Mariner: fragility of resolution

The Mariner's seven days of pure fixity are followed by a degree of progress which culminates in his return home. He attributes his release to "my kind saint" (286) which enabled him to bless the water-snakes, and the journey back is said to be by virtue of a troop of spirits that animate the corpses of the dead sailors to work the ship. The Mariner is even the subject of a special conversation between two spirits in the air, in which he learns that his penance is not yet over. Such signs of favor in the Mariner's eyes -- that he is the object of special attention -- are analogous to the sense of providence felt by some of Lifton's survivors, although such grace or virtue in having been singled out for survival is a precarious feeling (Lifton, 61; cf. Brisman). Lifton emphasises that the urgent need of the survivor, after the initial state of traumatic shock has passed, is to find some way of making sense of what has happened -- what Lifton terms the attempt at formulation. The Mariner's explanation of his progress in terms of spirits is his attempt at formulation; so too is his final moral claim that "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small" (614-5).

But the depth of the traumatic experience leaves a residual death anxiety which ensures that formulation is unlikely to be complete. This is further indicated by the Mariner's recourse to the notion of spirits to promulgate his sense of connection with what had been a hostile universe. It is to regress to that infantile, animistic stage of thought. The death anxiety of the survivor, in Lifton's words, is "likely to have evoked -- years after the bomb no less than at the moment it fell -- those primitive layers of the mind which lend themselves to mythological thought" (Lifton, 119). Here the disturbing power of The Ancient Mariner can be restated: the Mariner's recourse to the world of spirits and of God represents a partial formulation of his experience. Precisely because it is primitive and inadequate, it is felt by the reader to leave the central episode of death and stasis unexplained and unjustified. The threat of stasis which lies beneath us all is left in suspension, operative and incurable.

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