Religious Metaphor in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, assisted by several other philosophers and writers of the time, helped to propel England into the Romantic Movement in the late eighteenth century. The movement marked England’s developmental shift out of the Enlightenment and into an age of questioning the previously instated social and political norms. Coleridge’s religious perspective evolved over his flourishing years and four times he revised and circulated his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The piece, which tells the story of the eventful sea voyage of a mariner, uses metaphor throughout its seven parts to establish this religious transition into Christianity.
The most prevalent metaphor in the poem is the parallel drawn between the albatross and a Christ-figure. Having studied the progression of Coleridge’s belief system from pagan to Christian, it is important to remember that he made addendums to the poem several times, thereby causing the poem to go through four separate phases all reflecting his beliefs at the given time. The version most common to current study is his final version. The knowledge that he was at that time a Christian makes sense with the theme of the albatross’ death as a Godlike sacrifice:
“At length did cross an Albatross:
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name” (1.59-62)
The word ‘cross’ serves as a double entendre, capturing the image of a cross and its obvious biblical implications while not at all meaning that in any way. Coleridge slides that in as if to prepare his readers for what the bird will eventually symbolize. The first time we meet the albatross, we are immediately made to connect it to a Christian soul. The albatross and double entendre suggest that man is designed to worship or believe and will reverence even the undeserving if he sees nothing else to worship. Quickly the men aboard the ship attach the arrival of good weather and good luck on the sea to this Godly bird; that is, until the mariner informs the wedding guest that “…with [his] cross-bow/ [he] shot the albatross” (1.81-82). Again we are reminded of the image of the cross, this time with a much stronger relevance to the biblical cross, as this crossbow is used to kill the apparently innocent bird. The mariner removed the God-figure from the lives of the men aboard the ship, therefore leaving them, at least in their minds, at the mercy of the sea and with no symbol of hope or object in which to put faith.
The image of hell and incarceration are seen in part three in lines like “The western wave was all a-flame” (3.171) and the image of “the Sun…flecked with bars/…As if through a dungeon-gate he peer’d” (3.176,3.178). The ill fate of the ship is the punishment of the men, and as for the mariner, his punishment is to wear the albatross around his neck, similar to God taking up the cross.
The fourth version of Rime of the Ancient Mariner uses metaphor to draw connections between the Mariner’s Tale and the story of Christ, his death, wandering, faith, and redemption.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. New York: Longman, 2010. 567-582.