There Was a Ship

There Was a Ship

This week, and for the next several weeks, I am going to look at Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which tells a supernatural tale of damnation and redemption. It is a long poem, split into seven parts of 20 or so stanzas each. I am going to do one part each week.

He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772—1834)

Poem 170. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part 1

IT is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The Bridegroom’s doors are open’d wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
‘The ship was cheer’d, the harbour clear’d,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
Higher and higher every day,
Till over the mast at noon——’
The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud basoon.
The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes
The merry minstrelsy.
The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
‘And now the Storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.
With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roar’d the blast,
And southward aye we fled.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d,
Like noises in a swound!
At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hail’d it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steer’d us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners’ hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perch’d for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmer’d the white moonshine.’
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner,
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why looks’t thou so’—‘With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross.

Like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, this poem tells a tale within a tale.

We start with a wedding in full swing and we see three of the guests are making their way to the festivities. One of these guests is a close relative of the groom and is anxious not to miss anything. but he is accosted by this strange person: a wizened but strangely charismatic old sailor who speaks of a ship. The wedding guest speaks to him roughly and rudely and raises his hand to him, perhaps to strike him down, but is somehow cowed by the look in the sailor’s eye and seats himself perforce on a stone at the side of the path and listen to the old man’s story.

As the old man begins, the wedding guest hears the music as the bride arrives and the marriage ceremony begins, but is so dominated by the will of this curious mariner that although he claps his hand to his breast as if to break himself free of this compulsion, it is too powerful and the old man, having already described the ship’s embarkation and departure, resumes his tale by describing a great gale that drives the vessel southward into a region of frozen water and great icebergs. He describes the dreadful noises of the ice as it grinds and cracks and growls.

To the relief of the crew, they are attended by a great white bird: an albatross, which follows the ship for the food the sailors throw to it; shortly after that, a south wind begins to blow, taking them away from the cold and ice. For nine days, the bird circles the ship, eating their food and coming to their calls, before this part ends in blood as the old seaman shoots a crossbow bolt at it.

This is one of the great English poems, an epic tale of the voyage of this unnamed seaman who kills the albatross which has brought him and his shipmates escape from the frozen seas of the south, and it’s packed with great lines. I like the opening: “It is an ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three”—like Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”, we want to know this story but unlike “The Listeners”, our curiosity is more than satisfied. One is reminded rather of Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses: another ancient mariner whose long-winded stories were always cut short by Del or Rodney before their uncle could “hath his will”.

This poem contributed to the widely-held belief that it is unlucky to kill an albatross and next week, we begin to see why.