“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?
First 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
When 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.
The 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.