I’ve taught Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on at least three different occasions, usually to a group of less-than-interested Composition I students who are just trying to make it to their reward: a screening of Pirates of the Caribbean. (Pro tip: coupling “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with Pirates of the Caribbean is a slam dunk. Some of the best Comp I papers I’ve ever gotten are from students comparing Coleridge’s poem to the movie. Trust me on this one.)
Anyway, I always spend about fifteen minutes talking about the title of the poem to show students how much meaning can be packed into six words. We pick it apart before the students begin reading the piece, which a) gets students thinking about the poem and b) makes them crack a dictionary (app). Of course, we spend lots of time talking about the word “rime.” Usually students guess that it’s a misspelling of “rhyme” (“It’s an archaic spelling, not an incorrect spelling,” I then explain.) Very rarely do they know that a rime also refers to a layer of frost.
Once I point that out to my students and talk about the connotations of frost and cold, we move on to bigger and better things. Not once—not once in the ten plus times I’ve studied or taught this poem—have I thought about what a rime of ice might look like. Being from the desert, I just assumed it was like frost on a windshield: slightly inconvenient, a real headache when you’re running late in the mornings, but nothing too serious.
Even dictionaries make rime seem pretty innocuous. Merriam-Webster defines the latter meaning of”rime” as follows:
Rime: an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog or cloud and built out directly against the wind.
Now, I don’t know about you, but the word “tufts” evokes very specific imagery for me. When I think of a “tuft” of something, I immediately picture a bunny’s fluffy tail, or a soft spot of grass. Heck, I even picture those weird Seussian trees that have technicolor, fuzzy tops. Tufts are non-threatening. Tufts are soft and cuddly and make you want to pet them. If you were to accidentally fall out a window, you’d want to land in a big pile of tufts.
Everyone. Merriam-Webster has lied to us. Rime is not soft and fluffy at all. Rime is very, very scary.
To my fault, I’d never Googled pictures of rime. I just blindly trusted my professors’ readings of the poem and, when I had occasion to look it up, the dictionary’s comparable definition. I would have continued along, happily ignorant in my own misconceptions about rime, but for this Imgur post I stumbled upon earlier today (warning: the captions contain strong language). The photo series starts with a picture of gentle fog coming over the top of an idyllic mountain, but then descends into horror. Apparently a rime fog freezes everything it touches, leaving a huge coating of ice. Apparently, it’s a lot of ice:
“Okay,” I thought to myself after scrolling through the album, “fine. This is pretty intense! But surely this is just a really extreme example of rime.” So I started Googling, and NO. NO, RIME LOOKS LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME. In fact, there are actually two types of rime. The first, hard rime, is characterized by being very dense and comb-like. This is a nice way of saying that covers everything it touches, basically locking it in a terrible ice tomb. I mean, look at this:
As a warm-weather lover, this seems like the worst kind of awful to me. But wait! Soft rime (a terrible moniker if ever there was one) is even worse. Unlike hard rime, soft rime forms a sort of needle-like coating on surfaces it touches, which is a nice way of saying that it is death made manifest:
I mean, look at that. That tree has been transformed into a medieval mace, bouncing around in the wind, just waiting to kill you. This makes ocotillo cacti look positively friendly. (Fun fact about ocotillo cacti: their stalks are super thin and flexible, which means the branches start waving around like some Super Mario villain in anything stronger than a stiff breeze. Imagine trying to learn to ride a bicycle when sidewalks are lined in these suckers. But, hey! At least there isn’t rime in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert!)
When you’re working on a Ph.D in English, you can sometimes forget how magical it is to have an aha! moment that illuminates a text in a whole new way. Understanding rime–and applying that new understanding to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”–has totally transformed the way I think of the poem as a whole. This is especially true when I consider that poor Wedding-Guest who has been held fast by the Mariner’s story. The story itself acts like a rime, quickly freezing both the reader and the Wedding-Guest in place. Coleridge makes it clear that the guest has no choice but to listen to the Mariner’s saga:
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot chuse but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner (Coleridge I.13-20).
Once we have a clear grasp of “rime,” we understand that the poem acts like a physical barrier to escape. The Wedding-Guest is frozen in place as if a literal rime has covered him, keeping him rooted to his seat until the Mariner wanders away. It also helps us better understand how the Wedding-Guest is transformed after the Mariner leaves to continue his wanderings. The narrator explains the guest
…went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn (Coleridge VI.110-114).
Instead of immediately passing, the rime keeps hold of the guest’s heart. In this case, we see that knowledge acts like a kind of rime: we can wrap it around us as a shield, but it also fundamentally changes our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The Mariner’s rime isn’t something easily forgotten–in fact, the guest is permanently transformed from having listened to the tale. Just as ice reshapes a landscape, so does the Mariner’s story fundamentally change its listeners, the readers included.
I thought I’d tell this story so that others can see how one small aha! moment can significantly change something you thought you knew inside and out. It’s also a small (but cool!) testament to how malleable literature is based on your own shifting perspectives. It makes me excited to reread my favorite books in different seasons of life to see how their meanings both change and remain the same.