RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER
space-time interpretation by Richard Hill
think your space time ideas are entirely plausible and would have interested
Carey, Merton Professor of English Literature, Merton College, Oxford
dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down'
seconds sample. (565k)
Taylor Coleridge's legendary and profound poem, written over 200
years ago, can be freshly illuminated for modern audiences by
interpreting it in the genre of Star Trek or other comparable
contemporary space mythology. In Richard Hill's space time interpretation
of The Rime, the Ancient Mariner is seen as a lone messenger visiting
many universes. This ancient, time-travelling humanoid is locked
into a never ending mission - to force others, in this case a
hapless wedding guest, to learn the consequences of disturbing
the balance of inter-relationships within the natural world. The
Mariner brings a message from the past to the present about the
future and having delivered it, moves on to repeat the cycle endlessly.
This space time drama is not just a good story - it also has a
deep and significant message for our present relationship with
our planet Earth.
subject of spirits, daemons of earth or middle air, or of the elements,
was socially discussed in Coleridge's time and such 'invisible
inhabitants of this planet' are freely mentioned in the margin
gloss of the poem as well as in this text, used as an introduction to
it, by Thomas Burnet in his Archaeol. Phil., p.68.
I can easily believe that there are more invisible than visible natures
in the universe. But who shall describe their family? Who set forth
the orders, kinships, respective stations and functions of each? What
do they do? Where is their habitation? The human mind has always sought
after, but never attained, knowledge of these things. Meanwhile it is
desirable, I grant, to contemplate in thought, as if in a picture, an
image of a greater and better world; lest the mind, accustoming itself
to the minutiae of daily life, should become too narrow, and lapse into
mean thoughts. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and
set a limit, lest we fail to distinguish certain from uncertain, day
at another level of existence is therefore openly woven into the fabric
of the poem. But it is what Coleridge's intuition did with these imaginary
beings and indeed, what he did with the known laws of physics by which
we exist and perceive our surroundings, that so startlingly matches
our modern speculations about parallel universes and space time travel.
are many clues within the poem to lead us to the notion that Coleridge
imagined his 'old navigator' (as he later
called the Mariner) to have knowledge both of a connected parallel universe
and of time travel, even though there were no words to describe such
ideas in the late eighteenth century. Even today these theories are
at the extreme boundary of scientific speculation, but they are also
persistent archetypes, featuring in many a science fiction narrative.
In The Rime, it is the presence of these very same archetypes which
drive the poem and allow a space time treatment of the work to be created
In Coleridge's narrative, the 'Argument' at the beginning of the poem
sets the stage:-
'How a ship having passed the Line was driven
by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence
she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean;
and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent
Marinere came back to his own Country.'
The 'strange things that befell' are the
keys which open the door to the otherworldly and archetypal elements
which pervade the poem. Of course in such a great work as The Rime there
are a number of themes - the relationship between the Christian and
pagan elements is a fascinating study all on its own - and there is
an overarching message of deep concern and love for the natural world
which powers the poem, evidence of Coleridge's broad and intuitive understanding
of how the whole universe must be inter-related. But it is in the location
of the events, the distortion of physical laws and in the company of
the strange entities which populate the poem that we feel we are not
on planet Earth at all. This is a different, at times terrifying but
still wondrous space time continuum.
Let us take a journey though the poem and see what Coleridge actually
tells us about this other universe and its inhabitants. The 'alien'
events really begin after the albatross, a bird of good omen, has been
thoughtlessly shot and the ship becomes becalmed in the Pacific, near
the Equator. But long before that - in fact in the very first word of
the poem, Coleridge lets us know that this story is not going to obey
the known laws of physics.
'It is an ancient Mariner'
This blunt, oddly chosen, paradoxical opening phrase has a companion
at the end of the poem, where Coleridge tells us
'The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Why choose 'It' instead of 'He
is an ancient Mariner', and 'Whose beard
with age is hoar Is gone' instead of 'has
gone:' The inference seems clear - these lines imply instant
appearance and disappearance - as if a transporter device straight out
of Star Trek is being used to materialise the Mariner. Further, the
use of the word 'It' to start the poem
suggests that the Mariner is not totally human. This is reinforced by
his use of hypnosis to force the wedding guest to listen to him. But
it is not hypnosis as we know it, because it is achieved by the physical
power coming from his 'glittering eye',
an attribute which is referred to throughout the poem, sometimes with
a different description, as in the phrase 'The
bright-eyed Mariner.' Again, this is an alien and archetypal
trait well-known to fans of contemporary space mythology. It seems we
have here an ancient humanoid being who has survived beyond countless
human life spans, acquired superhuman and irresistible power and who
can appear and disappear at will. Sounds like this could be the start
of an excellent sci-fi adventure!
As the story develops, the helpless, hypnotised wedding guest is made
to witness the entire sequence of events, including the needless slaughter
of the innocent, wandering albatross, after which the ship is becalmed.
It is in this part of the poem that we first seem to be going through
a strange transformation of location, perhaps into a parallel universe.
On what evidence? Well, the sea itself changes consistency 'The
very deep did rot' - and what are the 'slimy
things with legs' that crawl upon it? Of course there are natural
explanations - a Sargasso-like Sea, sea snakes, phosphorescent plankton
- and the 'death-fires' that danced at
night can be interpreted as St. Elmo's fire, but the fact that some
of the crew are now having collective dreams of 'the
Spirit that plagued us so' following the ship 'nine
fathom deep', starts to stretch these reality based interpretations.
And when 'a something in the sky' appears
and turns out to be a craft that can sail 'without
a breeze, without a tide', we are surely in the presence of alien
technology. This visit of the death-ship, with its strange, nightmarish
crew of two, the man Death and the horribly beautiful woman Life-in-Death
are all one could wish for in a pair of terrifying aliens. The sudden
departure of this vessel reinforces the argument that we are in another
universe, with different rules to our own:-
'The sun's rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o'er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.'
Again and again throughout the poem, Coleridge plays with time like
this. The action described in the above quote happens impossibly fast,
almost like a piece of modern television or film editing and the incredible
speed with which the death-ship leaves the scene only adds to our sense
of being in another continuum. The pattern is now set for the rest of
the poem. Complete with film-like, flashback sequences of the wedding
guest under the power of the Mariner's glittering eye, the story evolves
in this different, frightening yet at times beautiful, new world. The
crew, apart from the Mariner, appear to die from thirst, but their bodies
are reactivated by alien entities and are able to sail the ship, 'yet
never a breeze up-blew'. The mysterious Polar Spirit ('and
it was he That made the ship to go') delivers the vessel to what
we could nowadays describe as two guardians of a space time portal,
or wormhole, which leads to the way home. These ethereal beings, the
Voices in The Air, act as escorts to the ship as, in one of the most
startling and futuristic sequences in the poem, Coleridge describes
what, to the crew of the star ship Voyager, would obviously be a space
'But why drives on that ship so fast,
Without or wave or wind?'
'The air is cut away before,
And closes from behind.'
There is a shot in the title sequence of 'Star Trek - Voyager' which
depicts the space ship cruising among star systems at incredible speed,
encased in its own 'warp bubble' which can be seen dividing at the bow
and closing at the stern, exactly as Coleridge conceived for his own
ship some 200 years ago. In the margin gloss, we are told that the speed
of his ship is 'faster than human life could endure'
and he puts his Mariner into a trance to survive it, in perfect
archetypal space mythology style.
When the Mariner's ship is returned to its own continuum the alien entities
leave the bodies of the crew and return to their own universe in a display
of coloured light that would grace any of Steven Spielberg's close encounters
'And the bay was white with silent light,
Till rising from the same,
Full many shapes, that shadows were,
In crimson colours came.'
And three verses later:
'They stood as signals to the land,
Each one a lovely light;'
As these entities of light depart, the Mariner's ship is sunk by an
earthquake, or in sci-fi terms it may be a final temporal boom from
the other universe. The Mariner now returns, with the wedding guest,
to the very same wedding celebrations at which he materialised at the
start of the poem. Hardly any time has passed, a known phenomenon related
to travelling at around the speed of light. He delivers his final message
of love and respect for life on our planet, urging us to restore the
balance of nature which we have so thoughtlessly and catastrophically
'Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding -Guest!
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.'
And now the Mariner is gone. Who knows where? He leaves behind a lesson
for humankind, through the medium of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the brilliant
26 year old visionary poet who saw beyond his own world and into the
future of us all.
Text & Spelling Resource - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Samuel Taylor
Coleridge. Published by Harper & Brothers, 327-335 Pearl Street, Franklin
Square, New York - 1884. Illustrated by Gustave Dore.