Poems Teach Us to Be Wise

Gustave Dore, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Gustave Dore, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Today I write about two wonderfully complementary essays written by first-year star student-athletes in my Introduction to Literature class, neither of them an English major. It’s a feel-good story because these are exactly the kinds of conversations one hopes 18-year-old athletes will engage in. Think of stereotypes of the jock and then think of young men drawing on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (the lacrosse player) and Wendell Berry’s “Thirty More Years” (the baseball player) to move past the stereotype to a more mature and reflective view of the world.

The stereotype, I have in mind, is of careless, self-absorbed individuals who are filled with a sense of their own importance, who think they are invulnerable, and who don’t devote much thought to the future or to the consequences of their actions.

Conor has every reason to feel puffed up. Last month, in the most important victory in our college’s lacrosse history, he scored two goals in a minute to help us beat the heavily-favored and perennial national champion Salisbury State to take the conference title. Conor, however, saw Ancient Mariner as an important lesson in humility. He saw both the wedding guest and the pre-albatross mariner as thoughtless young men who think they are invulnerable.  The wedding guest is looking forward to a party and the mariner relishes being cheered as his ship embarks on a grand adventure.

What drew Conor to the poem is the way that the mariner is like fellow first year students. He is at first thrilled to be setting off and then isn’t sure how to handle the trouble the ship encounters:

And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

They are saved from the ice by an albatross, who the mariners befriend and who functions as a supernatural savior:

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.

It ate the food it ne’er had eat,And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

No one has ever been able to entirely explain why the mariner shoots the bird. Conor’s explanation is as interesting as any. If the young mariner, like the wedding guest, thinks he’s in control of his own destiny, then the ship’s dependence on the albatross is an affront. Shooting it is a way of reminding the world who’s in charge. The mariner may not know this is why he is shooting it any more than young men know why they are committing acts of vandalism. He does it bcause he can.

As the poem moves on, Life in Death wins out over Death is taking possession of the mariner, and Conor liked the idea of life-in-death as a metaphor for the depression that one experiences when one sets oneself apart from (including above) the world of nature. The mariner must humbly realize that he is a part of nature rather than superior to it, even if that nature includes “slimy things.” The vision he arrives at is voiced at the end of the poem:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

It is not enough for the mariner only to realize this, however, even though it is a necessary first step. He must pass the insight along to others who are versions of his younger self. For Conor, this was a lesson that he and people like him needed to hear.

My baseball player, Ben Goldsmith, is a very promising lefty who has some of Conor’s seriousness. He interprets “Thirty Years Later” in ways that are similar to how Conor reads “Ancient Mariner.” Here’s the poem:

When I was a young man,
grown up at last, how large
I seemed to myself! I was a tree,
tall already, and what I had not
yet reached, I would yet grow
to reach. Now, thirty more years
added on, I have reached much
I did not expect, in a direction
unexpected. I am growing downward,
smaller, one among the grasses.

Young men, Ben said, see themselves as trees gaining more and more control of the world. They don’t not realize that there may be other dimension to growth. Here’s Ben:

As a college student, I can relate to this young man that the narrator once was. That is just the college kid mentality, thinking you are indestructible and that you can do anything without getting hurt. Over time, the narrator came to the realization that he was indeed not invincible, but only a man.

And later:

Being humble does not mean that his man has shrunken as being a man, it just means that he no longer thinks he is the biggest thing in the world. As more important things have come into his life like a wife and kids, and possibly grandkids, his life has become less important as he cares for more people.

Conor and Ben are both in training to become future leaders. I’m pleased that literature has played a small role.

This entry was posted in Berry (Wendell), Coleridge (Samuel Taylor) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • 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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