“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written in 1797 and published in 1798 in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. Along with other poems in Lyrical Ballads, it is often considered a signal shift to modern poetry and the beginning of the British Romantic Movement. The poem is about a man on a voyage, who in one impulsive and heinous act, changes the course of his life and death. This article contains a detailed analysis of the significant role played by the Wedding-Guest in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Summary & Analysis
- Kubla Khan by Coleridge: Origin, Summary & Analysis
- Frost at Midnight by Coleridge: Summary & Analysis
- Marxist Analysis of William Wordsworth Poems
- The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: Summary & Analysis
- Major Characteristics of Coleridge’s Poetry
1. The Wedding-Guest as an Important Element of the Poem
The Wedding-Guest constitutes an important element in the dramatic frame-work of the poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Like the voyage, the Wedding-Guest is a significant part of its machinery.
1.1. Why does the Ancient Mariner detain the Wedding-Guest?
The ancient Mariner—gaunt, lean and weird—abruptly stops one of the three guests who are hurrying to a wedding-feast. The Wedding-Guest naturally resents his rude interruption, and impatiently reminds him that he has no time to spare:
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.
But the ancient Mariner pays little heed to what he says and straight away plunges into his tale: ‘There was a ship’. At this churlish insistence on being heard by a quaint stranger, the Wedding-Guest can hardly contain himself and sharply rebukes him:
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Instantaneously, the ancient Mariner drops his hand, but the Wedding-Guest can’t move away this time; he can’t choose but listen to him:
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
2. The Ancient Mariner’s Effect on the Wedding-Guest
The phrases ‘like a three years’ child’, ‘sat on a stone’, and ‘cannot but hear’ are significant as they show the powerful effect of the ancient Mariner’s ‘glittering eye’ on the Wedding-Guest. Further, these phrases vividly convey the complete conquest of the initially unwilling attention of the Wedding-Guest by the strange hypnotic power of the Mariner’s ‘bright’ eye.
2.1. Why does the Wedding-Guest listen to the Ancient Mariner’s story?
The Wedding-Guest reconciles himself to his lot (of listening to a strange outlandish tale), and his quiet passivity is in marked contrast with his former impetuosity and impatience. Thus, two quite different personalities—one for the moment bent on gaiety and conviviality and the other in a fit of agony seeking expiation for his sin, moving like a ghost from land to land—are brought into a fateful relationship.
From the initial position of active resentment (on the part of the Wedding-Guest), the Wedding-Guest moves, in a matter of a few moments, into that of passive acceptance by him of the ancient Mariner. The will of the Wedding-Guest has been completely subdued. As the ancient Mariner proceeds with his tale, it casts a much more potent spell on the Wedding-Guest’s mind than the one cast by the ‘glittering eye’ and conquers his heart and soul together. As a result, he becomes a convert, a perfect disciple. And if we recall the ancient Mariner’s remark towards the close of his narrative, both the direction and the goal of their relationship will become clear:
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.
2.2. What does the Ancient Mariner’s Act of Narration Symbolize?
The ancient Mariner possesses an uncanny power of recognizing the person who needs his tale to be taught to him. His act of narrating the tale is, therefore, a mutually beneficial act. It provides relief to the agony-stricken soul of the ancient Mariner, and teaches the much needed lesson of patience and compassion to the thoughtless and irritable Wedding-Guest.
Furthermore, the Wedding-Guest, one may venture to suggest, has in his composition something of the ancient Mariner. When he first left for the voyage and wantonly shot the Albatross with his crossbow, he therefore needed to be humanized.
3. The Dramatic Value & Progress of the Role of the Wedding-Guest
The presence of the Wedding-Guest, therefore, gives a promising dramatic start to the narrative. A rapport is established at the very initial stage between the everyday common existence and the world of uncanny and preternatural experience. Furthermore, as the narrative proceeds, both continue to be drawn closer, interpenetrating each other at several points and then getting so mixed up together that it becomes impossible to separate the one from the other.
However, it is perhaps interesting to trace the process of fusion of these two very different levels of reality. The limited sympathies and understanding of the Wedding-Guest are enlarged and deepened by his contact with the profound experience and stronger personality of the ancient Mariner.
In the earlier stages, the role of the Wedding-Guest is somewhat passive. He listens to the Mariner, one feels, with rapt attention. But at the first dramatic turning point of the poem, the Wedding-Guest begins to participate into the active sensitivity of the ancient Mariner’s condition:
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’
4. The Universality of the Ancient Mariner’s Agony
The agony which so wrenches the soul of the ancient Mariner, as he approaches the mere mention of his sinful act, strongly moves the sympathy of the Wedding-Guest. And, in the crucible of their common humanity; our common lot of suffering, pain, anguish, egoism and indifference are dissolved. The ancient Mariner no longer remains a queer stranger; he becomes one of the millions of unfortunates inhabiting this globe.
Furthermore, with the thawing of his apathy, the Wedding-Guest is now spiritually tuned for the sharing of the Mariner’s excruciating experience, suffering vicariously what he suffers and learning inwardly what the ancient Mariner has learnt at such a terrible cost. The moral of the poem, therefore, becomes a common meeting point between the two:
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
5. The Remarkable Change in the Wedding-Guest
Nothing could be more expressive of the change which the psyche of the Wedding-Guest has undergone. The expression ‘stunned’ and ‘of sense forlorn’ tersely convey the sudden, overwhelming profundity of this change. It is significant to note that the Wedding-Guest now has become completely oblivious of the call of the wedding bells which imploringly keep tinkling in the background every now and then to remind him that he is ‘ next of kin’ and that ‘ the feast is set’. It is now the ancient Mariner who vainly tries to awaken him from his reverie which is no longer hypnotic but spiritual:
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!
But the Wedding-Guest has now become completely insensitive to such calls. He seems to have lost his voice. The ancient Mariner’s reminder also fails to wake him up. Is it the mystery of human life and destiny that now baffles him? Is it upon his own light-hearted, careless existence that he is ruefully pondering now? Or is it the rush of thoughts too deep for words or tears that overwhelms him? It is difficult to determine with any precision. It is perhaps a complex of all these which overwhelms him now.
5.1. Complementary Effect of the Change
The ancient Mariner could not remain unaffected by what had happened to the Wedding-Guest. Their identification has by now become so complete. Besides, his voice and attitude also become apologetic. What follows appears like a self-confession and self-explanation. The ancient Mariner continues at a level and an unruffled tone that he has been ‘alone on a wide, wide sea’, that it is sweeter far to him:
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
Also consider these lines:
O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
‘Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!
The explanatory tone is suggested by the ‘sweeter far to him’. He is neither rhetorical nor hectoring; but humble and apologetic. Furthermore, he is neither insolent nor ignorant enough, as to speak for the whole human race. He, at best, can speak for himself alone.
An appreciation of this attitude of the ancient Mariner will considerably help us to understand the integrity and naturalness of the moral. As an explanation, it remains no longer commonplace or trite. It is no glib maxim: rather, it’s a confession of personal faith; no preaching from the pulpit, but a confidential whisper into the ear of a friend.
6. The Ancient Mariner & the Wedding-Guest: Reversal of Roles
This view finds further support in the entire reversal of the attitudes of the ancient Mariner and the Wedding-Guest at this point in the poem. The ancient Mariner who has been lonely and forlorn now born into a large brotherhood—a brotherhood extending to the whole human race, comprising:
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!
It is a brotherhood which extends beyond and embraces all living creature, and the universal fatherhood of God removes all distinctions between the great and the small, the young and the old, the gay and the serious. Love binds the whole universe together. At the moment of this new realization, the ancient Mariner is no longer the same person who had said a little earlier:
I pass, like night, from land to land;
6.1. Two Aspects of the Ancient Mariner’s Personality
All this brings into consideration the two aspects of the ancient Mariner’s personality: one split and torn by his guilt-haunted conscience, and the other chastened and humanized by his suffering and the birth within him of universal love peep in and out of the last section of the poem. However, as the poem concludes, his sin and loneliness echo but in the past. He has attained a complete reconciliation with God and all his creation.
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—
To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!
The beauty and the serene flow of the lines quoted above convince the reader of the ancient Mariner’s present state of beatitude and peace. He will walk together with others to the church and bend in their ‘goodly company’ to his ‘great Father’. Thus, now he’s no longer a wanderer; he has at last found a home.
The significance of the ancient Mariner’s reference to ‘youths and maidens gay’ has not often been recognized. Though there is a hard strain of asceticism and self-denial in the ancient Mariner, his charity is such that he can now not only tolerate but quite appreciate others enjoying life with all warmth and zest. Also, one may have reason to believe that the Wedding-Guest—his seemingly frivolity later revealing a deeper humanity in response to the ancient Mariner’s tale of suffering—may have been responsible for this change in the attitude of the ancient Mariner and, therefore, for his completer and fuller vision of the universal chain of being.
6.2. The Response of the Wedding-Guest
The Wedding-Guest who, on the other hand, was fond of company—gay company—and was rushing to the feast, is now driven into the loneliness of his own deeper self. He responds at the moment neither to the call of the wedding bells nor to that of the ‘little vesper bell.’ Nor, obviously, the moral pronounced by the ancient Mariner has any apparent effect on him. Perhaps, along with the Mariner, he has also lived through to discover this moral for himself, and therefore, stands in no need of its repetition. He goes home dazed to his own anchor or refuge.
Furthermore, the experience has been too profound for him either to allow him to talk of it to others or to forget it himself. His own self has been completely overwhelmed. It is only ‘tomorrow morn’—after a night of dreams, both sweet and nightmarish—one may well imagine that he will be able to recover himself.
Like the ancient Mariner, however, the Wedding-Guest will no longer be his own former self. Rather, he will be ‘a sadder and a wiser man’. He has risen out of his anguish only a younger counterpart of the ancient Mariner; the two have now changed places. Such is the impression which, a closer look at their strange companionship, leaves upon the mind.
7. The Function of the Wedding-Guest in the Structure of the Poem
The place of the Wedding-Guest in the structure of the poem, however, has been more commonly appreciated than it’s thematic relevance. His presence is necessary for reinforcing the dramatic element in the poem. The presence of a listener brings out more clearly, and with proper emphasis, the various spiritual crises through which the ancient Mariner passes after he had committed the hellish deed.
Thus, the account of the ancient Mariner is not a mere monologue, the listener is not mute but he is quick to interrupt and express his fears for the ancient Mariner. This function of the Wedding-Guest enlivens the narrative and clearly objectifies the events, however unreal they might have been in themselves.
The interruptions, as a matter of fact, punctuate all the important stages of the fateful voyage and pointedly draw the reader’s attention to the accompanying emotional states of the ancient Mariner’s mind. Noticing extreme terror appear in the face of the ancient Mariner when he comes to the point in his narrative when he shot the Albatross, the Wedding-Guest exclaims:
God save thee, Ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?
This interruption evokes the brief and anguish-laden reply:
…with my crossbow
I shot the Albatross.
With this closes the first part of the poem.
8. The Wedding-Guest’s Participation in the Poem
Again, towards the close of part-III, the ancient Mariner describes the manner in which his companions who have fallen to the share of ‘Death’ drop down dead one by one. Further, their souls pass by his ear like the whiz of his crossbow, thus chiding him for his crime. At this description, the Wedding-Guest is seized with terror. He suspects the ancient Mariner of being a ghost and cries out:
‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.
However, the ancient Mariner sensing his fear reassures him:
Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropt not down.
And then, he launches on a description of his miserable lone voyage. Again, in Part V, when the dead bodies of the ancient Mariner’s companions have been reanimated and they begin to work the ropes, the Mariner refers to his brother’s son as:
The body of my brother’s son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope,
But he said nought to me.
The anguished Wedding-Guest again interrupts him saying, ‘I fear thee Ancient Mariner!’. But the ancient Mariner prompt to quell his fears replies:
Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest!
‘Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blest:
After this there is no occasion for the Wedding-Guest to interrupt the ancient Mariner, so entire is the fascination of the ancient Mariner’s account, and so complete is his identification with his lot.
9. The Wedding-Guest as a Recording Barometer in the Poem
In addition to lending a dramatic impulse and vigor to the narrative, the Wedding-Guest becomes almost a recording barometer for the reader’s own emotional reactions to the story. The Wedding-Guest, as it has been pointed out earlier, is the ideal reader, who is responsive, apprehensive, and completely involved in what he hears.
Furthermore, he also becomes a means of establishing our contact with a different level of reality represented by the ancient Mariner and his world. His intermittent interruptions and exclamations remind us of the human world and confirm the relevance of the imaginative experience to our actual and moral world.
10. The Wedding-Guest as a Deliberate Contrast in the Poem
The function of the Wedding-Guest and the Wedding-feast is, as Humphry House puts it, to provide a deliberate contrast to the background of the ancient Mariner’s tale. Besides, the interruptions of the Wedding-Guest are meant to point out the contrast. His constant fear is that the ancient Mariner is a ghost coming from the dead, or even some kind of internal spirit. The contrast is between two aspects of reality and two potentialities of experience. That is, the visible bodily world of human beings, marrying and giving in marriage, and an invisible world of the spirits and the dead where quite a different system of values is to be learnt.
The effect of the interruptions of the Wedding-Guest, therefore, is to show how these two kinds of reality are always co-existent, and the total effect of the poem is to show them interpenetrating. Thus, the effect of the ancient Mariner’s strange adventures and mode of being is reinforced by the accompaniment of a real life incident.
Role of the Wedding Guest In A Nutshell
At first, the Wedding-Guest was exasperated when he had been detained by the ancient Mariner. But, half way through the story, he became engrossed in the strange tale and even began to sympathize with the ancient Mariner. Further, when the ancient Mariner had told his story, the Wedding-Guest, instead of entering the house where the marriage festivities were being held, went home. He had been very powerfully affected by what he had heard. When he got up the next morning, he had become a much wiser man, though at same time, a ‘much sadder one’.
Sources of this Article:
- House, Humphry: Coleridge, 1953 (Clark Lectures, 1951-52).
- Kenneth Burke and Nathaniel A. Rivers: Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke. 2010
- Oslon, Elder.: ‘A Symbolic Reading of The Ancient Mariner’, Modern Philology, XLV.
- Pafford, Ward. “Coleridge’s Wedding-Guest,” Studies in Philology, vol. 60, no. 4, University of North Carolina Press, 1963.