No Rime or reason?

Why do you think the Ancient Mariner kills the Albatross?

Admittedly, there’s not much to go on in the text, which might seem to call for wild speculation. But I think we can do better. Many critics have observed that Coleridge wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to channel the primitive depth of epic poetry or biblical parable, albeit with a strong British flavor. This is not a controversial observation considering that the poem, at its core, is a narrative of guilt and redemption (among other things). So, continuing along these lines we are invited to read the killing of the Albatross as sin, our original question as an inquiry into the nature of transgression. But this is trickier than it seems. Though we can often explain particular wrongs (e.g. I struck him because he struck me), we have a much tougher time getting at the root of evil (i.e. why did he strike me unprovoked?).

Some of the explanations that we raised in class might be useful: vengeance, superstition, iconoclasm, impulse. But I’m not so sure that any of those provide a satisying answer to our primal question. The very form of Coleridge’s poem (parablistic rhyming verse with marginal glosses, evoking scripture complete with textual interpretation) suggests that there is some wisdom to be gained upon reflection. The Mariner’s sin is “forgiven” when he recognizes the sacred in the most base of creatures (the sea snakes), but his guilt continually reoccurs like a rising tide. The only solution is a periodic revisiting of the original tale, a simultaneous myth-making and exegesis. But what do we learn from such a retelling? Is the Mariner, in forcing his tale upon the Wedding-Guest (i.e. presuming his own absolution and transcendence through an implicit claim to metaphysical insight) simultaneously re-committing and clarifying the nature of his crime?

Continue here to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s rumination on Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 mass killing in Norway. I think Knausgaard’s attempt to make some sense of these senseless murders offers a salient perspective on what generates such malevolence, and is highly applicable to our discussion of the Coleridge poem.


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