Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic ballad "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is, according to Coleridge scholar Robert Lowell, a nightmare exercise in phantasmagoria, as it details the adventures of a sailor who, by the simple action of cross-bowing an albatross, dooms his fellow crewmen to death and himself to an eternity of penance. This remarkable work lends itself to several rich literary essay topics.
Essay on Morality
A prime essay topic is "Why does the Mariner shoot the albatross?" Coleridge himself describes it as a crime with no moral underpinnings. Students could examine the motivations not only of the Mariner, who seems to have committed the act out of sheer boredom, but also of Coleridge himself, who, in works like "The Suicide's Argument," argues for high moral intent and right living. It would be fascinating to contrast this scrupulous author's other works with his one epic work of unmotivated crime and ask "Why?"
Essay on Imagery
Another essay might examine the shifting imagery Coleridge uses in various settings of the poem. Yale professor Harold Bloom notes how Coleridge symbolically intensifies the reader's experience through settings. Once the ship is storm-tossed to Antarctica, Coleridge's "phantasmagoria" speaks of "ice, mast-high ... as green as emerald." After the killing of the albatross, the vessel is stuck under a "hot and copper sky ... as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." Students might consider the extremes of temperature, of the crew's wretchedness and of the Mariner's feelings of guilt as these settings shift.
Essay as Character Study
Speaking of the Mariner, this remarkable individual can be the subject of an essay's character study, particularly in his passivity and personality change. Robert Penn Warren noted he was both blessed and cursed. He progresses from an uncaring murderer in Book One to a guilt-ridden wretch in Book Four. "A thousand thousand slimy things lived on and so did I," he says at one point. He is also primarily an inactive observer, and students might examine why. He kills the albatross and blesses water-snakes, but does little else except watch his own adventure.
Essay on Irony
A rich literary essay topic might examine Coleridge's irony: Dramatic, situational and verbal irony all occur. The dramatic irony of the Mariner's end is fascinating. The poem acknowledges his penance, but he becomes, in Bloom's analysis, nothing more than a story-telling machine recounting his adventure. The situational irony of the albatross is interesting: It is hung on the Mariner's neck "instead of the Cross," substituting Death for Christ. Finally, there is the classic verbal irony of "Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." Surrounded by sea water, the crew is dying of thirst.
- Gutenberg.org: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (e-text)
- Coleridge's Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner and Robinson Crusoe; Patrick J. Keane
- University of Georgia: A Coleridge Companion: A Note on the "Moral" of "The Ancient Mariner"
- Poemhunter.com: The Suicide's Argument
- How to Read and Why; Harold Bloom
- University of Georgia: A Coleridge Companion: Critical Approaches to "The Ancient Mariner"
- Literary Devices: Irony
- Photo Credit zhudifeng/iStock/Getty Images
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