The Ocean-Desert: The Ancient Mariner and. The Waste Land
WHEN Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land are juxtaposed, the two poems become mutually illuminating. Nor is the juxtaposition arbitrary, since both are essentially religious poems concerned with salvation. In both, the protagonist needs to recover from a living death, from spiritual dryness. Structurally, The Waste Land has almost no narrative thread, no story, but it sounds motifs that interweave, develop, recur, much as in music. The title points to the basic image that contains the dominant theme, the waste land, arid, stony, infertile. In its ugliness and emptiness this land symbolises a spiritual condition which is both a state of mind and a state of civilisation. The seven languages used in the poem and the various characters other than the protagonist who inhabit the waste land and share in its plight indicate the universal reference of the theme. A second motif, that of the Unreal City, with its brown fog, its dull canal, and its falling towers, suggests the collapse of a whole civilisation. Coleridge's poem seems on the surface much simpler. It begins with the Mariner's stopping 'one of three' and ends with the Wedding Guest, stunned and forlorn, a sadder and a wiser man. The strange tale of terrible solitude is set in the framework of relationship, the unattended wedding in the background. Within this framework, the Mariner tells his tale—of the voyage into ice and snow, of his shooting the albatross, and of the strange events that followed with the spectre ship carrying Death and Life-in-Death, with the Polar Daemon, and with the angelic spirits who animated dead bodies and carried the ship home. The story element in this poem is so strong that many readers accept the poem simply as a weird adventure tale.
Others who see the pattern of crime and punishment are so baifled by the disproportion of the punishment to the seeming triviality of the crime that they prefer to leave it as an inconsequential child's poem. Exactly at this point the structure of The Waste Land becomes helpful. Eliot gives us no story and therefore compels us to wrestle with the images, to read the symbols. It is just as essential in reading The Ancient Mariner to wrestle with the images and interpret the symbols. The central comparison is that of the spiritual dryness, presented in Eliot in the image of rocky land where the sun beats and no water is to be found, in Coleridge in the image of the becalmed ship on an endless sea where there is Water, water, everywhere Nor any drop to drink. The first of the relevant passages in The Waste Land occurs in 'The Burial of the Dead' directly after a glimpse of rootless cosmopolitans to whom seasons mean very little. Abruptly the question is put: What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water. Here where the sun beats on dry stones, human beings are no more than fear in a handful of dust and the ancient faiths only a heap of broken images. In the final section of the poem, the significance of the landscape is even clearer, for as the themes of the journey to Emmaus and the approach to the Chapel Perilous interweave, there is no water but only rock, mountains of rock without water, where even sweat is dry and thunder sterile and without rain. The missing water is clearly the water of life, the water of which Jesus spoke to the woman of Samaria, the water that in the Book of Revelation proceeds out of the throne of God. The Christian mystery of life through death is linked with the condition of modern man:
He who was living is now dead We who were living are now dying. 'But there is no water,' and...
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