Summer Selections: The Empowered LIFE-IN-DEATH

by Alice West

Sarah Goodwin explains the complexities of the LIFE-IN-DEATH character; she first points out that different theorists have understood her purpose in multiple different ways;

She [LIFE-IN-DEATH] has been read as the deformed mother, the object of desire distorted by the poet’s guilt and rage. Any biblical or apocalyptical reading of the poem must take her into account as the Whore of Babylon, seductive but fatal, the dark counterpart to a vision of the New Jerusalem.[i]

Coleridge’s LIFE-IN-DEATH is a rebellion away from the types of femininity the poem has shown previously. The character takes an active role in the narrative, she doesn’t represent ideals of motherhood, nor does she act passively to the world around her. Informed by the character’s immoral actions and motives Goodwin suggests that she is the deformed mother figure. She sinfully lives a life accordingly to her own desires, she even rejoices unapologetically when she wins the game of chance she plays with death. As opposed to the mother figure who is expected to be endlessly kind and selfless, LIFE-IN-DEATH is a dangerous figure. Goodwin refers to Coleridge’s description of her as ‘cryptic’ and ‘dense,’ it is full of ambiguous yet loaded imagery.[ii]

Her lips were red, her looks were free, 

Her locks were yellow as gold: 

Her skin was as white as leprosy, 

The Night-mair LIFE-IN-DEATH was she, 

Who thicks man's blood with cold. 


The naked hulk alongside came, 

And the twain were casting dice; 

'The game is done! I've won! I've won!' 

Quoth she, and whistles thrice.[iii]

The description is formed in a very traditional way but where the skin of a traditionally beautiful woman might normally be considered white in a pure way, LIFE-IN-DEATH is described with illness – her skin is as ‘white as leprosy’. Her skin should be a pure and untouched beauty but it is instead something plagued by sickness. Her red lips and free looks sexualise her and though she is written to be a grotesque figure of femininity she still carries an almost sexual energy that paired with fear, turn the Mariner’s blood cold. The description is full of multiplicity, the golden yellow hair described as ‘locks’ is an example of this. Considering the spectre ship that LIFE-IN-DEATH sails, and its imprisoning relationship to the sun, we can extend this to the character herself. Goodwin explains the double meaning read within the term ‘locks’ referring both to the hair and the imprisonment she represents. Godwin notes that ‘it is a meaning the poem reinforces when it asks about the spectre ship, “Are those her ribs through which the sun / Did peer, as through a grate?” . . . LIFE-IN-DEATH’s golden hair may be the agent of several different kinds of constraints, including psychological and sexual ones.’[iv] By constraining the male presences in the ballad, LIFE-IN-DEATH becomes a powerful figure in the rime of fear and dominance.

LIFE-IN-DEATH juxtaposes the vision of the passive and beautiful bride that interrupts the Mariner’s tale at various occasions. Considering the bride as a benchmark for femininity, her compliment is to the motherly ship valued for her anatomy. LIFE-IN-DEATH however, has been established as the disfigured and grotesque mother, a threat to men and an imposing figure of power. Goodwin makes this comparison; the bride and LIFE-IN-DEATH seem to parallel each other and contrast one another’s qualities.[v] In contrast to her sickeningly white skin, the bride is ‘red as a rose,’ a vision of fertility and a flower to be enjoyed visually and symbolically.[vi] The red colour of her skin not only suggests she is blushing with female disposition but also leans towards imagery of menstruation and therefore fertility. Susan Eilenberg comments that the Bride’s interruption of the tale, mimics the LIFE-IN-DEATH’S interruption of the Mariner’s actual journey. She goes on to say that even her ‘appearance parodies the brides.’[vii] Where the Bride is a vision of blushing beauty, LIFE-IN-DEATH is her complete opposite; a skeletal representation of sickness and discomfort. Furthermore, where the Bride is passive, LIFE-IN-DEATH controls her own path in the narrative.

Though she may be grotesque, LIFE-IN-DEATH remains in control and therefore embraces femininity in an alternative direction. Mellor explains that this powerful position contradicts the expectation of a submissive womanhood. She becomes an image of destruction; by overstepping her place and becoming more powerful than her male companions she forfeits her position as a good or positive influence:

Neither Shelley nor the other Romantic poets ever imagined a utopia where women existed as independent, autonomous, different, - but equally powerful and respected – authors and legislators of the world…  When a female character or principle asserts her independence or difference in canonical Romantic poetry, she is all too frequently defined as an evil to be eradicated or overcome.[viii]

LIFE-IN-DEATH asserts her dominance as a powerful figure and, as a result, she becomes an evil presence associated with mysticism and witchcraft.  The female Moon accompanies her in a turn to the power feminine presence may find in mysticism, by embracing this evil they are both become empowered figures in an otherwise androcentric ballad. Mellor corroborates a contemporary understanding of the feminine presence in Coleridge’s Rime of The Ancient Mariner:

The gender politics in many canonical English Romantic poems is more complex than their overt plots and characterizations of female figures might at first suggest. The female, both as metaphor and as pronomial gender, has a way of reasserting her strength and priority in the unlikeliest of places.[ix]

An initial understanding of gender in the ballad favours male dominance over women in nature. However, a contemporary reading can recognise the reclaimed power in a femininity associated with evil. Considering ideas of Original Sin, LIFE-in-DEATH represents the absence of God and faith, furthermore, the absence of male presence or dominance. Though she is accompanied by her ‘mate’ she has the authority in the relationship and in a moment of empowerment, the boat that she commandeers eclipses the masculine Sun. The Mariner’s first exclamation upon seeing the spectre ship is entirely concerned with the feminine leadership he is witness to;

‘And is that Woman all her crew? 

Is that a DEATH? and are there two? 

Is DEATH that woman's mate?’[x]

The shock, for the Mariner, is not the skeletal ship or the uncanny vision ahead of him; he is shocked by the Woman at the head of its crew. Kathleen Tyer comments on the threat to the Mariner’s masculine presence that is seen here, she explains that ‘Coleridge portrays the male in this scene as a castrated figure and the female as a powerful prostitute in order to show that the Mariner inhabits a liminal space in the sea.’[xi] LIFE-IN-DEATH takes command of the sea, the scene and the space that they both find themselves occupying. As such, the Mariner is forced to accept the limits of his masculine power and presence in nature. Coleridge’s LIFE-IN-DEATH is a vile representation of everything wrong with the overtly sexual and free woman, yet she has a presence within the ballad that truly demands attention and respect. The character stands to embrace her full femininity and invites her sisters, the feminine moon and the anatomical ship to share this power with her. LIFE-IN-DEATH is anatomical, sexual, mystical, powerful and the antithesis of religion – in this way she unites the other feminine figures considered in the ballad to recognise their importance in the narrative.


[i] Sarah Webster Goodwin, "Domesticity and Uncanny Kitsch in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Frankenstein", Tulsa Studies In Women's Literature, 10.1 (1991), p. 95

[ii] Goodwin, p. 95

[iii] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, 1st edn (Grasmere, Cumbria: Wordsworth Trust, 2006), pp. 55-87, p. 66

[iv] Goodwin, p. 96

[v] Goodwin, p. 95

[vi] Coleridge, p. 58

[vii] Susan Eilenberg, "Voice And Ventriloquy In 'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’", in Coleridge, Keats And Shelley, 1st edn (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 45-73, p. 60-61

[viii] Anne K Mellor, Romanticism & Gender, 1st edn (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 28

[ix] Mellor, p. 29

[x] Coleridge, p. 65

[xi] Kathleen Tyer, "The Fiends That Plague Thee Thus: An Examination of Gender and the Role it Plays in Coleridge’S “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" (Unpublished Masters, Eastern Michigan University, 2010), p. 37

Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.