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.

 

Teaching a Wedding Guest

gustave-dore-the-wedding-guest-being-prevented-by-the-ancient-mariner-from-attending-the-wedding
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.

Pop poetry

I’m sure that whenever you bump into the word “pop” you actually think about music, remember those Top of the Pops shows on Thursdays on BBC? Lovely, pop, in fact, is the abbreviation of popular and for pop music we refer to a genre with a popular appeal.
It often borrows elements from other styles just like latin, dance, rock ,country, but which are the core elements that define pop? Well, short-to-medium length songs in a verse chorus structure, melodic tunes, catchy  hooks, simple but effective messages. So whenever I think about Romanticism I can’t help but define it pop poetry. The poets wanted to reach a vast audience so they needed to become more accessible. Therefore they “purified” Classical poetry of all its artifices, simplified the language, increased the degree of musicality. It was inevitable that pop music and Romatic poetry would meet one day and from that happy match many famous songs came to life. In the eighties, for example, Frankies goes to Hollywood made a hit out of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” but also his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was a source of inspiration for the Iron Maiden, who wouldn’t certainly be happy to be called pop, I know, but it worked.

Here is the video of the Iron Maiden: