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Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Other Poems

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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“I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.”

So sings Johnny Cash in his classic “Folsom Prison Blues.” When Cash talked about writing this song, he said he was trying to think of a really evil reason for murdering someone, and as he thought about it he decided that murdering with no real motive would be extremely evil.

Cash was not the first to reach this conclusion; Samuel Taylor Coleridge paints the same scenario in his poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In this case, the title character and his crew are sailing from England to the Pacific Ocean around Cape Horn. As they near the Cape, they are driven by a storm into the Antarctic Ocean and surrounded by ice and fog. As the men despair, an albatross—traditionally considered by sailors to be a good omen—appears and allows them to feed him. The ice cracks, and the ship is free! As the men continue north toward the Pacific, the albatross follows behind, ensuring (as they believed) a safe journey. Then suddenly and inexplicably, the mariner shoots and kills the albatross.

The haunting confession of the mariner demonstrates the power of Coleridge’s verse: “And I had done a hellish thing,/And it would work ’em woe:/For all averred, I had killed the bird/That made the breeze to blow.”

Granted, killing a man for no reason is worse than killing a bird for no reason. But Coleridge takes care to connect disdain for animal life with disdain for human life. In the poem, the doom the mariner brings upon himself is only alleviated when he watches some water-snakes swimming, thrills at their beauty, and unconsciously blesses them. The moral of the poem is stated bluntly by Coleridge at the end: “He prayeth well, who loveth well/Both man and bird and beast.”

If all of this sounds curious, it should. This poem blurs the line between the natural and the supernatural, and speaks of both damnation and redemption while never seeming to approach orthodoxy. It is the most haunting poem I’ve read, even compared to the best of Edgar Allan Poe.

by Jeff Baldwin