Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Poe’s Maelstrom

Without static you have no continuity. (Theatre and the Visual Arts, 1971)

In a succinct note in the (since defunct) Poe Newsletter, Margaret J. Yonce detailed many of the parallels between Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom. Both are epyllia which unfold as tales told within a tale. Both are accounts of harrowing events at sea. In both only a single individual of an original ship’s crew survives the experience, or series of experiences, to which their crafts are exposed. Both mariners are rendered unrecognizable by their ordeal. And both are delivered from it by an unlikely mode of conveyance that is super-natural (in Coleridge) or seemingly contra-natural (in Poe).

The ultimate homecoming of Coleridge’s mariner is depicted in a way which could have served as an outline for Poe’s tale:

…a sound was heard.
Under the water it rumbled on,
Still louder and more dread :
It reach’d the ship, it split the bay;
The ship went down like lead.
Stunned by that loud and dreadful sound,
Which sky and ocean smote,
Like one that hath been seven days drown’d
My body lay afloat;
But swift as dreams, myself I found
Within the Pilot’s boat.
Upon the whirl, where sank the ship,
The boat spun round and round;
And all was still…

John Livingston Lowes‘ Road to Xanadu (1927) is an investigation of Coleridge’s imagination as it worked to compose The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In it, a further highly important relationship of Poe’s Maelstrom to Coleridge’s Mariner, one not noted by Yonce, may be seen. As Lowes points out:

The [ancient mariner’s] ship is at the Equator twice. It crosses it in the Atlantic sailing south, and the equatorial calms of the Pacific are the stage for half the action of the story (…) the course [is] from Equator to Equator round the Horn (115, 122)

If ‘south’ is conceived as ‘down’, as it is on our usual maps and globes, Coleridge’s mariner descends from the Equator in the Atlantic and then ascends again back to the Equator in the Pacific.  This he does in a linear movement on the surface of the sea, horizontally. What Poe does is to present the same figure in the depths of the sea, vertically,  His mariner also descends and ascends, but he does so in place — within the vortex of the Maelstrom

Both tales describe complications of space. Both describe utterly differing regions which are yet accessible to each other — although only with life-threatening difficulty. The ancient mariner faces extreme cold and too much wind, and then extreme heat and too little wind.  Poe’s mariner encounters the strange physics of the whirlpool. These conditions are remarkable both in themselves and in their terrible proximity to the normal conditions at sea from which both set out and to which both finally return.

But what about time? In his poem about the Maelstrom, McLuhan’s close friend Cleanth Brooks described the whirlpool as a kind of clock and suggested that its central protagonist is “time’s enterprise”:

Geared to the whirlpool now, destruction’s dial,
The fool can read (…)
On the dial’s hurrying face, knows what’s o’clock,
Himself the second hand, at first hand reads
The timepiece Braille-wise1

These are a clock and a time which are, however, utterly different from what we know as clock-time. Brooks’ poem begins:

Then when the terror is at its height, you hurl
The useless watch away, fling time away,
Having no more to do with time

The first word, “then” is key. As seen in the next word “when”, the great question is: just when is this then?

Who knows the whirlpool’s season or the hour
That ripens it to peace? Who thinks to catch
Time’s phoenix on her nest?

Brooks describes a situation defined by multiple times. But unlike different regions in space, the relation of times (plural) to each other cannot be one-after-the-other. For this is just what time singular is. Times plural, in contrast, must be simultaneous, two times at once.  And these two times at once must be arrayed vertically, not horizontally, since the latter is ultimately not time at all, but space.

The relationship of The Ancient Mariner to The Maelstrom might thus be put, in McLuhan’s terms, as the movement from the horizontal “diachronique” to the vertical “synchronique”2:

Chronological time yields to time as [simultanious] spaced-out moments of intensity” (Spiral — Man as the Medium’, 1976, 127).

Plurality-of-times succeeds uniformity-of-time. (UM, 1964, 152)3

It is not the case, however, that the horizontal or diachronic dimension is simply negated or lost in this movement from the one to the two. It remains as an irreducible pole of the crossed figure of times, plural. Instead of subtraction, a new dimension is added to the horizontal, complicating it, which is both radically incommensurate with it and yet functions as its strange ground. As such, this new dimension is the very condition of explanation.4

For McLuhan this diachronic/synchronic or figure/ground structure is the heart of all insight and explanation: it is the

principle of a continuous5 dual structure for achieving order. (Spiral — Man as the Medium, 1976, 126)

Structuralism as a term (…) [designates] inclusive synesthesia, an interplay of many levels and facets in a two-dimensional mosaic. (GG, 230, emphasis added)

Adding ground flips the concept approach into percepts… (LM, 10)6

Explanation is therefore characterized, according to McLuhan, by the simultaneous vertical relation of two fundamentally different, but linked, terms7.  This simultaneous vertical relation he called ‘symbol’ or ‘metaphor’. At its heart, he said, is a gap which at once holds the two terms apart as fundamentally different and yet links them together in meaning or significance or explanation. The differentiating-uniting force working across this gap he called ‘resonance’ or ‘echo’ or ‘touch’ or ‘synaesthesia’ or ‘logos’ or — ‘communication’.

Symbolism is the art of the missing link, as the word implies: sym-ballein, to throw together. It is the art of syncopation. It is the basis of electricity and quantum mechanics, as Lewis Carroll under­stood via Lobachevski, and non-Euclidean geometries. The chem­ical bond, as understood by Heisenberg and Linus Pauling, is RESONANCE. Echoland. (From Cliché to Archetype, 39)

the basic mode of metaphor is resonance and interval — the audile-tactile  (LM, 120)

the Stoic (…) logos spermatikos is the uttered logos  (…) embedded in things animate or inanimate that structures and informs them and provides the formal principles of their being and growth (…). This (…) logos is the root of grammar (…) with its twin concerns of etymology and multiple-level exegesis, the ground-search for structure and roots. All of the sciences of the later quadrivium (of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) were subdivisions of grammar, as forms of exegesis of the Book of Nature.  (LM, 124)

Passages like these might, of course, be supplied in endless number from McLuhan’s works. These few may be taken simply as illustrative. The central point in regard to his second conversion is that Brooks brought the Maelstrom to his attention not only as the synchronic labyrinthine form of all human perception and creation, but also as an image of the twofold vertical structure of times plural implicated in that form. He began to understand these matters around 1950 and the rest of his life would be spent in further consideration of them. 

  1. McLuhan does not seem to have commented on Brooks’ poem.  Had he done so, he would have appreciated the fact that Brooks’ mariner comes to understand the maelstrom by touch, “Braille-wise”, and not by sight.
  2. “The structural theme of (the film) Spiral presents (…) the synchronique worlds of birth and death. Spiral is not (…) diachronique or lineal (…) but a synchronique and contrapuntal interplay in a resonating structure” (Spiral — Man as the Medium’, 1976, 125).
  3. “Succeeds” here does not mean ‘comes after’ since “plurality-of-times” also precedes “uniformity-of-time”. “Succeeds” in this context means ‘comes to be seen as more fundamental than’.
  4. At the same time, as we say, the horizontal or diachronic dimension is equally necessary such that it, too, can be considered a condition of explanation — without it there would be nothing to explain.
  5. “Continuous” here does not mean ‘diachronic’ in ordinary time, but ‘repetitive’ at the level of principial explanation’.
  6. Explanation or understanding or communication takes place when an initial subjective take (‘concept’) is given up in favor of the reception of an objective meaning that is already there (‘percept’).
  7. ‘Terms’ not as words, or not only as words, but as terms of relation — like two times