Byron’s “maternal nature” in contrast to Coleridge’s “nature as a being”

            Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Lord Byron’s “Manfred” are prominent poems that portray the foremost features of the romantic period like individuation, sublime nature, gothic elements, idealized settings and implements. The ideas of nature and its surrounding is an important component and constituent in both the authors created works and worlds, furthermore being representative of romantic authors and its era.

In this essay I will examine Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Byron’s Manfred to expound on the author’s stance on sublime nature by comparing and contrasting the three features of its representation, the setting and locations of the narratives, sublime human nature in concepts of existentialism, ideas of death and nature in the created worlds; linking each respected epigraphs with the tone of the poems and concluding with analyzing how different/similar the concept of “sublime nature” mean to both authors.

Written in the year without a summer and published in 1817 by Lord Byron’s publisher John Murray, Manfred is a closet drama representative of an extreme version of the Byronic Hero due to the character Manfred’s melancholic qualities and suicidal tendencies. Byron starts off the poem by building on to the isolated essence and gothic atmosphere of castles and the natural world, the settings in Manfred play an important role in the ideas of sublime nature and the gothic.

For example, scene 2 opens with Manfred “upon the cliffs” alone in the mountain of Jungfrau, a high alpine (alps) mountain located in south-central Switzerland. The location mirrors and explores the unconscious state of mind and foggy thinking of Manfred amid nature and isolated environment simultaneously paves the way for the unknown, which is also Manfred’s unrevealed guilt that drives him feeling hopeless.

On the other hand, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was first printed in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads uses the settings and locations in a similar matter to portray sublime nature and assists in creating a general tone of the scenario. For example, the ship drifting to Antarctica and getting stuck in ice, an inhibited area and unexplored much at the time creates the sense of the unknown and great power that lies in the region and earth. Another example is the isolation of the mariner at sea alone with his dead mates and an attitude of despair in nature lines 121-122 water, water everywhere / but no drop to drink.

The physical space and open sea brings into mind desolation and representation of the Mariner’s agony unfelt by any creatures around as told by the Mariner himself in line 235 Alone, alone, all, all alone”. In regards to the setting, both authors use the locations of unknown space in sublime nature and area to represent the characters self, consciousness and current state of mind; it complements the characters situations and tribulation in regards to desolation and agony.

Nonetheless, the Mariner is forced into his ordeal as opposed to Manfred’s own choice of wanting to be left alone (for instance Manfred running away from the Chamois hunter or refusing help from the Abbot), hence Coleridge and Byron may use the setting of nature integrated into their work to supplement their style and narrative however the characters are driven into their anguish fairly differently.

The second aspect I wish to look at is the idea of existentialism and notion of individuation through the sublime human nature in the characters and narratives of Manfred and the Mariner, with respect to religion and the outside forces. Manfred’s entity seems to be superhuman, or at the minimum to be understood above or better than other humans, for instance in line 41, Manfred a part of nature and beyond calls himself “half dust, half deity” (Act 1, Scene 2), and proclaims in lines 56-57 “My spirit walk’d not with the souls of men / Nor look’d upon the earth with human eyes;” (Act 2, Scene 2).

Manfred is aware of his superiority and pride which asserts him to not need any help from human beings and refuse religion as a whole, nonetheless the elemental spirits cannot help him or change anything related to nature such as shifting past, time or events because they cannot control such forces. The limited powers of both, Manfred and the supernatural entities puts forward the perception of limited powers in both creatures, suggesting a higher form of power or capacity, such as sublime nature but not necessarily divine because Manfred refuses religion thus Byron and his self inserted character (Byronic Hero) may not feel positively or greatly towards faith.

Coleridge for instance also demonstrates the sublime nature of humans and condition of the human self with challenging ideas of death, sympathy and restraints of the supernatural and natural forces. For example, the curse that was put on him not allowing him to pray (or die) similarly causes more agony towards his desolation; Lines 244-247 shows his inability to pray,I looked to heaven, and tried to pray/ But or ever a prayer had gusht,/ A wicked whisper came, and made/ My heart as dry as dust.”, ergo an existence of higher force not necessarily divine, which simply could be bodily functions like being dehydrated or symptoms of fatigue not allowing him to perform normal human duties or think clearly.

Unlike Manfred, the Mariner does not refuse religion or prayer, though Coleridge critiques Christianity by having the albatross hang on the Mariner’s neck in the last lines of part 2, “instead of a cross” which is an allusion for burden or misfortune. The Mariner is unable to pray and die, as opposed to Manfred refusing help or religion even though Manfred tries to commit suicide but fails and eventually dies weak in his death bed. Manfred seems to have a choice in contrary to the Mariner having no choice in his agony.

The curse of the Mariner and Manfred’s guilt both do not allow death which is a vital part of the natural cycle. Limited powers of humans adduce a higher entity or potential like sublime nature or incomplete void. Both authors look at religion and individuation differently by showing how their characters react to their positions as well as keeping in mind how much agency they posses.

Byron adapts the “maternal earth” and more of the notion of returning to nature and decay over the supernatural powers, as shown in Manfred lines 8-10 “My mother Earth! /And thou fresh breaking Day, and you, ye Mountains, /Why are ye beautiful? I cannot love ye” (Act I. Scene II). Manfred chooses nature and death over the help of the Witch of the Alps or requesting other wishes from the conjured spirits. Manfred’s final gesture accepting the Abbots hand may signify the acceptance of the outside world, nonetheless going opposite of what he believes in leads him to his wish of “fierce thirst of death” (Line 53, Act 2 Scene 1).

In the case of the Mariner, lines 261-262 uphold powers over him, “Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse, And yet I could not die”. When the Mariner or his mates oppose nature, things go wrong and when they appreciates nature, things go right. For instance, the Mariner’s mates change their minds on the albatross being bad omen in response the ship gets stuck in ice. On the other hand the mariner starts appreciating the water snakes then the albatross falls from his neck. Similarly in contrast with Manfred’s final gesture accepting others.

On a different note, the epigraphs create a way for readers to think about the poems in a particular way, similar to the mused works. Both authors introduce their works with a philosophical approach to what is beyond sublime nature or human knowledge. Byron includes an epigraph from William Shakespeare’s hamlet, “exceeding earth and heavens, thus the unknown and limited information of the human mind and nature of existence.” which paves the way for the story and unknown greatness or sublime nature that human knowledge is limited. Similarly, Coleridge adds the epigraph after the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads from Thomas Burnet’s “Archaeologiae Philosophicae about subliminal nature, and the unknown world of invisible natures and existentialism. The epigraphs puts the stories in motion and grabs the reader’s attention thinking about “invisible” nature and beyond human capacity.

Both characters suffer from desolation. The mariner is forced into isolation as opposed to Manfred who refuses help from the outside world therefore his isolation and suffering is self imposed. Byron has a more return to earth, decay, and maternal relations towards nature as opposed to Coleridge who sees the beauty of nature, but changes his mind and doubts its nurturing powers and danger, with an understanding of working together with nature; For instance the Mariner in the beginning praises the water snakes in lines 282-283 O happy living things! no tongue Their beauty might declare but eventually hates the loneliness.

The Mariner is cursed and must stay alive, unable to die. He must go on carrying telling his story just like the reason of why did the wind blow the ship back home. Nature is a part of life. Manfred’s guilt eventually causes his decay and refusal of all other powers over nature, particularly death. Byron has a more maternal relation towards nature. Mariner stays alive, thus nature regenerates and stays forever.


Image : Francois Boucher : The setting of the sun