Text: Margaret J. Yonce, “The Spiritual Descent into the Maelström,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1969, Vol. II, No. 2 , 2:26-29


[page 26, column 2:]

The Spiritual Descent into the Maelström:
A Debt to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

University of South Carolina

Although parallels between the works of Poe and Coleridge have long been recognized, the significant similarities in theme and in numerous particulars of “A Descent into the Maelström” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” have gone unremarked. Perhaps the similarities have been overlooked because Poe’s story customarily has been dismissed as simply an illustration of his doctrine of single effect or as an example of his ability to incorporate scientific lore into a tale of mystery and adventure. But recognition of the spiritual or moral values of the story has thereby been precluded. “A Descent into the Maelström,” however, using much the same subject matter and detail as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” is, like that poem, also concerned with the process of spiritual transcendence (1).

On the most obvious level, both “A Descent into the Maelström” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are tales of the sea — of one voyage in particular in which the horror and fascination exceeded that of all others. They are, in fact, accounts of archetypal voyages, whose meaning for their participants encompassed and exemplified the central meaning of existence. Having survived the harrowing sea journey, the mariners have acquired an extraordinary ability to penetrate the mystery surrounding life because they have in effect experienced and survived [page 27:] death; they have become prophet-seers whose task is ever to lead others to the truth revealed to them.

Both accounts of these adventures are related by the lone survivor of a terrifying journey. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the old sailor in “A Descent into the Maelström” seems compelled to recount his story, both as a catharsis for himself and as an evangelical attempt to pass on the truth which he has discovered. The effect of the story is to compel the listener to relate it to others in the form of a written narrative. The listener’s vicarious experience of the descent into the maelström coupled with the visual impact of the phenomenon itself has left him, like Coleridge’s waylaid Wedding Guest, “a sadder and a wiser man” (2).

In both works the use of the story-telling device is central to their meaning and technique. The tension between the story-teller and his listener creates a dialectic in which the reader is at once witness and participant. The dissimilarity between the Ancient Mariner and the Wedding Guest, for example, is indicative of the poem’s meaning: the Wedding Guest, who is about to enter into a communal celebration of life’s continuance, is detained by the violator of community with his tale of alienation, separation, and living death. Similarly, the contrast between the initiated and the ordinary man would seem to be the purpose of the opening scene of “A Descent into the Maelström.” The narrator begins his story by noting the mental and physical degeneration which befell him as a consequence of his terrifying experience: “It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow. Do you know I can scarcely look over this little cliff without getting giddy?” The listener, however, finds the aspect almost overpowering:

The “little cliff,” upon whose edge he had so carelessly thrown himself down to rest that the weightier portion of his body hung over it, while he was only kept from falling by the tenure of his elbow on its extreme and slippery edge — this “little cliff” arose, a sheer unobstructed precipice of black shining rock, some fifteen or sixteen hundred feet from the world of crags beneath us. Nothing would have tempted me to within half a dozen yards of its brink. In truth so deeply was I excited by the perilous position of my companion, that I fell at full length upon the ground, clung to the shrubs around me, and dared not even glance upward at the sky — while I struggled in vain to divest myself of the idea that the very foundations of the mountain were in danger from the fury of the winds. It was long before I could reason myself into sufficient courage to sit up and look out into the distance (3).

The implicit meaning of this episode appears to be that the ordeal of the maelström was such that all other dangers, such as the possibility of falling over the cliff, are minimized by comparison. The old fisherman, having endured an event “such as never happened before to mortal man” (II, 225), has successfully completed his rite of passage to the source of truth and may thus guide others in their quests.

The most important similarities in the two sea adventures, however, lie in the nature of the sailors ’ crimes and in the subsequent means of their salvation. The Ancient Mariner’s killing of the albatross is a violation of community of all life and is therefore a sin against life itself. [column 2:] No explanation is offered for his shooting the bird; his action is apparently unmotivated and somehow perverse. It is not unreasonable to assume, however, that the mariner acted out of a false sense of his own adequacy, relying on his own abilities without acknowledging the need for supernatural aid. Thus, like the tragic hero, he is guilty of hubris and must be made to suffer. Likewise, Poe’s mariner suffers as the result of his over-weening pride and his violation of the community of life. We learn from the old man’s narrative that he and his two brothers were the only fishermen on the Lofoden coast who ventured among the islands beyond the Moskoe-ström. He tells us: “In fact, we made it a matter of desperate speculation — the risk of life standing instead of labor, and courage answering for capital” (II, 233). In their “desperate speculation,” however, the three brothers separate themselves from their fellow fishermen and rely on their own strength and skill to carry them past the danger of the maelström. It is primarily this false sense of adequacy which leads to their destruction. The surviving brother makes clear that the timing of their crossing and returning was essential to their safe passage. On the fateful day, however, the brothers were deceived both by nature and by time; their interpretation of weather signs and their ability to time the crossing at slack water both proved inadequate. Thus they suffer for relying on their insufficient knowledge of the power of God in nature.

In both the story and the poem, the means through which the mariners attain salvation involves the turning outward of life forces which have heretofore been directed merely inward. Coleridge’s protagonist achieves deliverance from the limbo state of Life-in-Death when he perceives beauty in the slime of corruption which surrounds him and blesses the water snakes:

O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware. . . . . (II. 282-285)

After thus blessing the snakes, the mariner finds that he is once more able to pray, the albatross drops from his neck into the sea, and the process of redemption and regeneration begins. The crucial moment occurs at that point when the mariner becomes divested of mere self-involvement and beholds the world of nature with benevolent empathy.

Poe’s mariner also is delivered from destruction in a similar way. If we compare the fisherman’s attitude with that of his brothers, we see at once his ability to be concerned for others, even when he is himself in imminent danger. The younger brother lashes himself to the mainmast, which is carried into the sea at the first puff of the hurricane. While his action is probably the most normal and reasonable under the circumstances, it does not bespeak any great desire to assist his brothers, and his self-concern immediately proves to be of no avail. The actions of the elder brother show him to be still more determined to save his own life, even though he sacrifice his brother’s life in the process. The contrast between the protagonist and his elder brother is evident in their confrontation just after the first deluge of the storm has passed; the protagonist tells us that as he was trying to collect his senses, he felt someone grasp his arm: “It was [page 28:] my elder brother, and my heart leaped for joy, for I had made sure that he was overboard” (II, 237). The elder brother, however, does not display the same joy at seeing his brother alive, for he merely shouts the one word, “Moskoe-ström! “ His lack of concern for his brother is even more apparent as the boat approaches the whirlpool. In an agony of fear, the elder brother rushes from the water cask to which he has been clinging to the ring-bolt which the protagonist is grasping and tries to force his hands from it, since it is not large enough for them both. The surviving brother tells his listener, “I never felt deeper grief than when I saw him attempt this act” (II, 241). The protagonist relinquishes his claim to the ring-bolt and goes astern to the cask. Ironically (on the level of physical events), this action leads to his salvation. The protagonist’s acceptance of his fate affords him the detachment necessary to allow him to perceive the situation clearly and act rationally. He tells us that

It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very jaws of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching it. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. . . . .

It may look like boasting — but what I tell you is truth — I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was of me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power. I do believe that I blushed with shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a little while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make. . . . . (II, 239-240)

His ability to behold in the elements of his approaching destruction beauty and grandeur is an act of self-transcendence and an experience of the sublime comparable to the Ancient Mariner’s blessing of the water snakes, and it is this liberation from mere self-involvement which paradoxically makes his salvation possible. Having abandoned a frenzied attempt to save his life, he ceases to despair, and he is then able to subordinate his will to the will of God manifested in natural forces. In acknowledging the supremacy of God’s power in nature over his own individual existence, he recognizes his inadequacy and insignificance and replaces the pride of self-sufficiency with humility. In his concern for the safety of his brother, even in the face of betrayal and disloyalty, he reaffirms his faith in the community of brotherhood. Spiritual values have transcended physical values. In terms of Christian dogma, he has done the two things necessary for attaining eternal life: he has acknowledged the supreme position of God in the universal hierarchy and afforded his fellow man a place equal his own.

His casting himself into the sea lashed to the water cask is an act of faith in universal laws. He submits himself to the natural order of things. One is reminded of Stein’s reply to the question, “How to be,” in Conrad’s Lord Jim:

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns. . . . . The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up (4).

Several details which the two works employ corroborate the major thematic parallels. The most important [column 2:] are two great images of descent and ascent which involve not only depth and height but also darkness and light. The first appears as an image near the end of Coleridge’s poem. The death ship which has miraculously carried the Ancient Mariner back to his home port goes down like lead in the bay, leaving in its wake a small vortex, which catches the Pilot’s boat:

Upon the whirl, where sank the ship,

The boat spun round and round. . . . . (II. 556-557)

Given other similarities (such as the failure of the rescuers to recognize the mariners they pluck from the sea because they have undergone startling physical changes), it is not hard to see in this brief passage in Coleridge’s poem a germ of the idea that Poe later made into the major feature of his story. Second, in both “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “A Descent into the Maelström,” the high, full moon seems to behold, even to brood over, the scene of despair below. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the change in tone begins with the line, “The moving Moon went up the sky” (1. 263) and continues through stanzas rich in color imagery to culminate in the blessing of the water snakes, the pivotal point of the poem. Significantly, the light of the moon first reveals the horror and desolation of the scene, but it also illumines the beauty of the sea creatures, which calls forth the mariner’s utterance of joy and blessing that initiates his restoration. In Poe’s story also, one of the most memorable images is that of the full moon shedding its light on the funnel of water far below:

Around in every direction it was still as black as pitch, but nearly overhead there burst out, all at once, a circular rift of clear sky — as clear as I ever saw — and of a deep bright blue — and through it there blazed forth the full moon with a lustre that I never before knew her to wear. (II, 237-238)

Later Poe’s protagonist describes how the “ghastly radiance . . . . shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds . . . . streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss” (II, 242). The correspondence between these descriptions and the following lines from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is immediately evident:

And the rain poured down from one black cloud;

The Moon was at its edge.

The thick black cloud was cleft, and still

The Moon was at its side:

Like waters shot from some high crag,

The lightning fell with never a jag,

A river steep and wide. (II. 319-325)

In Poe’s story, as in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the moonlight first reveals to the fisherman the horror of the scene — it is by moonlight that he perceives that his watch has run down, making them behind the time of the slack — and then shows him the beauty and grandeur of the spectacle, which elicit his spiritual transformation. The rays of the moon on the mist at the bottom of the gulf create a magnificent rainbow, the symbol of hope and the promise of salvation, which the fisherman likens to “that narrow and tottering bridge which Mussulmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity” (II, 243). In his symbolic journey to death and subsequent [page 29:] rebirth, the protagonist has indeed passed over that bridge and become a part of eternity. Finally, the moonlight reveals the shape and velocity of the floating objects, allowing him to make his observation and act upon it. In both the poem and the story, the figure of the moon seems to act as an instrument of Grace which makes the salvation of the doomed seamen possible.

While in Christian terminology the fisherman’s salvation results from good deeds and faith, his redemption also follows a basic psychological pattern characterized by alternating periods of introversion and extroversion. In her study of archetypal patterns, Maud Bodkin identifies and defines this process of self-assertion followed by self-annihilation as the “Rebirth archetype.” Her description of the rebirth pattern corresponds closely to the experience of the Norwegian fisherman in Poe’s story. This pattern, as she describes it, is characterized by “a movement, downward, or inward toward the earth’s center, or a cessation of movement — a physical change which . . . . appears also as a transition toward severed relation with the outer world, and, it may be, toward disintegration and death. This element in the pattern is balanced by a movement upward and outward — an expansion or outburst of activity, a transition toward reintegration and life renewal” (5). Not only does this pattern describe the basic journey and imagery of Poe’s story, but also it suggests the thematic import of the narrator’s retelling of the story. As in Coleridge’s poem, the narrator’s rebirth is marked by a confessional release of pent-up energy which has been held back by a life-denying force of extreme introversion.

In light of these similarities between “A Descent into the Maelström” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and in view of the long-recognized influence of Coleridge on Poe, it seems clear that Coleridge’s poem served as a major inspiration and model for Poe’s story. Like that work, “A Descent into the Maelström” may be interpreted as an account of spiritual rebirth and self-transcendence. Given such a reading, the entire story — from the epigraph acknowledging the “vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness” (II, 225) of the ways of God in nature to the protagonist’s final appeal for faith in his story — becomes appreciably richer and more meaningful.  



(1)  Early in this century Harry T. Baker noted “Coleridge’s Influence on Poe’s Poetry,” Modern Language Notes, XXV (March 1910), 94-95, in a general way. Floyd Stovall later detailed “Poe’s Debt to Coleridge” in poetry, fiction, critical theory, and philosophical stance, University of Texas Studies in English, No. 10 (1930), 70-128. Darrel Abel has dealt with a specific debt to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in Poe’s story “Berenice” in “Coleridge’s ‘Life-in-Death ’ and Poe’s ‘Death-in-Life ’,” Notes & Queries, n.s., II (May 1955), 218-220. Previous studies dealing entirely with “A Descent into the Maelström” have been limited to investigations of sources: cases in point are Adolph B. Benson, “Scandinavian References in the Works of Poe,” JEGP, XL (1941), 73-90; Arlin Turner, “Sources of Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström ’,” JEGP, XLVI (July 1947), 298-301; W. T. Bandy, “New Light on a Source of Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström ’,” American Literature, XXIV (January 1953), 534-537. Only very recently, in Jay L. Halio’s ’ ’The Moral Mr. Poe,” [column 2:] Poe Newsletter, I (October 1968), 24, has the significance of a moral element in “A Descent into the Maelström” been emphasized. (Mr. Halio’s article appeared after the present article had been submitted to Poe Newsletter. )

(2)  The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford, 1912), I, 209.

(3)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), II, 225-226.

(4)  The Works of Joseph Conrad (London, 1900), IV, 261-262.

(5)  Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (London, 1934), p. 54.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]