Echoes of Exile: Shades of “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer” in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

It is a criticism of some commentators that Old English poetry lacks the psychological depth or circumstantial detail necessary to gain clear insight into an author’s purpose, but such a view is misplaced. Rather, elegiac poems such as The Seafarer and The Wanderer, by way of emotive symbolic language and powerful imagery of the natural world, demonstrate great psychological complexity on the part of exiled heroes seeking both a physical and spiritual home, and existential meaning, amid the ethos of imminent death and violence that comprised daily life in emerging Anglo-Saxon England. When read alongside two Romantic and Victorian lyrical ballads, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, the originative nature of the The Seafarer and The Wanderer as psychodynamically complex treatises on the quest for individual identity can be clearly seen. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s and Robert Browning’s use of a similar “array of spatialized images and themes” as the anonymous Old English poets illuminates the continued importance of such “culturally resonant ideas as exile, enclosure, stasis and movement, binding and release” (Cook, par. 2) to individuals weighing their own psychical and spiritual exigencies against the “epic ambitions that were shaping British imperial expansion” (Leporati, par. 1).

In “Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and the Faith that Comes by Hearing,” Gonzalez describes Rime of the Ancient Mariner as “a master stroke of literary brilliance that weaves a tale of metaphysical mystery, taut nerves, and one man’s encounter with his soul” (par. 1). While this is true of the epic poem, these same words can be applied to the The Seafarer, in which Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner has its symbolic and historical roots. Centuries before, the exiled narrator of The Seafarer undertakes a sea voyage to preserve his life, placed in media res by the author at the center of violent forces of Nature that force him to contend with “estrangement from society” (Ellman par. 6) and “a spiritual hunger for an eternal world” (par. 3) while navigating hazards of geography, wildlife and weather. Rejecting accusations of uni-dimensionality or limited relevance, Ellman describes The Seafarer‘s narrator as “unusually perceptive about himself” and “of the outside world” (par. 7), attested to by his ability to both recall and reinterpret the events of his past, and adapt them to bring order to the “seemingly chaotic orientation” of his present predicament (par. 3). He steers through the “horrible waves’ rolling” and lonely “narrow night-watch” of winter at sea so his vessel is not “dashed by cliffs” (Seafarer 6-7). His “exile-tracks” are violently tossed and he is left “care-wretched” by hunger and cold, and submerged beneath the singular pain of one “bereaved both of friend and of kin” (14-16). Grief assails the outcast thane so that his ship becomes a labyrinthine repository for memories of mead-hall comitatus, but Ellman points out that he is able “to remove himself from his particular milieu and world-view and interpret it” (par. 3) to meet his present psychoemotional needs. The Seafarer expresses the determined hope, innate to his warrior nature and that of his clan, to ever seek and settle a land of promise:

Mind’s desire urges, ever and again,

My spirit to fare, that I, far hence,

foreigners’, pilgrims’, homeland should seek. (37-38)

Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins more idyllically than the exiled Seafarer’s, with an overtly Christian tone as the ship departs under congregational blessing in view of a church and lighthouse. Coleridge casts a shadow of Germanic mead-hall celebrations as the Mariner detains a Wedding-Guest traveling toward the “loud bassoon” and “merry minstrelsy” of a wedding (Part1). His tale unfolds forebodingly with a storm arising “tyrannous and strong” as with “o’ertaking wings” and blowing his ship and crew southward (Coleridge Part 1). The integrity of mead-hall conduct is invoked by the spiritual and psychological exile the Mariner visits upon his own head when he “cruelly, and in contempt” violates “the laws of hospitality” and kills the innocent Albatross that he blames for leading his ship into the storm (McGann 40). While The Seafarer’s narrator finds “the swan’s song” and the “gannet’s crying and curlew’s sound” (The Seafarer 19-21) a comforting substitute for the harp and “proud and wine-merry” throngs of the mead-hall (29), the Mariner rejects the hand of divine Providence in sending the bird. Instead of recognizing the seabird as “a fitting symbol of transcendence,” (Jung 147) he shoots it with his crossbow. The same “play of salt waves” in which the Seafarer recognized “God’s…awful power” (The Seafarer 101) metes out vicarious punishment for the mariner’s crime against Creation, and with “throats unslaked, and black lips baked” (Coleridge Part II) his men all die from thirst. His resulting isolation and guilt for having done such “an hellish thing” (Part II) amount to self-inflicted exile as his victim’s carcass is draped around his neck and he is left “with no sheltering kinsman” to bring “consolation to a desolate life” (The Seafarer 26). His exile, while due to his own hubris in despising Providence, is as psychologically wrenching as that of the Seafarer’s, whose hearing of the cuckoo’s “mournful voice” causes him to “doubt every affair” (53) and contemplate his finite nature amidst the natural world. Just as the Seafarer recognizes the futility of “manifold treasures” strewn over “the graves of his brothers” (97-98), the sea becomes a grave for the Mariner’s shipmates, and a watery selva oscura the captain or heafodmann must peer into to face and confess his blood guilt:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony…

He despiseth the creatures of the calm,

The many men, so beautiful! And they dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I. (Part IV)

Like the Seafarer, the Mariner counts himself orphaned, and endures “the curse” he perceives in each “dead man’s eye” (Coleridge Part IV) for the next seven days, the same number that God, the Seafarer’s Measurer, labored to fashion “the sturdy foundations…of the earth” and then rested (The Seafarer 104-105). The Mariner accepts the sea-thane’s duty to steer “towards the journeying Moon” and return his shipmates “to their native country and their own natural home…as lords” to be interred with their fallen ancestors (Coleridge Part IV). In hindsight he connects the Albatross’s death with the murder of a benevolent host, but still remains undelivered from the “charme’d water” that “burnt alway/A still and awful red” (Part IV) with the blood of his crew. Coleridge nods to the Seafarer’s truth that it is “no kings and no kaisers nor any gold-givers,” but only “the Measurer’s power” (The Seafarer 67) that causes “this earth-weal” and its seasons to turn (82-83), and he begins to praise even the “shining white” water-snakes who like angels, with “elfish light” become second-chance guides for his ship (Coleridge Part IV). Only then God’s “favor to him comes from heaven” (The Seafarer 107) for the Mariner, and the rotting Albatross falls away from his neck in divine deliverance from his guilt and despair:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.

The spell begins to break.

The self-same moment I could pray,

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off and sank

Like lead into the sea. (Coleridge, Part I)

The shamed Mariner’s quest for redemption reflects that of the exiled Seafarer who on his “narrow night-watch” (The Seafarer 6) sailed “hot about the heart” (11) toward the hope of a new land. The “journeying Moon” (Coleridge Part IV) which Jung connected with the “dominating power of the feminine” or anima (Jung 328), would guide the man-of-war’s ship away from the site of violence buried in his subconscious and cleanse him of sin through “the ritual of baptism…symbolically synonymous with fire” (Jung-Rothgeb 102).

Like that of The Seafarer, the “seemingly chaotic orientation” (Ellman oar, 3) of The Wanderer results from the author’s pitting the individual, with his anguished inner landscape of psyche and experience, against the impersonal harshness of outer Nature to “draw a parallel between the temporal journey…and the spiritual journey of the individual soul towards salvation” (Ellman par. 3). Both authors use the “apparent disparity between the beautiful scenes of the physical world” (Neville 40) and the “necessary process of self-enclosure” to “portray the psychologically complex perceptions of the outside world…through the troubled minds” (Elllman par. 1) of exiled Anglo-Saxon warriors suffering “fragmentation of the war-band” and seeking “final inclusion in a heavenly faestung” (Cook 1). These methods of interpreting the exile experience can be seen in Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, a Victorian lyrical ballad whose narrator is a young knight conscripted into certain death at the mythic Dark Tower, in which a beast of nightmare resides. Like the Wanderer’s and the Seafarer’s, Roland’s exile story begins in media res and is tinged with the threat of madness as he traverses internal and external landscapes strewn with images of war and death. “A hoary cripple with malicious eye” and “mouth scarce able to afford/Suppression of…glee” (Browning 5-6) mocks the quest thrust upon him at the bidding of his nation, a “universal plot transcending historic particularities…the familiar psychomachia” (Cook 1) of conscription in the service of imperial power. For Roland, the “ocean-ways” (The Wanderer 3) that separate the Wanderer from land and kinsmen appear as a plain without horizon, a claustrophobic maze of confusing sounds and images that threaten his progress. Bereft of any companion save his own shade pointing him toward his doom, memories of preceding warrior dead spur him on with the hope of eternal communion with them, even if he is forgotten by kin and country who abandon him to die:

While some discuss if near the other graves

Be room enough for this, and when a day

Suits best for carrying the corpse away,

With care about the banners, scarves and staves:

And still the mane hears all, and only craves

He may not shame such tender love and stay. (Browning 31-36)

Roland disorientation amplifies as his thoughts and surroundings grow distorted, colorless, and the skeleton’s spectral finger acts as a compass as steering him toward the impoverished sea-plain before him:

So, on I went. I think I never saw

Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:

For flowers – as well expect a cedar grove!

But cockle, spurge, according to their law

Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,

You’d think; a burr had been a treasure-trove. (Browning 55-60)

Here Browning’s Roland arguably surpasses the complexity of the protagonists of The Wanderer and The Seafarer, and even of Coleridge’s Mariner, as a greater and perhaps permanent measure of madness overtakes the chivalric thegn. Where the “whale-way spirit” and other “delights of the Lord” remind the Seafarer that the “earth-weal still stands eternal” (The Seafarer 63-67), and the Wanderer takes pleasure in “the fallow waves” and “sea birds bathing, spreading their feathers” (The Wanderer 44-45), Roland instead encounters a creature of abomination in the form of a horse, a “stupefied…devil’s stud” wasted to the bone and grazing on leprous, blood-stained grass (Browning 76-78). The gaunt, riderless “brute” (83) and death-stained “grey plain all around” (52) reflect Roland’s weariness with conscription and his deepening psychological disintegration.

Roland’s psychodynamic journey in search of sanity and salvation feels as if it continues much longer than those of the Seafarer and Wanderer, as the knight’s mind experiences “utter rejection and dismissal” (Ellman par. 4) of his hellish surroundings. Still, the warrior’s methods of coping with his growing sense of anxiety and despair are much the same. Browning extends Old English exile story by all but removing his knight-thane’s hope of being counted among the “noble host” whose “most glorious deeds” (The Seafarer 6, 84) would be recited in the mead-hall of chivalry’s court. But as Cobb explains in “The Narrator of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” like the Seafarer and Wanderer before him, Roland tries “desperately to escape the present that threatens him from without” by recalling memories “sipped and tasted like wine” in hopes of obtaining “a few drops of solace” (par. 3). Like the Wanderer, his “mind flies out to the memory of kinsmen” (51) and he revisits more joyful times spent prophesying victory, and of battles won that still echo in the mead-hall of his mind:

I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.

As a man calls for wine before he fights,

I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights,

Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.

Think first, fight afterward – the soldier’s art:

One taste of the old time sets all to rights. (Browning 85-90)

Like the Seafarer and Wanderer at various points in their sagas, in spite of supposedly joyful memories from his warrior past, in Roland “Browning paints a picture of a deeply depressed personality” (Cobb par. 2) with little hope of release from his plight. He encounters increasingly disturbing realities along his path that threaten the tenuous comfort his warrior-hall memories provide. As the Seafarer realizes that the kinsman “who owns life’s joy” and “had few baleful journeys” (The Seafarer 27-28) is soft and ignorant of the despair of his exile, Roland is forced to acknowledge the betrayal of a fellow knight once thought a “soul of honour,” lamenting him instead as a “traitor, spit upon and curst!” (Browning 97, 102). Here, a glimpse back to the Wanderer’s memories of his war-torn homeland reveal the complex, existential nature of warrior identity that centuries later continued to inform and shape characters like Roland:

The wise man must realize how ghostly it will be

when all the wealth of the world stands waste,

as now here and there throughout this middle-earth

walls stand blasted by wind,

beaten by frost, the buildings crumbling.

The wine halls topple, their rulers lie

deprived of all joys; the proud old troops all fell by the wall. (The Wanderer 73-80)

Roland’s war-weariness mirrors that of the Wanderer’s. As the seafaring exile remembers “serpentine stains” of blood spilled when “the torrent of spears took away the warriors,” the knight notes the “bloodthirsty weapons” (The Wanderer 10) of his own nation’s lengthy war past, strewn along the wastes. He trudges past machines of war “fit to reel/Men’s bodies out like silk” (Browning 142) and bewails the “Bog, clay and rubble” (150) that now form the pitiful architecture of his surroundings. As Campbell frames it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Roland as the disenfranchised mythic hero must “bring the images of his past back to life” thereby “illuminating hints from the inspired past” that will bolster his confidence in himself and the rightness of his quest. His faith, though fragile, protects him from the extremes of despair that would prevent completion of his psycho-spiritual journey, as twisted versions of wild beasts of Old English poetry appear as omens in Browning’s poem. The Seafarer’s companion eagle and “dew-feathered fowl” (The Seafarer 25) take the form of devilish beasts, tracing a scavenger’s circle above the sea of dust and debris that separate Roland from the Tower:

And just as far as ever from the end!

Nought in the distance but the evening, nought

To point my footstep further! At the thought,

A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend,

Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned

That brushed my cap—perchance the guide I sought. (Browning 157-162)

Roland continues on until mountains appear at this side, but questions if they are “some trick” of imagination, or (Browning 169) or trap that will ensnare him just as battering storms and stone cliffs threatened to sink both the Seafarer and Wanderer. But as servant to his faith, the exile’s courage is rewarded and he sees in the mountains “the bosom of mother country” even as their embrace portends the “the imminence of his predestined end” (Crockford par. 6). He imagines the Tower with its “round squat turret” as a ship tossed at sea and then run aground, and he forces his shaking legs to move forward and challenge its monstrous inhabitant:

Built of brown stone, without a counterpart

In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf

Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf

He strikes on, only when the timbers start. (Browning 183-186)

The ends of both the Seafarer’s and Roland’s journeys are accompanied by images of fire. In Jungian theory, fire can represent “the calcinatio” of an individual’s “unmet desires, blocked instincts, passions and rages” (Martin 4). However, the Seafarer’s reference to “being burned up on funeral pyre” (114) in the Germanic culture signifies transformation and the freeing of the soul from the earthbound body into heavenly form. “The dying sunset kindled” as Roland nears the tower also signals his transformation, as well as reclaimed lucidity at the close of his heroic quest:

There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met

To view the last of me, a living frame

For one more picture! in a sheet of flame

I saw them and knew them all.

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

And blew. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.” (Browning 199-204)

Roland’s heroic quest is fulfilled alongside the host of transfigured war dead “ranged along the hillsides” (199), his mind and mission purified by heavenly funereal fire. The path he has traveled, though over land and not sea, is nonetheless one of societal alienation and expulsion into a hostile realm, visited by nightmarish beasts and profound mental and physical suffering. In meeting a warrior’s death on the soil of his own homeland, among a host of “sheltering kinsmen” in ghostly form, he achieves the “unmet desires” of the Seafarer and Wanderer to end the “ceaseless and weary motion” of exile (Cook par. 3) and find spiritual rest. But neither exiled warrior’s journey or nature is inferior to Roland’s. Each in fact laid the foundation for the exile’s quest that continues to challenge assumptions about the complex connections that bind the inner man to society, the eternal, and as eternity’s reflection, to Nature itself.

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