Ancient Mariner as a Halloween Poem

Gustave Dore, Death and Death-in-Life" playing dice

Gustave Dore, Death and Death-in-Life playing dice


Have you ever thought of Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a Halloween poem? Along with its gothic elements, it has at least one stanza that describes the trick-or-treating experience of timid children.

The poem is filled with spooky images. To begin with, there are the two dice players aboard the skeleton ship who are competing for the mariner. The winner, Life in Death, has a great Halloween get-up:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

And then there are all those corpses—the mariner’s former crew mates–who are reanimated to man the ship. Think of them as the living dead:

The loud wind never reached the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.

The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all ‘gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.

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 mariner’s description of how the corpses creep him out is very much like how a child on Halloween imagines monsters behind every tree:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

The reassuring part of the poem is that the monsters turn into something positive. Just as the sea snakes change from “slimy things” to “happy living things” that are stunningly beautiful, so the corpses are revealed to be “a troop of spirits blest” who make beautiful music and then light up the landscape as shining seraphs.

Inspect a monster closely enough and you will find a beautiful soul somewhere within.

Happy Halloween.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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