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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

89. Mariners and Wedding Guests

Narrative: the stories that demand to be told

A workshop for the Narrative Working group
September, 2007

IT is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.

So begins one of the most famous poems in the English literary canon: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Three people are on their way to a wedding, when ‘an ancient mariner’ accosts one of them. This wedding guest is impatient to be on his way -he is the bridegroom’s next-of-kin, and he can hear the joyous sounds of the wedding in the distance. The wedding guest is also disquieted – even disturbed - by the appearance of the mariner:

"By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

"The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din."

He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship," quoth he.
"Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

The mariner takes hold of the wedding guest, who reacts strongly, demanding to be set free. The mariner lets go, but then ‘holds’ the wedding guest with his ‘glittering eye’. The wedding guest is powerless to move; he is in the thrall of the mariner. And so, the mariner begins his tale…

He holds him with his glittering eye --
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot chuse but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

The tale is of a journey to the south seas, where

… ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

An albatross joins the ship, and at first it is greeted and well fed by the crew, who see it as a bird of good omen. It perches each day on the mast.. But then, the ship encounters foul weather, and the crew begin to blame the bird, seeing it as an ill omen.

There is a sudden break at this point in the mariner’s narrative; the wedding guest, in response to the mariner’s changed demeanour, cries:

"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.

The remainder of the tale is a narrative of the consequences of the mariner’s impulsive, destructive act. It is as though the fate of the whole ship’s crew is affected by this wanton act.

But why is it this particular wedding guest who is chosen to be the receiver of the story?

It is only at the very end of the tale that the mariner solves this riddle.

At the very end of the journey, when the ship is steered by supernatural forces, back to it country of origin, the mariner begs a holy man – a hermit – for forgiveness. The hermit demands of the mariner: what manner of man art thou? The mariner must give an account of himself, must tell his story, tell who he is:

"O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!"
The Hermit crossed his brow.
"Say quick," quoth he, "I bid thee say --
What manner of man art thou?"

The effect of this demand upon the mariner is dramatic; he is driven by a ‘woeful agony’ to tell his story, and only through the telling is he freed from its power over him. This need to tell the story afflicts the mariner from time to time; the ‘agony’ returns, and he must tell his tale again.

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

This theme – that it is through the telling of our story that we find redemption, and inner peace – recurs in the history of literature. It is through the telling of stories that Sherharezade saves not only her own life but that of he husband, the shiek. (

There are two telling moments at the end of Coleridge’s poem. The first comes as the mariner ends his tale; it is the sound of the wedding party; the wedding is now over.

What loud uproar bursts from that door!
The wedding-guests are there:
But in the garden-bower the bride
And bride-maids singing are:
And hark the little vesper bell,
Which biddeth me to prayer!

For most of the time, we – like the wedding guest – have been held in the thrall of the story. Now, however, we are suddenly returned to the ‘real’ world, the world of the wedding guest. The wedding has ended; the other guests are exuberant, the bride and bride’s maids are singing, and the vesper bell has called people to prayer: to silent meditation and contemplation.

The second moment follows close on the first. The mariner’s tale is told, and he leaves. The wedding guest, the one who ‘could not chuse but hear’ the mariner’s tale, is left alone. He has now been freed, can no join the revellers in celebration of the wedding. But as ‘the chosen one’, he is now changed, and turns from the bridgegroom’s door.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

We can only conclude that he has other things on his mind. It is clear that the mariner’s tale has had a profound effect upon him, and the poem ends:

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

The poem speaks, to my mind, of the sadness and wisdom that comes from a sober, philosophical assessment of the place of the spiritual in our lives. That beyond even those events that we regard as significant – such as the marriage ceremony, regarded as a sacrament, or a holy act, by the church – there are deeper truths, deeper levels of meaning, to do with ‘the good’, to do with ‘spiritual values’ and the ‘meaning’.

It also speaks of the power and importance of narrative, of story telling. There are tales that must be told, because they are at the very heart of what it is to be human. Some of these tales – the stories of the Holocaust, of the stolen generation, of the killing fields of Cambodia – are of deep significance to all humans, although they are also deeply disturbing.

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