The Power of Nature in Romanticism: “The Rime of the Mariner” and Frankenstein
For centuries the story of Frankenstein’s monster has been a source of entertainment and fear for people all over the world. Mary Shelley’s iconic novel has inspired songs, art, and Halloween decorations since it was published in 1818. But before Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, there was Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Both texts were written during the Romantic period of English literature. This period began during the end of the 18th century and continued into the first few decades of the 19th century. It was a time of creativity and thinking for oneself, and both Coleridge and Shelley did just that. Both Frankenstein and “The Rime” focus heavily on nature, a major theme during the Romantic period, and still influence the literary and artistic worlds to this day.
Nature in a Romantic context focuses on the sublimity of nature and its influence or relevance to mankind. People were encouraged to focus on individuality and originality. Poetry written during the Romantic time period are almost always focusing on the beautiful, whether that be by writing about something beautiful, such as “Mont Blanc” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband, or about something that is the opposite of beautiful, such as “The Haunted Beach” by Mary Robinson. Both sides of the spectrum give readers an insight to how beautiful nature can be by either telling them what it is like, or making them see what life would be like without it.
Coleridge’s “The Rime” marked the beginning of a new era of his poetry that focused on philosophy. He thought a lot about the world around him and the mysteries of life and nature. “The Rime” discusses some of these mysteries: “the mystery of life, the fact of death, the grandeur of nature, the irrational forces of man’s mind…” (McDonald 543) to name a few. This almost introspective idea of man’s surroundings is very characteristic of the Romantic period, a time in which nature was beautiful and sublime and the idea of realism was entering the literary realm.
This poem by Coleridge is believed to have been the inspiration behind Frankenstein, and Shelley is thought to have been inspired by Coleridge himself. In Shelley’s early life Coleridge was a guest in her home (Taylor 55) and they got to know each other, but more specifically, Shelley got to know Coleridge’s works. Ordner W. Taylor points out that the narrator of Frankenstein says in a letter “I am going to the unexplored regions, to ‘the land of mist and snow,’ but I shall kill no albatross” (Taylor 87). This is a direct reference by Shelley to Coleridge’s “The Rime” and the Mariner’s killing of the albatross, which causes the demise of his crew-mates and the ship itself.
Similarities between the two texts are also drawn from their structure. They both are told as “frame narratives,” meaning they begin and end the same way. This structure makes the supernatural, another common theme in Romantic and gothic writing that was used in both “The Rime” and Frankenstein, more believable. Coleridge and Shelley both used the frame narrative structure and also had a story being told within a story. In “The Rime,” the Mariner stops a wedding guest at the wedding party in the beginning of the poem and begins to tell him his tale. Then, following the frame narrative structure, the poem ends with the Mariner finishing his story and the wedding guest leaving. And in Frankenstein, Victor finds Walter’s ship and climbs board. He tells Walter his story, and the book ends with Victor’s death, after he completes his narrative to Walter.
Both texts focus heavily on nature, or more specifically, the crimes against it. Their takes on the Romantic idea of humanity interacting with nature have very gothic twists. The Mariner commits a crime against nature by killing the albatross, and he is punished ruthlessly when the crew and ship die before his very eyes. Similarly, in Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein commits a crime against nature by building his monster and is punished not only with the deaths of his wife and father, but also with the guilt that, because he built the monster that killed them, their blood is on his hands (Shelley). In both stories the person who committed the crime against nature is punished by nature itself. And only in “The Rime” does the offender get forgiven, after he realizes how beautiful nature is and blesses it “unaware” (Coleridge 641). Victor dies, sad and lonely, and his monster mourns over his dead body, with nothing left to live for.
Another aspect of nature in the Romantic period’s context that can be seen in these texts is the “return to nature.” Both characters committed a crime against nature which caused their demise, they needed to be reborn into nature. As mentioned before, the Mariner in “The Rime” did that when he repented after killing the albatross and finally sees the beauty in nature that he had been ignoring and blesses it. And it can be argued that Victor Frankenstein has his return to nature when he dies on Walter’s ship after telling his story, though for him it does not end up being a very happy ending. By doing this Mary Shelley took the story of a fall from nature into rebirth and gave it a gothic twist.
Though it is clear that “The Rime” and Frankenstein had great impacts in the literary and art world during the Romantic period, they continue to have these effects in the modern-day. More obvious influences are the films made based on the stories. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was directed by Raúl DaSilva, and Frankenstein, adapted and re-adapted to the big screen countless times, was first released in 1931 and directed by James Whale (Google). Thousands of people every year dress up as Frankenstein’s monster for Halloween. Both texts are still relevant over 200 years after they were originally published, which proves that they were not only influential, but also powerful.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, 5th ed., vol. 2A, Longman, 2010, pp. 632-649.
McDonald, Daniel. “Too Much Reality: A Discussion of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 4, no. 4, 1964, pp. 543–554. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/449508.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, et al. Frankenstein. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Taylor, Ordner W., I., II. “The Romantic Beloved: The Influences of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Frankenstein” on Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”.” Order No. 3396409 Morgan State University, 2009. Ann Arbor: ProQuest.
Doré, Gustave. The Albatross. 1876, University of Adelaide, Australia. Wikipedia, Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rime_of_the_Ancient_Mariner-Albatross-Dore.jpg.