Even in a Dream

Even in a Dream

In the fifth part of the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Ancient Mariner’s experience takes an undeniably weird turn.

Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.

They groan’d, they stirr’d, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772—1834)

Poem 174. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part 5

‘O sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.
The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remain’d,
I dreamt that they were fill’d with dew;
And when I awoke, it rain’d.
My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams,
And still my body drank.
I moved, and could not feel my limbs:
I was so light—almost
I thought that I had died in sleep,
And was a blessèd ghost.
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.
The upper air burst into life;
And a hundred fire-flags sheen;
To and fro they hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.
And the coming wind did roar more loud,
And the sails did sigh like sedge;
And the rain pur’d down from one black cloud;
The Moon was at its edge.
The thick black cloud was cleft, and still
The Moon was at its side;
Like waters shot from some high crag,
The lightning fell with never a jag,
A river steep and wide.
The loud wind never reach’d the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.
They groan’d, they stirr’d, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.
The helmsman steer’d, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all ’gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.
The body of my brother’s son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
The body and I pull’d at one rope,
But he said naught to me.’
‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!’
‘Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest:
’Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corses bore again,
But a troop of spirits blest:
For when it dawn’d—they dropp’d their arms,
And cluster’d round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies pass’d.
Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mix’d, now one by one.
Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the skylark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seem’d to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!
And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the Heavens be mute.
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
Till noon we quietly sail’d on,
Yet never a breeze did breathe:
Slowly and smoothly went the ship,
Moved onward from beneath.
Under the keel nine fathom deep,
From the land of mist and snow,
The Spirit slid: and it was he
That made the ship to go.
The sails at noon left off their tune,
And the ship stood still also.
The Sun, right up above the mast,
Had fix’d her to the ocean:
But in a minute she ’gan stir,
With a short uneasy motion—
Then like a pawing horse let go,
She made a sudden bound:
It flung the blood into my head,
And I fell down in a swound.
How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But ere my living life return’d,
I heard, and in my soul discern’d
Two voices in the air.
“Is it he?” quoth one, “is this the man?
By Him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.
The Spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.”
The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, “The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.”

The Ancient Mariner is allowed to sleep and then he either dreams or experiences something really weird. He seems to wake in the middle of a rain storm, with the buckets on the deck filled with water and his clothes drenched. He seems insubstantial, like a ghost. He hears a loud roaring like a high wind approaching, but the thin (sere) sails move idly, responding only to the sound.

Suddenly, the air above is pierced by streamers of fire that ripple around one another, apparently dancing with the pale and colourless stars. The mariner stands astounded by the light, the sound of the wind, and the rain pouring from a great black cloud illuminated by the moon. The cloud is rent suddenly by a titanic bolt of lightning and although no wind is stirring, the ship begins to move and in the uncanny light cast by the moon and the lightning, he sees a ghastly sight as the bodies of his shipmates rise to their feet, their only utterance a groan.

The corpses move silently and blindly to their usual positions and begin to operate the ship as if nothing strange is happening, though their movements are unnatural. The Ancient Mariner finds himself working at his post with his nephew’s body working next to him like an automaton—this is a horrible thought, I have to say, and the wedding guest concurs, repeating his cry of fear, but it seems that the bodies are motivated by blessed spirits—no zombie apocalypse this, but a sort of host of sailor spirits. When the dawn breaks, the motivating spirits fly around the ship and form a sort of angelic orchestra making music like a skylark’s and other birds’ song.

After this, the ship continues to move on, though there is no breeze, and the mariner understands that the sea spirit that took the ship in hand when it was threatened by ice and snow in the first part is still moving the ship and has plans for her and for him. At noon the motion ceases and is replaced by a sort of shiver or quiver that culminates in a sudden and rapid jerk that stuns the man and while he lies, partially out of his senses, he seems to hear two voices, one that seems accusing and another that is more propitiatory: “Then man hath penance done, and penance more will do.”

I can’t help feeling that Coleridge, who was no stranger to the opiate laudanum, had taken a hefty dose before he wrote this part. It is so weird and dream-like and it has such strange and contrasting images: the loudness of the wind and the gentleness of the ship’s movement and the unquiet but silent dead and the beauty of their spirit inhabitants. We are left wondering if the Ancient Mariner has really seen this or if it is a dream inspired by fever or laudanum.