Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in the small, rural Devonshire town of Ottery St. Mary in southwest England on October 21, 1772. The son of a Church of England parish vicar, John Coleridge, and Ann Bowdon Coleridge, the boy entered Dame Key’s Reading School in 1775. In 1778 he began studies at the Henry VIII Free Grammar School, which was headed by his father. When John Coleridge died in 1782, Samuel was sent to the Christ’s Hospital School in London. The youngster was considered dreamy and eccentric by fellow schoolboys, in part because of his enthusiastic interest in metaphysics. He was considered extremely precocious.
On a superficial level, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can be read as a tale of horror in which a mariner is hounded by disaster and supernatural forces after murdering an albatross. But it is much more than that. Coleridge clearly tries to make the supernatural elements of the poem appear as integral parts of the natural world. His underlying theme is that all things that inhabit the natural world have an inherent value and beauty, and that it is necessary for humanity to recognize and respect these qualities. The simple action of the plot, initiated by the mariner’s unthinking, destructive act, leads to his tribulations and consequent maturation. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an excellent example of Romantic poetry and is often read to understand the characteristics of this poetic genre.
There are several subthemes in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” relating to Christianity and the supernatural, and two primary themes. The first primary theme concerns the potential consequences of a single unthinking act. When the mariner shoots an albatross, he does it casually and without animosity. Yet this impulsive, destructive act is his undoing. Similar to other Romantics, Coleridge believed that the seeds of destruction and creation are contained each within the other. One cannot create something without destroying something else. Likewise, destruction leads to the creation of something new. The loss of the mariner’s ship, shipmates, and his own former self ultimately leads to the regeneration of the mariner.
In developing his themes in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge masterfully expresses concepts through the use of symbols and imagery. Much of the imagery is breathtaking, and the poet’s intense descriptions leave a lasting imprint on the reader. This skillful combination of intellectual content and vivid descriptions is not only aesthetically appealing, but also emotionally moving.
In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge focuses on humanity’s relationship to the natural world. Coleridge makes it clear that the killing of the albatross brings dire consequences upon the mariner. In a larger sense, it is not his killing of the bird that is wrong, but the mariner’s-and by extension humankind’s-callous and destructive relationship with nature that is in error. Coleridge intends to confront this relationship and place it in a larger philosophical context. If the reader grasps the lesson that the ancient mariner learns from his experience, then there are social implications.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. A wedding guest who does not know the mariner is forced to listen to his tale. Is this device effective? Is the guest meant to guide the reader’s response to the mariner’s tale?
While Coleridge did not write poetry specifically for young adults, “Kubla Kahn” is frequently read in schools as a companion piece to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The two poems are different in that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a finished narrative, whereas the incomplete “Kubla Kahn” is best described as a lyrical mood poem. Still, because these poems are Romantic in conception, both present foreign locales and deal with the past. Each is expressed in “natural” language and is concerned with mystical and supernatural events.