The Characteristics of Romanticism Found in the "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Romanticism isn't only romantic. This particular school of literature is exemplified by imagination leading to transcendence and personal truth, nature as a divinely occult force and the rejection of traditional morality, all characteristics found in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Literary critic Harold Bloom notes that Coleridge is justly regarded as cofounder, with Wordsworth, of English Romanticism, and no wonder. In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge created an extraordinary piece containing several Romantic characteristics.
Imagination in imagery abounds in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner": Robert Penn Warren called it a "poem of pure imagination." It details a doomed ship's voyage to the South Pole, where "ice, mast-high, came floating by, as green as emerald." A Christ-like Albatross miraculously bisects the glacier; after its death, the crew journeys from ice to blazing sun -- "no bigger than the moon" -- and is visited by Death and "the nightmare Life-in-Death . . . that thicks man's blood with cold." We are witnessing a voyage toward nothing so commonplace as land.
Natural is Supernatural
Nature as an occult force is exemplified in the albatross and the Pole Spirit. The former "ate the food it ne'er had eat" like Christ -- "I have meat to eat ye know not of" -- and parts the ice like Moses. Meanwhile, the Pole Spirit below the waves "from the land of mist and snow" forces the ship to move or stay calm. These creatures drive the wretched crew to settings of horrendous heat and devastating thirst: "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink" is a mystical location as well as an ironic situation.
Rejection of Accepted Morality
Coleridge demonstrated the poem's rebellion against traditional morality when he responded to a critic that it "ought to have no more moral than [an] Arabian Night's tale." Certainly any sense of ethics or fairness leaks out of the poem early on; the Mariner shoots the benevolent albatross for no good reason, and is predestined for the living hell that follows by Life-in-Death's dice game. However, he -- a murderer who brings disaster to the voyage -- lives on, while his companions drop dead and become zombie-like minions.
Transcendent Truth, for Some
True to the Romantic form, Coleridge brings his poem of pure imagination to a transcendent finish -- for the reader, at least -- as the Mariner ends with "he prayeth best who loveth best all creatures great and small." Ironically, such over-reaching ecology doesn't reflect much personal truth if we consider the Mariner's condition at voyage's end. He is, in Bloom's words, only a "story-telling machine," and there is little sense that he has acquired an authentic self. We may experience truth and transcendence; the Mariner does not.
- How to Read and Why; Harold Bloom (Touchstone Paperback, 2001), pages 124-128
- East Carolina University: Digital Collections: A Poem of Pure Imagination: an Experiment in Reading
- Bartleby.com: 549. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
- The Official King James Bible Online: John 4:32
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images