Ancient Mariners and Pirates, a Legacy


From the opening scene of the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the allusions to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner are rampant.  The movie contains several gothic themes that are a direct legacy of Coleridge’s opener to Lyrical Ballads.  These themes include the supernatural sailing of ghost ships, dead men operating the ships, and moonlight or night as an initiator for the supernatural.

Death’s ship is first intimated as such on line 184 of Rime.  “Like restless gossameres”(639).   This indicates that the sails of the ship are not of canvas as they should be, but rather of silky spider web-like material.  This ship should not be catching enough wind for forward motion.  When watching Pirates, the first vision of the ghostly ship The Black Pearl has just such sails.  They are silky black and ripped to tatters.  Thus intimating that this ship, just like Death’s ship in Rime, has no natural business making forward motion.  This idea of supernatural movement is further confirmed by lines 169-170: “Without a breeze, without a tide, She steddies with upright keel!”(638).  Both ships have sails that would not function according to the laws of physics, but they do not need do.  Both ships move independently of the wind.  The similarities between the Black Pearl and the Death Ship from the Rime go further.  On line 195 Coleridge describes the outside of the ship as “The naked hulk alongside came”(639), which is to say the ribs and structuring of the ship were naked or exposed.  Just such a naked ship is seen in the form of the Black Pearl.  From the outside perspective of the ship given to the viewer, the ship is full of holes.

The Rime has corpses waking up and operating the ship’s mechanisms in lines 331-40:

They groan’d, they stirred, 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 steered, 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.  (642)

The legacy of these lines in Pirates is one of the more memorable scenes from the movie.  Kiera Knightley’s character leaves the cabin of the Black Pearl to discover the whole ship is operated by a “ghastly crew” of clothed skeletons.

The concept of nightfall or moonlight initiating the supernatural begins on line 171: “The Western wave was all a-flame. The day was well nigh done!”(639).   This line indicates sunset is the warm-up to the arrival of the death-ship, the first overtly supernatural element in the Rime.  Moonlight is a crucial factor in the enlivening of the corpses of both ships.  Before the dead rise to operate the ship, line 323 says “The Moon was at its side:”(642).  The moon is also explicitly shown as a necessary prerequisite for the dead men operating the ship in Pirates. 

The images in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl of ghostly supernatural ships being operated by zombified corpses in the moonlight are direct legacies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. 

Works cited:

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Dir. Gore Verbinski.  Perf. Johnny Depp, Kiera Knightly, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush. Disney 2003. Film.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 634-649. Print.