Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 582-90

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns,
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land,
I have strange power of speech;
The moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me —
To him my tale I teach.

These lines come from near the end of Coleridge's famous "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Mariner has just told his spellbound listener the whole narrative of his mysterious voyage—from its joyful beginning, through the shooting of the albatross and the working through of the curse that is placed on the ship, and finally, after the Mariner blesses the water snakes, to the return to England under some supernatural agency. The lines quoted above explain why the Mariner has stopped the Wedding Guest and singled him out to hear the tale: apparently, having first arrived back in his native England, the Mariner sought out the hermit to hear his confession. At that moment he was stricken with a "woeful agony" which "forced" him to tell his story. This has been a recurrent penance in the Mariner's post-voyage life. He doesn't know when it will happen (it's an "uncertain hour"), but when this "agony" strikes him, he must tell his tale in order to relieve temporarily his burning "heart." The Mariner wanders the world "from land to land," occasionally being moved by his "strange power of speech." When this happens, he somehow just "know[s]" the man that must hear the tale, and, as he says, "To him my tale I teach."

The passage points to what is, for me, the most disturbing aspect of Coleridge's poem. As we are reading the tale, it seems like the purpose for its being narrated at all is to convey some important moral or ethical lesson to the listener. This seems to be a monitory tale designed to help a less experienced audience avoid the perils and the penance of the teller. And indeed, Coleridge plays up this altruistic purpose by supplying a "moral" of sorts at the end of the poem ("He prayeth best who loveth best / All things both great and small..."). This might seem to be an uplifting sort of truism—we should avoid wanton cruelty to the creatures of the Creator or, the implication runs, we will suffer as the Mariner has suffered. So why would this tidy and rather banal moral be disturbing?

Well, if the listeners to such a monitory tale—the Wedding Guest and, more broadly, readers of the poem—are going to profit by such "wisdom" as is summed up in the poem's moral, then they need to be able consciously and deliberately to enact the moral principles the poem sets forth. In other words, like the Wedding Guest, we should come away from the tale as we might come away from a sermon: resolved to do our best to enact the principles espoused in the "moral." These are "words to live by." On further reflection, however, this "moral" simply cannot work as we might have anticipated. It seems clear that the Mariner is not acting according to some conscious and deliberate altruism—he is not even acting according to his own will. Instead, he is subject to a compulsive behavior over which he has no control and from which he seeks only to find temporary relief. The compulsion strikes him at some unpredictable "uncertain hour" and then he seeks a listener not so much to inculcate some moral lesson as to enable him to relieve his own psycho-spiritual agony.

Thinking back through the narrative with the Mariner's compulsive behavior in mind, we see a different tale altogether—nothing the Mariner does seems to be an act of his own volition. In an ordinary tale, one might reasonably ask, for instance, Where the ship was originally going and for what purpose? or Why did the Mariner shoot the albatross? or Why did the Mariner bless the water snakes? But here there are no answers. Things just seem to happen without apparent cause or purpose. Now the Mariner continues to tell his tale more to fulfill some inexplicable compulsion than to actually communicate some useful understanding. Likewise, the Wedding Guest "cannot choose but hear" (18)—this compulsive behavior is apparently contagious. Taken to its extreme, this line of thinking sees the poem projecting a world in which human volition is non-existent, where we are all wandering about fulfilling compulsive desires which we do not understand and over which we have no control. That's a disturbing vision—it's little wonder that the Wedding Guest wakes up the next morning "A sadder and a wiser man" (624).

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