A device that a writer or a poet uses in his literary work in order to refer to something more than its literal meanings is called symbolism. The Rime of The Ancient Mariner is a poem in which Coleridge uses symbolism as a literary device to show a hidden world to his readers through symbols. In the poem, there are many symbols. For instance, the words, objects, actions, characters as well as imagery of the poem suggests more than their literal meanings. It is very rare for romantic poets to use symbols intentionally; however, the poem has been written by two most romantic poets: William Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge with mutual consent; therefore, it contains many deliberate symbols.
Symbols and themes of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also strengthen the stance that the poet wants us to believe in an entirely imaginary rime of an ancient mariner; it is a dream that the poet sees. The poet S.T. Coleridge denies that the poem is moral but it is not true by any stretch of the imagination. Reading the poem indicates that it has some moral lessons; for example, sin and penance, punishment, and repentance. It also strengthens the belief of the readers in Christianity.
It is recommended to read Rime of the Ancient Mariner summary to understand symbols of the poem.
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Symbols of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Some important symbols that the poet S. T. Coleridge uses in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are:
- Images and Objects
- The Sea
The poet has written this poem while giving the bird albatross a good significance. The incident that occurs in the sea with the ancient mariner is due to the bird. It is the bird that brings favourable winds to the ship. It is the albatross which causes sufferings in the life of the ancient mariner. The first entry of the bird is very dramatic. The poet writes the following introductory lines to show the importance of the bird:
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.
The poet declares him a Christian soul. It is not a symbol; rather it is a direct meaning that the poet gives to the bird. There are symbols that we may obtain from the word “Christian soul”. Perhaps the bird symbolises an innocent Christian person who has done nothing wrong. It does good for the sailors. It brings a change in weather even then the ancient mariner kills him with his crossbow. Every sailor, except the ancient mariner, believes that the bird is a sign of a good omen. So, the albatross in this way becomes a symbol of innocence.
The poet also refers albatross to as Christ. He came into the world to save humanity. He was innocent but the people crucified Him. It is also the case with the albatross, it does good for the people but in return receives death from them. The bird becomes a symbol of an oppressed soul that increases hurdles for the ancient mariner. Indeed, the ancient mariner commits a mistake while killing the albatross but at the same time it is proved that killing the bird is a deadly sin that the ancient mariner commits intentionally.
Albatross is also a symbol of change. It brings favourable winds; however, when the ancient mariner kills him, it brings destruction not only for him but also for other sailors. In the world, many sailors tell stories and myths about albatross. Some think that shooting and killing the bird brings bad luck whereas others think that its flesh gives energy to them. It is also a speciality of this bord that it spends most of its time flying at the sea. It can cover miles with a single flap due to the size of its wings. Thus, some sailors think that the albatross brings protection and security for them to cover a larger distance in less time.
Protection, security and good omens are symbols that are attached to the albatross in the poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
These lines show the mariner’s acceptance that the bird brings change. It helps the sailors in sailing in the sea not physically but morally but killing the bird “bring[s] the fog and mist”. Hence, the poet uses all these symbols in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to show the supremacy of the albatross.
Sun, Moon, Images and Objects
There are many images in the poem that symbolise something. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem where natural and supernatural worlds meet with each other. At the start of the poem, everything goes well with the weather but soon the weather becomes unfriendly for the sailors. Albatross brings change and it again becomes clear. Weather in the poem symbolises ups and downs in the life of a person. Life is the same for everyone even for the ancient mariner but at some point, the inner flaw of a person brings destruction to him.
External forces don’t need to bring change in the life of a person. Anyone can become the hero or villain of his story. In this poem, the ancient mariner himself is responsible for his downfall. He could have saved himself from destruction if he would not kill the albatross. His pride or grave mistake brings doom for him. The action of the ancient mariner is a symbol that a person himself can bring change in his life.
Similarly, every object and each image of the poem symbolises something. Sun is a symbol of influence, heat, thirst, dryness and external force. It also represents the world of supernaturalism. Moon is for light and darkness in the life of the sailors. It also controls the tides of the ocean. Simultaneously, it controls the supernatural elements; it gives life to the dead:
I woke, and we were sailing on
As in a gentle weather:
'Twas night, calm night, the moon was high;
The dead men stood together.
The dead represent the miserable life of the ancient mariner. The blood that the ancient mariner sucks from his body is the symbol of the struggle to remain alive. The eyes of the ancient mariner when the wedding guest stops to listen to his story is a symbol of attraction. Game of life and death and the mariner at stack symbolise insecurity of life.
In such wise, all the objects that the poet creates in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are symbols and indicate something beyond their literal meanings.
At the start of the poem when the ancient mariner starts telling his story to one of the three guests, he describes the sea in the following lines:
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
The image of the wide wide sea symbolises vastness but it is not its only symbol. Power, strength, mystery, endlessness, calmness, hope, and truth are symbols that the poet refers to through the sea in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The mysteriousness of the sea is very much evident from the following lines:
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist, and on the left
Went down into the sea.
Sea is a symbol that can be used in positive and negative meanings. It is used for life as well as for death. It may destroy large ships but it also gives food to the sailors. It becomes a bridge between different countries. In this particular situation of the poem, there is a probability that the sea is a symbol of all these things. Ancient mariner’s story starts with the sea and ends with it. Most of the action of the poem takes place in the sea.
In spite of so much destruction, the ship was sailing at sea; hence, the sea supports the ancient mariner. In other meanings, it gives life to him. Much action is associated with water; as a result, the sea is a symbol of an alive physical force in this poem.
No one other than the mariner knows what happened to him at the sea. He tells his story to people and they come to know about the incident that happened with the mariner at the sea; hence, its mysteriousness and obscurity are two other symbols of the sea in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
S. T. Coleridge uses some intentional and unintentional symbols in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Every symbol has a unique meaning beyond its literal meaning. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner represents some unique ideas. Its symbols are aligned with the overall tone and theme of the poem. In short, the symbols evoke images of cold or dark objects in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.