Beware the Age of Reason

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gustave Doré

Whenever I come to this poem the first thing that comes to mind is the song by Iron Maiden (unfortunately I don't think they did a video clip – which would have been awesome in its own right).


Iron Maiden



I am really tempted to spend the rest of this review talking about how as a teenager I loved Iron Maiden, and about how they were unfairly persecuted by the church because they released one song called 'Number of the Beast' (with an album of the same name), where in reality they just wrote some really cool songs with some really cool music. Okay, this particular song is based heavily on the poem, and probably would be more akin to a ballad as opposed to a song, but I am getting ahead of myself here because I probably shouldn't be talking about Iron Maiden. Still, I should at least display the cover for the single:


Iron Maiden - Rime of the Ancient Mariner



As I was looking through Google Images for this particular poster I noticed that a lot of the artwork relating to this particular poem was very dark, and in some cases bordering on the horrific. Take for instance this poster:


Rime of the Ancient Mariner


There is a very heavy spiritual element to it, but then again the poem itself has some very strong spiritual connotations, with ghost ships, curses, and of course the mariner being forced to live and watch all of his crew die of thirst one by one. In fact, a classic line 'water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink' comes from this poem (and not, as originally thought, from the Iron Maiden song).

I'm sure we all know the story about how a group of sailors travel to the south pole and get stuck in the ice and then along comes an albatross who leads them out of the ice only to have one of the sailors shoot it with a crossbow (to the horror of the rest of the crew considering the Albatross is a good omen to sailors, and killing one brings lots of bad luck). Sure enough, the ship become becalmed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and one by one the crew drop dead until the silly sailor is the only one left alive. However, he ends up getting rescued (after a rain storm passes over to resupply his water) and then returns to England where he grabs some unsuspecting person at a wedding and proceeds to retell his story.

What I think is happening in this poem is that it is a reaction against the 'Age of Reason'. This was a period in Europe where philosophy was shifting from the sacred to the secular. Basically unless something could be proven empirically it is of no worth and of no interest. It was in effect the beginning of the end of the church, and of superstition (though as far as I am concerned the church is still alive and well today). The whole thing about the albatross is that it was superstition, and by shooting it with a crossbow the sailor is in effect thumbing his nose at superstition. As far as he is concerned, the age of superstition has passed and the age of reason has begun.

Coleridge, I suspect, is saying 'no it hasn't'. I don't necessarily think he is suggesting that we avoid black cats and look for four leaf clovers, but he is saying that despite the rise of the scientific method, we simply cannot discard the sacred, because not only is the sacred important to our past and gives us an identity, it also puts limits on morality. In effect, from what I gained from reading this poem, is that we dispense with the sacred code at our peril.