Dave Goeke
Professor Ted Shank
English 05B
May 1, 2020

Coleridge’s Inferno
The Mariner is Dead
Medieval Religious Symbolism in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

    There are fascinating allusions to Medieval and Old English religion in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Study and understanding of these themes help clarify message and meaning of the story. This paper presents an enumeration and interpretation of the biblical allusions, and a conclusion that “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is Coleridge’s rendition of Dante’s “The Inferno”. While reading and studying “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, for purposes of re-writing this class assignment, the presence of religious and biblical symbols came more apparent and interesting. Hence this paper.

    Coleridge seems to make effort to use not just religious allusion, but specifically allusions to Medieval, Old English religion, with archaic vocabulary, rather than religion of his time and place. It would seem he is poking fun at the Church of England and the Catholic Church. The allusions are archaic, not contemporaneous.

    Ostensibly “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the story of a man’s penance for killing a deity of guidance and benevolence. For no apparent reason the Mariner kills a bird. He is then destined to spend eternity telling his story and teaching lessons to certain and specific people.

    The Ancient Mariner is dead. He has been a long time. Our first clue is that he is ancient. “And thus spake on that ancient man” (Coleridge, 91). There are repeated references to the hoar of his beard, terminology more typically used to characterize the beard of decayed cadavers than the living.

    Final paragraphs in part seven tell us explicitly the Mariner is dead. He is a spiritual being and not of this earth. He is destined for eternity to tell his story; and not to just anyone he sees, but to specific individuals who he does not know in advance are to hear his lesson, chosen spontaneously and arbitrarily in the same way the albatross was killed. Following his final absolution, the Mariner tells the wedding guest:
“Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns
And till my ghastly take is told
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man must hear me:
To him my take I teach.” (Coleridge, 1203)

            The Mariner tells the wedding guest “this soul” (Coleridge, 1188) and not this man, person, or sentient being; has traveled “Alone on a wide wide sea”,  (Coleridge, 1193) absent God. He shoots a bird, descends to hell, meets his maker, and receives absolution three times. His final judgement is for eternity to tell his tale; making mankind wiser but melancholy.

    Coleridge uses a litany of archaic and religious terminology:

    Coleridge’s choice of Rime is clever. It has meaning on three levels:
  1. Rime ice is an old maritime term for a thin layer of frozen vapor, covering the deck and standing rig of sailing ships traversing polar regions. It was a constant sight for mariners traveling the southern Pacific. Rime, or Rime ice, is also called hoarfrost,
  2. Dante’s Inferno is also called a Rime. This is the oldest reference I can find to this term. In it is the story of nine circles of hell. In 1824 William Blake was commissioned to draw what would eventually be over a hundred illustrations of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. More than 30 of these drawings are in my 1944 edition of the “Divine Comedy”. From Coleridge’s biographies it is known that he studied and wrote about Blake’s work. I have not been able to determine whether they knew each other well or related Blake’s illustrations.
  3. Rime a synonym for rhyme, of which there is a considerable amount, in both “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.

    Coleridge’s fixation with the numbers three, six, seven, and nine are no accident. These numbers have religious significance.

    In Christian Angelogy there is a hierarchy of nine celestial bodies, in three circles, with a seraph being the highest and angel the lowest. There are three rings, with three bands each in this hierarchy.

    Vespers, Vesper Bells, and Vespers Nine make repeated appearances. A vesper or vesper bell is the sixth of the seven canonical hours, or the service for it, occurring in the late afternoon or the evening.

     Three and nine appear often in the story. The Mariner is greeted at the harbor by three deities; the pilot, his son, and the Hermit. The Hermit, termed a seraph, grants him absolution but then sentences him to permanent penance. The Hermit prays three times daily at an old oak stump. The albatross first appeared and “perched for vespers nine” (Coleridge, 302). The first spiritual being to visit the mariner on the ship “plagued us so; Nine fathom deep he had followed us” (Coleridge 831).  

    God made man and earth in six days and rested on the seventh. Seven in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” appears in poignant places of the story:

    There are seven parts to the story

    After the crew all died:
“But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse
And yet I could not die” (Coleridge 1155).

    There are more religious symbols and allusions in this story than can be enumerated in this essay. A few other allusions of relevance are:

    The pilot’s son does not refer to the Mariner as living: “‘Ha! ha!’ quoth he, ‘full plain I see, the Devil knows how to row.’” (Coleridge 1101).

    I am not a religious scholar, nor versed in religious symbolism, but there are apparent patterns in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, of Medieval and Old English religious terms, symbols, and themes. The plot imitates Dante’s Inferno. It is Coleridge’s “The Inferno”. When viewed as a religious parable, mimicking Dante’s Inferno, the story of “Rime of the Ancient” Mariner gains clarity and cohesion.

    To fully appreciate “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” takes a concurrent reading of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, several works of Shakespeare, Coleridge’s many written analyses of Blakes writing, “Fatal Shores” (about the voyages of James Cook), and perhaps the “Confessions of Jean Jaques Rousseau”. At the very least, a better read of “Divine Comedy”, beyond scope of this paper, would offer further insight.

    The fatal flaw in Coleridge’s Inferno is the choice of senseless killing. In maritime history there is nothing sacrosanct about an albatross nor sinful in its killing at sea. From afar it is a magnificent and graceful bird. Viewed up close it is ugly, with a gnarled face and an oversize hooked beak. It is a notorious predator and killer of shore birds, nestlings, hatchlings, and eggs. Killing an albatross, largely for food but also sport, is common and documented in English maritime history. It is found in expedition narratives of James Cook and William Bligh, two of England’s more famous and heroic mariners, whose lives overlapped Samuel Coleridge. Watermen and mariners of the time would care less about the killing of an albatross.

    “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is Coleridge’s rendition of Dante’s “The Inferno” in the “Divine Comedy”, laced with allusion to Medieval and Old English religion and symbolism. Senselessly killing a revered deity sends the Mariner through the gates of hell. He descends many of hell to final judgement without full absolution. He is dead, banned eternally to “pass, like night, from land to land” (Coleridge 1233) and teach his lesson.

    In the end, the Mariner disappears to find his next tyro. The guest, who is possibly the groom, leaves the wedding; wiser, which is good; but sadder, which is not:
“The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.” (Coleridge 1390).

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel T. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. New York, Heritage Press, 1938