012 — To Sail upon the Haunted, Sticky Seas

Have you seen the Pirates movie yet, damn you? No? Well, I’ve got the next best thing. Have you ever read anything by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Maybe Rime of the Ancient Mariner?

This is a little different, you say. This is a poem, you say. I read that damn thing in English class, what the hell? You say. All true, or likely at least. But Mariner’s verse isn’t hard to read, and it’s of course incredible if you’re into poetry. And anyway, most of the archived editions have Coleridge’s glosses, where he explains the story. So you won’t be confused. Mostly. He messes with them sometimes, so you have to pay attention, but that’s part of the fun anyway.

This is another frame story – that is, story in a story. The whole narrative is actually inside the frame story. So, three guys are going to a friend’s wedding. One of them gets pulled aside by an old man. Try as hard as he can, the guest just can’t get away from the Mariner. The Mariner proceeds to tell his story. Several times the guest interrupts, all through the poem, because the story’s horrifying, or the Mariner’s scary, or both. At one point the guest’s afraid the mariner doesn’t have a soul. Fun times.

The mariner tells his story, which amounts to this:

He shipped aboard a vessel that took off, as vessels do, and went wherever they were going for a while. Then the ship got becalmed in a dead ocean and everyone bitched about it for a while.

So the mariner’s bored and, like you do, randomly shoots an albatross with a crossbow. Everyone gets upset, then they cheer up, because fog rolls in. They think the weather’s about to change, and dance around. Then things suck more, just with fog, and they tie the albatross around the mariner’s neck. It’s a good old fashioned curse, in its way. The ship gets caught in magical winds that send it to the South Pole, making this the first of many polar expedition stories we’ll talk about. Then everyone dies.

Except the mariner. Another ship shows up, containing Death and Life-in-Death – who sounds suspiciously like a vampire. A real one.

They gamble for the mariner’s soul, and Life-in-Death wins. So naturally all the dead crew members come back to life and man the ship as it’s sailed by the magic winds back north.

While all this is happening the mariner is suffering from thirst, hunger, and spiritual pangs. “Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink” – that comes from this poem. At least, that’s what popularlized the phrase. The mariner can’t pray. He curses the horrible, slimy monsters he sees out in the ocean.

At some point while spirits are gossiping about him in the sails, and zombies are working the rudder and running lines around him, the Mariner prays to the slimy creatures he’s been cursing all this time. He blesses them because, basically, they’re wet and he’s really thirsty. The Albatross falls off. Curse lifted, hurray!

The ship makes it to land, back in England, of course. A hermit wanders out and talks to the mariner, telling him he’ll have to go around and tell this story to everyone to complete his penance.

Why should you read this? Well, it’s one of the great poems in English for a reason. It’s got a good plot, great images, most of them weird and uncanny. It’s spiritual, in that way a lot of the old Romantics were – that is, it revers nature and hates humankind’s estrangement from it. A lot of people think the mariner’s crime was actually his jarring dissociation from nature, and killing the albatross was just a thing he could do because of that separation. Much of our contemporary fantasy, especially the traditional stuff, takes a lot from that point of view, as handed down from the Romantics through Tolkien and similar writers. So you’ll feel at home with those sentiments even if they’re presented in a way that’s not as typical anymore.

Why should you avoid it? Well, it’s a poem, and if you’ve tried out plenty, not just a smattering, and decided poetry is absolutely not for you, this poem probably won’t change your mind about it. Just listen to the Iron Maiden album. Though if you’ve sworn off poetry, what are you doing listen to music, anyway? Unless it’s all instrumental, then you’re fine.

Is this a fantasy? Really one. Yes, I think so. First, the form isn’t important – it doesn’t have to be prose: if it did, we couldn’t have fantasy movies or video games, and those work out pretty well. It also comes closer than what we’ve looked at before. Specifically, it does something else fantasy works now usually do – the environment is sympathetic to the protagonist. That doesn’t necessarily mean it feels bad for him or her. It’s sympathetic in that it alters to reflect, antagonize, or otherwise interact with the mood, emotions, soul, and spirit of the character. One of the most common examples would be storms during dramatic scenes in movies or books – the storm is actually unnecessary, but it’s reflecting how someone feels, say, after Mr. Boddy has been killed (Yes, I’m talking about the Clue movie with Tim Curry).

Fantasies and horror stories often let the environment do that in the story – that is, it’s not just a convenient plot device that the weather matches the drama – the drama can cause the weather. And that’s what happens in this poem.


3 thoughts on “012 — To Sail upon the Haunted, Sticky Seas

  1. r042

    You reference the Clue movie – I like this. It’s a remarkable parody that’s the right side of affectionate.

    Good piece on the poem as well; ballads of all sorts are my absolute passion and I think it was the Ancient Mariner that got me interested. It’s important to demystify poetry as you do; highlight how the verse itself is the thing, but at the same time there’s a universality to it that is the rewarding part.

  2. cuchlann Post author

    Yeah, we tend to think of poetry as very complex — and it can be, of course. The Modernists left us that legacy. I’m not complaining about their work, as The Waste Land is probably my favorite poem, but certainly poetry doesn’t have to be convoluted, and in fact we tend to think it is when it isn’t really at all.

    I’m glad you think I de-mystify anything, actually. I had been wondering. Coleridge uses medieval style as an excuse to pretty much say what he wants the poem to mean in a few didactic lines here and there, mostly the fake glosses, so there’s a firm foundation for further speculation. What does it mean that the Mariner confronts a vampire? What are the spirits of the air, and could they mean that there are spirits in nature that don’t care about humankind? We get into Manfred territory there, of course.

  3. Pingback: Halloween special 2013: Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness | Wondrous Windows

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