The Rime of the Ancient Environmentalist

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Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge.jpgTo my knowledge, Samuel Taylor Coleridge never heard of climate change.  Yet his brilliant, influential Rime of the Ancient Mariner - written apparently to illustrate the power of unknowable invisible forces - functions effortlessly as a warning about the suffering wrought by environmental degradation.

In Rime, the Ancient Mariner stops a man on a way to a wedding party and regales him with the story of the Ancient Mariner's last sea voyage.  He describes how his ship became trapped in South Pole ice.  The appearance of an albatross coincided with a fissure in the ice that permitted the helmsman to steer the ship to safety.  Thereafter, the albatross followed the boat.

Then the Ancient Mariner took his crossbow and killed the albatross.  This crucial event is rendered in a mere line-and-a-half, a scant seven words (one hyphenated), in the context of a verse dominated by the wedding guest's exclamations:

"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! -
Why look'st though so?" - With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.
No motivation for this act of violence is ever requested or offered.  As Barbara Everett, writing in the London Review of Books observed, "It is still often asked why the Mariner shoots the albatross. The only answer is that Mariners did: these heroic New World discoverers killed and culled everywhere they went."  As she colorfully expands, "There is a taste of rottenness, a dead albatross, underneath the history of discovery."  One might add, under the history of development as well.

This example of environmental plunder - as convenient, unthinking and reckless as our current interface with the environment - generates some unpleasant consequences.  Returning to England, the ship hits a dead spot in the Pacific and is stuck without a wind, "As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean."  The sailors become parched for lack of water; some are afflicted with fevered dreams of a spirit "[n]ine fathom deep" that has followed them from the South Pole.

A skeleton ship emerges from the sky.  This ghost ship's crew consists of Death and his female companion, Life-in-Death.  They are playing dice for the lives of the men aboard the Ancient Mariner's ship.  Death wins the crew; Life-in-Death gets the Ancient Mariner.  The ship's crew - 200 men strong - drops dead on the deck.

Seven days elapse, during which the Ancient Mariner is stuck on the boat with 200 corpses.  He finally spies some water snakes

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
Because of the Ancient Mariner's connection with these "living things," his condition improves.  He is able to pray and sleep and, when he awakes, rain pours onto the ship's deck, saving him from dying of thirst.  Even more extraordinarily, angels embody the corpses of the 200 crew men, raising the dead and getting to work sailing the ship.

But the Ancient Mariner still belongs to Life-in-Death.  He learns that, although he will be returned to his homeland, his life will not be his own.  He will serve a terrible penance, which is the vengeance of the spirit "nine fathom deep"

. . . who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.
Were it that every endangered species had a guardian spirit to avenge its killing!  We'd be in a much stronger position, biodiversity-wise, if this kind of incentive structure were in place.  But it's not.  Poachers and real estate developers (among others) whose actions cause the destruction of countless animals find themselves richer and unrepentant; Life-in-Death has yet to call.  

Instead, we're left with the Ancient Mariner's lesson.  Returning to England, the Ancient Mariner experiences periodic "agony" that compels him to recount his tale.  Such agony had possessed him when he saw the wedding guest.  Now he warns

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.
The wedding guest is understandably shaken by this dark tale of the consequences of wanton environmental destruction, and he turns away from the wedding party:

A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
At this historic moment, with oil poisoning the Gulf of Mexico, and myriad other environmental catastrophes unfolding, an environmental reading of Rime of the Ancient Mariner is especially poignant.  Given the difficulty of conveying through traditional journalistic and public information channels the consequences of climate change, perhaps Coleridge can impress upon a denying public that Life-in-Death (or Death itself) awaits environmental degraders and their cohorts.

That Coleridge was a religious man, the son of vicar, might make him especially persuasive to climate change doubters.  As Everett emphasized, "Coleridge was an 'anima naturaliter Christiana', a mind born Christian, who said that the 'strongest argument' for Christianity is that it 'fits the human heart'. It fitted his, at any rate." 

Nonetheless, as exegesis of Rime makes clear, Coleridge did not believe (as present-day Christians often espouse) that God made humans the caretakers of animals such that they might dispose of animals as they pleased.  Coleridge's pro-environmental Christianity is a powerful refutation to arguments like, "let's wreck the planet to bring on the rapture."

I am not, of course, idealistically optimistic that the 176-years-dead Coleridge will enjoy a resurrection as an environmentalist of note.  Not on the Al Gore scale, anyway; certainly Coleridge won't be winning any Nobel prizes.  Whatever potential long form Romantic poetry has as an instrument to influence world-wide climate change policy, that potential is deeply buried.

Nonetheless, mash-ups are super popular these days.  If we can have an Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, if readers want Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, why not Rime of the Ancient Climate Change Eco-Terrorist?

(Image of Samuel Taylor Coleridge from The Guardian)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on May 9, 2010 5:27 AM.

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