A Wicked Whisper

A Wicked Whisper

In this week’s instalment of the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Ancient Mariner is left alone with the corpses of his shipmates, and the curse works its last upon him before it breaks.

I look’d to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772—1834)

Poem 173. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part 4

‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribb’d sea-sand.
I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand so brown.’—
‘Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropt not down.
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
I look’d upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I look’d upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
I look’d to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
But the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky,
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they look’d on me
Had never pass’d away.
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.
The moving Moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide;
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside—
Her beams bemock’d the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship’s huge shadow lay,
The charmèd water burnt always
A still and awful red.
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watch’d the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they rear’d, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watch’d their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coil’d and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gush’d from my heart,
And I bless’d them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I bles’d them unaware.
The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

The Ancient Mariner is living, alone of all his shipmates, but the wedding guest who is listening to this tale feels, as we might, a creeping sensation and gets the idea that perhaps this ageless seaman is living dead, and may perhaps reveal a more horrific visage than has been the case up to now.

The storyteller reassures his listener (and us) that he lives still and goes on to tell of long days of solitude spent in self-recrimination and the horror of the dead men, who do not rot, apparently being preserved by the spirits that are punishing him; he has no respite from their accusing, glassy gaze except to look over the side and watch the sea snakes, admiring their sheen and colours.

All this time, he has been unable to pray for forgiveness, his throat going dry the moment he begins to utter any prayer but as he watches these creatures playing, his initial disdain fades and he appreciates their beauty, unconsciously blessing them. This triggers the next great change in his condition as the body of the albatross falls from where it was secured round his neck by his shipmates, splashes into the water and sinks without trace.

Is he free, or are there more supernatural experiences to come?

There are such powerful moments in this part: the narrator’s complaint that in his loneliness, not one of heaven’s saints took pity and the answering stanza just a few lines later that heaven has forsaken him (quoted at the top of this post). Eventually, however, a “kind saint” takes pity on him as the curse begins to break. The other stanza that grabs my attention is the one about the orphan’s curse and that in a dead man’s eye.