Mental Illness in the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an epic gothic poem in the romantic period that emphasizes the importance of seeing the beauty in all of God’s creatures. The poem had some contributions by other writers at times, but Coleridge had the most influence on the poem as a whole. Coleridge’s mental illness and his inner struggles with guilt, depression, and “religious melancholy” come through as a constant theme throughout his poem. (White)
Coleridge’s writings were said to be proof that the writer suffered from medical disorders. He suffered with depression of “spirits” and brooding. He was also troubled by an overwhelming sense of guilt and religious melancholy, which was described as sadness without reason. He considered his mental anguish a spiritual disorder that was in correlation with a troubled soul. Coleridge also often wrote of a supernatural agent and in fact stated he had this in mind when writing the ancient mariner character. This agency was an example of the mariner’s “disturbed mental state” that reflected the mental state of Coleridge at the time. (White)
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” begins with this old mariner pulling aside a couple of wedding guests to tell them the story of his curse. During his voyage, on a ship, he shot down an albatross for no reason other than for sport. This albatross was a good omen and after the mariner killed it he and his crew suffer for some time. The ship stops and the crew are left without any water to drink and the albatross is hung around the mariner’s neck as penance. This is where the guilt begins to come out for Coleridge in the mariner. He “had done a hellish thing” and begins to pay the consequences leaving him feeling guilty. (Coleridge, 636) It isn’t until the mariner sees beauty in these slimy sea creatures that the albatross drops from around his neck. Coleridge used the albatross as a symbol of penance that the mariner had to pay for his malicious act.
Religion was also a big factor in Coleridge’s life that played a part in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Though he struggled with depression Coleridge was a very religious man and believed in the spirit as a free moral agent. (White) Religion and the idea of the soul as separate from the body is a recurring factor in the poem. When the crew is suffering after the albatross is shot down the mariner tries to pray to heaven and says his “soul” is in agony. (Coleridge, 640) He uses religious imagery throughout the poem but we see Coleridge continue to go back to the importance of the religious soul of the mariner and how it is affected by what he has done.
The mariner is also used by Coleridge as a symbol for guilt and the relationship between melancholy and remorse. Before the albatross drops from around the mariner’s neck a ghost like ship approaches the crew and the woman on board wins a game of dice to decide their fate. This is where the supernatural agent comes in and takes control of the mariner. The mariner then watches each crewmember die one by one as they drop down in “a lifeless lump”. (Coleridge, 640) Coleridge uses dark diction and imagery to paint a vividly grotesque picture of each crewmember dropping. Every one dies but the mariner leaving him with this sense of guilt. Guilt for killing the albatross in the first place but also for being the only person that lives when he was the one who brought this upon them. He is cursed to live with this guilt for the rest of time and to be an example for others who need to learn the same lesson. He teaches this moral sense to others to ease his feelings of remorse for what he has done.
Coleridge’s mariner is isolated from the rest of the world and in that isolation continues to be a symbol for mental illness. He wanders the world and the “agony returns” until he can tell his story. (Coleridge, 648) The story hangs as a burden on him as he travels alone through the world. This burden is like the burden of depression, the struggles of people dealing with it alone, and the need to tell others. Coleridge, along with his mariner, exhibits the feelings of “self-blame” that one with depression deals with along with a feeling that their problems are a form of “punishment for past misdeeds”. (White)
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the theme of mental illness is constant in the mariner’s struggle with guilt and penance after shooting down the albatross. The message he is trying to get across is the importance of seeing the beauty in all of God’s creatures but you can’t help but notice the dark and gothic style of this epic poem. Coleridge’s struggle with guilt and depression ultimately came through in the mariner as he deals with the burden of guilt in retelling his tale again and again, over time, to those who must hear it.
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.
White, Harry. “Coleridge’s Uncertain Agony.” SEL: Studies In English Literature(Johns Hopkins)49.4 (2009): 807-839. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.
Image courtesy of http://www.artsycraftsy.com/dore/rime_wedding_guest.html
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Gustave Doré (Jonnard, engraver), Plate 2: The Wedding Guest