February 27, 2000
Samuel Taylor Coleridge states his duties in writing for the Lyrical Ballads ??. to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, supposing them real? ( ?Biographia Literaria?). Coleridge was to write about the supernormal in such a way that the ordinary person would be able to believe such occurrences could happen. It seemed that Coleridge?s responsibility was not to haunt or terrorize his readers, but to excite and grab their interest through unnatural happenings. And, with the willing suspension of disbelief, the common man could relate to his accounts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge adhered to his duties in the ?Rime of the Ancient Mariner? by evoking supernatural elements within his main character the Mariner, descriptions of the ghost ship and its crew, and the unexplainable atmospheric changes that occur throughout the poem.
Early in the poem the Mariner was depicted as having a supernatural power to hypnotize the Wedding-Guest. Coleridge writes, ?He holds him with his glittering eye- / The Wedding-Guest stood still, / And listens like a three years? child: / The Mariner hath his will? (13-15). The Wedding-Guest wanted to leave the Mariner but the guest was thwarted by the Mariners hypnotic stare. Many times throughout the poem the Wedding-Guest tried to break away, but was always compelled to stay and hear the Mariners? strange tale. The Wedding-Guest was not the only person to whom the Mariner must tell his story; he told the Wedding-Guest that he also had the strange ability to recognize the man who next needed to hear his lesson. The Mariner spoke, ?I pass, like night, from land to land; / I have strange power of speech; / That moment that his face I see, / I know the man that must hear me: / To him my tale I teach? (586-589). This alone is enough reason to question the normalcy of the Mariner but even more evidence of his supernatural ability was the way the Mariner seemed to disappear immediately after his tale was told. At the end, ?The Mariner, whose eye was bright, / whose beard with age is hoar, / Is gone:? (618-620). Only a man who had special abilities could have disappeared without a trace. Coleridge put this all together in his character the Mariner. The Mariner seemed to be someone who had certain capabilities that extended beyond that of natural men.
Coleridge furthered his use of supernatural symbolism with the description of the ghost ship and its crew. At first sight of the ship, it seemed to move onward without any aid from conventional sources. ?Without a breeze, without a tide, / She steadies with upright keel!? (618-620). Neither the Mariner, nor any of his crew had ever seen a ship move like that. As the ship drew closer, the ship itself could be seen as unearthly. The construction was of such that no human could have imagined. Coleridge describes the hideous ghost ship, ?And straight the sun was flecked with bars, / (Heaven?s Mother send us grace!) / As if through a dungeon grate he peered / With broad and burning face? (177-180). The ship itself was portrayed as an aberration of a skeleton. The ship could be described as dead as its passengers. One of the passengers was depicted in ghostly terms. The Mariner spoke, ?Her skin was as white as leprosy / The Night-mare Life-IN-Death was she, / who thicks man?s blood with cold? (192-194). From the earliest mention of the ship, readers are led to believe that there was some spectral element all around it. The exit of the ship also lended itself to devilish ways. The demon vessel vanished as quickly as it appeared just like the Mariner. ?With far-heard whisper, o?er the sea, / Off shot the spectre-bark? (201-202). The ghost ship was embodied with all that was evil; its addition to the poem added to Coleridge?s supernatural style.
The freakish climate and atmospheric changes that Coleridge provided for the Mariner and his crew denoted that supernatural forces were at hand. As Coleridge wrote, ?And now there came both mist and snow, / And it grew wondrous cold: / And ice, mast-high, came floating by, / As green as emerald? (51-54). He transformed the weather from hot to cold, and back to sweltering heat again. After the selfish murder of the albatross the normal weather took its first reversal, ?All in a hot and copper sky, / The bloody Sun, at noon, / Right up above the mast did stand, / No bigger than the Moon? (111-114). These changes foreshadowed to the fact that the Mariner?s journey would be guided by powers higher than that of usual man. Along with temperature changes, came unexplainable shifts in the wind. The Mariner and his crew could not depend upon traditional patterns of wind to guide them through the sea. At times, all of a sudden the wind would die down and becalm the ship. Then with no warning it would pick up again at abnormal rates. Without reason the ship would seem to sail without the use of wind. As the Mariner described one incident, ?And soon I heard a roaring wind. / It did not come anear; / But with its sound it shook the sails, / That were so thin and sere? (309-312). One could only guess that a heavenly power was at will. At one point in the poem, the day changes to night at an untimed interval. ?The Sun?s rim dips; the stars rush out: / At one stride comes the dark;? (199-200). The heavens and all its surrounding could only be altered by an element unbecoming to that of mortal men. Predictability of these conditions could not be counted on; the Mariner knew that he, nor any other man, had no control over his environments.
Coleridge?s supernatural elements were not only limited to the character of the Mariner, the ghost ship or his drastic changes of the weather. He used these three examples to illustrate how supernatural elements could be successfully intertwined into a story that embodied many themes. His style allowed the reader to believe, given poetic faith, that anyone could happen upon these situations within his time. However, part of the appeal of the poem was that it could never be totally and fully explained. Samuel Taylor Coleridge stuck to his principals of writing about the supernatural, and by doing so created one of the greatest poems of the Romantic Period.