Yesterday I posted three stanzas from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s masterpiece, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I read this amazing poem for the first time during my college years. It blew apart my mind. At the time, I concluded that Coleridge had crafted a redemption story in verse form. Boy did he pull it off, too. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ranks as one of the best examples of the literary movement known as British Romanticism; consequently, it ranks among the finest works in all of literature. Coleridge’s poem is the inspiration for the adage, “to have an albatross around one’s neck.”
I do not recall if my college peers picked up on the redemption message contained within Coleridge’s poem. It seemed obvious to me back then, and it still jumps off the page each time I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Truth be told, no two readers see the same things in a poem, a novel, you name it. This reminds me of the contract scene in A Night at the Opera where Groucho says to Chico, “I can read it, but I can see it.” All joking aside, the idea of seeing in order to make art, or seeing in order to perceive art, is a topic for another discussion. Space, time, and purpose prevent me from delving into the relationship between art and seeing.
Here is what I want to discuss, which does relate to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Rather than quote the same stanzas like I did in yesterday’s entry, I will summarize their context. Toward the end of the poem, the Mariner encounters an old hermit, who asks him what sort of man he is. It is a simple question, but immensely pregnant with meaning. Up to this point, the Mariner has been through hell and back so to speak; therefore, the last thing that he wants to do is relive the ordeal. The irony here is that telling his story to the hermit is the very thing that frees the Mariner to move forward. This is not unlike men and women today who find release, hope, and freedom from their past as they share their stories with others.
Back to Coleridge’s poem, the Mariner embarks on a new journey: sharing his tale with others along the way. He cannot remain silent about it even though the memories are painful. The Mariner’s motivation for teaching others about his tale stems from a burning desire in his heart. Keeping silent only adds to the agony. The story needs to come out. It is no longer the Mariner’s to hideaway greedily. He must give it away to others for their freedom and his:
“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;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.”
(Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Book VII, revised version, 1817)
These two stanzas depict the inner drive of the Mariner to share his adventure. He realizes that there is power behind his speech. When the Mariner characterizes it as strange, this suggests that the power is not of his own making. Someone or something else seems to be driving his actions. Along the way, he gains discernment and insight into those individuals who are ripe for his message. If I may venture out onto a limb at this point, it seems to me that Coleridge evokes a strong parallel between the Mariner and a few Old Testament prophets. For example, take a look at these words spoken by the Jeremiah the prophet:
“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9, ESV)
Nearly 2000 years before Coleridge, Jeremiah lived a rough life as God’s messenger facing the scorn and abuse from family, friends, fellow prophets, and priests. He walked a path that set him apart from the surrounding culture. His attempts at keeping silent about God’s message only stirred up the fire inside of him. It is this last point that bears striking resemblance to the Mariner. When he kept silent about his message, it burned inside of him like Jeremiah. Both the Mariner and Jeremiah needed to speak their message. Of course, these similarities hint toward Coleridge’s familiarity with the Old Testament. According to the Poetry Foundation’s page, Coleridge immersed himself in the Unitarian church during the 1790s giving lectures and sermons.
It is also true that Coleridge’s father was a minister, so he grew up around the Bible, too. I do not want to stretch the one-to-one comparison too much between the Mariner and Jeremiah. What I will say is that there seems to be a strong undercurrent of it within those two stanzas. In many ways, Coleridge does not portray anything new or earth shattering about the Mariner’s drive to share his story. Rather, he provides the reader with a vivid and fresh expression to an old principle, Biblical one, too. It could be that one aspect of Coleridge’s poem is akin to a sermon. He is the Mariner who must convey his story or message to those around him. Like the prophet Jeremiah, Coleridge walked an existence filled with hardship, which grounded and fueled his message. His poem oozes with struggle and turmoil while holding out the reality of redemption. Coleridge is like the Mariner who is like Jeremiah.
I see bits of myself in Coleridge, the Mariner, and Jeremiah. When it comes to writing, there is a fire that burns inside of me. There is a story, a message, or truth, aching to be expressed in full. Beyond the artistic work lies someone and something greater than the story or the message. According to the Scriptures, the master storyteller orchestrates human history. He is the author of any and all good in this life. Now, his thoughts, ways, and means far exceed our ability to understand or to know them in full; however, the Lord has disclosed to his people that a day is coming when this will no longer be the case (1 John 3:2-3, ESV). It is glorious, magnificent, and sobering. I really am so ignorant about all that God does and continues to do for me. Nothing can thwart his purpose of conforming the redeemed into the image of his son (Romans 8:29, ESV).