The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the Ancient Marine Rhyme:  A Study in Comparative Literature

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the Ancient Marine Rhyme: A Study in Comparative Literature

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Yaakov Jaffe

In comparative literature, two textswritten in different languages, different time periods, and with different perspectivescan be compared with one another, for the purpose of exploring how the literature reflects different perspectives on a similar theme in different contexts or times. When we study human history in general, and human intellectual history in specific, we study the changes in culture and approach to recurring human challengesand compare texts that deal with common situations or ideas. This helps us understand culture and how people in different civilizations saw the world. This essay explores two texts, one in the Jewish tradition and one in the secular one, which each address a similar challenge: the human interaction with the miraculous or supernatural.

Though written thousands of years apart, the Biblical “Shirat Ha-Yam,” “The Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15), an ancient marine rhyme, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” both reflect upon human interaction with the supernatural while crossing through water. Water inspires within people both a sense of close familiarity with and a sense of infinite distance from the natural world. On the one hand, water is ubiquitous in the human environment, familiar in its many forms, but on the other, a human being gazing at sea to the horizon sees nothing but water: visible but untouchable and immeasurable. Thus, water offers a fitting context to reflect upon what happens when humanity reaches the limits of human understanding and is forced to confront a world which defies the nature that we are familiar with. The two texts have radically different views of our relationship with the supernatural, given the radically different circumstances of their composition, and it behooves us to compare and contrast where they relate and where they do not. Are we inspired and do we grow from moments which transcend conventional human understanding? Or are we conquered and overwhelmed by them? Do they improve our future or destroy it?

Though they share a thematic connection, and a few formal similarities to be discussed below, the two poems make no reference to each other. To be sure, Coleridge would have been aware of the Song of the Sea but there are no allusions to it in his poem. The Song of the Sea notes that the mighty Egyptians “sunk like lead” in the waters, and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner twice references items sinking in the sea like lead (lines 288-291, 546-549), but this is likely a coincidence.

The Song of the Sea tells the story of the Egyptian choice to chase after the Jews following the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, and the demise of the Egyptians at sea. Meanwhile, the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” is a longer poem consisting of 625 lines, broken into seven parts. It tells the story of a sailor who sails with a crew south, eventually reaching the South Pole before turning north in an attempt to return home. On the way, the sailor (the titular ancient mariner) kills a bird, the albatross, and is consequently punished for his crime, and nearly dies while undergoing a terrifying journey before eventually returning home.

 

While Coleridge’s poem has epic qualities, it is fundamentally an example of British Romantic Poetry, and thus deals with themes associated with the natural world, more than with epic themes such as heroism, religion, and valor. Coleridge himself understood his poem in his own work Biographia Literaria (Chapter 4) as being about the supernatural, and “the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real.” By pondering the supernatural, the reader “transfer[s] from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” It is a poem about a human being and human responses to situations whichthough supernaturalare close enough to our own experience that we can enter the story and imagine them true. It is a fitting context for reflection on humanity and the supernatural because the poem begins with a story that seems truthful and natural to the reader, and only expands to the point of being unbelievable as the story unfolds.

 

Archaisms

What unites the two texts most on a technical level is the rampant use of archaisms throughout the poems. Coleridge uses archaic spelling throughout the poem, archaic grammatical forms, and archaic words, none of which were common to the English of his daywhich was remarkably similar to our own. One recurring example is that the word “church” never appears but the more archaic “kirk” appears five times, mostly at the start and close of the poem. One needn’t go farther than the first lines, when the first person speaker - the main character of the poem: the ancient mariner, himselfstops his audience, a wedding guest:

                 It is an ancient Mariner

                 And he stoppeth one of three.

                  'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

                  Now wherefore stopp'st thou me? (1-4)

or 

                 He holds him with his skinny hand,

                 'There was a ship,' quoth he.

                   'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!''

                  Eftsoons his hand dropt he. (9-12)

Coleridge’s use of archaic forms is in consonance with the poem’s themes more generally because they highlight the distance between the supernatural world, and the natural/modern one as the archaic forms create the false impression that the poem is of a much more ancient provenance that it actually is. Coleridge, living at the time of the industrial revolution and the dawn of the modern democratic state intuits that his reader could not imagine a supernatural tale as having happened in their own times. Science had advanced to the extent that rational, thinking people would never believe such a tale. Consequently, the archaic language pushes the timing of the purported writing of the poem (and as a result, the timing of the narrative and its main character) further into the past, into a bygone era when interactions with the supernatural were common. Consider even the title itself, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” By dubbing the mariner “ancient” the story is pushed into the past as the main character of the poem is already ancient at the time the frame narrative of the poem takes place. By spelling the poem “Rime” one gets the impression that the poem about this ancient mariner takes place even before the spelling had been standardized.[1] Thus, the formal use of archaisms conveys a thematic perspective: we live in a modern, scientific era; stories of angels at sea could never make sense today. If so, the supernatural can be said to have a destabilizing effect for modern individuals.

 

Beyond the archaisms in the poem itself, Coleridge uses numerous archaisms in the language of the glossator as well. Between the first and second printings of the poems, Coleridge added a series of explanatory glosses, almost like Rashi’s commentary, to his own poem. The glosses, written in the early 19th century, still bare the mark of archaic forms- “sinketh” (at line 546) or “entreateth the Hermit to shrieve him” (at line 575) being two blatant examples. The effect is that even the fictional glossator, writing the seemingly later commentary on the poem, is ancient, thus reinforcing how much more so the poem is.

 

The Song of the Sea also uses many unusual, foreign spellings and grammatical constructions which may also constitute archaisms. These include spellings (“kamochah,” “like you,” with a final Heh 15:11), and also the use of unusual words or terms (“Zu,” 15:13, instead of the more common “Asher”), and rare or ancient grammatical forms. One archaic grammatical form that is pervasive in the song is the replacement of the conventional third person plural case ending (-m) with a rarer one (-mu and -mo) eight times (15:5, 7, 9 [*2], 12, 15, 17 [*2]).[2]

 

The abundant use of these forms is surely intentional, but the rationale for it is harder to discern. Is it because the newly-freed slaves who sang the song spoke a slightly different dialect than the rest of the Humash? Does the poetic convention use a slightly different form of Hebrew in order to lend greater grandeur to the song? Does this language echo a slightly older form of spoken Hebrew? There is no doubt why archaisms were used by Coleridge, but their use in the Song of the Sea is more opaque.

 

Unusual Orthography

Beyond the use of archaisms, a second formal factor that unites the two songs is the use of a non-conventional layout, or orthography. As noted above, “Ancient Mariner” is published with a poem in the center, with dozens of glosses printed to the side. Meanwhile, the Song of the Sea is also written with a very specific and highly stylized layout as well, calligraphed in the pattern of a wall of bricks (Megilah 16b): the written lines alternate, with the even lines featuring text in the middle and text-less gaps to the sides, and the odd lines featuring text to the two sides and a text-less gap in the center. Thus, the text looks like a wall of bricks, where odd layers of bricks feature short bricks to the sides and a large one in the center, and even layers feature larger bricks to the sides.[3]

Coleridge’s glossator has numerous different roles. Mostly, he summarizes or explicates the action of the poem; at times adding scientific analytical details that are not apparent in the text but could be reasonably surmised.[4] However, the scholarly commentator that clarifies and explicates also provides judgments, calling the mariner “inhospitable” at line 80; and noting the other sailors are complicit in the crime at line 101; and explicitly references the religious sub-themes of the poem.[5] On at least two occasions, he serves to distract the reader from the narrative, in a bizarre lengthy gloss to line 131 citing the learned Jew Josephus and the Platonic Constantinopolitan Michael Psellus as authorities that spirits do exist on this Earth and at a lengthy poetic riff at line 265 about the stars “as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.” The formal qualities of the poems help to support and develop its themes. Coleridge’s unique orthography is designed to create another layer of distance between the reader and the events of the poem: we are not reading the raw poem, itself, we read the book of commentary upon the poem.

 

In contrast, by using bricks as its layout, the Song of the Sea shows that interactions with the miraculous can have constructive results. Even the Talmud implies that the reason this layout was chosen for the Song of the Sea is to indicate that there are long-term constructed and lasting results of the splitting of the sea, symbolized in these bricks. Our two poems stand in grave contrast with one another. For the Song of the Sea, the miraculous can be something stable and immanent that we can experience in our own lives and lead to something lasting. For the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the supernatural really co-exist with us in our modern world; hence such experiences are unstable and impossible to consider as part of regular life, and as we shall see even become destructive.

 

Frame Narrative

In both poems, the reader does not read the story of the supernatural itself; instead, the reader finds a story about a main character who is introduced in the opening lines of the poem and then tells a story of the supernatural. In other words, Coleridge does not give us the poet’s version of the story; he gives us the poet’s telling of the main character’s version of the story.

 

In the Song of the Sea, the frame constitutes the first and last lines of the song (see Mishneh Torah: Book of Love- Laws of Tefilin, Mezuzah, and Sefer Torah 8:13 and the debate of Ibn Ezra and Ramban to 15:19), “Then Moshe and the Sons of Israel will sing this song to Hashem, and they said saying … Because the horse of Pharaoh with his chariot and horsemen in the sea.” This means that all the narration within the song is narrated by the main character or speaker in the song (Moshe and the Jews), and not by the central narrator of the entire Book of Exodus itself. Though this song uses a narrator and not the voice of the author, the narrator is reliable, since it speaks with the voice of the recollection of numerous witnesses to the events at hand.

 

The narrator in “Mariner” is singular and unreliable, if not worse. Coleridge does not tell the tale of a mariner at sea; he tells the tale of a mariner who tells a story to a wedding guest about his own time at sea. At numerous times in the poem, Coleridge reiterates to us that a paralyzed, mesmerized “as a three year’s child,” wedding-guest is the real audience of the tale of the Mariner, as the listener often reenters the story and asks the mariner to stop before the story has ended (13-20, 224-231, 345-346). Here, the narrative suffers from the problem of the unreliable narrator. Is the reader supposed to believe a miraculous tale of spirits, skeletons, and winds, with no corroborating evidence outside the first person recollections of one person, a compromised mariner, called a loon by his interlocutor? The end of the poem even allows the mariner to describe himself as a compromised narrator, suffering from a psychological disorder, possibly post-traumatic stress disorder, after his alleged experiences at sea:

                 Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched

                 With a woeful agony,

                 Which forced me to begin my tale;

                 And then it left me free.

 

                 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;[6]

                 That moment that his face I see,

                 I know the man that must hear me:

                 To him my tale I teach. (578-590)

In essence then, the Rime is not a story of the supernatural, it is a story that teaches skepticism and doubt or anxiety about the supernatural: if anything, it is (a) a book of ancient commentary (b) upon an even more ancient poem (c) whose author tells the story of an unstable former sailor, (d) who tells a story of an encounter with the supernatural.

Coleridge also begins his poem with a Latin quote, unintelligible to the average reader, even in Coleridge’s day, from a 1692 Latin work by Thomas Burnet. This long quote actually explicitly raises the question of the reliability of the narrator, demanding that “we must look out for the truth,” ending with the words “Ut certa ab incertis, diem a nocte, distinguamus”“so that we can distinguish between certain and uncertain, day and night.”

Our observations about the frame narrative dovetail with our observations about the layout and the archaisms of the two poems. In all these cases, Coleridge’s choices are designed to provide skepticism that the supernatural events actually happened. But the Song of the Sea, through its selection of the plural narrator, instead reinforces the notion that true witnesses actually saw it happen; the people really were impacted by something genuinely miraculous and not just a mirage or a dream.

 

Morals, Lessons, Conclusions

A superficial reading of the Rime of the Ancient Marinerand perhaps the reading that the glossator supports in his many glossesargues that the moral and conclusion of the poem, as well as the central theme of the story, is about kindness to animals and all of God’s creations. After all, the mariner’s great punishment comes as a result of killing the peaceful bird (63-82, 115-142), and his redemption comes as a result of blessing the majestic water-snakes (272-291). Or, in the words of the end of the poem:

 

        Farewell, farewell! but this I tell

         To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!

         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. (610-617)

However, there are a number of reasons to doubt that this is the main conclusion of the poem: first, the banality of the message, and second, the dissonance that this message provides when considered in the context of the frame narrative. Moreover, after blessing the snakes, the mariner engages in further penance (409), and his saga continues for hundreds of lines, before reaching full resolution, suggesting the blessing of the water-snakes is a red herring, irrelevant to the central message.

If not the superficial message, what might the central theme be then? Coleridge’s poem begins and ends with a frame narrative about the mariner’s conversation with a wedding guest, which must be critical to the main message of the poem; the selection of the persona of an unnamed wedding guest is clearly intentional, and helps develop a deeper theme for the poem. Throughout the poem, the wedding guest has tried to stop the narrative, in an effort to separate from the mariner and attend the wedding. The wedding guest is not just any guest, but is the next-of-kin to the groom (5-8), and the other guests have already assembled at the wedding. Later, the mariner is interrupted as the wedding guest tries to extricate himself as the bridal music is playing, and the bride walking into the hall (31-40). Lastly, at the end of the poem, the mariner dismisses the importance of participating in the wedding feast (591-609), which the wedding-guest has seemingly missed, and the poem ends with vision of

 

         The Mariner, whose eye is bright,[7]

         Whose beard with age is hoar,

         Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest

         Turned from the bridegroom's door.

 

         He went like one that hath been stunned,

         And is of sense forlorn:

         A sadder and a wiser man,

         He rose the morrow morn.” (617-625)

 

The poem considers the destructive effects of interacting with the supernatural, and even the wedding-guest, whose interaction is indirect, feels separated from the joys of his family when hearing the tale. After the mariner’s own experiences, he had become a wanderer, not settled in any community or society, and was overcome and at times paralyzed by memories of his stories. The close of the poem adds how the memory is not just destructive to he who experienced it, it has also had the effect of keeping the wedding guest from joining in the wedding, and has gifted him sadness on the day after his close relative’s nuptials. Exposure to the supernatural is so unique, so unlike anything we experience in our regular lives, that it acts as a disruptive and destructive force to all that face it, that they are rendered different, apart, and unable to join with the rest of the community. In a modern era, should any individual claim he or she saw anything that defied the rules of the natural world, they too would be forlorn, saddened, unable to adapt to the change, and unable to reintegrate.[8]

Nothing can challenge a person’s routines and beliefs like an encounter with the supernatural or the divine. One’s earlier assumptions about the world and humanity’s role within it are challenged or shattered, and the individual must struggle to create new systems of meaning and new patterns of action. Sadly, any event of dramatic proportions has the possibility to so dominate a person or community’s thinking moving forward, that it becomes the focus of all thought and emotion, to the exclusion of regular life.

 

The climax of the Song of the Sea provides the exact opposite conclusion, however. Here, an entire nation experienced the supernaturalbut instead of it becoming a source of distance, separation, or doubts, it becomes a unifying experience and a moment that ties the people together in pursuit of a future mission. The song ends with the promise “Until they shall cross [the Jordan River]” (15:16) that they will be brought into the Land of Israel, and then build the temple and celebrate God’s kingdom everlasting. Miraculous interactions with the Creator who can transcend nature become our inspiration, and they build and do not destroy societies. Otherwise, what would have become of our nation? Our accomplishments, our creations, our discoveries, our ingenuity? We would be nothing but a nation of itinerant story-tellers, nothing more? The supernatural event brought the Jewish people together instead of tearing the people apart.

 

The orthography of the song, in brick form, focuses the readers on the main theme, how the supernatural is the cause for the building of a new future. The orthography supports the central themeshared experiences, even if they are unusual or even frighteningbuild commitment and connection, and have been foundational for the newly-freed nation.

 

Invocation of God

Four of the lines of the Song of the Sea follow a very specific poetic format where the phrases alternate in an abac format (15:3, 15:6, 15:11, 15:16, as noted by commentaries see Rashi and Rashbam). This distinguishes between the more poetic lines and the lines which, in the present, extol and praise the virtues of the Deity who brought about the great splitting of the sea, and the prosaic ones that move the narrative forward (4-5, 7-10, 12-15). These verses are also unique in that it is only they, and the introductory and concluding verses (1 and 17-19) which use the tetragrammaton. Use of the name of God serves as a formal element within the song, diving between the static phrases of praise, and the storytelling parts of the song. Still, the use of the name of God so often in the song and in these most critical contexts clearly places the song in a religious context, with the Creator clearly identified as the source for the events of the narrative. Phrased slightly differently: the song is not just the song of an event, it is the song that celebrates the Deity's active role in the salvation of His own people.

 

The role of the Christian Deity in Coleridge’s poem is far from clear, despite the common juxtaposition between Albatross and the cross or Christianity.[9] The word “God” only appears in the poem six times, and generally not as an actor in the story but as a theoretical detached concept: in line 470 He is the direction of a prayer and in 616 the detached creator.[10] Though the glossator clearly interprets the events of the narrative to be directed by Divine forces, the mariner himself says about the experience “God himself/scarce seemed there to be” (599-600). Consistent with the general themes of skepticism throughout the poem, the reader is left wondering if we are to assume a divine force guided the events of the poem, or if it was but nature, or even a coincidence. Even if the story is true, perhaps it is not guided by stable Divine forces, but is instead guided by uncontrolled irrational and horrific forces of chance and horror.

 

While according to the sages the Song of the Sea predicts the resurrection of the dead (see Sanhedrin 91b), the rhyme of the ancient mariner contains but a caricature of a resurrection, with the dead being mute mindless forms (313-362), only to eventually perish again shortly thereafter. They are not the revived personas that they were once as they are revived almost through necromancy and not a Divine miracle. Again, the miraculous serves destructive aims and not constructive ones. The Deity is not a proactive force in the story; instead the destructive forces of the supernatural move the narrative forward without a clear direction or constructive aim.

 

Literature in its Historical Context

Despite their different contexts and different conclusions, the analysis of the two poems in context of each other focuses us on the key incisive differences between them. Despite the use of similar poetic techniques (frame narrative, archaism, and orthography) as driving forces behind the message, and despite similar settings, the two diverge in the final account. But the study of the two together is vital to understand what they have in common and how they differ.

 

The two poems bring the reader to two radically different conclusions, with one poem focusing us on an engaged and immanent Divine force which brings about the supernatural as a way to promote building, and the other focusing us on skepticism about whether the supernatural is even possible, and its potentially destructive capabilities. After all, one is a relatively modern poem, written at an age of science and rationality; the other an ancient religious poem written at a time of prophecy and miracles.

 

In a more modern culture, any exposure to the supernatural, either first or second hand, must yield one of two responses: (a) skepticism, doubt, fear, or cynicism about whether the event actually happened or (b) a sense of distance and alienation from the rest of the modern world which lacks such a transformational exposure. Yet, for the Jews of the Bible, living in an era of miracles and Divine immanence, the exposure to the supernatural yields an entirely different response. The supernatural is clearly attributed to the Creator, and His transcendence of the natural order engenders closeness to Him, and among all the eyewitnesses who experienced the event together. Forever changed, they are inspired to perpetuate the feeling of closeness with new building: a new land, and a new temple, which celebrates this closeness and His eternal kingdom. Their heart within them burns as well, but it is to tell a happy tale, about the miracle that left them free. And even should they pass like night from land to land in exile, those original feelings of closeness perpetuate as each generation to the next one: to them our tale we teach.


[1]  Of course, “Rime” may also serve as a pun (meaning frost), as the mariner’s tale begins with his ship and crewmates being sent southward, to what the glossator calls the “South Pole” surrounded by “the ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around” (41-62). Yet, the ice and cold do not appear so central to the story to merit being used as the title.

[2] Other questionable words and forms include “Aromemenhu” (15:1), “Anvehu” (15:2, see Rashi), “nedari” (15:6, see Ibn Ezra), “eimatah” (15:16), “mi-kedash”(15:17), and perhaps “Zimrat kah” (15:2, see Rashi).

[3] The medieval commentaries debate exactly what the words in the Talmud describing the format (“Ariach” and “Levenah” mean. However, all agree that the formatting is as described. See Rashi and Mordechai loc cit.

[4] At line 25, that the ship crossed the equator; at line 41 that it approached the South Pole; at line 71 and 376 that the albatross bird was a “bird of good omen” that helped the sailors; at 106 that the boat was found in the Pacific Ocean.

[5] “God” at line 272, “Mary” at 296, and the religious moral at 610 “And to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.”

[6] Besides the alliteration, these three verses all use iambic meter, which breaks ever-so-slightly at this word, enacting through the meter the strange power that breaks the normal communication and forces us to pause. The rhyme scheme is also worthy of note: an “abcb” format is generally used throughout the poem, which usually has four line stanzas (and abcbdb format in the six-line stanzas; many of them four-line stanzas in the song’s first version later expanded to six [see for example 91-96]), but an abccb format is used here in this five-line stanza. There are only eighteen five-line stanzas in the entire poem (of over 140 stanzas), and they tend to be the most dramatic in tone. Generally, the second and last lines of each verse are written in iambic trimester, while the first and third lines are in iambic tetrameter. One nine-line stanza exists in the middle of part III, using aabccbddb.

[7] The “eye” is often the source of the curse, see 3, 13, 20, 40, 227, 618 (the mariner), 211- 223 (the curse of the dying crewmates), 240-262 with the glossator (the mariner is struck by the curse), and 430-445.

[8] One might wonder whether this destructive element comes from the inherently unreliable nature of the supernatural, or from the unusual and therefore separating aspect of the supernatural; both themes are suggested by the poem.

[9] See 63-66, 76, 141, 399, 508-513. The words Cross and Albatross are the key pair of words in the poem, and each part of the poem ends with a reference to one or the other or both. [They appear together at lines 63, 81-82 (end of Part I), 141 (end of Part II), 398-409 (end of part V); the crossbow alone at 222 (end of part III), albatross and prayer at 290-291 (end of part IV), and 513 (end of part VI “albatross’s blood”). Clearly the albatross and cross (or crossbow) are opposites; the cross (bow) fells the Albatross, and then the Albatross hangs in the place of the Christian’s cross, only to be removed by prayer to the cross. Yet, the poem encourages us to ask whether these words are united by rational purpose or by an accident of language (they both rhyme), and an accident of circumstance (that this mariner killed the bird). After all, there are few other allusions to religion or the crucifixion in the story, and no plot similarities to suggest that the story’s purpose is to retell the story of Christian Sacrifice (and this theme isn’t present in either the superficial reading or the deeper reading for the poem we discussed above). Consequently, rather than suggesting a religious reading to the story, the constant juxtaposition surfaces a skeptical reading that we relate things based on chance and not based on real connection. Scholars have long noted that Coleridge rhymes antonyms throughout the song (moon/noon [111-114], night/white [205-206], flute/mute [366/367]) and this indicates further that the accidents of language and fate are part of the message of the song. Further investigation of this topic is beyond the scope of this essay.

[10] 66, 79, 97-98 (invoking the sun), 470, 599, 616. Both sun and moon repeat throughout the poem, but investigation of these symbols is beyond the scope of this essay. To be sure, sometimes the word “sun” is a pun for “son.”

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