Coleridge was one of the founders of the Romantic movement, a literary movement that developed in the early 19th century in response to the Age of Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophy esteemed reason above all else, and flourished in the 18th century, as well as contributed to the budding Industrial Revolution and the ways that growing industry and technology seemed to shift the balance in man’s relationship with nature. Romantics valued emotion over reason, and they glorified and appreciated nature. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner fits into the Romantic tradition. The poem begins at the wedding feast, with the Wedding Guest observing and enjoying a quintessentially civilized setting in which nature is subdued. But when the Ancient Mariner imposes himself on the Wedding Guest and tells his story, the scene (and the Wedding Guest as audience) shift from comfortable civilization into nature, in this case aboard a ship sailing across the globe. Cast into the world, the Mariner must contend with nature in the form of violent storms and the dangerous sea, and he must survive the perils of the natural world. In this light, the Mariner’s killing of the albatross can be seen as an attempt to master nature, to assert the power of man over the power of nature.
But the poem presents nature as more powerful, awe inspiring, and terrifying than man can comprehend. And, further, the poem depicts any attempt to master nature as pointless. Nature is simply too powerful, as is evident when the sudden lack of wind strands the ship in desolate waters, and the Mariner and sailors begin to die of thirst. The poem demonstrates that contending with, merely surviving, or attempting to master nature are the wrong ways for humankind to approach the natural world.
The poem, though, does not only portray nature as a kind of passive elemental force that is too powerful for men to conquer. Instead, the poem conceives of nature as being an expression of the spiritual world. This relationship between nature and the spiritual world explains the terrible and supernatural reaction that the Mariner and his shipmates must face after he kills the albatross. Nature, as the poem has it, is God’s creation, and therefore when a person interacts with nature they also interact with the spiritual world. And so, when the Mariner attempts to master or control nature (such as by killing the albatross), it is an affront not just to nature, but to the spiritual world and to God as well. Harming nature, then, is a moral failing. It is a sin. Such sins lead to punishment, and the punishment comes as a combination of the natural and the spiritual: it is supernatural. This supernatural punishment is expressed when elemental spirits arise and drag or halt the Mariner’s ship, and by the haunting Death and Life-In-Death who harvest human souls.
It is only when the Mariner learns to live with and value the natural world, as he does when he sees the beauty in the Water Snakes that, it seems likely, he previously would have despised, does the punishment against him ease. The poem, then, casts the appreciation and valuing of nature, the act of embracing Romanticism, not just as important in and of itself, but as above all a spiritual, religious necessity.
The Natural and the Spiritual ThemeTracker
The Natural and the Spiritual 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.
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.
It is the Hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns
That he makes in the wood.
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away
The Albatross's blood.
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.