by Rebekah Owens
This is not the irrelevant question you might think. Recently, a replica of a medieval ship sailed into Swansea offering tours themed around Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, including the sight of what the BBC news website referred to as ‘zombies’. Clearly, there is a subconscious association with Coleridge’s ‘ghastly crew’ and that peculiarly modern horror phenomenon. It is understandable. In the poem there are creatures we might think of as zombies. When Death and Life-In-Death gamble for the lives of those on the ship, Death wins. The account of his reanimation of the crew offers recognisable elements of the modern zombie. They died – ‘their souls did from their bodies fly’ – and were brought back to life. Being ‘lifeless’, they are not the people they once were, as the Mariner notices when he stands next to his nephew who does not acknowledge him – ‘he said nought to me’.
If we define a zombie using the modern definition of a corpse operating from some deep primal instinct, then that does not define the Mariner. In the first instance, he does not die. That is part of his torment in the poem, his punishment for killing the albatross. In the scene with Life-In-Death he sees ‘four times fifty living men’ fall and witnesses their souls escaping their bodies; but, as he tells the Wedding Guest, ‘this body dropt not down’. He himself is doomed not to die but to endure. Not only endure, but be fully aware of what is happening to him.
Yet, there is one possibility that the Mariner is some form of a zombie. It all depends on the definition. Marina Warner discovered an early reference to the word in the work of Robert Southey, mentioned in her work Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self (2002). In volume 3 of Southey’s History of Brazil (1810-19) she saw that he glossed the title ‘zombi’ as a leader of a rebel tribe who was once defined as akin to ‘the devil’ but was, he considered, only really thought to be part-human, part divine. Coleridge, the assiduous annotator agreed. The zombi was not ‘the’ Devil. Instead, he wrote in his copy of the book, if the zombi was part-human, part God, it was only ‘a’ devil.
This change of article makes an important distinction. ‘A’ devil means that the zombi was not Satan himself, just one of his tribe of minor demons; but Coleridge was thinking along classical, rather than Biblical lines. In the original manuscript of Kubla Khan, written when he was frowsy with opium, a woman is described as ‘wailing for her daemon lover’. His subconscious recollection of a ‘daemon’ rather than a ‘demon’ corresponds with the classical idea of a creature which inhabited neither the earthly realm or the heavenly, but was a mix of both.
That Coleridge considered the ‘daemon’ in this way can be seen in the marginal glosses to the Rime of 1817. Here, he describes a particular form of spirit that are not ghosts of dead people nor creatures of Christian mythology. After the Mariner has shot the Albatross, the ship becomes trapped in the ice. When it starts to move again, the Mariner notices that it does so under the influence of a ‘spirit’ ‘nine fathomed deep that had followed us / Through the land of mist and snow’. In the margin, Coleridge wrote:
A Spirit had followed them; one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels …
In this description of the Spirit of the South Pole, Coleridge makes clear that it is not a ghost, nor is it an agent of God. Instead, he is describing something that inhabits the world between – ‘neither departed souls nor angels’. That he is talking about ‘daemons’ guiding the ship is emphasised in a further note. When the ship begins to move again, aided by the lifeless crew, it does so because:
The bodies of the ship’s crew are inspired … not by the souls of the men, nor by daemons of earth or middle air, but by a blessed troop of angelic spirits …
Here Coleridge separates out the daemon from the other kinds of spirits, those associated with the Christian religion. Daemons do not come from heaven like angels and saints. They inhabit the space in between – ‘earth or middle air’.
The Mariner has the main characteristic of those daemons just described: he is neither alive nor dead. As we have seen, the crew are taken by Death and the gloss tells us that ‘LIFE-IN-DEATH begins her work on the ancient Mariner’. In other words, he remains in the power of one keeping him in a state suspended between living and dying. The Mariner is himself aware that he is in such a state. He recognises that he is alive simply because he still has physical sensations and associates death with the loss of these. At one point in the poem, he thinks that he has died because he no longer feels his limbs, but is possessed of a lightness which makes him think that he had ‘died in sleep / And was a blessed ghost’.
Such a longing for death is also an indication that he realizes he is not a spirit, emphasised in the marginal gloss. The Wedding Guest fears that he is talking to a ghost. He is afraid ‘that a Spirit is talking to him’, but the Mariner ‘assureth him of his bodily life’. The word ‘bodily’ being important here as these two notes emphasise that the Mariner has both the appearance of a spirit and a corporeal reality.
Which means we can suggest a reasonable answer to the question. The Mariner does not conform to the twentieth-century definition of a zombie, the reanimated corpse. Neither is he Southey’s chieftain of a rebel tribe; but he does conform to Coleridge’s amendment to Southey’s definition of a zombi. He is a creature that exists in a state of suspension between life and death; which, according to Coleridge is also a daemon. In which case we can reasonably ask – is the Ancient Mariner a zombie? Not quite: but he is a zombi.
All the illustrations to this post are by Gustave Doré (1832–83).
Rebekah Owens is a writer on matters literary from the Renaissance to the Romantics. Her book on Shakespeare’s Macbeth is due out later this year. She has been known to make the occasional excursion into the literature of the twentieth- and even the twenty-first century.