Coleridge: The Ancient Mariner

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The Ancient Mariner

The Latin motto is condensed, by omission, from about a page of Thomas Burnet's Archaeologiae Philosophicae: sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus, published in London in 1692. Burnet was Master of Charterhouse from 1685 till his death in 1715, and enjoyed considerable reputation as a man of curious learning. In the Archaeologiae he professed to reconcile a former work of his on the origins of the world with the account given in Genesis. The quotation is from chapter VII. of book I., "De Hebraeis, eorumque Cabalí¢," and may be translated thus: "I easily believe that the invisible natures in the universe are more in number than the visible. But who shall tell us all the kinds of them? the ranks and relationships, the peculiar qualities and gifts of each? what they do? where they dwell? Man's wit has ever been circling about the knowledge of these things, but has never attained to it. Yet in the meanwhile I will not deny that it is profitable to contemplate from time to time in the mind, as in a picture, the idea of a larger and better world; lest the mind, becoming wonted to the little things of everyday life, grow narrow and settle down altogether to mean businesses. At the same time, however, we must watch for the truth, and observe method, so as to distinguish the certain from the uncertain, day from night."

Instead of this motto the first edition had an Argument prefixed, as follows:

"How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country."

This was somewhat enlarged in the second edition (1800), and dropped thereafter.

*Page 3*, LINE 12-*eftsoons*. Anglo-Saxon eftsona (eft afterwards, again, + sona soon), reí«nforced by the adverbial genitive ending -s. Coleridge found the word in Spenser and the old ballads.

4, 23-*kirk*. The Scotch and Northern English form of "church." The old ballads had been preserved chiefly in the North; hence this Northern form came to be looked on as the proper word for church in the ballad style.

41, marginal gloss-*driven*. All editions down to Campbell's had "drawn;" but this he believes to have been a misprint, since the narrative seems to require "driven."

5, 55-*clifts*. This word arose from a confusion of "cliff," a precipice, and "cleft," a fissure. It was "exceedingly common in the 16th-18th cent.," according to the New English Dict., which gives examples from Captain John Smith, Marlowe, and Defoe.

62-*swound*. An archaic form of "swoon," found in Elizabethan English.

64-*thorough*. "Through" and "thorough" are originally the same word, and in Shakespeare's time both forms were used for the preposition. Cf. Puck's song in "Midsummer Night's Dream," "Thorough bush, thorough briar."

67-*eat*. This form (pronounced et) is still in use in England and New England for the past tense of the verb, though in America the form "ate" is now preferred. "Eat" as past participle, however, was archaic or rude even in Coleridge's time.

76-*vespers*. Properly a liturgical term, meaning the daily evening service in church; then in a more general way "evening." The Century Dict. gives no examples of its use as a nautical term. Probably Coleridge used it to give a suggestion of ante-Reformation times. The more familiar word for the evening service in the English Church is "even-song," but Coleridge in line 595 prefers "the little vesper bell" for its suggestion of medievalism.

6, 97-*like God's own head*. The comparison is the converse of that in the Bible, Matthew xvii., 2, Revelations I., 16, where the countenance of Christ glorified is said to shine "as the sun" (Sykes).

98-*uprist*. This word was used in Middle English as a noun, and regularly as the 3d pers. sing. pres. ind. of the verb "uprise." In "The Reves Tale" line 329, however, Chaucer uses, it in a context of past tenses, as Coleridge does here, as if it were a weak preterit; and Chaucer uses "rist up" in the same way several times (Sykes).

104-*The furrow followed free*. This was changed in "Sibylline Leaves" to "The furrow streamed off free," because, Coleridge tells us, "from the ship itself the Wake appears like a brook flowing off from the stern." In the case of modern steamboats at least it would be more correct to say that the wake, as seen from the stern of the boat, looks like a brook following the boat. The original reading was restored in the editions of 1828 and 1829.

7, 123-*The very deep did rot*, etc. The ship becalmed in tropic seas, and the slimy things engendered there, were a vision in Coleridge's mind before "The Ancient Mariner" was thought of. In the lines contributed to Southey's "Joan of Arc" in 1796 (published, with additions, as "The Destiny of Nations" in "Sibylline Leaves"), in an allegoric passage on Chaos and Love, he wrote:

"As what time, after long and pestful calms,
With slimy shapes and miscreated life
Poisoning the vast Pacific, the fresh breeze
Wakens the merchant sail uprising."

The same subject had occupied Wordsworth's imagination before he and Coleridge came together at Stowey; see Wordsworth's "The Borderers," Act iv.

125-*slimy things*. Strange creatures, the spawn of the rotting sea, for which the Mariner has no name.

131, marginal gloss-*Josephus, Michael Psellus*. The only "learned Jew, Josephus," that we know of is the historian of that name who lived in the first century of our era; but little has been found in his works to justify this reference. The "Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus," was a Byzantine teacher of the eleventh century who wrote a dialogue in which demons are classified according to the element in which they live (Cooper; Sykes).

8, 152-*I wist*. "Wist" is properly the past tense of an old verb "wit," to know. But Coleridge seems to use "I wist" here as equivalent to "I wis" (see "Christabel," l. 92), which is a form of "iwis," an adverb meaning "certainly."

157-*with throats unslaked*, etc. A remarkable instance of onomatopoeia.

9, 164-*gramercy*. An exclamation, meaning originally "much thanks" (Old French grand merci), and so used by Shakespeare ("Merchant of Venice" II., 2, 128, "Richard III" III., 2, 108). But in the ballads it is often a mere exclamation of wonder and surprise, and so Coleridge uses it here,-*grin*. Coleridge says ("Table Talk" May 31, 1830): "I took the thought of 'grinning for joy' from my companion's remark to me, when we had climbed to the top of Plinlimmon [in Wales, in the summer of 1794], and were nearly dead with thirst. We could not speak from the constriction, till we found a little puddle under a stone. He said to me: 'You grinned like an idiot.' He had done the same." To "grin" was originally to snarl and show the teeth as animals do when angry. "They go to and fro in the evening: they grin like a dog, and run about through the city," Ps. LIX., 6, Prayer-Book Version, where the King James Version has "make a noise like a dog." Hence idiots, stupid people, foolish people, all who are or who demean themselves below the dignity of man, grin rather than smile; and so the Mariner's companions, their muscles stiffened by drought, could show their gladness only by the contortions of a grin, not by a natural smile of joy.

169-*Without a breeze, without a tide*. The Phantom Ship is a wide-spread sailor's superstition that has been often used in the romantic literature of the nineteenth century. See Scott's "Rokeby," Canto II. xi; Marryat's "Phantom Ship;" Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle;" and Longfellow's "Ballad of Carmilhan" (in "Tales of a Wayside Inn," Second Day). It is seen in storms, driving by with all sails set, and is generally held to be an omen of disaster. Coleridge has shaped the legend to his own purposes. The ship appears in a calm, not in a storm, and sailing without, rather than against, wind and tide; and instead of a crew of dead men it carries only Death and Life-in-Death. Possibly he was acquainted with a form of the legend found in Bechstein's Deutsches Sagenbuch (pointed out by Dr. Sykes), in which "Falkenberg, for murder of his brother, is condemned to sail a spectral bark, attended only by his good and his evil spirit, who play dice for his soul."

185-*Are those her ribs*, etc. Instead of this stanza the first edition had these two:

"Are those her naked ribs, which fleck'd
The sun that did behind them peer?
And are those two all, all the crew,
That woman and her fleshless Pheere?

"His bones are black with many a crack,
All black and bare, I ween;
Jet-black and bare, save where with rust
Of mouldy damps and charnel crust
They're patch'd with purple and green"

And again after line 198 the first edition had this stanza:

"A gust of wind sterte up behind
And whistled thro' his bones;
Thro' the holes of his eyes and the hole of his mouth
Half-whistles and half-groans."

But this crude grotesquerie of horror-quite in the taste of that day, the day of "Monk" Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe-Coleridge's finer poetical judgment soon rejected.

190-*Her lips were red*, etc. Life-in-Death-who wins the Mariner, while Death wins his shipmates-is conceived as a witch, something after the fashion of Geraldine in "Christabel" or Duessa in "The Faerie Queene," but wilder, stranger than either; a thing of startling and evil beauty. Spenser's pages of description, however, give no such vivid image of loathsome loveliness as do the first three lines of this stanza. "Her skin was as white as leprosy" is a feat in suggestion.

10, 199, marginal gloss-*within the courts of the Sun*. Between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

210-*with one bright star Within the nether tip*. An interesting case of poetical illusion. No one, of course, ever saw a star within the tip of the horned moon. Yet a good many readers, until reminded of their astronomy, think they have seen this phenomenon. Coleridge apparently knew that the human mind would receive it as experience. The phrase is no slip on his part; the earlier editions had instead "almost atween the tips," which is astronomically justifiable, but in "Sibylline Leaves" and later he wrote it as in the text.

222-*And every soul, it passed me by, Like the whizz of my cross-bow!* It was an ancient belief, imaginatively revived by romantic poets, that when a person died his soul could be seen, or heard, or both, as it left the body, Cf. Keats's "Eve of St. Agnes," first stanza; Rossetti's "Sister Helen;" and Kipling's "Danny Deever."

11, 226-*And thou art long*, etc. "For the last two lines of this stanza," runs. Coleridge's note to the passage in "Sibylline Leaves," "I am indebted to Mr. Wordsworth. It was on a delightful walk from Nether Stowey to Dulverton, with him and his sister, in the autumn of 1797, that this poem was planned, and in part composed." Wordsworth in later years declared that he contributed also lines 13-16, "and four or five lines more in different parts of the poem, which I could not now point out."

245-*or ever*. "Or" here is not the adversative conjunction but an entirely different word, an archaic variant of "ere," meaning "before."

250-*For the sky and the sea*, etc. Another instance of the sound fitting the sense. The rocking rhythm of the line is the rhythm of his fevered pulse. The poem is full of this quality.

13, 297-*silly*. This word meant in Old English timely (from soel, time, occasion) hence fortunate, blessed. From this was developed, under the influence of medieval religious teaching, the meaning innocent, harmless, simple; and from this again our modern meaning, foolish, simple in a derogatory sense. Chaucer has the word in all these meanings, and also in another, a modification of the second-wretched, pitiable. Another shade of the same meaning appears in Spenser's "silly bark," i.e. frail ship, and in Burns's "To a Mouse":

"Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin'!"

"The epithet may be due either to the gush of love that has filled the Mariner's heart, or to his noticing the buckets, long useless, frail, now filled with water" (Sykes); very likely to both together.

14, 314-*fire-flags*. The notion of the "fire-flags" "hurried about" was probably suggested to Coleridge by the description of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) in Hearne's "Journey ... to the Northern Ocean," a book printed in 1795 and known to both Wordsworth and Coleridge before 1798. Hearne says: "I can positively affirm that in still nights I have frequently heard them make a rustling and crackling noise, like the waving of a large flag in a fresh gale of wind." See also Wordsworth's "Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman" (Cooper).

15, 358-*Sometimes a-dropping*, etc. The Mariner's sin was that in wanton cruelty he took the life of a friendly fellow-creature; his punishment is to live with dead men round him and the dead bird on his breast, in such solitude that "God himself scarce seemed there to be," until he learns to feel the sacredness of life even in the water-snakes, the "slimy things" that coil in the rotting sea; and the stages of his penance are marked by suggestions of his return to the privilege of human fellowship. The angels' music is like the song of the skylark, the sails ripple like a leaf-hidden brook-recollections of his happy boyhood in. England; and finally comes the actual land breeze, and he is in his "own countree." Observe the marginal gloss to line 442.

17, 407-*honey-dew*. See note on "Kubla Khan," line 53.

416-*His great bright eye*, etc. Dorothy Wordsworth in her Journal, February 27, 1798, describes the look of the sea by moonlight, "big and white, swelled to the very shores, but round and high in the middle."

20, 512-*shrieve*. To hear confession and pronounce absolution, one of the duties of the priesthood in the Catholic church. The word is more often spelled shrive. Shrift is the abstract noun derived from it.

21, 523-*skiff-boat*. A pleonastic compound; a skiff is a boat. Coleridge is fond of such formations. See for example II. 41, 77, 472 of this poem and II. 46, 649 of "Christabel" (Cooper).

535-*ivy-tod*. A clump or bush of ivy. Cf. Spenser's "Shepheards Calender," March, II. 67 ff.:

"At length within an Yvie todde
(There shrouded was the little God)
I heard a busie bustling."

23, 607-*While each to his great Father bends*, etc. Cf. the 148th Psalm (Prayer-Book Version) v. 12: "Young men and maidens, old men and children, praise the name of the Lord: for his name only is excellent, and his praise above heaven and earth."

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