The Sin of Disharmony in Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner”
by David Schlachter
Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” focuses on the crime and penance of the Mariner. In killing the Albatross, the Mariner offends both God and nature—the former through the abuse of agency, the latter through a disregard of, even contempt for, the natural world. However, the nature of the two offences and of the Mariner’s penance make it clear that these two offences are really one crime: the sin of disharmony, a rejection of “that ultimate end of all human thought and human feeling, unity” (Coleridge, “Shakspeare, A Poet Generally” 56).
The Mariner’s sin against God is the abuse of the former’s God-given agency in rejecting God’s blessing. The Albatross, like Noah’s dove, is a symbol and harbinger of God’s favour:
The ice did split with a thunder fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
A good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow. (Coleridge, “Ancient Mariner” 630.69–72)
God had saved the crew from the storm-blast and the ice, sending an almost angelic token from the clouds (or mist, properly). The Albatross, as a token, clearly denotes the source of the Mariner’s blessings. Naturally, gratitude is expected, and received, from the crew: the Albatross is greeted “in God’s name” “as if it had been a Christian soul” (Ibid., 630.65–66), returning “every day, for food or play / … to the mariners’ hallo” (Ibid., 630.73–74). Considered in the context of such open blessing, the Mariner’s killing of the Albatros is shockingly perverse and ungrateful. The Mariner’s act of disharmony ensures not only the inevitable alienation of separation, but also additional punishment from the offended entity. Certainly, it was the Mariner’s right to choose to kill the Albatross, but that freedom exacerbates his crime: a gesture of seperation becomes a spurning rejection of divine order and unity. Surely, the Mariner’s crime demands and requires the harshest penance, proportionate to the abuse of his agency, and his opportunity and imperative to accept the blessing and oneness of God.
However, the Mariner’s crime is not against God only; for through “all the night, through fog-smoke white, / Glimmered the white Moon-shine” (Ibid., 631.77-78), watching with the spirits and entities of the natural world. To nature, the killing of the Albatross is the Mariner’s supreme act of brutal disregard and contempt for the natural world. However, the Mariner’s attitude toward the water snakes is more revealing of his attitude. Averring them to be “slimy things” upon a “slimy sea” (Ibid., 632.125–127), “a thousand thousand slimy things” (Ibid., 636.239), the Mariner lacks an appropriate appreciation for nature. His referring to the dead men as “beautiful” (Ibid., 636.237), but to the snakes as “slimy,” is revealing of a prideful, callous attitude: the Mariner does not, and will not, see the intrinsic beauty of nature. His preference for the dead of men rather than for the living vitality and activity of nature exposes his blind pride in the superiority of man. This offensive attitude, incarnate in the killing of the Albatross, brings nature’s punishment upon the Mariner. The Mariner’s rejection of nature is a rejection of “a universal charity … the sense of the ‘One Life’ in which all creation participates” (Warren, 78): the notion of harmonious integration with the natural world.
The true nature of the Mariner’s crime is particularly exemplified in his final role as a wanderer. Having endured prolonged, acute suffering, the Mariner is granted some redemption, but is compelled to “pass … from land to land” to “teach” his “tale” (Coleridge, “Ancient Mariner” 648.587,591). Through his suffering, the Mariner has learned to appreciate the horror and despair of loneliness, and to value togetherness. Indeed, the Mariner has learned the joy of unity, and this is the message given to the wedding guest. Implied, however, is the Mariner’s sombre warning against disharmony: his rejection of God is an act that separated the Mariner from Him, and his attitude toward nature disparages his role as a part of nature. Without unity, the Mariner becomes, as do we, according to Coleridge, “a sordid solitary thing, / …. / Feeling himself, his own low self the whole” (Coleridge, “Religious Musings” 87). Because the Mariner would not accept his place, united, with God and in nature, but instead ‘felt himself the whole,’ the consequences of disharmony were his, and his ironically lonely role as a prophet of unity was secured by his crime.
Coleridge’s ancient Mariner’s blazon disharmony with God and the natural world stands as Coleridge’s warning to a world that moves farther from both. Reverence and gratitude are urged through the consequences of the Mariner’s disregard and contempt. Coleridge’s plea is that, by properly appreciating the blessings of God and of the natural world, we may move toward greater love and harmony—for “he prayeth well, who loveth well / both man and bird and beast” (Coleridge, “Ancient Mariner” 649.613–614).
Coleridge, Samuel. “Religious Musings.” The Poetical Works of S. T. Coleridge. Vol. 1. London: William Pickering, 1835. 82–98. Print.
—. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900. Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch. Vol. 2. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1900. 628–649. Print.
—. “Shakspeare [sic], A Poet Generally.” The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge, Esq. Vol. 2. London: William Pickering, 1836. 53–69. Print
Warren, Robert Penn. “A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading.” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946. Print.