a mystical journey of discovery, one that has to do with the mariner’s existential reflection on the state of his soul. Surrounded by ice, the mariner is confounded by the direction in which the ship is being driven, and what this all means:

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!

Coleridge’s accurate description of the sub-Antarctic region is anything but imaginary, for his account of the turmoil that the ancient mariner and his crew endure had solid precedent in history, even during the poet’s own time. We can compare Coleridge’s description of the Antarctic region with James Cook’s who, in 1775, was the first person in recorded history to land on South Georgia Island—latitude 54° 30' 0" S. Cook’s ships Resolution and Adventure were also the first to cross the Antarctic Circle, sailing to 71° S. Cook’s description is matter-of-fact, with his notoriously bad spelling and punctuation. Consider Captain Cook’s similar depiction of ice floes and icebergs in The Explorations of James Cook:

The outer or Northern edge of this immense Icefield was compose of loose or broken ice so close packed together that noting could enter it, about a Mile in began the firm ice, in one compact solid boddy and seemed to increased in height as you traced it to the South; In this field we counted Ninety Seven Ice Hills or Mountains, many of them vastly large.

The question remains why the ship is mysteriously pushed southward into the sub-Antarctic region. Is this merely a literary device that signals adventure and mystery? A voracious reader, Coleridge was aware of accounts of exploration of the south Atlantic Ocean. This is attested by his close friend Wordsworth, who writes of a conversation he had with Coleridge in 1797. Coleridge told Wordsworth that his inspiration to write The Rime came from Captain George Shelvocke’s 1726 book, A Voyage Around the World by Way of the Great South Sea.

Mention of a handful of these historic seagoing voyages is warranted in order to put in perspective the importance of sea-going voyages to Romanticism, especially given that Coleridge’s grasp of maritime information is consistent with historical facts up to his own time: Ferdinand Magellan reached the Pacific Ocean—Mar Pacifico he called it because on first encounter this ocean was calm, peaceful. Magellan crossed the All Saints Channel (Estrecho de Todos los Santos) in approximately thirty-eight days, crossing it on All Saints Day, November 1, 1520. This 373-mile-long passageway through Tierra del Fuego in South America was later renamed the Straits of Magellan. In 1578 Francis Drake also crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Straits of Magellan. Upon reaching the Pacific, his ship The Golden Hind, was blown far south by a violent storm. This is how Drake discovered the vast ocean expanse that separates South America from Antarctica that came to be known as the Drake Passage. In 1592 the English explorer John Davis discovered the Falkland Islands. Willem Schouten and Jacob le Maire were the first to round the Drake Passage in 1616. Schouten called the tip of South America Cape Horn, after his hometown, Hoorn, in Holland. Closer to Coleridge’s own time, British captain William Smith claimed the South Shetland Islands for Great Britain in 1819. These and many other accounts of adventure, discovery, and bravery fueled the imagination of romantic writers, poets, and painters.

Given that The Rime employs an albatross as a Christian symbol of purity, it makes sense that the ship should sail south, for five species of albatross live in the area of South Georgia Island. The largest and most majestic of these birds is the wandering albatross, with a wingspan greater than ten feet.

In Coleridge’s poem the albatross comes out of the snow-fog like a wraith. At first the sailors view it as a good omen that they hope will deliver them to warmer waters: “As if it had been a Christian soul/We hailed it in God’s name.” The encounter with the albatross is an integral aspect of the poem. The albatross, a bird that is rarely seen on land, perches on the ship for nine consecutive evenings—”vespers nine”—a Christian symbol of evening prayer. The ship turns around and begins to sail north with the aid of a south wind. The mariner and his crew become optimistic. The sailors even enjoy the light of the moon, glimmering through the ominous fog.

Then, inexplicably, the mariner shoots the albatross with a bow and arrow. Because the killing of the bird takes place without provocation, this act becomes the basis of the ancient mariner’s eventual hubris, and the main component of the poem as a Christian narrative of salvation. This episode concludes part I of the poem.

The second part changes the problematic of the poem from nature’s wrath, adventure, and the quest for discovery to fear of the supernatural. This section begins with the ship sailing north, for the mariner informs the reader that the Sun is now rising on the right side of the ship—starboard. The south wind continues to blow. Seeing that the fog has cleared, the sailors justify the killing of the bird as a harbinger of inclement weather. Not long after, the wind dies down and they enter a calm and eerily quiet sea: “Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,/’Twas sad as sad could be;/And we did speak only to break/The silence of the sea!” Even though the poem’s marginal notes mention that the ship sails into the Pacific—at the same time that the poem describes it as going north—this factual inconsistency does not harm the coherent structure of the work. What is certain is that the calmness that the sailors encounter is likely a description of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, what is referred to in maritime language as the doldrums. This is an area in both Atlantic and Pacific where the northeast and southeast trade winds meet at the Equator and cancel each other out. This may explain the absence of wind. This is consistent with the ship sailing north toward the Equator. The mariner takes quick notice of the change in their lot:

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

A calm is the worst thing that can happen to a sailing ship; wind best defines the aspirations of its sailors. The ancient mariner becomes riddled with guilt and foreboding for having slain the albatross. He begins to think of the sea as a death-trap, a watery prison of the soul: “Water, water, every where,/And all the boards did shrink;/Water, water, every where,/Nor any drop to drink.” The sailors assure the mariner that a spirit has trailed the ship from the sub-Antarctic region. Their fear is heightened by the supernatural turn that the poem takes. This entity, the ancient mariner becomes convinced, is one of the invisible beings that inhabit the planet. Yet it is neither the soul of the dead or an Angel. A tutelary spirit, perhaps? At this point the sailors want nothing to do with the punishment that they imagine is due the ancient mariner. They hang the albatross on his neck. This, they believe, will absolve them of culpability for killing the bird; they wash their hands of the mariner’s crime.

Part III ushers in the supernatural element of the poem.

Beginning with this section, the reader is reminded of the metaphysical significance of the epigraph. A ship that the ancient mariner sees approaching from the distant horizon carries two women: Death and Death-in-life. This is a vivid example of Coleridge’s redemptive imagery. While many stories utilize the metaphor of death as a specter or an emaciated woman, rarely does one encounter a worse fate than death itself: Death-in-Life.

Death and Death-in-Life roll a die to determine who will win the fate of the ancient mariner, for he is their desired prize. Death loses. She is awarded the sailors, while Death-in-Life takes hold of the mariner. This, then, is the ancient mariner’s fate: to bear death-in-life until the day of his physical death. Sinister Death-in-Life rejoices: “The naked hulk alongside came,/And the twain were casting dice;/‘The game is done! I’ve won, I’ve won!’/Quath she, and whistles thrice.” As the sailors begin to drop dead, their souls parade in front of the ancient mariner as if to remind him of his complicity in their death. The existential plight of the ancient mariner begins in earnest.

Part IV begins with the ancient mariner assuring the Wedding Guest that he is not a ghost, as the young man has come to suspect. This is important because it assures the reader that the ancient mariner is indeed alive and doing penance through his suffering: “Fear not, fear not, thou wedding-guest!/This body dropt not down.” Finding himself alone at sea with dead men at his feet, the ancient mariner wonders why they should die, while the sea becomes replete with living, slimy creatures. The open eyes of the dead men torture the ancient mariner. Soon after, he begins to take solace and enjoyment from the living creatures that surround the ship. It is only after he starts to take stock in living things that the ancient mariner can pray, once again. It is at this point that the albatross falls from his neck into the sea.

Thanking “Mary Queen” for his new-found ability to sleep, the fifth section of the poem begins with thanksgiving for rain. The significance of this part of the poem is that the ancient mariner begins to feel lighter; the existential heaviness and anxiety that has thus far accursed him vanishes. The dead sailors come alive. The ship begins to move, even with the absence of wind. The ship is “moved onward from beneath.” The lucid and animated description of the ship moving backwards and forwards, half a ship’s length at a time, is an indication of a supernatural force acting upon it. The mariner informs the reader that a spirit has pushed the ship along, since she was caught in the ice in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

This is important to the story given that Antarctica was first called Terra Australis. In Coleridge’s own time, this was a mythical land, an undiscovered continent, which some people believed existed but that no one had ever seen. Other names for this land include Terra Australis Incognita (unknown land of the south), Terra Australis Nondum Cognita (the southern land not yet known), and, in Spanish, La Australia del Espiritu Santo. The idea of Terra Australis was introduced by Aristotle and later cited by Ptolemy in the first century A.D. Aristotle believed that the Earth was symmetrical, north and south being cold and divided by what he called a belt of fire—an area of temperate climate. The Antarctic continent was first sighted by Thaddeus Bellingshausen on January 27, 1819 and three days later by Edward Bansfield. The mythical southern continent, named Antarctica in 1890 by the Scottish cartographer John George Bartholomew, means the opposite of the Arctic Circle (North Pole). Cartographers knew about the North Pole, but the South Pole remained undiscovered in Coleridge’s time. Coleridge calls this mysterious land “the land of mist and snow.”

The ancient mariner overhears two spirits talking about him. One spirit questions whether he is the man responsible for killing the albatross:

“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 connection between “by Him who died on cross” with “harmless albatross” is Jesus Christ. In the language of poetry, the albatross is analogous to a peaceful, graceful dove that resides in a strange and frozen land. Figuratively, this land signals a spiritual frontier that everyone must discover on their own; everyone being like a proto-Adam. The second spirit says:

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 first spirit tells the second that even though the ancient mariner has done penance, more is to come. This is an indication of the weight of sin he must live with. The ship is driven north at a high rate of speed that causes the ancient mariner to fall into a trance. Upon awakening, he realizes that what he believes to be a curse is now broken. He spots the outline of his native country in the distance. Once in the bay, the souls of the dead sailors are seen departing from their bodies, in luminescent silence: “A man all light, a seraph-man, On every corpse there stood.” The souls of the dead sailors, which are ablaze in light, serve as beacons to attract the attention of the ancient mariner’s would-be rescuers on land:

The seraph-band, each waved his hand:
It was a heavenly sight!
They stood as signals to the land,
Each one a lovely light;

This is the point in the poem when the ancient mariner’s redemption begins in earnest. Having endured a living purgatory, he must now atone for his sins for the remainder of his life. This section ends with the ancient mariner being rescued by a skiff that carries three men: the pilot, his son, and a hermit who, the mariner believes, will “shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away/The Albatross’s blood.”

Part VII of the poem revolves around the ancient mariner’s act of contrition. He is happy to see the “Hermit good” coming to save him. This is a man who lives on the hill overlooking the bay and enjoys talking with mariners returning from the sea. A holy man, the hermit prays morning, afternoon, and evening. As the three men rescue the ancient mariner, the ship begins to sink. The rescuers are horrified on seeing the dead sailors on the ship and the ancient mariner up close. They perceive that the vessel is an evil ship. Once in the skiff, the ancient mariner takes to the oars. The pilot’s son is frightened: “‘Ha! ha!’ quoth he, ‘full plain I see/The Devil knows how to row.’”

On reaching the shore, the mariner asks the hermit, “O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!” Coleridge’s “shrieve” is the archaic form of shrive—to administer the sacrament of reconciliation, to free one from guilt. The ancient mariner’s act of purification has him travel around the country conveying his story to strangers. This is significant, for he doesn’t tell his story to just anyone, only a select few. Why is this?:

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.

Perhaps the mariner knows that his knowledge of the invisible Natures alluded to in the epigraph, some of which he encounters, cannot be easily communicated to many people. This is one reason that his being forced to retell his story is a case of fides ex auditu. The ancient mariner perceives that the young Wedding-Guest will be receptive of the message that he must transmit. Or, perhaps he intuits that the Guest is in need of knowing about the essences, the invisible Natures that he has discovered.

“Faith comes through hearing” essentially means that silence, reflection, and prayer are central characteristics of genuine faith. Faith cannot develop without the virtue necessary to accept it. The ancient mariner says that he who prays best is also he who loves the most. The ancient mariner has had an arduous, harrowing time alone at sea—ample time to listen and learn about the fundamental structure of human reality.

Fides ex auditu makes the good listener wiser. This is the ultimate learning that the ancient mariner acquires from his nightmarish voyage. His message is evinced by the Wedding-Guest the following morning, now “a sadder and a wiser man.” The implication of the lesson that the ancient mariner imparts to the young Wedding-Guest is that the attainment of truth, wisdom, and faith, even though this impacts everyone, is ultimately an exigent private affair. The intensity of this discovery is characterized by a lifetime of awe and wonder and openness to truth. The latter is a Platonic pre-condition for the procurement, not of knowledge, but of wisdom, which one encounters throughout Plato’s work. For careful readers, this latent truth is laid bare in the poem’s epigraph. Perhaps wisdom is the cross that the ancient mariner must carry until his death: to seek capable heirs willing to spread knowledge of the essences that make up human reality.

And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns. 

Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.

Posted: January 25, 2015 in Essays.

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