The Ancient Mariner and the Meaning of Loneliness

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a haunting tale of the roles of divine and supernatural interference in a moral universe. It is this, and much more. The poem provides glimpses of a world where God, nature, man, and the invisible world of spirits potentially coexist. In the actual reality of the poem, however, these elements are not unified together in mutual harmony and compassion. Rather, the Mariner, a striking figure who is in one way or another always alone, progresses through his tale in various shades of loneliness. It is the Mariner's loneliness that Coleridge manipulates in order to draw attention to the poem's other constant: the potential world of rich existence that is never realized. Using the Mariner figure, Coleridge demonstrates that "loneliness" is essentially the state of humanity divorced from what one might call the ideal world. After all, the Mariner first experiences the loneliness of separation from humanity after he kills the Albatross, a representative of that ideal world. After the Albatross falls from the Mariner's neck, his loneliness allows him to communicate more intimately with at least one part of the ideal world: God and nature. Finally, in serving his penance the Mariner becomes a living lesson for what happens when man divorces himself from the ideal world: he is doomed to wander the Earth as an empty vessel, never to truly enjoy the companionship of his fellow human beings again.

Despite the apparent predicaments of his protagonist, Coleridge actually sets his tale in a world of potential glory and richness, a world vibrant with shadows and hints of life, spirituality, and divinity. The story opens at a vivacious wedding ceremony, a ritual celebrating the ties between human beings and a precursor to the creation of new life. As Coleridge writes, "The guests are met, the feast is set: / May'st hear the merry din"(7-8), and before the bride goes "the merry minstrelsy"(36). This optimistic and merry tone does not last, however. Before the Mariner commits his crime, his fellow sailors are able to catch glimpses of a natural world that is similarly full of a life of its own. The Albatross "every day, for food or play, / Came to the mariners' hollo"(73-74). Nature and inanimate objects themselves become personified as Coleridge calls the sun and the ship "hes" and the moon a "she." Although the sailors could see "nor shapes of men nor beasts"(57) in the "land of mist and snow"(134), the ice itself provides that living presence because it "cracked and growled, and roared and howled"(61). After the Mariner kills the Albatross, the world of animal life is replaced by a world of spirits and less familiar but nonetheless living creatures. For example, Coleridge describes "slimy things [that] did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea"(125-26). As the Mariner's tale progresses, he encounters supernatural entities from dancing "death-fires"(128), bewitched waters that turn various shades of color, and "elfish"(275) water snakes to the spirits from "the land of mist and snow": Death, Life-in-Death, and finally the angelic spirits who help steer the ship back to shore. The Mariner is emotionally and physically alone most of the time, but at all times Coleridge juxtaposes this loneliness with living creatures, supernatural entities, and a sense of spirituality that hints at a potentially richer world. Indeed, the Latin motto that Coleridge includes with the poem tells the reader that "there are more invisible than visible things in the universe."

These hints, these spirits and creatures, serve to emphasize the Mariner's loneliness and help Coleridge teach his lesson, the first one being that the Mariner's world is already fallen, that it is not the ideal world that it could be. The Oxford English Dictionary's various definitions of the adjective "alone" include "being quite by oneself, unaccompanied," "that of which there exists no other example," and "alone in action or feeling, having no sharer in one's action or position." One suspects that the last definition is most appropriate for Coleridge's purposes, and that he believes human beings ought to share their actions and feelings with the ideal world. Loneliness occurs when that connection between human beings and ideal world is severed. Throughout the story, the Mariner has brief connections with God, nature, and human beings, but never all at the same time. Therefore he is always "alone" to a certain degree and is never in perfect rapport with the ideal world. Nor are his shipmates. At the beginning of the poem, for example, he is presumably on good terms with his shipmates and they all have a superficial fondness for the Albatross. But this is already a fallen human world. Although the Mariner's shipmates at first curse him for killing the Albatross, their finger pointing turns out to be hypocritical and insincere as they change their minds and praise the Mariner for killing "the bird / That brought the fog and mist. ‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay"(99-101). Thus they inculpate themselves in the Mariner's crime and demonstrate that they had not fully appreciated the Albatross. They had seen the bird as a mere navigation tool, a good luck charm, and when it seemingly failed they deemed it fit to die. This failure to understand the Albatross--a representative of that individual world--is indicative of the men's fallen state of existence. As soon as the Mariner kills the Albatross, he loses even his connection with fellow human beings. The ensuing behavior of the men deviates sharply from the tone set by the merry feasting at the beginning of the poem. From that point onward, no words are exchanged between the men: "Every tongue, through utter / drought, / Was withered at the root"(135-36). Even when the Mariner cries out that a ship has arrived, the sailors do not speak. They do not speak when they are animated by spirits to work the ship. The line of communication between human beings has been broken, and they can hardly establish fellow-feeling with each other now. Thus the Mariner first experiences loneliness as a direct result of a murder that severs his last connection--the human one--to that ideal world. Before the murder, the men had lived in a fallen world but at least there had been a connection between human beings. Now men cannot communicate, let alone sympathize, with each other. When the Mariner later longs for that connection, it is already too late.

A little while later, the Mariner experiences a different kind of loneliness as Coleridge further enforces his definition of that word. As the Mariner's fellow men drop dead all around him and the seas fall silent, the Mariner, "unaware"(285), blesses living creatures and "a spring of love [gushes] from [his] heart"(284). He is now able to feel sincere love for all of God's creatures, but it is too late to bring the Albatross--or his shipmates--back to life. Here, then, he is lonely in the sense that he has reestablished connection with nature but not with God or human beings. This is because initially the Mariner's crime alienates him from even God himself. Witness the lines: "[The spirit] loved the bird that loved the man / Who shot him with the bow"(403-4). Taking into account the fact that the Mariner had killed the Albatross with a "cross-bow"(81), one can easily substitute God for "spirit," Christ for "the bird," and cross for "bow." Although both the God who "made and loveth all"(617) and the Christ figure--the Albatross--still love the Mariner who has killed an innocent creature, as of the sixth part the poem it seems the powers divine are not yet ready to forgive him. The Mariner cannot tear his eyes away from his shipmates' accusing gazes, "nor turn them up to pray"(441). As the Mariner continues on his journey, however, the spell is broken and he now glimpses the third part of that potential world, the part comprised of spiritual beings. The Mariner describes "a meadow-gale of spring . . . on [him] alone it blew"(457, 463). When the angelic spirits who help him depart, they depart in silence, one that "sank / Like music on [his] heart'(498-99). This music then appears in the form of the birds' song "that makes the heavens be mute"(366). It is when silent and without the din of humanity that the Mariner receives the music of divine love and forgiveness. Significantly, the man who finally shrieves the Mariner is a Hermit, someone who spends most of his time alone. This second phase of the Mariner's journey is characterized by a loneliness in which he might contemplate the holiness of all things and ask for God's forgiveness. Here, as before, Coleridge allows Mariner only a partial connection to that ideal world. Once again, the Mariner glimpses that world by forging connections with God and nature only to find himself having to experience it without his fellow human beings.

However, the Mariner's story does not end here. He has learned his lesson, but he is now doomed to tell the story to everyone he meets. Now, his loneliness is the loneliness of someone who possesses secret knowledge. He alone has experienced the potential world, but he has a long way to go before the rest of humanity might share the same experience. The Mariner's language here is somewhat violent as he describes his experience: "Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched / With a woful agony, / Which forced me to begin my tale; / And then it left me free"(578-81). The passivity of "was wrenched," "forced me," and "left me" indicate that the Mariner is being acted upon. He is not an active agent, and his very storytelling is beyond his control: "And till my ghastly tale is told, / This heart within me burns"(584-85). HIs harrowing experience has taught him the value of "all things both great and small"(616) at a great price. As he tells the Wedding-Guest: "O sweeter than the marriage-feast, / ‘Tis sweeter far to me, / To walk together to the kirk / With a goodly company"(601-4). This sentence indicates that the Mariner not only longs for "goodly company" but for the spirituality of a kirk. He has caught a glimpse into that ideal world and longs for it. The Mariner's loneliness now is the most profound, and the most lasting. The Mariner must wander the Earth as a messenger and he cannot reestablish that first connection he severed: normal contact with his fellow human beings. That privilege is lost forever as part of his penance.

"Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide wide sea!"(232-33) exclaims the Mariner. The strong alliteration emphasizes the pervading mood throughout the poem: loneliness. It is in this case not simply an emotion but a dynamic process that characterizes the Mariner's learning process and helps Coleridge make his point: that loneliness is the lack of connection with human beings, with nature, and with God. Each stage of the Mariner's loneliness strengthens the contrast between his existence and the potential world. When "the ship was cheered, the harbour cleared"(21), the human world was already fallen. The Mariner becomes completely lonely when he kills the Albatross and alienates his shipmen, and this loneliness is a contrast to the ship's merry departure. When the Mariner is isolated in the middle of the ocean, he begins to appreciate nature and God's lessons of all-encompassing love. His precious lessons are again contrasted with his separation from the rest of humanity. At the end of the Mariner's journey, his loneliness seems to become eternal as he must forsake normal human relationships for his now God-given duty. The reason the Mariner must tell his story is the same reason Coleridge tells his. Throughout the entire poem, Coleridge gives the reader glimpses of what the aforementioned ideal world could be like. He introduces the promises of a wedding, a ship's merry departure, a bird of good omen, and a natural world that is full of invisible life and animated spirituality. However, the poem ends on a less optimistic note. Humanity, nature, and divinity never quite merge together as a whole, and the fallen world falls short of the ideal. The lonely Mariner must continue in his journey, the Wedding-Guest never does make it to the wedding, and one is left "sadder" and "wiser"(624) for the knowledge that there is still much to learn from the Mariner.