The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Notes on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This set of Tower Notes is 26 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file. Please note: in this set of notes the full text of the poem is included and comments are presented as marginalia.

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A free sample, text only, from the introduction is provided below.

INTRODUCTION: CROSSING THE LINE

Voyages are an occasional feature of the border ballads Coleridge imitated in The Ancient Mariner (cf. Sir Patrick Spens which is alluded to in Dejection: An Ode ), but there is nothing comparable to the remarkable travels of the Mariner. Important to the ballad mentality, however, is the idea of ‘crossing a line,’ which is given an extra significance in The Ancient Mariner by the nautical use of ‘Line’ to mean the equator. Once the line is crossed, the normal boundaries and certainties are lost: one might see the ‘hills’ of heaven and hell ( James Harris, The Daemon Lover ), or ‘wade through red blude to the knee’ ( Thomas Rymer ).

Such a voyage is obviously a journey into the realms of the imagination, a dream-state in which the normal parameters of rational understanding are inevitably breached. It is probably redundant to say much about Coleridge’s experience of opium dreams, other than to suggest that the extended dreams of such a state are no doubt related in many ways to the poem. It is not necessary to have taken opium, however, to recognise the way in which dream-rules can seem irrational and absurd, even though they are accepted with absolute faith when one is in the dream . It is important to realise this, otherwise the whole anti-logic of the poem can collapse – as it does, for example, if the reader makes a serious attempt to apply the poem’s concluding ‘moral’ to the rest of the text. This point is worth making at some length, because it is still frequently misunderstood. The Mariner (not Coleridge) concludes his story with a most comforting, rather child-like faith in the goodness of prayer and creation:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The mariner apparently believes that his appalling punishments for the killing of a bird of good omen were, in some sense, the actions of a ‘dear God who loveth us.’ A moment’s reflection should be enough to recognise that this understanding of a ‘dear God’ is hopelessly at odds with the poem as it stands, in which the fate of the entire crew depends on the roll of a dice – and, bizarrely, it is the guilty mariner who is granted ‘Death-in-Life’ and a second chance, while the crew, who can hardly be deemed responsible for the albatross’s death in any real sense, all die immediately!

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge