The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and first appeared in Lyrical Ballads (1798). Coleridge (1772-1834) was a major English poet in the first half of the nineteenth century, and his best work, including “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel” (1797-1800), and “Kubla Khan” (1816), remains firmly entrenched in the literary canon. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a work usually assigned in high school and college. Most adults do not read it after leaving school, which is a shame, because it is, in addition to being a great poem, an often chilling work of horror.
A man is about to join a wedding feast when he is taken aside by an old sailor. The sailor transfixes the wedding guest with a hypnotic, occult stare, and the wedding guest, against his will, is forced to sit and listen to the Mariner’s story. The sailor had been on a ship which was caught in an ice floe. An albatross appeared and guided the ship to freedom, and the crew treated it well, but the Mariner shot the bird with his crossbow. This act of evil–for the killing of an albatross is against the laws of hospitality and the sea–brings upon the Mariner a curse, and when the other sailors try to justify the killing of albatrosses the curse descends upon them. The crew hates the Mariner for his act and hang the albatross’ corpse around his neck. The ship enters the Pacific Ocean and is becalmed. Days pass and the ship remains stuck. At night strange lights are seen and some of the crew have visions in their dreams. The crew begins to die of thirst, and then a ship draws close to them. The ship is propelled by no wind or tide and is a bare skeleton, with thin, limp sails. This ship has a crew of two, the ghastly “Life-in-Death” and her mate, “Death.” They gamble for the crew of the Mariner’s ship, and the woman wins them. All the crew die except for the Mariner, and he, accursed, is stuck on the ship, surrounded by dead men, for a week. The Mariner sees some beautiful water snakes dancing on the water and unconsciously blesses them, and the albatross falls off his neck. Then the dead men move and crew the ship again, and it moves without wind or tide. The Mariner sees that angels are animating the bodies, and after they sail back to the equator the Mariner falls into a trance. He hears two angels discussing him, and one says that he has done penance and has still more to do. The ship returns to the Mariner’s home, and a local hermit rows out to the ship. The hermit rescues the Mariner as the ship sinks, and the Mariner confesses to the hermit and is shriven. But the Mariner is still cursed to wander from land to land and suffer periodic fits of agony until he finds a man to whom he can tell his story. The Mariner releases the wedding guest, who is a sadder and wiser man for the story.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is usually considered to be part of the literary canon, and most people do not consider it as existing in the ghetto of any genre. Moreover, when Coleridge wrote “Rime” there was no distinct horror genre. During the 1670s a set of plays with horrific content appeared on stage in England,1 and from the 1720s through the 1750s the “graveyard poets,” with their death-obsessed poetry, were popular in England.2 By the end of the eighteenth century there were kunstmärchen, or literary fairy tales, with frightening elements to them, and there was a significant strain of Gothic Fantasy, from The Castle of Otranto to Vathek, whose purpose was to terrify. But the idea that stories designed to frighten the reader belonged in a separate, distinct literary category had not yet been conceived. In addition, the overtly religious elements of “Rime” probably lead readers to consider it as separate from presumably atheistic or anti-Christian horror fiction.
But the modern reader is likely to be struck by the large horrific content of “Rime.” There are frightening images and scenes which linger in the reader’s mind after the poem ends: the crew dying of thirst, their tongues “wither’d at the root,”3 watching
slimy things...crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
About, about, in reel and rout
The death fires danced at night
The water, like a witch’s oils
Burnt green, and blue and white.4
The skeleton ship and its nightmare crew casting dice for the lives of the ships crew; the Mariner trapped on the ship while the dead men crew the ship:
The cold sweat melted from their limbs
Ne rot ne reek did they:
The look with which they look’d on me
Had never passed away.
An orphan’s curse would drag to Hell
A spirit from on high;
But O! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights I saw that curse
And yet I could not die.5
And, of course, the Mariner himself, a doomed wanderer, holding the wedding guest fast with his “glittering eye.”6
The Mariner is a type of Wandering Jew figure, albeit one without the antisemitic overtones of the traditional myth. Coleridge’s treatment of the character type is interesting. The Mariner is Catholic, and Judaism and the specifically Christian elements of the Wandering Jew myth are never mentioned, but Coleridge undoubtedly knew of the myth. Just as “Rime” is absent of all of the motifs/clichés of Gothic fiction (save the Mariner’s occult gaze—see: Hero-Villain), so too is the Mariner free of the negative connotations of the Wandering Jew, instead hearkening to the myth of Cain, who was also doomed to wander by God.
“Rime” is marvelous. Coleridge creates evocative and striking images. For example, of the woman dicing for the sailors’ lives:
Her lips are red, her looks are free
Her locks are yellow as gold;
Her skin is as white as leprosy,
the Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold7
and of the ship:
Her beams bemock’d the sultry main,
Like morning frosts yspread;
But where the ship’s huge shadow lay,
The charmed water burnt alway
A still and awful red.8
Coleridge manipulates vocabulary, line length, and pacing to reflect the aspect and moment of the Mariner’s story. Coleridge implies some crucial things rather than stating them out loud, and in doing so increases their effect. We do not know why the Mariner killed the albatross and are forced to wonder at his sin and the reaction of the crew to it. And the story of the Mariner’s sin, repentance, and salvation has a real power to it, even for the jaded modern reader.
The Ancient Mariner did a foolish, evil thing, and suffered for it, becoming an old man, with a “long grey beard and...glittering eye.”9 He has a “skinny hand! And thou art long, and lank, and brown/As in the ribbed sea sand.” His eye is bright and his beard is hoar. And he is cursed to wander, and afflicted by periodic agonies until he finds someone new to tell his story to. But he teaches the wedding guest a good lesson:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God, who loveth us
He made and loveth all.10
One aspect of “Rime” which has not received sufficient modern attention is its relationship to and expression of Burkean sublimity–that is, the theory, introduced in Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), that the sublime is horrific, unlike its opposite, the beautiful:
Burke’s aesthetic theory was rooted in the emotions rather than the Leibnizian notion of ‘‘perceptual clarity.’’ Instead of construing beauty in terms of symmetry and organization he connects it with loving emotions. The sublime, on the other hand, he derives from the fundamental emotion of ‘‘astonishment.’’ According to Burke, sublimity is associated with danger, power, vacuity, darkness, solitude, silence, vastness, potential, difficulty, and color—and it always has an element of horror. Although this is not disconsonant with Longinus’s account of the sublime, Burke’s particular emphasis on the horrific component was new. Superficially, at least, it was also rather surprising, in that he associated it with the additional powers of insight lent to the rapt contemplation of nature by contemporary natural philosophy. He was not alone in this; many of his contemporaries found the revelations of scientific Enlightenment innately horrific, although others considered their response more akin to exaltation.11
From the Burkean sublime and the new (to the eighteenth century) notion that the cosmos is far vaster than previously supposed comes cosmic horror, an early version of the horror which H.P. Lovecraft would later refine:
In the same way, the school of Gothic horror fiction which was one of Romanticism’s two chief extensions into prose fiction—the other being what the German Romantics called Kunstmärchen, or ‘‘art fairy tales’’—is primarily preoccupied with death and darkness, and only peripherally concerned with the further reaches of Burkeian sublimity. Even so, Romanticism was fertile ground for the development of a kind of cosmic horror that was not merely supernatural but possessed of a newly exaggerated sensation of sublimity in its attitude—a sublimity that derives from, although it is not usually explicitly associated with, the imagery of the new cosmos of post-Newtonian science.
This kind of attitude can be found in some atypical Gothic novels—most obviously William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)—and in such poems as Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798).12
The combination of the vivid, lyrical, sparse narration–Coleridge says a great deal in as few words as possible–and the use of the Burkean sublime makes “Rime” into a standout work of horror whose power has not dimmed in the slightest. It is no wonder that Lovecraft himself cited its “sinister daemonism,”13 nor that “Rime” was, in the words of Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi, the “principle literary influence in the early development of Lovecraft’s taste for the weird.”14
Print: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner: And Select Poems. Auckland, NZ: Floating Press, 2009.
1 See Anne Hermanson’s The Horror Plays of the English Restoration (New York: Routledge, 2016) for more on this fascinating genre of plays.
2 See Jack Voller, “Graveyard Poetry,” in The Encyclopedia of the Gothic, ed. William Hughes and David Punter (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 303.
3 William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads (London: H. Frowde, 1911), 14.
4 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 14-15.
5 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 23.
6 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 5.
7 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 18.
8 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 24.
9 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 5.
10 Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 50.
11 Brian Stableford, “Cosmic Horror,” in S.T. Joshi, ed., Icons of the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, volume 1 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 68.
12 Stableford, “Cosmic Horror,” 69-70.
13 Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror, 201.
14 S.T. Joshi, I Am Providence (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2013), 63.