And I Had Done a Hellish Thing

The beginning of the second part of the Rime is strikingly modern in my eyes. Coleridge shows here a great insight of human nature and the dynamics that rule relations among men and I may say nowadays more than ever. The first part had ended with the Ancient Mariner’s unforeseen killing of the albatross. There is not a  particular reason that may justify such senseless and despicable action. He just did it. That is why this crime is somehow even more terrible than that of Cain, who had killed, for sure, but because he envied his brother. At least he had a reason. The killing of the albatross has no justification at all, that is why it represents absolute evil, the evil that does not need motives: ” I shot the Albatross“. Full stop. Evil is a seed  that resides in every human soul and can blossom in any moment, just responding to our basest instincts and this is a fact for Coleridge.

Particularly interesting is how the crew, who represents the Mariner’s community of friends and connections he has to interact with daily, reacts to the killing of the albatross.  Coleridge,at this point, leaves the quiet pace of the ballad made of quatrains and marks a change employing two sestets where he can better develop the repercussions of the incident on the mariners’ souls:

“And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!”

The seafarers at first blame the mariner for having killed the bird of good omen they had believed to be the cause of their good fortune, thus, managing to escape from the mist and the wondrous cold of the South Pole and move Northward. There is not a single word of condemnation on the moral implication of his action.They are just superstitious and believe that the infamous behaviour of the mariner, somehow, will have consequences on their welfare. They are 200 in all, but they speak as if they had one voice. The scenario, however, suddenly changes:

“Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.”

Against all odds, after many days of suffering and fear the glorious sun rises and under that warm and comforting light the seafarers now believe to see the truth clearly : that albatross was not the bird of good omen, but quite the contrary. They all agree, with no exception, that the killing of the Albatross was rightly done as the bird must have been the cause of their misfortune. In this way they all become accomplices to the Mariner. In these few lines Coleridge tells us how mutable human nature is.The members of the crew are prompt to change their minds according to the new situations and beliefs, but above all they move en masse. This herding behaviour makes them feel stronger and ready to attack like wolves whoever acts differently or is seen like a danger. I may say that social medias provide the most fertile ground where this kind of human attitude manifests itself nowadays.

For better or worse the killing of the Albatross places the Mariner in a condition of seclusion and solitude. Furthemore, he is the only one who realizes the extent of what he had done when he says it was a ” hellish thing“, an action that ” would work ’em woe”. In fact, pleasant warmth becomes unbearable heat and when the wind drops and the men find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean, with no water to drink, the wolves attack the Mariner again and hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

By the way, the crew is eventually punished with death for not having blamed the crime of the Ancient Mariner for its moral implications. As only survivor the Mariner is now condemned to live persecuted by the memory of his dead comrades. His punishment is even more terrible than death itself: to live in solitude, without the hope of God’s piety, with a tormented soul and in constant agitation.  Even when, eventually, he expiates his sin and manages to go back home, he is not allowed to enjoy the communion of other men. He will have the mission of admonishing them, impart the lesson he had learnt from his experience, but nothing more. He’ll remain at the margin of the feast of life, doomed to stop men, with his “glittering eye” to which no one can escape, trying to make them wiser, if possible, even if this means being sadder.

 

 

 

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Romantic Buddhism

Year after year of lessons on the Romantics, in particular those of the first generation, a question has gradually taken shape in my mind : “but were these Coleridge and Wordsworth a kind of Buddhists?” I know, it’s hazardous and I have to confess that my knowledge of Buddhism is actually basic: I’ve read Thomas Mann’s Siddhartha and the Autobiography of a Yogi about the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, that is all. But I want to try to outline an analysis anyhow. Well, Buddhism is a religion /philosophy based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened). For the Buddhists he is the enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help men end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving, thus attaining the highest happiness: Nirvana. Wow, but this the Indian version of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads!!!

Rewind: the Romantic poet as the Buddha is the enlightened man with that superior sensibility/imagination who teaches men how to feel and keep memory of their emotions,  in order to better bear the inevitable sufferings of life, thus reaching happiness. He is a poet and poetry is his weapon. Coleridge,in particular, had understood that the burden of our ” wants” can’t help us understand the true nature of happiness and confounds us. Siddhartha seemed to have whatever life had to offer: he was young, handsome, rich and, naturally, admired and envied at the same time. Hpwever, that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more. So, he got rid of that burden of things to be free to choose his way, exactly as St Francis of Assisi did.

The ticking that marks the rhythm of our actions, prevents us from fully enjoying that dreamed happiness too. We are so used to stuffing our days with as many actions as possible that we have no time to pause to think about what we are actually doing. “Stop the ticking!” said Captain Hook, but how? We are not characters of a fairy tale. How is it possible to reach our Nirvana, if this is the frantic pattern of our modern age?

In the eighteenth century Romantic artists had already understood  that man somehow would have undergone a great psychological change due to the impulse of the industrial revolution. Macaulay had said that the social-scientifical growth of England was equivalent to what men had done in three hundred or maybe three thousand years. Clock time had replaced seasonal time and from that moment on we have kept moving faster and faster.

That’s why one of the main characteristics of Romantic poetry is its meditative tone.Time had to slow down to understand the real nature of the self and life.  Remember, for example, the amazing “Elegy” of Thomas Gray where the knelling of the curfew toll which pervades the first stanzas gradually fades to give way to the poet’s deep reflection. In the poem “Daffodils” only in a moment of beautiful stillness Wordsworth can experience that pure happiness destined to be enjoyed forever and in Coleridge’s “Rime” the Ancient Mariner stops with a spell a reluctant young Wedding Guest in order to be able to communicate with him and then let him meditate on the meaning of his tale.

So the point is that these “Romantic Buddhists” had understood the importance of meditation to reach the necessary awareness that might lead to happiness. Meditation is, in fact, the primary means of cultivating  Buddhism. Your mind focuses on an object, this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings till your mind is able to gain insight into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude. In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves and the world outside reaching our Nirvana. Yes, but  ……..excuse me, what time is it? I’ve got to go.

 

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.

The Quest for Nirvana

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There is one aspect I really loved about the Romantics of the first generation. They had a vision. They soon understood that the world was undergoing such a change due to the industrial revolution, whose consequences wouldn’t have been only of a social, economical nature, but emotional. Modern world would have moved faster, but speed would have made man inevitably more shallow if not blind. You cannot grasp the essence and the beauty of live if you must move at high-speed. For example, If I live in Rome and I want to go to Milan by airplane I will see just the destination, if I get the train I will be able to see the beautiful landscapes, mountains, rivers ; but if I could do it riding a bike I could smell the air, meet the people, taste their food, interact, live, I could really see, learn, grow – I am sure two fellow bloggers from Canada cannot but agree with me upon this point  😉  – . If you don’t want modernity to devour your uniqueness and sensibility, you need time and maybe a bike.

imagesW2YGFEXYTherefore you have to STOP. This is what Wordsworth said. Stop and breathe, stop and enjoy the wonders of nature, stop and make your “inner eye” live and vibrate with the spiritual forces of the world. If you just stop for a while, you will find  happiness. This is the inner message of one or Wordsworth’s most famous poems: “Daffodils“. He also adds, that this or any other experience of this kind, will be always part of man and helps him in times of trouble. But if a man is insensitive, where can he find his comfort?

images7YML3HLBEven the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge‘s “Rime”  stops with a spell the young, reluctant, Wedding Guest in order to communicate with him. He wants the boy to listen to his tale in order to meditate upon its meaning. Think before acting or you will inevitably pay its consequences, he seems to say, take your time to do the right thing. In the end the Wedding Guest will be transformed into ” A wiser and sadder man”.

nirvanaAt this point a question takes shape in my mind : “couldn’t  Coleridge and Wordsworth be a kind of unaware Buddhists”?  After all, the ancient mariner seems a sort of Buddha to me, that is, the enlightened teacher who shares his insights to help man (the Wedding Guest), end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving.  Even the poem Daffodils, cannot be a great example of Buddhist meditation? Your mind focuses on an object (daffodils), this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings, till your mind is able to gain insight (inward eye) into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude (“My heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils“). In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves reaching our Nirvana.

However, Buddhism was well-known at those times. images1GO9TIX4Arthur Schopenhauer, for instance, was deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion and was convinced that suffering was caused by desire and only the extinction of desire led to liberation. In The World as Will and Representation he finds in aesthetic contemplation a temporary way to escape this pain, because through aesthetic contemplation the world is no longer seen as an object of perception but rather as that place where one merges with that perception. In that timeless moment the individual loses his identity/will and his sorrows as well, thus being able to enjoy the true essence of the world.

Ahhhh, that would be really great, but, excuse me…………….what time is it?

Teaching a Wedding Guest

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In Coleridge‘s “Rime“, the narrating voice, the Ancient Mariner, has an arduous task to accomplish: telling his moralizing tale to a young man who is about to attend a matrimony, The Wedding Guest. As I said, it is a very arduous task indeed, because a Wedding Guest is usually not in the mood of listening to stories, in particular if recounted by a strange old man. How can it be otherwise, when you are just about to join your friends at a fabulous party to have a jolly good time! The Wedding Guest, in fact, symbolizes that transient, light, thoughtless, “I can do everything” moment of life, which is youth. When you are thus young this is more or less your vision of life: a never-ending party and no annoying adult voice has to break the magnificence of  this spell. However, the Mariner is not at all intimidated, but rather, provides us teachers with some interesting tips on how capturing the attention of our students willy-nilly. Actually, his first attempt turns out to be a failure, because the Mariner decides upon using his (scarce) force to stop the Wedding Guest and “holds him with his skinny hand“, which, in case you choose to follow his example in a moment of despair, is against the law, remember. Besides, the Wedding Guest is younger and therefore stronger than the Mariner, in fact he reacts violently, yelling at him “Hold off! Unhand me!” and after setting himself free from the old man’s grasp, he sneers at him defiantly, reminding him the arrogant supremacy of his youth. For him the Mariner is only a “grey-beard loon“. That wasn’t the right way. It never is. However, when you are young, you are so absorbed by your frantic life made relations, the new experiences of the world outside etc. that it happens not to pay the due attention to meaningful details. The Wedding Guest, in fact, had noticed the strange vitality of the Mariner ‘s look in a man so old, but he had not pondered enough about it and incredulously he finds himself paralyzed by the Mariner’s charm, who “holds him with his glittering eye” and “has his will”. Now that the young man stands “still”  the Mariner can finally tell him his story and it’s only in that stillness that the boy will be able to enjoy and understand the narration and its moralizing intent: a trip, a storm, an albatross, Life in Death, sin and final repentance. Is the Mariner a wizard then? Not at all, he represents the poet, that with his creative power can produce that “suspension of disbelief ” that makes everybody listen “like a three years’ child“. In that suspension, the young and the adult can meet, talk, interact. This is the point, maybe also the teacher’s effort, just like that of the poet/Mariner, should aim at creating that moment of amazement in order to involve our young Wedding Guests more. I know, it’s not easy and it can’t happen every day, but when we eventually succeed in finding the words that breach their boredom and apathy and we start to see that “glitter” in their eyes, well, it’s absolutely amazing. That’s why we teach.

The alienated Wedding Guest

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This will be the last post on Coleridge, I promise, but allow me one last consideration. In short we’ve said that the Ancient Mariner warns the Wedding Guest against the false values of materialistic society and that in so doing he warns us. But we have to say that the Wedding Guest in his unawareness seemed to have a jolly good time. He enjoyed a life focused mostly on relations, symbolized by the wedding party, and on the rites that relations share: food, drink, music, good conversation etc. He knew what he wanted and where to get it and above all  it was real. This is the point. Modern Wedding Guests develop their relations in the cold solitude of their rooms in front of a computer and try to fool the spectre of their loneliness agitating a list of numerous virtual followers. They have trimmed their communicative effort to a “I like it”. Modern Wedding Guests have been brought up by media and video games of any kind so that they find difficult to draw a line between virtual and real world. This is their emotional Bildung. But when one of them feels that thrill and decides to pull that trigger, does he know  in which world will he play his game?

And you may ask yourself: “How did I get here?”

As I told in the previous post, the treasure the Ancient Mariner will find at the end of the journey is his self awareness. If the immense Ocean represents the world, we are the commander in chief who have to decide where to take our ship. Otherwise we are at the merci of the waves, and our clouded minds can’t avoid the rubs. We have to make the effort to know who we are and what we want or else we will become insecure and consequently easily controlled. If we don’t become aware of this, we’ll keep on doing what we have been told to every single day our life, feeling actually safe, because it is exactly what everybody does. Till one day we wake up and “You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house? You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?”
Remember:
“To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture”

The Talking Heads well expressed this mood in their “Once in a Lifetime

Here are the lyrics : Once in a lifetime