The Rime of The Ancient Mariner & The Power of Guilt

So on 11th June is my Romantic poetry finals and I’m working my ass off. My first read for the course is Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This is the best poem by Coleridge, regarded by a lot of people and I agree. Not only by structure and superb use of archaic words but also by the plot.

Here’s why.

The poem deals with a lot of things but mostly with guilt and penance. We all know that to err is human. But I beg to disagree.

When a vicious murderer kills mother of two, he isn’t a human. He’s plain old murderer. But when a person commits a crime or a sin or both, and then realizes his/her mistakes, repents for it and happily goes through punishment and salvation, then they are humans.

So according to Coleridge, the saying should be, “To err and then repent is human.”

This I 100% agree with.

Guilt has been theme of many many many literary pieces. From Othello and Macbeth to contemporary pieces, guilt was always a very interesting and successful theme. Never considered as cliché.

Why?

Because it’s something we all can relate to. How many times have we hurt our loved ones, intentionally or unintentionally, and as soon as we realized it, we regretted it?

Countless times.

How many times have we wanted to do something to help a vulnerable person but didn’t do it out of fear of mockery and ostracism?

Numerous times.

And guilt is something that differentiates a sinner from a demon. Demons have no sense of guilt. Sinners may do.

That being said, I’ve come across numerous literary pieces that dealt with it. Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk’s famous novel “The Museum of Innocence” has such a theme. After betraying Fusun’s trust, Kemal felt guilt too. That later prompted him into creating a museum full of things that reminded him of those days.

I recently watched a movie, Joan Fontaine’s “Letter from An Unknown Woman”. Though mostly about unrequited love, the movie later deals with Joan Fontaine’s obsession, who later, out of guilt, goes to fight a dual with her husband. Despite knowing that he might die. Why? Out of guilt.

Another example I can think of is John Green’s Looking for Alaska, where the titular character, Alaska Young has serious issues with guilt, that eventually leads her to (maybe) suicide.

There’s also Macbeth and Othello. Othello stupidly suspected Desdemona and killed her. Then learnt the truth and felt guilty. Romeo and Juliet’s parents also felt guilt after seeing the lovers lying dead in the church. Macbeth felt it after killing the king who blindly trusted him.

Robinson Crusoe felt it too after disobeying his biological father and God the father.

And the mariner, of course. Like Crusoe, he was marooned. Not in an island but in a ship. Not alone but with his shipmates lying dead before him. And certainly not with a huge dead albatross hanging from his neck.

Guilt has a reeling effect on the mariner. Something that he would never ever ever ever get over. Only a stupid passing hatred over a mere albatross made his life eternally miserable beyond repair. He saw the death of his shipmates. Witnessed terrible things that will turn any sane person into Bertha Mason type crazy, like Death and Life-in-Death gambling over their lives and what not. Getting dehydrated and famished and stuck in an ocean with dead bodies (though weren’t rotting but still) and in spooky mist. But we wouldn’t understand because words can rarely create the feelings you feel in real life.

Anyway, I think guilt is not a very bad feeling. Except that it totally holds the power to destroy your life. Take a look at the mariner’s and Kemal’s lives. Guilt is like that lumpy feeling you feel in your throat, that you can neither swallow and digest or poop out, nor cough or puke off. Similarly, once you feel guilt, even after salvation or forgiveness, it stays there, like an invisible criminal record that’s written in waterproof, not erasable ink and on fireproof, tearproof paper.

So the best you can do is, think before you leap.

Or in the mariner’s case, think before you shoot a harmless albatross, you idiot jerk.

With that, adios!

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