Christian Imagery in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

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Introduction

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the most outstanding figures of Romanticism, was born into a religious family. His father was the vicar of Ottery St Mary, a small village in Devon, and through him Coleridge became familiar with the principles of Christianity. Although a number of critics have tried to prove the contrary, references to Christianity can be found in Coleridge’s most famous poetic creation: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some critics argue that Coleridge’s profound interest in religion was responsible for the use of religious images in his poems. According to Lipkowitz, Coleridge had learned the Hebrew language in order to read the Bible in its original and praised it as an unequalled literary work. Lipkowitz points out various evidence to Coleridge’s study of the Bible and quotes a number of marginal notes made by Coleridge which reveal his interest in the Bible as a book that “contains the reliques of the literature of the Hebrew people” and quotes this comment by Coleridge: “What can Greece or Rome present worthy to be compared with the 50th Psalm, either in sublimity or the imagery or in moral elevation?” (606). According to Lipkowitz, Coleridge “insisted on the applicability of Scriptures to the modern age” (619). The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one of Coleridge’s most memorable poems, and the finest ballad in English literature contains numerous references to basic principles of Christianity such as death and resurrection, redemption, penance and salvation as well as the images of Christ, saints and spirits.

Discussion

Images of Christ, Saints, and Spirits
Throughout The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, numerous references are made to Christ, saints and spirits.
The Albatross which comes out of the fog and mist and functions for a time as the savior of the ship, becomes a Christ figure that brings on the salvation of the crew. It is “hailed in God’s name” by the Mariner and his crew as if it were “a Christian soul”. But the Mariner betrays the savior of the ship and shoots him down with his “cross-bow”. The Mariner’s betrayal resembles the betrayal of Judas, while the cross-bow can be associated with the cross on which Jesus was hung. The allusion to Christ’s crucifixion is quite clear. McKusick identifies the “cross-bow” which the Mariner uses in killing the Albatross, with “the traditional Christian imagery of sacrifice and atonement” (386). The shooting of the Albatross brings on the Mariner’s spiritual death and the ship stops moving. It is here that the Mariner makes an invocation to Christ as the savior of mankind: “The very deep did rot: O Christ! / That ever this should be!” (124-5). In part V of the poem however, it is not Christ himself but his mother who blesses the Mariner with sleep and rain. To Mary Queen the praise be given!

She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.
The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were filled with dew;
And when I awoke, it rained. (294-300)

In his marginal comments, Coleridge attributes the rain to the Virgin Mary. He says: “By grace of the holy Mother, the ancient Mariner is refreshed with rain” (Allison et al., 574). In part IV of the poem two references are made to saints. After the death of the crew, the Mariner is left alone at sea to pay penance for his sin through suffering. This suffering becomes evident when he says: “And never a saint took pity on / My soul in agony” (234-5). Later on, when he begins to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, he attributes the ability to bless the sea-creatures to a “kind saint”, so he says: “Sure my kind saint took pity on me / And I blessed them unaware” (286-7). In the next part of the poem, Coleridge attributes the coming of the “angelic spirits” which guide the ship home to “the invocation of the guardian saint” (Allison et al., 575). Spirits play a functional role in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. After the...
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