Mariner: the horror of stasis

The sight of the dead men presents the Mariner with a horror from which he cannot unfix himself. The memories of Lifton's subjects showed a similar election of one particular sight, in which their death guilt was symbolized: there would be some "specific image of the dead or dying with which the survivor strongly identifies himself, and which evokes in him particularly intense feelings of pity and self-condemnation." What "most moved me to pity," said one survivor at Hiroshima, who found himself in front of a destroyed school, "was that there was one dead child lying there and another who seemed to be crawling over him in order to run away, both of them burned to blackness" (Lifton, 56-7). Such a memory constitutes what Lifton calls the ultimate horror for that survivor. The Mariner is also subject to such a sight: "the dead were at my feet," he says,

The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away. (252-6)

For him it is that look, the curse in the eyes, which is his ultimate horror, symbolizing his death guilt. It is mentioned no less than four times in the poem.

The Mariner's immediate predicament lasts seven days. Its relation to the figure of Life-in-Death can now be made clearer. In a literal sense the Mariner's life is immersed in death, but there is a more profound meaning than this. His death guilt and imagery of horror are matched by the immovability of the ship, which has remained where it was since we were told that it stuck, "As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean" (117-8).The Mariner himself is stuck in a psychic state from which no rescue is forthcoming. Life-in-Death is the appropriate symbol for this stasis. It is life that has petrified into the immovability of a dead thing, like the fly paralysed by the bite of the spider. Myth and folk-lore offer instructive parallels: the stare of the Gorgon or Medusa's head induces such a state, or the vampire, whose "bite" projects its victim into a state of undead suspension in which no development is possible (cf. Twitchell). The appearance of the spectre ship as it crosses in front of the sun prefigures the meaning it will bring in this way for the Mariner:

And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon grate he peered
With broad and burning face. (177-80)

And yet, as this verse suggests, the state is not death, but a mimic of death, in which life is suspended -- a more terrible state than death itself, since at least the souls of the Mariner's dead shipmates progress "to bliss or woe" (221). Some indication of this is given in lines from the 1798 text of the poem describing Life-in-Death: paradoxically "she is far liker Death than he; / Her flesh makes the still air cold."

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