Coleridge’s Use of Symbolism in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The greatness of a poet chiefly lies in his use of symbolism and imagery. Romantic poets have used different symbols to convey their attitude to life and nature, for they believe in a transcendental reality, an ideal world beyond the world of reality. Coleridge deals with the supernatural aspects of life as well as nature and to do so he has made extensive use of symbolism in his poems.

An analysis of his celebrated poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” reveals that he has made the whole poem a symbol of life itself.The poet through his use of various symbols has produced the presence of two worlds: the conventional everyday world and the mysterious world beyond that which is more real to him. In the opening lines, Coleridge has introduced the entirely different personalities, the wedding guest as a symbol of the conventional everyday world and the mysterious transcendental world. The Sea-Lord Albatross symbolizes some moral values: hospitality and gratitude. It also becomes a symbol of life itself in the Mariner’s lifeless world. The act of killing involving the crime of the Mariner symbolizes man’s violation of moral values. The poet’s deliberate silence about the motive of the crime symbolizes the essential irrationality of the human mind.

However, the use of the supernatural reveals the greatest symbol of the mystery of life and the unseen powers controlling human destiny. Coleridge has used a number of supernatural elements which are rationally inexplicable, e.g. the seraph band, the specter ship with the ‘Life in Death’ woman, the unknown spirits following them etc. All these happenings suggest the eternal mystery of life, symbolizing the puggling aspects of life which contribute to the transcendental world of Coleridge. Other objects of nature like the sun and the moon are used as powerful symbols in the poem. The sun symbolizes the rational world which is benevolent in the beginning of the voyage but later becomes malicious after the commitment of the crime. The moon symbolizes the divine spirit which remains indifferent to the Mariner’s ordeal’ keeping to her own course throughout the voyage. The whole dualism of the poem: the sun and the moon, the powers of water and air, the act of killing and that of blessing, the state of solitude and that of ‘goodly company’, the nightmare and the awakening, the drowning and the resurfacing symbolizes some kind of redemption of reconciliation. The two voices, whose conversation the Mariner hears subconsciously, symbolizes the spiritual and psychological part of the Mariner’s mind. Since he is not essentially evil-minded, he is conscious of his crime and the need for repentance. He hears subconsciously: “The man hath penance done/ and penance more will do”.

It is to be noted that Coleridge’s continuous use of contrasts of bright and somber, colors of silence and noise of joy and sorrow of light and darkness etc. symbolizes his own view of light which is a mixture of the opposite. With the employment of all these symbols, the poet has given a new meaning to the archetype pattern of the main fall and his repentance, leading to partial redemption.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a highly symbolic poem, written in the form of a ballad, dealing with certain psychological states of a sailor, his sun, and redemption. However, the poem involves a paradox, for the wedding ceremony symbolizes the beginning of a new life of the two united souls, but the Mariner has reached the end of his life when nothing remains for him except the past memories of sorrow, sin, and repentance. If the Mariner’s voyage is regarded as a symbolic journey of life, we note that he also started it happily like the newly married couple. The storm at sea drew the ship to the land of mist. Here ‘mist’ symbolizes moral confusion from which the Mariner and other sailor were suffering. Some critics have described the bird itself as Christ. So the killing of the bird by the Mariner represents the sin of crucifixion, enabling the bird to embrace the death of a martyr, though his act of killing, the Mariner has become a sinner, inviting the inevitable sufferings of life.

Thus, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is essentially a symbolic poem and Coleridge craftsmanship and dealing with different symbols reveals his poetic genius at its best.


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