Close Behind Him

Close Behind Him

In the sixth part of the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Ancient Mariner’s experiences on board come to an end, but what awaits him on shore?

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn’d round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772—1834)

Poem 175. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part 6

First Voice:

“But tell me, tell me! speak again.
Thy soft response renewing—
What makes that ship drive on so fast?
What is the Ocean doing?”

Second Voice:

“Still as a slave before his lord,
The Ocean hath no blast;
His great bright eye most silently
Up to the Moon is cast—

If he may know which way to go;
For she guides him smooth or grim.
See, brother, see! how graciously
She looketh down on him.”

First Voice

“But why drives on that ship so fast,
Without or wave or wind?”

Second Voice:

“The air is cut away before
And closes from behind.
Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!
Or we shall be belated:
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner’s trance is abated.”

I woke, and we were sailing on
As in a gentle weather:
’Twas night, calm night, the Moon was high;
The dead men stood together.

All stood together on the deck,
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fix’d on me their stony eyes,
That in the Moon did glitter.

The pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never pass’d away:
I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.

And now this spell was snapt: once more
I viewed the ocean green,
And look’d far forth, yet little saw
of what had else been seen—

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn’d round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me,
Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fann’d my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring—
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet if felt like a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sail’d softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze—
On me alone it blew.

O dream of joy! is this indeed
The lighthouse top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?

We drifted o’er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.

The harbour-bay was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn!
And on the bay the moonlight lay,
And the shadow of the Moon.

The rock shone bright, the kirk no less
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steep’d in silentness
The steady weathercock.

And the bay was white with silent light
Till rising from the same,
Full many shapes, that shadows were,
In crimson colours came.

A little distance from the prow
Those crimson shadows were:
I turn’d my eyes upon the deck—
O Christ! what saw I there!

Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat,
And, by the holy rood!
A man all light, a seraph-man,
On every corse there stood.

This seraph-band, each waved his hand:
It was a heavenly sight!
They stood as signals to the land,
Each one a lovely light;

This seraph-band, each waved his hand,
No voice did they impart—
No voice; but O, the silence sank
Like music on my heart.

But soon I heard the dash of oars,
I heard the Pilot’s cheer;
My head was turn’d perforce away,
And I saw a boat appear.

The Pilot and the Pilot’s boy,
I heard them coming fast:
Dear Lord in Heaven! it was a joy
The dead men could not blast.

I saw a third—I heard his voice:
It is the Hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns
That he makes in the wood.
He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away
The Albatross’s blood.

The two voices talk of the ship and the ocean and of the Moon which guides the movement of the waves whether stormy or still. The first voice seems querulous, and desires to know what drives the ship onward, and the second explains that the air before it is opening up as the air behind closes, forcing the ship onward, before urging the other to hasten on so that they are not slowed when the ship slows.

The mariner awakes at midnight, finding that the ship continues on its course, whatever that might be, and the bodies of the crew are standing together on the deck. Their dead faces are unchanged and he reads the curse in their stony eyes and is unable to tear his gaze away until the spell breaks and he looks out over the desolate ocean with what we can only believe is a thousand-yard stare: “And look’d far forth, yet little saw of what had else been seen”

This leads onto another of my favourite passages from the poem, which I have quoted at the top, the mariner likening his actions to one who looks only ahead along the road for fear of the fiend that is following closely.

The air has been still while the ship has been progressing so strangely but the mariner now feels something, a breath of wind that ruffles his hair and brushes along his cheek. He is uncertain whether this change bodes well or ill but the ship sails on swiftly but surely and he alone feels the breeze. Something comes into sight, and he stares incredulously at the lighthouse on the hill and the church (kirk) of his own home: he has miraculously been brought back to his departure point!

At this point, as he stares unbelievingly at his surroundings, he looks towards the deck and every corpse lies lifeless on the deck with an angelic figure standing beside it, forming a kind of silent light signal beckoning to the people on shore. Sure enough, the boat containing the pilot and his boy soon approaches, ready to guide the ship to safe harbour; they have taken care against the Devil and his works though, by bringing spiritual backup in the form of the local holy man, a hermit that lives in a nearby wood. The mariner is grateful for his presence, as this devout soul will be able to shrieve him and offer him absolution from his sin of killing the albatross.

The “lonesome road” quote has been used in other written works many times: I first encountered it in my early teens, when it was quoted in a book of film monsters I had bought. The antagonist in M.R. James’s ghost story “Casting the Runes” sends one of his victims a woodcut from an illustrated copy of the poem that depicts the traveller and his unwanted companion, and John Wyndham titled one of his weird short stories, “Close Behind Him”. If you can find it, read it: it’s excellent.

Next week, we reach the end of the poem and the story of the Ancient Mariner comes full circle.