A Sail! A Sail!

A Sail! A Sail!

In this week’s instalment of the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the becalmed ship is approached by another ship, but this is no ordinary ship, and the ancient mariner begins to be punished for his sin and his shipmates suffer the penalty for their hypocrisy.

I bit my arm, I suck’d the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772—1834)

Poem 172. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part 3

‘There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parch’d, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye!
When looking westward, I beheld
A something in the sky.
At first it seem’d a little speck,
And then it seem’d a mist;
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.
A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it near’d and near’d:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged, and tack’d, and veer’d.
With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I suck’d the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!
With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in,
As they were drinking all.
See! see! (I cried) she tacks no more!
Hither to work us weal—
Without a breeze, without a tide,
She steadies with upright keel!
The western wave was all aflame,
The day was wellnigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad, bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.
And straight the Sun was fleck’d with bars
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!),
As if through a dungeon-grate he peer’d
With broad and burning face.
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossamers?
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman’s mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
“The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!”
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.
The Sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.
We listen’d and look’d sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seem’d to sip!
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersman’s face by his lamp gleam’d white;
From the sails the dew did drip—
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.
One after one, by the star-dogg’d Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turn’d his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.
Four times fifty living men
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan),
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropp’d down one by one.
The souls did from their bodies fly—
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it pass’d me by
Like the whizz of my crossbow!’

In this part of the poem, a long time passes while the ship lies idle on the ocean. Each member of the crew is parched to the uttermost when the Ancient Mariner spies another vessel making its way towards them and, biting his own arm to draw blood enough to slake his throat and speak, he cries aloud that he has seen “A sail! A sail!” and the other men draw in their breath on hearing this, as if they have taken a refreshing draught of water.

Joy turns to horror, though, as the Mariner notices that their supposed rescuer is sailing towards them though there is no wind and no wave to bear her thence. This intensifies as the strange ship suddenly tacks on a bearing that takes her on a course between the startled seamen and the sun setting on the horizon: the new vessel is shown to be skeletal, with the sun shining through it.

There are only two on the new ship: Death and his mate Life-in-Death, who are playing at dice for the souls of the Ancient Mariner and his shipmates. As their dreadful vessel broaches alongside the Ancient Mariner’s ship, she wins his soul which she seems to prize, while her mate is contented with the remaining crew members’ souls. At that moment, the spectral ship vanishes, leaving the haunted crew alone as the moon rises and Death claims every crew member but one: the Ancient Mariner, who hears every one of his shipmates’ souls pass him “Like the whizz of my crossbow!”

I like this part for the way it builds the story and the tension: the ennui of the sailors is broken by the arrival of this vessel. The sailors’ fleeting hope of succour is dashed by the horror that follows as the new ship’s nature is clearly discerned and we realise that it bodes ill for the crew of the ship and the Ancient Mariner.