Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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In the previous post, we looked at evidence which indicates that bottlenose dolphins give themselves distinctive individual names, and the implications of that startling revelation.  In particular, the recent studies indicating individual self-awareness in dolphins may cause us to consider in a new light the violence done to animals every day:
Thinking about the fact that dolphins appear to "give themselves names," it seems that doing violence against dolphins really highlights what Simone Weil wrote in her treatise against violence, that it "turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing."  It turns, as she says, a "somebody" into "nobody" -- it robs its victims (and ultimately its perpetrators as well) of their personhood -- the very thing that an individual name represents!  
This subject appears to resonate strongly with the themes explored in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (first published in 1798 and revised slightly by Coleridge throughout his life -- here is an online edition of the 1834 version).  The poem describes the aftermath of the mariner's unthinking and callous killing of an albatross, which has reverberations which reach into the supernatural world.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the poem should read it in its entirety -- it really deserves several close readings in order to perceive the layers of detail and meaning woven into the poem by the artist.

The first appearance of the Albatross is framed in the poem in a manner which hints at the theme at hand:
At length did cross an Albatross,

Thorough the fog it came;

As if it had been a Christian soul,

We hailed it in God's name.

In light of the fact that we now have scientific evidence of animals giving themselves personal names, this is a very interesting commentary by Coleridge.  He has the Mariner describe the Albatross "As if it had been a Christian soul," a phrase which hints at the truth and yet -- by the inclusion of the framing words "as if" -- shows that the Mariner and his fellows deny that level of "personhood" to the bird.

Note that in English culture, individual names are linked to the possession of an immortal soul, and in previous generations were often referred to as one's "Christian name." 

In an act of senseless violence, of which he repents later, the Mariner shoots and kills the Albatross.  The act itself is not described at all -- the Mariner only blurts out the confession that he did it, without giving any description of his motives or frame of mind.  Prior to his confession of guilt, the listener in the poem (the Wedding-Guest) elicits the confession by noting the visibly evident anguish that comes over the Mariner as he describes the daily visits of the cheerful bird, which visits the ship "for food or play," forming a close bond with the crew:
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—

Why look'st thou so?'—With my cross-bow

I shot the ALBATROSS.

Just prior to this, the Mariner was describing the role the bird seemed to play in guiding the ship through the ice at the South Pole (more on this in a moment), and in bringing "a good south wind" to propel the voyagers past the pole and into the Pacific Ocean on the other side.  By detailing these images, and giving no extended description of the shooting itself, the reader receives an even more powerful impression of the thoughtlessness of the killing of the friendly Albatross.

The deed, of course, has fateful consequences.  As Simone Weil wrote in her famous 1940 essay, "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force" (available in its entirety online here, translated into English from the original French by Mary McCarthy) the use of force reduces both its object and its perpetrator from a being possessed of a soul into "a thing":
Such is the nature of force.  Its power of converting a man into a thing is a double one, and in its application double-edged.  To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.  22.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem extends this concept to the animals around us and, by extension, to the natural world and in fact the entire universe.  This idea is a hallmark theme of the Romantic movement, of which The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is often considered an opening work of art.

The extension of the pain inflicted by the Mariner's thoughtless shooting of the Albatross to the extended universe, by the way, is present in the poem.  In a "waking dream" state (described by the Mariner as a "fit" he has fallen into), the Mariner hears two spirits discussing his guilty deed:
'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?

By him who died on cross,

With his cruel bow he laid full low

The harmless Albatross.

The spirit 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.'
The "spirit who bideth by himself" had been perceived by the crew earlier as the being who "nine fathom deep beneath the keel" was impelling the ship along the seas on its strange journey.  Thus, the Mariner eventually grows to understand the full import of his deed -- not only was he wrong in denying a "soul" to the bird, but his senseless destruction of the friendly creature brought pain not only to the bird but to the Spirit of the world of ice who also delighted in the Albatross.

Later, the Mariner receives an absolution of sorts when he, without even knowing why he does so, perceives the beauty in the sea creatures swimming in the wake of the vessel, and blesses them:
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 bless├Ęd them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.
This marks a major change from his initial description of the Albatross (marked by the words "as if") and shows us that he now believes the animals around him -- and the natural world that they inhabit -- are worthy of being blessed (a word, of course, which carries obvious spiritual implications).  To underscore the significance of this change in the Mariner, he tells us that at that moment he is able to pray again, and the body of the Albatross, which had been hung around his neck like "a cross" falls off of him:
The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea.
Above is an illustration of an 1870 edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Gustave Dore, who provided 43 fantastic illustrations for the poem.  It depicts the Albatross leading the ship through the towering ice as it crosses through the southern regions.  The voyage is described as going south (the ship sails with the rising sun to the left) and then through the ice into the Pacific, after which the ship goes to the north (with the rising sun to the right).  In other words, on this amazing journey, the vessel appears to sail right through Antarctica as if it were all ocean and no land!

The reason the ship is able to pass through the pole without any mention of land, only mighty bergs, is significant.   The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was first written in 1798.  As Graham Hancock demonstrates in Fingerprints of the Gods, the continent was only "discovered" again in 1818, although it had clearly been known in previous ages and appeared on some Renaissance maps.  Thus, it is not surprising that a poem first penned in 1798 would treat the ocean at the South Pole as if it were essentially like the ice-bound ocean we find at the North Pole.

Interestingly enough, Professor Charles H. Hapgood proves in his landmark work Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age (first published in 1966) that ancient maps, following cartographic conventions of some lost civilization, depict extremely accurate renditions of Antarctica, some even appearing to demonstrate knowledge of the Antarctic coastline before it was bound in ice as it is today.  This information actually appears to support the hydroplate theory of Dr. Walt Brown (see discussion in this previous blog post on the topic).

Finally, it is also noteworthy that the evocative illustration by Gustave Dore depicted above appears to incorporate clear parallels to the images of the Orion Nebula which scientific instruments would not be capable of recording for another hundred years!  Readers of Danny Wilten's amazing work on the Orion Nebula and art (including the frescoes of Michelangelo) will immediately recognize in the Gustave Dore illustration above many of the elements that these works have in common with each other and with the Orion Nebula.  For a previous blog post on the subject, see "Danny Wilten and the Orion Nebula."  

In particular, in the Dore illustration from the poem, there is an arch, as well as a "glory."  In his e-book, Mr. Wilten demonstrates that a bird is sometimes present in the glory, such as in the Adoration of the Trinity from around 1647 - 1649, a work of art which Mr. Wilten discusses:

(mobile readers continue to scroll down to read the rest of the post)

We can also see parallels to the details of modern satellite telescope imagery of the Orion Nebula in other works by Gustave Dore.  Below is a comparison of Gustave Dore's Creation of Light (circa 1866) to the imagery of the Orion Nebula (taken in 2006 with the Hubble Telescope):

Readers of Mr. Wilten's e-book will notice the obvious presence of the "crescent moon" motif in the correct position of Dore's engraving (the "9-o'clock" position), found in all of the art discussed in Mr. Wilten's e-book (beginning on page 27; he does not discuss Gustave Dore specifically but gives so many other very clear examples that this phenomenon cannot be dismissed as coincidence).

This resonance between art and universe is really quite incredible.  In conjunction with the theme of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it can perhaps only be interpreted as further confirmation of the message of the poem.  In other words, not only are the animals and birds around us, and even the icy waters of the Antarctic infused with "spirit," but the rest of the universe as well!