The idea of the sublime is an important Romantic idea. In modern times, the word “sublime” usually refers to something especially breathtaking or beautiful. But as demonstrated by the strange beauty – both terrible and wonderful – that Coleridge presents in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Romantic idea of the sublime isn’t confined to just beauty, but rather suggests an overwhelming awe, and is often connected to nature. In the poem, for instance, the natural world is filled with beautiful yet horrible sights and events. The storm, which drives the ship to the pole, is incredibly powerful and majestic at once. The ice, snow, and giant, ship-high glaciers that the Mariner encounters in the pole are at once incredibly beautiful, eerie, and dangerous. The sublime then can be seen as the intersection of beauty and terror, awe and horror. Thus the sublime, like nature, must be approached with the right attitude. If we approach it and only appreciate its beauty, we risk falling prey to its danger, and if we approach the sublime only with fear of its horror, we mistakenly forget the awe that God’s creations should rightly inspire. And the poem makes it clear that experiencing the sublime can transform, just as it transforms both the Mariner and the Wedding Guest through the Mariner’s story.
The poem does not only find the sublime in nature, however. As described by the Mariner, it is also possible to see the act of prayer as sublime, as a spiritual, powerful act within a bounded, mundane civilization. In this view, both praying and appreciating nature involve both the beauty and overwhelming awe of connecting to God, of seeing past the mundane moments of daily life in civilization to the sublime.
In contrast, it is possible to see the Mariner’s killing of the Albatross as an attempt to assert the mundane over the sublime, or to force what is sublime (an uncanny, flying animal appearing out of the fog) to become mundane (a dead bird).
The Mundane and the Sublime ThemeTracker
The Mundane and the Sublime Quotes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
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.
It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! –
Why look'st thou so?'-
With my cross-bow I shot the Albatross.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.
Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.
An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
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.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware,
The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
This seraph-band, each waved his hand:
It was a heavenly sight!
They stood as signals to the land,
Each one a lovely light;
This seraph-band, each waved his hand,
No voice did they impart –
No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart.
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.