Man, Witness and the Sea, or ‘sea change’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

 We are delighted to be able to publish the second of the winning essays from our CRECS Essay Prize 2015/16: “There was a ship”: Man, Witness and the Sea, or ‘sea change’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Alexander Diggins, which was the winner in our Third-Year BA category.

Alex is currently doing an Mphil in American Literature at Cambridge, working towards a thesis on language, landscape and legibility on the American Frontier. After he graduates, he hopes to work in literary magazines whilst working up some of his ideas into a book.


“There was a ship”: Man, Witness and the Sea, or ‘sea change’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

Undergraduate Dissertation


There is a moment in Shakespeare’s The Tempest when Ariel sings of Alonso: ‘nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea change/Into something rich and strange.’[1] The human encounters the non-human, and is changed by the experience; the categories of man and sea are unsettled, boundaries have become fluid. This moment of uncanny flux is the crux of my dissertation as I examine how ‘sea change(s)’ have been approached in literature, and, in particular, in two seminal sea stories: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

I take ‘sea change’ to mean ‘an alteration or metamorphosis, a radical change’ (OED)[2], and also use Shakespeare’s evocative and eerie phrase to develop a new approach to these texts. Chapter one lays out the critical vocabulary of this approach with reference to Herman Melville’s notebooks, and Martin Heidegger’s ideas of landscape and dwelling. This chapter posits that it is the essential, and existential, rootlessness of the sailor that makes him uniquely vulnerable to ‘sea change’: he has none of the landmarks of home, family and kinship with which the landlocked soul navigates and builds identity. I read the surface of the sea as Heideggerean ‘space’: marked out with ‘locations’ of story and history, a landscape upon which the rootless sailor can find roots. However, I also see the deep of the sea as formless space utterly inimical to fragile human identity. It is at the meeting of these two spaces – one which shores up identity, one which dissolves it – that the process of ‘sea change’, as I define it, occurs.

Chapter two builds upon this argument by analysing a two page episode in Moby Dick. The section read may be small but I see it as emblematic not only of the characteristic concerns of the novel – the encounter of man and nature, the (futile?) search for meaning – but also of literary ‘sea change(s)’.  Through analysis of this passage I tease out the essential themes of ‘sea change’: the loss of identity, the witnessing of (inhuman) meaning, and the return to the surface compelled to narrate that witnessing. I end by gesturing towards how these themes are present in, but also complicated by, Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

I begin Chapter three by delineating the pattern of isolation, engulfment and prophesy – the movement of ‘sea change’ – in the Mariner’s narrative. I signal that this process is not as clear or easy as it was in Moby Dick, the dense poetic energies of the Coleridge’s text often obscuring or resisting the application of one convenient narrative, or summative reading. I argue that this obscuring is due in part to the importance Coleridge places on the imagination in the poem; not only the author’s, and the reader’s, but the Mariner’s himself. I read the Mariner as a conscious, and creative, presence within the text, not simply a signifier of meaning but its origin: both subject and author of the eponymous ‘The Rime’. By giving human voice to his poem of ‘sea change’ I argue that Coleridge differs from Melville. The scale of this encounter of man and the sea is no longer cosmic and inhuman, but gentle and deeply human.

In a summative coda, I briefly examine the work of the artist Jason deCaires Taylor whose underwater sculptures serve almost as material enactments of the literary ‘sea change(s)’ with which this dissertation is concerned. I argue that the ecological awareness that these sculptures seek to promote is not at odds with the texts dealt with here, but rather at their heart. For fundamental to the conception of literary ‘sea change’ is an awareness of the deep (in both senses) strangeness of the ocean, and a knowledge of its profound vitality and its profound fragility.





Chapter 1 – Loomings                                                                           5


Chapter 2 – Soundings                                                                        12


Chapter 3 – Breachings                                                                       18


Coda – Findings                                                                                   23


Bibliography                                                                                        26



Chapter One – Loomings:


Step down into the sea, into another knowledge, wild and cold…

 Thomas A. Clarke, The Hundred Thousand Places[3]


The sea is origin; both biologically of life on earth and frequently in the cosmologies of primitive cultures. In Genesis life, light and humanity come from ‘a formless void’, and the ‘waters of the deep’[4]; in Cherokee creation myth a water beetle, an earth diver, descends to the bottom of the primordial waters and brings to the surface river mud which becomes the earth[5]; in Greek mythology – as related by Hesiod in his Theogony – Gaia, the earth, and other divines emerge from Chaos, the void, the sea.[6] Marine biologist Sylvia Earle argues of the sea that ‘our origins are there, reflected in the briny solution coursing through veins, and in the underlying chemistry that links us to all other life’.[7] The sea as beginning, as originator, and ‘sea change(s)’ as a return to that prime are thus a theme that transcends boundaries of language, time and culture: an idea that informs Melville’s and Coleridge’s treatments of ‘sea changes’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ respectively. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘sea-change’ as ‘an alteration or metamorphosis, a radical change’ but I wish to deploy it in this essay in a specific way[8]; that is, as a transformation, or more accurately a transmutation – for it is a change of substance – of the human by the sea. These kinds of ‘sea changes’ have a long afterlife in literature. For instance, in the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. And in the Celtic folklore of the Selkie which, as David Thomson argues, is haunted by the trope of the slippage of man into seal, and vice versa.[9] Intriguing as these folkloric ‘sea changes’ are, they are outside the compass of this study. For the ‘sea change(s)’ of Melville and Coleridge are stranger and more elusive than the fantastical tropes of man becoming, or being consumed by, a sea creature.

The phrase ‘sea-change’ as I employ it comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest when Ariel beguiles Ferdinand with a song of his father’s drowning and subsequent change:

Full fathom five thy father lies/ His bones are of coral made/Those were pearls that were his eyes/Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange.[10]

The process Ariel eerily hymns here is that of bodily, physical change; Alonso’s body has been transmuted into something unperishable and incorruptible.  This presentation is a radical departure from the majority of Renaissance portrayals of the sea. Often it was figured as something vast, terrifying and swallowing. In parallel with these fearful presentations ran accounts of exploration and conquest. The sea was, as Deloughery argues, an ‘umarked, atemporal and feminised void […] aqua nullus[11] for the early colonial explores, an easy subject for refashioning as a male, European space. Shakespeare unsettles these contemporary constructs of the sea. Alonso’s sea change is beautiful, eerie and feminised. The imagery shuttles between male disgust and fear at the despoiling of Alonso’s body by the sea – ‘his bones are coral made’ – and a celebration of the feminised beauty these changes have wrought – ‘those were pearls that were his eyes’.  Though neither Coleridge or Melville were as alive as Shakespeare was to the tension of gendering in their portrayals ‘sea-change(s)’, both writer’s works are fired with the uncanny power of Shakespeare’s prototype. Both Pip, the drowned cabin boy of the Pequod, and the Ancient Mariner are burdened by – but also ‘rich’ in – forbidden, fatal knowledge. And both are, after their ‘sea changes’ profoundly, unnervingly ‘strange’. The Wedding guest shudders away from the Mariner crying ‘I fear thee Mariner!’[12], and Ishmael wonders at the deep-addled mind of Pip that seems ‘luridly illumined by strange wild fires’.[13] Both characters, returned from an element that usually destroys the human – having ‘suffered a sea change’ – burn with an otherworldly glamour. James Hamilton-Patterson records how superstitious fisherman and sailors would not learn to swim, a seemingly foolish oversight that ‘stems from a dark belief that once you have fallen into the sea’s grasp you are done for by right’.[14] Those that return from drowning, that suffer a ‘sea-change’, are thus marked by it. They cheat not only death, but the sea itself.

What makes the sea unique in its ability to change the human? Why do we not speak of ‘earth-changes’ or ‘air-changes’? For answer we must look to Melville’s notebooks and his description of the Great pyramid of Giza. ‘It is the sense of immensity that is stirred […] its simplicity confounds. Finding it in vain to take in the sea’s vastness man has taken to sounding its depth or measuring its density; so it is with the pyramids [but] it refuses to be adequately studied or comprehended [….] Man seems to have had as little to do with it as Nature’.[15] Melville articulates here the same emotions that course through any literature of the sea. The same images recur again and again: ‘the sense of immensity’; an appalling ‘simplicity’ that ‘confounds’, that repels, man’s attempts to measure it, to own it; and, as always, the mind baulks at its sheer size, its horrid vastness: ‘man has as little to do it with as Nature’. The sea is infinite, a stage fit for gods, or God, not man. As Deloughery argues the ‘vastness of the sea’, ‘challenges our limited concepts of space, so the ocean is at once our origin and our liquid future, destabilising our notions of linear human time’.[16] In the literature of ‘sea change’, ‘linear human time’ is a fragile concept. In Moby Dick time becomes a deep well, the strata of human and geologic existence are laid bare; in Shakespeare ‘human time’ is irrelevant, the decay of man is suspended, he becomes subject to other laws, other measurings of existence; Coleridge presents a eerie co-mingling of these two presentations. His frenzied flight of the imagination is not, in R.S Thomas’ phrase, ‘a world in servitude to time’[17] but neither is human time entirely absent. Time is just one force among the many – like fate, judgement or narrative itself – that compel the poem’s fierce motion. In the realm of ‘sea change(s)’ time and man are upset, destabilised; they teeter on the edge of oblivion. The sea provides an experience of immensity more immediate, more fatal, and more haunting, than any other available to us. That is why it has such power to shape the human.

What makes the sailor so uniquely vulnerable to ‘sea-change’? It is not, as one might expect, his proximity to the ocean, but rather his fundamental rootlessness.  Consider what a ship wreck means to a sailor. A ship wreck is a home wreck. It is a deracination of an intensity that few on land will ever experience. For, at sea, a ship becomes all to a sailor: home, workplace, and, in its predominately male environment, surrogate mother and (oedipally) surrogate lover. And yet how fragile it all is. One freak wave, one heavy storm, one careless watchman, and all is lost, all is ‘sea swallowed’. For those on land, identity is inextricably bound up with landscape. As Robert MacFarlane argues landscape is ‘a theatre of memory, continually reminding its inhabitants of attachment and belonging’.[18]  Landscape and identity are mutually dependent and supporting. The physical actuality of the earth would not be landscape without the human subject populating it with story and valency; the human subject would not have identity unless it could draw from the deep well of meaning inherent in the landscape around. For those on land, the roots of identity can go deep, sometimes back thousands of years. For those at sea those roots can only go down to the bilges. Their world becomes the wooden walls of the ship, the people with whom they share their home, and the stories that are told about the ship and its crew. Ship wreck thus becomes home wreck, and because home, the ship, is all the sailors have to define themselves by, home wreck becomes self-wreck. Those that suffer sea change, those that have returned from the deep, not only have the tremor of the undead about them, but also carry with them the fear of anonymity. They have lost all: home, landscape, identity. Washed of selfhood and severed from the ship, the last ties of the ocean going man, they are speak of, as Hamilton Patterson puts it, that ‘fat blank which squats beneath all happiness flicking out its tongue’. Those returned from the blank of the deep reek of it, and they ‘reset the poles of existence’ for who remain on the surface.[19]

Martin Heidegger formulated that one of the central ‘poles of existence’ for humans is wunian or dwelling, and that ‘to be a human being means to dwell’.[20] The ship, for a sailor, is a dwelling place; it is a ‘home’ in all the polyvalences of that word.  Sailors draw comfort, security, and identity from the ship in the same way that landlocked souls draw them from their houses and communities rooted in landscape. The mobile ship provides a paradoxical stability to the lives of her sailors who are, as Deloughery proposes, ‘beings in flux’.[21] Heidegger uses the example of a ‘bridge’ that ‘gathers the earth as landscape around a stream’. A ship on the vastness of the sea does the same thing. Heidegger goes on ‘the bridge does not first come into a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge’.[22] It is ostensibly the same with sailors and ships. For an ocean going vessel of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries of the kind Melville would have sailed in, (and Coleridge would have seen in Bristol docks), what was beyond the horizon in front was as irrelevant as what is beyond the horizon behind. All else would have receded, all else would have disappeared. This though is a dangerous fallacy. The ship may seem to make the space, the location, the waters around only having value by virtue of the ship being in them, but the anthropocentrism of this view blissfully ignores the sea that slaps and growls at the ship all around.  The ocean predates the stories men tell about it, the language they use to describe it, it even predates the land sailors have abandoned for it. The sea is a constant, a prime, a first. And a sea change is sudden realisation of, in Melville’s words, the ‘pre-adamite’[23] reality of the sea. It existed before us and it will, in all likelihood, exist after us; the sea circumscribes the lifecycle of humanity.[24] A sea change is thus not only a wrenching, a divorcing, of sailor from their dwelling place but also from their stable ontology. It is a much a transformation of perspective as it is one of the body or the spirit.

Populated with locations, peoples and ports, the sea has become the definition of a ‘space’ as formulated by Heidegger. He argues that ‘we always go through spaces in such a way that we already experience them by staying constantly with near or remote locations and things.’[25] An admirable description of the surface of the sea. But flip your perspective downwards. See the gulf that threatens just below the waves; see the deep below. And understand that even now when, as Melville predicted, we have ‘plumbed its depths and calculated its density’ we can never experience it as ‘space’ as Heidegger formulated it. It can never be marked out with ‘locations’, other ships and ports, as the surface of the sea can. The deep, the medium of the ‘sea-change’, can only be understood as a gulf, a void, an anti-space, in that it dissolves and changes the familiar locations upon which the human subject depends. Consider in light of this the miracle of a ‘sea change’. The human, at least in part, has been come back from this erasure, has returned fired with knowledge, rather than dissolved by the experience. The surface of the sea may have been delineated, and can thus be considered a Heideggerean ‘space’ but the deep, the realm of the ‘sea-change’, resists such classifications and remains fuzzy, undecidable and in flux.

It was then, inevitable, that Melville chose the sea as the central metaphor in his description of the Great pyramid of Giza. For no other element exists on earth that has the presence, to compel the mind as the sea does. And though images of the sea are common currency in English literature (what else would we expect from an island nation), it is ‘sea-change’ as first described by Shakespeare, and which quickens in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime’ and Moby Dick, that burns in the imagination. The surface of the ocean may appear to sailors to be akin to a Heideggerean ‘space’, marked by sea-roads of story and superstition, lines of conquest and trade, fixed and locatable, but what concerned Melville and Coleridge was the deep that lies beneath. The deep both as metaphor for the buried: time, history and the unconscious, and the deep actual: a crushing void, an absolute darkness inimitable to human life. They saw ‘sea-change(s)’ – the encounter of the seafarer, a being already precarious in their identity, with the void of the deep – as an expression of the meeting of the human and the absolute, the time bound with the infinite. And in the uncanny return from the sea of Pip and the Ancient Mariner they see the mortal treading on the hems of the divine.


Chapter two – Soundings:

The sea is the Alpha of existence, the symbol of potentiality.

W.H Auden, The Enchafed Flood, or the Romantic Iconography of the Sea[26]


Moby Dick is a foregrounding of the act of reading, an education in the dangers and elevations of interpretation, and an investigation into what Foucault termed the ‘discrepancy’ between language and actuality.[27] Melville may have ‘swum through libraries’[28] when writing the book, but its narrative presents a struggle to keep afloat in a sea of fact and fiction, the ‘pasteboard masks’ of images and the ‘naught’ (104) that lies behind. Central to this struggle for definition in the novel, for the ‘ultimate condition of things’, is the motive of the ‘sea change’: for ‘sea change’ is an attempt to define the indefinable. It is a meeting of human with the absolute, a crisis of the time bound with the timeless. As Delougery states ‘geologically and symbolically speaking the earth’s surface cannot represent its deep history [man] must plumb the subterranean and subaquatic layers of human and planetary change’.[29] The Heideggerean ‘space’ of the surface of the sea cannot ‘represent’ the ‘deep history’ of the earth, to experience this depth one must go into the deep. Melville’s presentation of the ‘sea change’ of the cabin boy Pip figures this ‘plumb[ing]’ of the deep, and in doing so encapsulates the fundamental drama of the novel: a search not for a white whale but for meaning itself.

By the logic of ‘sea change’ Pip must endure a separation. He accompanies the whale boats out on a chase and, unnoticed, falls overboard and is abandoned. ‘Out in the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling black head to the sun, another lonely castaway though the loftiest and the brightest […] the awful aloneness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such heartless immensity, my God! Who can tell it?’ (343)  Central to this description is the image of Pip’s head, marooned in the middle of the sea, as it is marooned in the middle of the pitching breakers of the sentences’ sub clauses. The assossantic snap of ‘crisp’ and ‘curling’ foregrounds Pip’s isolation; seen against the blank of the open ocean the sailor’s identity is shown to be precarious and conditional. In losing the Pequod and her crew Pip loses his landscape of home and heart. He is stripped of Heidegger’s ‘locations’, the orientating landmarks of story and place; he finds his selfhood flickering and unsubstantial, and thus he falls down into the deep, ripe for ‘sea change’.

This isolation is echoed in Melville’s bold figuring of the sun as ‘another lonely castaway’: the personal has shifted to – is mirrored in – the cosmic. This destabilising, vertiginous shift is characteristic of Moby Dick. As Maxwell argues, the metaphysical aspects ‘emerge from and are integrated into scene itself [thus] there is no discontinuity between concrete scene and abstract ideas’.[30]  There is an appropriate fluidity to Melville’s prose; his gaze is at once particular and pelagic. Description washes into philosophical digression: the personal dives into – and out of – the metaphysical. This dizzying shift is akin to the process of sea change itself, in which the human scope by which we measure the world is suddenly, startlingly, expanded. As Olson states ‘to MAGNIFY is the mark of Moby Dick’.[31] In his language Melville ‘MAGNIFY(s)’ the comfortable anthropocentrism of both character and reader, expanding and shattering it; by forcing our gaze down to the blank deep beneath our feet the world is revealed anew.

Pip’s ‘sea change’ is an encounter with first things, a return to a primordial world. Time is experienced not in a linear fashion, but as a sink hole. It is shown to have space and depth. ‘Sea change’ is staged as an encounter of jolting immediacy with first things. Not only the beginning of human (Biblical) history, ‘I can shake hands with Shem’ (377), but also a much more venerable, pre-Adamite, geologic sense of time. We are told that the sea rather than outright drowning Pip ‘carried his soul down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes’ (343). The miraculous survival of Pip’s soul, the unmeasured – and unmeasurable – depths to which it descends, and the gallery of ‘strange shapes’ he is privy to, figure his ‘sea change’ as mystical revelation. Jenny Franchot has argued that in his prose and poetry Melville sought ‘to rival scripture, in investing [his writing] with his own innovative, post-scriptural voice that uses Biblical sublimity against itself’.[32] Melville, however, does not seek to rival scripture, but rather to write his own. The sonorous beat of his adjectives, ‘wondrous depths’, ‘strange shapes’, and ‘primal world’, is not mimicry of scripture but scripture itself: scripture of the ‘sea change’. Olson argued that ‘Melville wanted a God. Space was the first, before time, earth and man.’[33] This perspective creates a post-Christian, or rather pre-Christian, ontology for Moby Dick; however space and time are not mutually exclusive in the novel, but rather, as modern physics, really one and same. A movement through space, a journey into the deep, is a movement backwards through time. Melville’s deep predates (human) history; it is the realm of the ‘antimosiac, unsourced existence […] of the whale’. Indeed, Melville claims that contemplation of the whale’s skeleton bears him back ‘to that wondrous period, ere time itself can really be said to have begun; for time began with man’. (497) Pip’s human ‘sea change’ is thus an experience of an inhuman time scale, a ‘wondrous period’ before man and his measures – history, geology, Time itself – ‘can really said to have begun’.

If Pip’s sea change is an experience of the sea as a temporal black hole it is equally a description of the difficulty of reading that experience. ‘Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects that out of the firmament waters heaved colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad’ (343). What are we to make of this blurred rush of images? It recalls the surrealism of Dali: cohesive images are evoked, ‘coral insects’, ‘colossal orbs’, but in its accumulation the description becomes fantastic and engulfing. The dissolution of identity and emphasis placed on gaze in Pip’s ‘sea change’ echoes aspects of Emerson’s ‘eye ball’ passage in Nature. ‘I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of universal being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.’ Pip has ‘become a transparent eyeball’.[34] His identity effaced, he has become a conduit for the readerly gaze, we see with him and through him. Sight, and the immediacy of the aesthetic, are emphasised by the repetition of ‘he saw’. Pip is a passive witness, sights flow past him and through him. Melville, though, does not entirely make Emerson’s pantheistic leap: Pip does not become part of the universal all. Such an affirmation would collapse the novel’s narrative of a search for, and a wondering after, meaning. Instead, Robert Lee discusses how ‘the world [is] turned upside down in Pip’s holy dementia’, seeing his ‘sea change’ as a ‘vision in which “looking” and “seeing” have become unstuck’.[35] This is the shift of perception that is central to ‘sea change’; the anthropocentric ontology of the sailor is displaced, replaced by a sudden awareness of the non-human presence of the sea. The authority of ‘I’ has ‘become unstuck’, usurped by the authority of the eye – the authority of the deep.

Pip is lost. The black cabin boy, indentured even on the democracy of the Pequod by Stubb to Ahab, has discovered freedom. But it comes at the cost of his humanity and his sanity. Pip is granted freedom from his identity as a slave only to have his selfhood recast against his will as a prophet, a mouthpiece of ‘sea change’. In the chapter ‘The Cabin’ there is a passage of sudden emotion when Pip fantasises about ‘play[ing] host to white men with gold lace upon their coats […] rows of captains and admirals’ (436). And he asks them ‘have ye seen one Pip? A little Negro lad […] jumped from a whale boat once;-seen him? No? […] he’s missing’. The broken, staccato questioning and Pip’s strange vision of a dinner party trembles with madness and terror. He has been lost; his identity dramatized, projected and shattered. He has been emancipated ten years before his terrestrial brethren only to be re-enslaved as a seer of ‘sea change’ and the madman’s knowledge it reveals. The compulsion of narration, the return from the deep fired with meaning and determined to relate it is a characteristic feature of ‘sea change’. Pip returns to the surface and is ‘called mad’ by his shipmates because his speech touches upon ‘the axis of reality’ (376); Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is burdened by a ‘strange power of speech’ which holds his audience attentive as a ‘three years child’[36]. Both are haunted by the imposition of narration: they must confess what they have seen. Auden reads the ‘The Cabin’ chapter as ‘Pip having lost himself […] can only exist through the self of another’[37]. The other Auden figures is Ahab. I propose another approach. The other into which Pip is displaced is the reader. We become the identity Pip constructs; he, and indeed the Ancient Mariner, having experienced a sea change, can only exist through narrative, through relating that transformative experience to an audience. We are that audience. ‘Sea change’ elides identity and situates it in narration.

In the ‘ocean’s utmost bones’ (38) man is changed. Pip experiences an isolation utterly destabilising; he encounters time not as linear progression but as depthless chaos where Heideggerean ‘locations’ have little ability to orientate; and, as Lawrence Buell argues of the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: ‘the link between poesy and prophecy is constant.’[38] The ‘sea change(d)’ man becomes prophet, eloquent of the meaning revealed to him. Franchot argues that ‘volubility and mystery are re-enacted in the tension of Ishmael’s reach into the empty space of the unseen world […] an urge for the unseen motivates the urge towards authorship’.[39] This ‘urge’, this ‘volubility’ and ‘mystery’, is not confined to Ishmael, rather these tensions fire the entire narrative, and they are manifested most powerfully in the ‘sea change’ of Pip. Indeed, this ‘urge towards authorship’ is a defining feature of the literary sea change. And is, as I will go on to demonstrate, most evocatively portrayed in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Moby Dick may the grand narrative of the failed quest for meaning, but Pip’s ‘sea change’ – described roughly halfway through novel – provides an aperture through which a genuine connection to meaning is possible. The world may be choked with confused alarms of sign and signifier, where all are ‘pasteboard masks [with] naught behind’ (220). But in the ‘sea change’ of Moby Dick there is a paradoxical rootedness in narrative, in Time’s beginning, and in meaning itself.



Chapter 3 – Breachings:

You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything.

                                                                                                            Coleridge, Biographica Literaria[40]


‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is like its subject the sea: irrational, uncontainable, resisting or eliding attempts at measurement or organisation. Indeed, the poem’s textual history foregrounds its uncanny instability. Coleridge revised the poem throughout his career, its last edition appearing in 1817. It is a text concerned with, and defined by, flux: in image, form and meaning. ‘The Rime’ is never stable, and thus attempting to impose an overarching vision, a comprehensive reading, on the text is a futile task. As Auden argues, reading the poem is a visceral rather than cerebral experience, for its ‘symbol(s) are felt before any possible meaning is consciously recognised [and] the symbolic correspondence is never one to one but always multiple.’[41] In reading the text as a poem of ‘sea change’, this dissertation puts aside the symbolist baggage that Auden warns against, seeing the poem for what it is: an encounter of man and the sea, and the compulsive, haunting burden to narrate that encounter. The Mariner’s blessing of the water snakes is the moment of the ‘sea change’ in the text, the crux upon which the poem revolves. And the tropes of ‘sea change’ – isolation, witness, narration – are built around that moment: earlier in the poem the Mariner is isolated from his crew by his shooting of the albatross, and, like Pip fallen from the whaling boat, he becomes vulnerable to ‘sea change’; after part four the poem becomes a recording of the Mariner’s possession by the encounter he has witnessed. He becomes voice of, and witness to, his ‘sea change’.

The Mariner laments in part four that he is ‘alone, alone all alone/ alone on a wide, wide sea’.[42] He has lost the ties of crew, family and community: the landscape of the heart the sea faring man needs to sustain his himself. As Anne Williams argues, during part four the poem becomes a text of ‘I-solation’[43]. The change of usual pronoun from ‘we’ to ‘I’, and its insistent repetition in this part (it appears over 15 times) signals the Mariner’s retreat from community through narration: the moment that the ‘sea change’ of the Mariner can truly be said to begin. This distancing, the separation of the self from the other through language, is further enacted in part five. The Mariner tells how ‘the body of my brother’s son/Stood by me […] the body and I pulled at one rope, but he said nought to me’ (345-350). John Beer takes this as evidence that the Mariner is distanced from the cosmos by his unique position as property of Life-in-Death: ‘universally lonely he can neither communicate with the living or the dead.’[44] This reading, though, ignores the true tragedy of this account; the nephew does not immediately recall some grand abstraction like death, rather he evokes family, home and community. The Mariner’s grief comes not from his existential position, but because he cannot speak to one who he knew and loved. Coleridge said of the Mariner that ‘he was in my mind the ever wandering Jew – had told his story ten thousand times since the voyage’.[45] Coleridge here identifies two of the defining aspects of the ‘sea change(ed)’ subject in relation to the Mariner: separation, a wandering divorced from the ties of home and landscape, and a compulsion to narrate the experience that isolated him. Like Ishmael, the Mariner is distanced from society, and like Melville’s protagonist he proves a loquacious, irrepressible narrator of his story. This congruency reveals the organic, almost unconscious associations that define the literature of ‘sea change’. A severing of the bonds of community, home and landscape, a loss of Heidegger’s ‘locations’, the lodestones with which we situate ourselves in the world, appears ineluctably to inspire storytelling. The self is displaced and instead situates itself in narration. Selfhood is replaced by storyhood.

A repeated motif tells how the Wedding Guest tries to halt the flow of the story, ‘yet he can not chuse but hear; and thus spake on that ancient man’ (18-19).  Narration is possessed, and possessing, both Mariner and Wedding Guest are cast as mere witnesses to this act of unquenchable ventriloquism. This recalls the pathos of Pip’s search for a lost self when he asks ‘Have you seen one Pip? No? […] He’s missing.’[46] Pip, like the Mariner and the Wedding Guest, has lost selfhood and agency. He is now only an audience to the ‘sea change’ that endlessly narrates through him. David Ward sees the ‘The Rime’ as conditioned by a ‘dream logic’ that ‘does not divide – it assimilates, merges, confuses, consubstantiates’[47]; similarly, Edward Bostetter reads the poem as a voyage into a dream, or rather nightmare world.[48] Although useful in their reclaiming of the poem from Robert Warren Penn’s allegory of redemption paradigm, these interpretations misplace their emphasis.[49] For the poem appears less of a departure into the dream world, than an irruption of the dream world into the ordered, daylight world. The Mariner’s ‘strange power of speech’ (591) shakes and unsettles the ontology of the Wedding guest, who after being audience to the Mariner’s account of ‘sea change’ is left ‘a sadder and a wiser man’ (627). The Mariner’s account appears irrational, dreamlike, because he himself is irrational and dreamlike. His narration is borne of a ‘sea change’, and a defining characteristic of the sea is its ability to elide classification, to resist rationality. As Melville recounted in his notebooks: it is ‘in vain’ that ‘man has taken to sounding [the sea’s] depths or measuring its density’, for no human compass can be brought to bear on its ‘vastness’[50]. It is this oceanic ‘vastness’ that has seized the Mariner, and prompted his compulsive confessions.

Crucial to these confessions is the role played by the imagination. As in the account of Pip’s submersion, the poem foregrounds the immediacy of sight and the primacy of image. Pip witnessed first things, the fundamentals of the hidden universe: ‘great coral insects’, ‘God’s foot on the loom’[51]. By contrast, the Mariner’s sight is seared with a vision hellish and apocalyptic. ‘I looked upon the rotting sea/ And drew my eyes away […] but where the ship’s huge shadow lay/ The charmed water burnt away/ A still and awful red’ (244-246). ‘I looked’ foregrounds sight and the ‘eye’; what the Mariner witnesses is so uncanny he seeks to turn away, but he cannot wrench away his gaze. He is possessed, transfixed (and thus, transformed) by what he sees. A.M Buchan argues of the poem that it dramatizes ‘a smothering of the Mariner by the sheer excess of the sense impressions to which he is susceptible.’[52] ‘Smothering’ is a useful phrase to bring to bear on the text for, as in the language Melville used to describe Pip’s experiences, the imagery of ‘The Rime’ enacts the wider ‘sea change’ it describes. The description is dense, vibrant and overwhelming. We are smothered, submerged and changed, by language and by the imagination. The imagination plays a role because, as Buchan neglects to examine, what it presented is a second hand account. It is not the anonymous narrator who conjures these impressions but the Mariner. As Paul Magnuson astutely recognises ‘whatever we see of the Mariner’s world, we see through the Mariner’s eyes’[53]. This is impression mediated by imagination. Which is an innovation in the presentation of ‘sea change’ that Melville neglected when he came to write his novel 34 years later.  In Moby Dick Pip is mostly denied direct speech, his ‘sea change’ is reported. In ‘The Rime’, by contrast, the Mariner mediates the tale. The poem is a direct recounting of his ‘sea change’ in his own voluble voice.

‘Sea change’ may possess the Mariner, forcing him to tell and re-tell his experience, but it does not stifle his perception, nor strip him of imagination. Rather ‘The Rime’ has an immediacy because it is mediated through the imagination.  The imagination was a totemic presence in Coleridge’s thought. He wrote in his Biographia Literaria that it is the ‘repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of the creation in the infinite I AM’[54]. This is imagination as creation, creation as divinity, and thus imagination as divinity. He further argued for the poet as akin to God the creator when he stated that the genius of ‘fine art’ makes ‘the external internal, the internal external, to make nature thought, and thought nature.’[55] If this is the process of the creative act, then it is also the process of ‘sea change’. The individual human ‘I am’ is sublimated into the ‘universal I AM’ of the sea; the ‘internal’ is made ‘external’ and vice versa; and ‘thought’ transmutes into ‘nature’ just as ‘nature’ transmutes into ‘thought’. All Coleridge is missing in his unintentional description of ‘sea change’ is an acknowledgment of the compulsion of narration that it sparks. That oversight is, of course, corrected in ‘The Rime’ and its presentation of the Mariner’s ‘strange power of speech’. ‘The Rime’ is then an exploration of the imagination as the sea, and the sea as imagination. Not in a clumsy symbolic sense (be it Christian or Pantheist), but rather in the sense that as much as ‘The Rime’ is about the sea, it is also about the imagination. And as much as it is about the events the Mariner experienced, it is also about his re-telling, his imaginative reconstruction, of those events. Seen in this light the poem appears not a narrative of ‘sea change’, but rather a ‘sea chang(ed)’ narrative. The voice of ‘sea change’ may speak through the Mariner and his compulsive narration, but it speaks in a human voice mediated, as in the ‘genius of fine art’, by the imagination.

To read ‘The Rime’ as poem of ‘sea change’ means the poem’s symbols can be reduced to the most powerful, and the most basic: the sea and humanity, nature and man, isolation and engulfment. The Mariner is just a man who encounters something greater than himself, and is shattered by the experience, and is able to form a coherent self only by telling and re-telling that encounter. That is the pathos and the drama of the piece, therein lies its message and its allegory. Melville’s approach differs to Coleridge’s. Melville’s description of the ‘sea change’ of Pip is vast and monumental. The forces of ‘sea change’ are invoked, but they remain only concepts. He lacks a human scale. Coleridge, by contrast, gives humanity to the voice of the Mariner. The Mariner is anguished, worried about appearances, unnerved by his ‘strange power of speech’ almost as much as the Wedding Guest. Through the Mariner’s narration, his poetry and imagination, the trauma of ‘sea change’ is given full voice. Through the poem’s cacophony of voices, its repetitions and re-echoes, its interruptions and irruptions, we are presented with a being – the Mariner, a subject – the sea, and a text that is constantly and continually in flux. Thus the Mariner, the poem and its audience(s) are ‘sea chang(ed)’ alike.



The underwater sculptures of the artist Jason DeCaires Taylor present a vision of a drowned, ‘sea chang(ed)’, humanity (See Appendix 1). Coral, sand, and sea life warp and blur the human outline of these concrete figures; the ocean slowly erodes and erases their marks of craftsmanship. As Jonathan Jones argues ‘maybe [Taylor] dreams of a time where humans have been left behind, a nature that has survived us. We might be the forgotten ones.’[56] If this is the case then it is a dream that Taylor shares with Coleridge and Melville, a sight of a post-human, and indeed a pre-human, world. For in the works of both writers, ‘sea change’ is figured as an encounter with a presence that resists, that pre-dates, mankind. We are no longer ‘the measure of all things’. And yet, how this inhuman presence inspires human creativity: Taylor’s sculptures, Melville’s compendious novel, Coleridge’s uncanny poem. It is as though faced with the blank of the deep, the landscape-less void of the ocean, humanity intuitively responds by narrating that experience, by singing that encounter. To speak out is to risk scorn or even hatred: Pip is ‘called mad’ by his shipmates, the Ancient Mariner is driven out to wander. However, given the precarious state of the world’s oceans and the growing possibility that such an encounter may be denied future generations, perhaps it is madness to remain silent. ‘Sea change’ thus becomes not merely an approach to literature, but a moral imperative.





Primary Texts:


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ed. Paul H. Fry (London: Bedford/ St Martin’s, 1999)

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick (London: Penguin Classics, 2003)


Secondary Texts:


  1. Clarke, Thomas, The Hundred Thousand Places (Edinburgh: Carcanet Press, 2009)

Auden, W.H, The Enchafed Flood, or the Romantic Iconography of the Sea (London: Faber, 1951)

Beer, John, Coleridge the Visionary(London: Chatto, 1959)

Buell, Lawrence, ‘Moby Dick as Sacred Text’ in New Essays on Moby Dick ed. Richard H. Brodhead (Cambridge: CUP, 1986)

Bostetter, Edward, ‘The Nightmare world of the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Romanticism 1-3 (1962): 61-72

Buchan, A.M, ‘The Sad Wisdom of the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Philology 61 (1964), 31-45

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Biographica Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2vols.  (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983)

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, 3 vols. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957)

Curtain, Jeremiah, The Creation Myths of Primitive America (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009)

Deloughery, Elizabeth, Roots and Routes: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures                                                                       (Hawaii: UH press, 2007)

Earle, Sylvia A., The Oceans (London: McGraw Hill, 2001)

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature and the Conduct of Life, and Other Essays (London: Everyman’s Library, 1963)

Franchot, Jenny, ‘Melville’s travelling God’, in Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville ed. Robert S. Levine, (Cambridge: CUP, 1998)

Foucault, Michel, Foucault Reader ed. John D. Faubion (Cambridge: CUP, 2014)

Hamilton-Patterson, James, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds (London: Faber and Faber, 2007)

Hesiod, Theogony: Works and Days (Oxford: OUP, 1999)

The King James Bible, Standard ed. (Collins Bible Translations, 2011)

Thomas, R.S, ‘A Marriage’, Collected Poems (London: Phoenix, 2001)

Thomson, David, The People of the Sea: Celtic tales of the Seal folk (London: Canongate Books, 1996)

Heidegger, Martin, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ in Poetry, Language, Thought (London: Harper and      Row, 2001)

Lee, Robert, ‘Moby Dick as anatomy’, in Herman Melville: Reassessments ed. Robert Lee (London: Vision Press 1998)

MacFarlane, Robert, The Wild Places (London: Granta, 2008)

Magunson, Paul, Coleridge and Wordsworth: A lyrical dialogue (Guildford: Princeton University Press, 1988)

Maxwell, M.D, Herman Melville, Profiles in Literature (London: Routledge, 1968)

Herman Melville, Journal of a visit to Europe and the Levant: October 11, 1856-May 6, 1857 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1955)

Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, ed. David Lindley (Cambridge: CUP, 2013)

Olson, Charles, Call me Ishmael: A study of Melville (Cape, 1967)

Walcott, Derek, Omeros (London: Faber, 1990)

Ward, David, Coleridge and the Nature of the Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Warren, Robert Penn, ‘A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading’ New and Selected Essays (New York: Random, 1989)

Williams, Anne, ‘An I for an Eye: “Spectral Persecution” in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, in Art of Darkness: a poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)


Internet Resources:

OED online, available at: (Accessed: 05/05/16)

Smillie, Susan, ‘Drowned World: welcome to Europe’s first undersea sculpture museum’ Guardian Online, available at:, (Accessed: 09/04/2016)


Works of Art:

Jason deCaires Taylor, Silent Evolution, (2013), Lanzarote.

Appendix 1: Jason deCaires Taylor, Silent Evolution, (2013), Lanzarote.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. David Lindley, (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), I.ii.399-400

[2] OED online, available at: (Accessed: 05/05/16)

[3] Thomas A. Clarke, The Hundred Thousand Places¸ (Edinburgh: Carcanet Press, 2009), p. 79

[4] ‘Genesis’ in The King James Bible, Standard ed. (Collins Bible Translations, 2011) p. 11

[5] Jeremiah Curtain, The Creation Myths of Primitive America, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009), p. 47

[6] Hesiod, Theogony: Works and Days, (Oxford: OUP, 1999) p. 52

[7] Sylvia A. Earle, The Oceans (London: McGraw Hill, 2001) p. 74

[8] OED online, available at: (Accessed: 05/05/16)

[9] David Thomson, The People of the Sea: Celtic tales of the Seal folk, (London: Canongate Books, 1996), p. 1

[10] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. David Lindley, (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), I.ii.395-401

[11] Elizabeth Deloughery, Roots and Routes: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures, (Hawaii: UH press, 2007), p. 21

[12] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ed. Paul H. Fry (Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s Press, 1999) l. 227, p. 47

[13] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, (London: Penguin Classics, 2003) p. 454

[14] James Hamilton-Patterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 83

[15] Herman Melville, Journal of a visit to Europe and the Levant : October 11, 1856-May 6, 1857 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1955) p. 158

[16] Deloughery, Roots and Routes, p. 57

[17] R.S Thomas, ‘A Marriage’, Collected Poems (London: Phoenix, 2001) p. 338

[18] Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places, (London: Granta, 2008) p. 150

[19] James Hamilton Patterson, Seven-Tenths, p. 127

[20] Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ in Poetry, Language, Thought (London: Harper and Row, 2001) p. 64

[21] Deloughery, Routes, p. 73

[22] Heidegger, ‘Building’, p. 68

[23] Melville, Moby Dick, p. 501

[24] It is telling that Derek Walcott ends his 325 page poetic re-telling of The Odyssey, Omeros, with the lines ‘and as he walked away from the beach the sea was still going on.’ A sea change is a recognition, sharp and startling, of the continuous presence and movement, ‘the going on’-ness, of the sea. [Derek Walcott, Omeros, (London: Faber, 1990), p. 325]

[25] Heidegger, ‘Building’, p. 70

[26] W.H Auden, The Enchafed Flood, or the Romantic Iconography of the Sea (London: Faber, 1951), p. 12

[27] Foucault Reader ed. John D. Faubion, (Cambridge: CUP, 2014), p. 38

[28] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), p. 111 All subsequent quotes come from this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[29] Deloughery, Routes¸ p. 13

[30] M.D Maxwell, Herman Melville, Profiles in Literature (London: Routledge, 1968) p. 36

[31] Charles Olson, Call me Ishmael: A study of Melville (Boston: Cape, 1967) p. 4

[32] Jenny Franchot, ‘Melville’s travelling God’, in Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville ed. Robert S. Levine, (Cambridge: CUP, 1998) p. 83

[33] Olson, Call me Ishmael, p. 15

[34] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and the Conduct of Life, and Other Essays, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1963) p. 4

[35] Robert Lee, ‘Moby Dick as anatomy’, in Herman Melville: Reassessments ed. Robert Lee (London: Vision Press 1998) p. 93

[36] Coleridge, ‘The Rime’, p. 31, l.37

[37] Auden, The Enchafed Flood, p. 8

[38] Lawrence Buell, ‘Moby Dick as Sacred Text’ in New Essays on Moby Dick ed. Richard H. Brodhead (Cambridge: CUP, 1986)  p. 41

[39] Jenny Franchot, ‘Travelling God’, p. 84

[40] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2vols (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983), p. 162

[41] Auden, Enchafed Flood, p. 140

[42] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ed. Paul H. Fry (Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s Press, 1999) p. 47, l.236, All subsequent quotations come from this edition unless otherwise stated, and are given parenthetically in the text.

[43] Anne Williams, ‘An I for an Eye: “Spectral Persecution” in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, in Art of Darkness: a poetics of Gothic, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) p. 62

[44] John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary, (London: Chatto, 1959) p. 62

[45] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, 3 vols. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957) p. 79

[46] Melville, Moby Dick, p. 436

[47] David Ward, Coleridge and the Nature of the Imagination, (Bristol: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) p. 27

[48] Edward Bostetter, ‘The Nightmare world of the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Romanticism 1-3 (1962) p. 241

[49] Penn Warren laid out his argument for ‘The Rime’ as a symbolist allegory for Christian redemption in his seminal essay ‘A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading’, in New and Selected Essays (New York: Random, 1989) pp. 335-423

[50] Herman Melville, Journal of a visit to Europe and the Levant : October 11, 1856-May 6, 1857, p. 158

[51] Melville, Moby Dick, p. 343

[52] A.M Buchan, ‘The Sad Wisdom of the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Philology 61 (1964): p. 668

[53] Paul Magunson, Coleridge and Wordsworth: A lyrical dialogue, (Guildford: Princeton University Press, 1988) p. 54

[54] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2vols (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983) p. 274

[55] Coleridge, Biographica Literaria p.257

[56] Jonathan Jones quoted in Susan Smillie, ‘Drowned World: welcome to Europe’s first undersea sculpture museum’ Guardian Online, available at:, (Accessed: 09/04/2016)


2 thoughts on “Man, Witness and the Sea, or ‘sea change’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

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