The Rime of our Life

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“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.

14 thoughts on “The Rime of our Life

  1. Great story dear Stefy, I know this as in the ’80s & ’90s I was freaky for the Iron Maiden (though, I love them still 🙂 ) they made a wonderful song as you might like it a little bit heavy 😂 Thank you ❤

  2. Excellent analysis of a most excellent poem! One of my all time favorites. I always read it to my older grandson at Halloween.
    “Like one upon a lonesome road,
    doth walk in fear and dread,
    and having once turned round, walks on
    and turns no more his head,
    because he knows a frightful fiend,
    doth close behind him tread.”
    Perfect scary Halloween verse when said to effect. 😂

    • Oh, yes indeed. I have to tell you that I do enjoy reading the Rime in class. Particularly the third part, soon after the game of dice between Death and Life in Death. Just brilliant.

  3. So many things come to mind when reading about “The Rime”. I remember not liking it when explained in class, at first. I also remember the the explanation focusing only some key stanzas of the poem, being it very long and narrative. I also had the impression that you, Prof, did not like it in its entirety, but rather only the bits you picked for us to work on and discuss.

    However I do remember changing my mind about it and coming to really appreciate is at as a whole later on (perhaps thanks to the Iron Maiden song as well, as it’s been pointed out already).
    Nonetheless, I have always been intrigued (since high school) by the contrast, or should I say relationship between the Ancient Mariner and the Wedding Guest, as you just pointed out in your post.
    It could be because I can very much relate with the Wedding Guest himself, being in that age of transition from “young manhood” into adulthood, these expression and emotions “wiser and sadder” truly describe well what goes on during this time. As a teenager you only get some of the meaning of Coleridge’s description of the Guest after having heard the Mariner’s story. You can try and relate to him or rather you try and imagine what it means. You do understand the Guest’s feelings, but you have not necessarily lived them yet. Not completely, at least, and that completely changes your perspective when reading it again later on in life.

    As brilliantly pointed out in the post, the whole story told by the Mariner acquires a completely different taste and meaning, as the reader can more easily understand the metaphors he is describing in his narrative.

    It is indeed true that growing up brings wisdom and more understanding, and unfortunately many times a deeper understanding of the world brings inevitable sadness. Coleridge’s message is so clear and he gives every reader such a powerful warning. I can imagine him writing the Rime in that precise state of bitter sadness, perhaps going back to these episodes “of experience” that brought him into adulthood, those moments that hardened him but gave him wisdom in exchange.

    For me this aspect is even more fascinating and it goes on with all art, not only literature. Understanding what brought him to write the Rime, what age he was, what stage of his life he was in and what he was going through. It puts everything into an even deeper context and empowers his message even more.

    It is true that coming of age is a trade of Innocence for Experience, and experience gives us wisdom which automatically leads to a sense of sadness.
    I think that sadness is inevitable at first, as it is our natural reaction, our way to “harden up”. What Coleridge did not include in his poem is that after that initial sadness we are always left with a choice. The Guest wakes up the following day in his bed. He is sad, he needs to go through it, but he does have a choice. And that is the choice of happiness. You can still choose happiness in your “grimmer” view of the world.

    Perhaps it takes an even deeper wisdom.

    • Lovely comment, which deseved a prompter reply, but I am super busy this time of the year as you may well guess, so I hope you will apologize me. Coleridge is by no means one of my favourite poets, but I am not surprised by the fact that I was not able to trasmit this ” passion” of mine to you. Think well about the atmosphere of that year and, let’s say, its many “changes”; I think that no-one of us gave their best on that occasion, which is a shame, because you were a very good class.
      Still in my heart, nevertheless.
      😉

  4. Pingback: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – lampmagician

  5. I’d forgotten that I had your post in my to-read queue until just now, and pulled it out because, as part of my year-long salute to Melville, I read Coleridge’s poem last night. Everything you wrote here jibes with my sense of the poem (although I had to add that the sing-song rhythm quickly grew tiresome for me). I’m glad you’ve been able to introduce your students to this classic more successfully than did my high school literature teacher to me and my classmates (50 years ago!).

    BTW, you might enjoy Poe’s story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which you can read online at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Narrative_of_Arthur_Gordon_Pym. It’s even weirder than Coleridge’s poem.

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