The Rime of our Life


“A wiser and sadder man, he rose the morrow morn”….”wiser and sadder”, these two words mark the passage of the young  Wedding Guest of Coleridge’s “Rime to the Ancient Mariner” into the world of adulthood, the bitter age of experience, as Blake would call it, and this is because of a weird story told by a mysterious man, an Ancient Mariner. The narration seems to have affected  the mind of the young man so much, that in the end he falters just like one who “hath been stunned” and “is of sense forlon”. He forgets about the allure of the wedding party he had so much longed to go and proceeds back  home, where after a sound sleep,  he wakes up the following day a completely new type of person: “a wiser and sadder man”, in fact. It must have been a very powerful story indeed to produce such a reaction, even if at first glance it seems only the narration of a voyage with a lot of incidents, in a magic atmosphere, with some  religious symbolism scattered here and there. So, what had the Wedding Guest understood between the lines of the story?

viaggio12First of all why Coleridge had named his young character, Wedding Guest, rather than, I don’t know….The Student, The Lover or other stereotypes we are familiar with. What is the category of the Wedding Guest Like?  What does a Wedding Guest do? Well, I guess a Wedding Guest loves parties, noise, people. He enjoys a life focused mostly on relations, symbolized by the wedding party itself and on the rites that those relations share: food, drink, music, good conversation etc. .He actually enjoys the feast of life and somehow he believes that this is what really matters. And he is young. His youth makes him arrogant, hence he despises the man who had dared stop him just to tell a ghastly story, because he is old, nay more than old: ancient.

viaggio10The generational gap between the two would be unbridgeable but for the supernatural powers the old mariner is endowed with, which help him win the will of the young man, who, from then on, will listen to the story willy-nilly like a “three-year child”. Then the old man will use all his mastery to create that “suspension of disbelief” he needs to catch the heart of the Wedding Guest.Therefore, a gallery of extraordinary characters and events takes form : an unexpected, destructive tempest, a heavenly albatross, tremendous cold and then unbearable heat,the appalling ghosts of Death and Life in Death, crawling snakes, zombies, a mysterious hermit, only to mention the most important ones. It is the story of a voyage, and what is a voyage but the most explicit metaphor of life? The old mariner wants to open the young man’s eyes to make him understand that life will be far from being a never-ending party, an incessant whirl of joyous emotions, as rubs and bitter disappointments will be always behind the corner.

viaggio13The first part of the ballad focuses on the narration of the first days of the mariner’s voyage, when he was just like the Wedding Guest, and somehow it can be considered a metaphor of youth. When you are young, you look forward to hoisting your sails and begin your journey. At first you start to glide on the tranquil waters near the harbour with all the cheerfulness  and thoughtfulness typical of innocence. As the winds start to make your boat move and you see all the familiar places far away, the adrenaline and the excitement grow .You finally feel free to experience the world and you are confident enough to believe that you will always be able to drive your boat exactly where you want. You are so sure that life will always be an exciting, marvellous adventure, that your first, unavoidable tempest will catch you by surprise and fear and wonder will overwhelm you.Before realizing what to do, you’ll find yourself in strange, unfamiliar places, far away from where you had expected to be.

viaggio14The ship of the Ancient Mariner, in fact, is driven by the blasts of a tremendous storm to the South Pole. The sudden mist that surrounds the sailor and his crew is the symbol of their disorientation, so that when huge icebergs come floating by – when you are Young your first obstacles always seem enormous and insurmountable – terror paralyzes their mind. Experience  teaches that somehow there is always a way out, especially if you manage to find the right determination to take advantage of favourable circumstances that could be both of a natural or spiritual kind. The spirituality is represented here by the coming of the Albatross, that with its presence soothes the profound solitude of the inhabitants of the ship, who see it as sign of good omen as, since its arrival, a “good wind” has started to spring. A natural helping hand which pushes the ship northward, back home.Maybe.

Typical of youth is a certain lightness of behaviour, you live for the present and you don’t think about the future consequences of your actions. Everything seems to be for granted, so when the danger of the tempest is soon forgotten and you start to sail in more tranquil waters, that shallow and arrogant traits of that age start to surface again. So the Mariner narrates to have killed one day that Albatross, that bird which had swept away the fog of their confusion and fear, giving them the comfort of hope. He did that with no apparent reason. He was a kind of…bored.
viaggio8When you are young, the making of connections is very important. They very often become more influential and trustworthy than the family itself. Being part of a community of friends makes you feel safe and accepted, but what happens when, for some reasons, you find yourself out of it? In the case of the Mariner, the Killing of the albatross places him in a condition of seclusion and solitude. He has to face the reactions of his world of connections, here symbolized by the crew. At first, the crew condemn the action the mariner as they believe that “it made the breeze to blow”, but as soon as they see the sun rise after so many days of wondrous cold, they “all averred, he had killed the bird that brought the fog and mist”. Human nature is mutable and the mariner wants the Wedding Guest to be fully aware of that, before it is too late. He must learn to rely on himself and not on people, because if things go wrong, he will pay for all and will be let alone. In fact, when they find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean “under a hot and copper sky”, with no water to drink and their tongues “withered at the root”, the blame falls on the Mariner alone. He becomes the only scapegoat and those, who used to be his friends,hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

viaggio11The crew had condemned the ominous consequences the action of the Ancient Mariner had had on them, rather than its moral implications, that’s why all the sailors are punished and die, as the ghost of Death will win them all in a game of dice with the only exception of the Ancient Mariner, who will be left in the power of the other frightening ghost: Life in Death. It is the death of his youthful innocence and the beginning of a new, tiring journey that will make him grow a new awareness on the meaning and the repercussions of his actions. It will take him a long time, a time made of prayers and expiation that covers more than the half of the whole ballad, till he succeeds in going back to where he had started, but he won’t be the same person again. He couldn’t. This is what happens when we become adult, experience makes us wiser but sadder at the same time, as we grow more aware of the world that surrounds us. Then, one day, we may become parents or teachers, “modern” Ancient Mariners, willing to help our Wedding Guests in their progress to maturity.

20 thoughts on “The Rime of our Life

  1. Mrs Gioffrè you are always so clear and circular in the explanation of those “massimi sistemi”. Reading through the last three lines of the Rhyme I cannot but cry and think of the tragically composed wrap up of that Dante-like masterpiece. And more surely I cannot help but think with nostalgic sentiment about your memorable lessons. Albeit I may have been more pessimistic about certain Life Motifs of mine I now appreciate the light in my life, perhaps due to Coleridge and The ancient Mariner.
    Con stima
    thomas 🙂

    • Oh Thomas, I do remember your tears at the end of that lesson. These were really memorable 😉 I’m glad to know you’ve found your way. Wish you all the best.
      With love

  2. The Literature knowledge of Mrs. TInk….was missing it.
    You probably know Walter Whitman? Taking an online course about his poetry now I know cool names like repetiton, apostrophe, alliteration, enjambment, and what they mean and how he applies it to his poetry, amongst others rare names. Actually taking a free online course from Harvard, so now I can say I´m a Harvard Student! I figured that you one day might need a substitute teacher so you can decompress once in a while, so that would be me.

  3. Stefy: Thank you for the thoughtful, insightful exploration of Coleridge’s classic ballad that elucidates the chasm between naiveté of youth and the wisdom of old age. It reminds me of a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” When parents reads that, they smile knowingly. Another poem that covers similar ground is A. E. Housman’s timeless “When I Was One-and-Twenty.” Indeed, one of the greatest gifts that life bestows on us as we grow older is wisdom. It cannot be purchased, leased, borrowed, or stolen — it comes from traveling the long and winding road with its inevitable peaks and valleys. If we are fortunate enough to let life teach us something, we arrive at the same realization as Tennyson’s Ulyssess who embraces the ultimate truth: “I am a part of all that I have met.” And for that we are all blessed.
    Cheers, Alex

  4. I much enjoyed your posts and particularly the way that Wedding Guest and the Ancient Mariner are portrayed here as characters that might be opposed among them but stil complementary somehow!. Also found that the Albatross which is a powerful symbol for The spirituality reminded me of Baudelaire’s poem!.
    I much enjoyed this excerpt: “The ghost of Death will win them all in a game of dice with the only exception of the Ancient Mariner, who will be left in the power of the other frightening ghost: Life in Death”. Powerful!. That made me think in the Three Greek Moirae!.
    Excellent post Stefy. All the best to you. Aquileana 😀

    • Hi Aquileana, sorry for being late, but you “liked” so many of my posts that I missed this comment. You’ve bee too generous. 🙂 Thanks a lot. The Rime is one of my favourite poems and every now and then I feel I have to write something about it. Very true, Life in Death seems to have the same function of the three Moirae. Uhmmmm, I’ll write a post about it. 😉 Wish you all the best.

  5. The philosopher Francis Bacon said that old men represent the modernity, because they have more experience than children, who represent the antiquity. This post is very interesting and there would be a lot of things to say. Certainly young people are impulsive and presumptuous and they often are bored by old people who try to teach them how to live. In my opinion young people must make mistakes, act instinctively and think with their mind to become a good old men one day. I also think that sometimes advice is very useful and help us to overcome obstacles. So to become an old man, first you must be young.

  6. Giulia. S 4A
    “The rime of the ancient mariner” is a poem that I enjoyed a lot. The defects of youth become meataphores in this poem. The most typical mistakes of the young are: impulsiveness and being influenced by others. Impulsivity is reacting instinctively, for example when the old sailor killed the Albatross. Being influenced is the inability to carry on your opinion, because of fear, superstition. For example when the crew initially accused the old mariner because of the killing the Albatross and next they congratuled to him. These mistakes are inherent to the nature of the young. Mistakes help people to reflect and mature. In my opinion mistakes are fundamental moments of growth. They are small steps of a long journey called: Life.

  7. Leonardo C. 4B
    This post is very interesting and it helps us reflect on our problems. It’s true that we must start to rely on ourself but it isn’t so frightening! The important thing is to know that after every difficulty in a trip there is always a new wonderful place to see.

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