Upon a lonely desert beach,
Above a jutting cliff was seen
And often, while the moaning wind
And pale their faces were as snow,
And then above the haunted hut
A shipwreck'd mariner was he,
The spectre band, his messmates brave,
And since that hour the fisherman
Full thirty years his task has been,
Mary Robinson’s poem “the Haunted Beach” captures two of the themes found in the works of Romantic era poets: the psychological effect of landscapes and the haunting aspects that accompany guilt and isolation. Robinson’s use of language captures a moonlit night on a lonely beach, and a moment that will lead to lingering terror due to the sight of ghosts and a murder victim by a mysterious and ineffectual witness. The theme of this work is captured by suggesting that things that haunt psychologically continue cyclically and perpetually the way the waves of an ocean ebb and flow.
The features of a landscape are usually neutral until described, and the most important aspect of this poem is in the use of adjectives to set the mood. Each item of the landscape is personified or tied to an emotion, providing a disturbing place rather than a place for the restoration of the soul. The beach is “haunted” and “lonely” (1). A path is “sombre” (6) and there are both a cavern and an ocean described as “yawning.” The cavern also has “shadowy jaws” (15) that suggest the jaws of death swallowing up any light that might appear to alleviate the darkness, or provide the viewer with any restorative awe to elevate the senses.
The use of repetition at the end of each stanza describing the activity of the “green billows” mimics the perpetual cycle of waves advancing and then receding from the shore. The effect is almost hypnotic, providing both image and sound which enhances the mood of the poem. The last lines of the first seven stanzas are in the past tense: “the billows made,” “the billows stray’d,” and “the billows play’d.” The next to last stanza shifts to the present tense describing how “the green billows play” (72) which suggests that the haunting will linger in perpetuity.
In the midst of the repetition are moments of intrusion into the normal process of nature by unusual events. The noisiness of the first stanza is alleviated momentarily in the third stanza by a depiction of the fairly still waters of a “summer ocean” (20) when the fisherman experiences a ghostly vision accompanied by the appearance of a corpse. The isolation and seclusion of this stretch of beach is enhanced by the presence of “a band of spectres gliding hand in hand” (25-26). A wandering group of pale faced ghosts in Leicester Square would probably go unnoticed. Then the stillness is disturbed by a crescendo of both images and sounds. “Pale” (28) faces and “hollow eyes” (30) are followed by “dismal howlings” (32) and blasts that “blew strong and loud” (33) which then lead to “curlews screaming” (38) when it is revealed that a murder victim’s body is laid in that “lone shed” (50). The usually pleasant aspects of a beach in the summer are disrupted by the appearance of the unnatural. The depiction reflects nature itself having an angry reaction to the event with bursts of violent sound. Yet, at the same time, the ocean waves are described in the nonthreatening repeated phrase “the green billows play’d” (54). Nature’s activities must go on despite any human disruption into the scene.
The body of the murdered mariner is left alone in a shed to rot away unnoticed. Though it is not specifically stated, it becomes clear that this is Coleridge’s mariner who was doomed to tell the tale of how his killing of an albatross caused the deaths of his crewmates. Coleridge’s mariner lived his life in psychological isolation, while Robinson’s mariner continues that isolation in death chained to the shed by “the sea-weeds” (5). The reminder at the end of every stanza that the billows are green suggests that the seaweed is surrounding the scene, and keeping the body forever in its place of isolation.
The final stanzas reveal that the fisherman is now doomed to remember the scene he witnessed. His mind is chained to the memory of the vision of the spectres and the sight of the murder victim. The fisherman is “bound by a strong and mystic chain” (77) because of his “guilty mind” (75). Why he feels guilty isn’t made clear. He isn’t clearly stated to be the murderer, though this may be the case. His guilt may be due to other less significant reasons. The suggestion is that he never revealed his knowledge of the crime, or perhaps feels guilty for leaving the body unburied. The cause of the mariner’s death is also spoken in vague terms. “The murderer’s liquid way” (69) suggests that the ocean is the killer who drowned the guilty mariner. Whatever the reason for the fisherman’s guilt, he has been tormented for thirty years “in solitude and pain” (80) wasting his “loathsome life away” (81). This last stanza is the only one that doesn’t end in a reference to the green billows, which suggests that a “loathsome life” continues monotonously like those ebbing and flowing tides. In this landscape, there is no linear structure of a crime being followed by punishment and subsequent psychological closure. The mariner’s guilt and the fisherman’s psychological torment go on eternally. Both the natural and the supernatural provide reminders and markers of their guilt and torment.
The landscape depicted in the poem has images normally associated with peaceful beauty, but this is not a warm sunny beach or the awe-inspiring White Cliffs of Dover. The winds and waves are not producing soothing sounds that elevate the senses and restore the soul, but instead, are “moaning” (19) and producing a “deafening roar” (7). Robinson’s beach is haunted by both the supernatural and the all too natural psychological torment that afflicts the isolated and guilty mind. The terror laden images are also not provided to produce an experience of the sublime, for they serve purely to create the ambiance of a place of death without any sense of cathartic exhilaration that usually follows terror.