on 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is probably Coleridge’s best-known poem. It was first published in Lyrical Ballads (1798), the volume of poems by Coleridge and Wordsworth which is regarded as ushering in the Romantic Movement in English poetry.
Since then it has been anthologised, quoted, memorised, recited, illustrated, parodied, animated in film and even adapted as a song by the pop rock group Iron Maiden.
It has also been much analysed by both literary critics and theologians who offer various interpretive readings to account for its literary as well as its biographical significance.
For these, and all readers, Coleridge includes a warning at the beginning of the poem. It’s in the Latin epigraph taken from Burnet's Archaeologiae Philosophicae (1692), which Coleridge translates:
I readily believe that there are more invisible than visible Natures in the universe. But who will explain for us the family of all these beings, and the ranks and relations and distinguishing features and functions of each? What do they do? What places do they inhabit? The human mind has always sought the knowledge of these things, but never attained it. Meanwhile I do not deny that it is helpful sometimes to contemplate in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a greater and better world, lest the intellect, habituated to the petty things of daily life, narrow itself and sink wholly into trivial thoughts. But at the same time we must be watchful for the truth and keep a sense of proportion, so that we may distinguish the certain from the uncertain, day from night.
In short, as finite mortals we should accept that there’s a lot we can’t know about the universe, and although something in us prompts us to keep seeking, we should keep our limits in mind.
Coleridge himself was a lifelong seeker after ultimate truths. He was born in Ottery St Mary, Devon, in 1772, the youngest of fourteen children of an Anglican Minister who died when Samuel was 9. He later rejected his father’s traditional Trinitarian views and was for a short time a Unitarian preacher. The circle of friends he established through his life included men of quite disparate religious convictions and in his own search he engaged in profound discussions with all. He concluded that he could not accept Wordsworth’s pantheism[i] and he agreed to disagree with Thelwall’s atheism.[ii]
In later life Coleridge returned to a belief in Trinitarianism, a move described by Hazlitt as a “decline into orthodoxy”[iii]. The period of this so-called decline was also the time in which Coleridge attempted to conquer his opium addiction. In 1817, with treatment in mind, he consulted Dr Gillman of Highgate. He visited the doctor for dinner, and stayed for eighteen years, dying there in 1834.
Coleridge was renowned for his conversational powers, and these he considered adequate payment for Dr Gillman (who must have agreed). It was during this period that he wrote many of his major prose works, attracted admiring listeners. He became known as The Sage of Highgate.
The Ancient Mariner is a relatively early poem but as Leslie Stephens observed, most of Coleridge's seminal thinking is emergent in The Rime.[iv] And Coleridge did revise and add to it over a period of 26 years. Evaluations of the poem are as varied as interpretations - as are evaluations of Coleridge himself. Different readers reach different conclusions.
The poem itself might point to a reason for this. It’s a poem about people who are singled out. The Mariner who tells the tale is the sole survivor of the poem’s story, and the wedding guest who hears it is the chosen “one of three”. Neither has wanted the experience, but for both of them there is something redemptive about it.
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
Presumably, two of the three did not have ears to hear.
Most readers see in the poem an allegory of redemption and some see this in terms of Christian doctrine – a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress. There is much in the imagery and symbolism of the poem to support this view. The mariner kills the albatross with his cross-bow, and then carries the burden (guilt, sin, his ‘cross’) until in a moment of grace he is relieved of it. The wedding guest’s experience is second-hand, literary. But both are changed. Both are sadder and wiser. It may be that some readers are singled out for this experience at a further literary remove. Few would argue against the power of poetry (literature) to be life-changing.
One of Coleridge’s recurring motifs in both prose and poetry is that of ‘progress’. He described man as “the…alone progressive creature”[v] and he acknowledged that his own convictions changed as he matured. It is important to note that in The Ancient Mariner, the old man who detains the wedding guest is not the young man who shot the albatross. Coleridge himself was emphatic on this point. He made one strong objection to an early set of illustrations of the poem (by David Scott) which showed the Mariner as ‘ancient’ on board the ship. The point, he said, was that the deed had been done many years before by an impulsive youth who wasn’t thinking.
Coleridge knew very well that youth’s outlook is different from that of age. Another poem, Youth and Age (1797) makes a similar point.
When I was young?—Ah, woful When!
Ah! for the change ’twixt Now and Then!
Nought cared this body for wind or weather
When Youth and I lived in’t together.
The enormity of this ‘care-less’ act becomes apparent to him (and to the guest and to the reader) as the story continues. He must endure punishment. But who administers it? The Universe? God? Spirits? Nature? The poem might allow for different answers here, but there would be general agreement that it is a matter of justice or retribution. The mariner has ‘earned’ a punishment.[vi]
At this point, the sun rises:
Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
The association of the sun with God is more than a simile. The God of the Old Testament, of Mosaic Law, was a God of Justice, and traditionally symbolised by the Sun. Coleridge develops this idea with the use of prison imagery.
And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.
And the gloss refers to the “courts of the Sun” where there is “no twilight” (no grey areas).
Justice is all-seeing and exacting. It gives no quarter. It can sentence to Death. Or to Life-in-Death.
But at this point something else happens. The Moon appears.
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The horned Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.
For seven days and seven nights the mariner suffers pangs of guilt and remorse:
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!
Something begins to stir within him. He sees the beauty of the dead men. He realises the awful consequences of his impulsive act, and he recognises a need for rescue from outside himself.
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray
He cannot pray, but heaven responds to the attempt. Justice was served under the exacting light of the sun, but now the moon moves across the sky to displace the sun, and to change the mood and tone.
The moving Moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside--
The Moon in many symbolic traditions represents mercy. And Mary, who as mother of Jesus, is associated with the New Testament’s dispensation of mercy and grace, is also associated with the Moon.
Earlier, at the moment of his direst distress when about to face the courts of justice, the Mariner had called upon Mary:
Heaven’s Mother send us grace!
And now in the presence of the moon, the souls of the dead are freed, and the Mariner too experiences a release. He feels “a spring of love”. He blesses the snakes, and he can pray. The albatross falls from his neck.
The Mariner acknowledges the source of his help
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven
She also sent rain, merciful rain. Mercy and rain have a long and well-known association. Ecclesiasticus 35:19 says:
How fair a thing is mercy in the time of anguish and trouble? It is like a cloud of rain that cometh in the time of drought.
And in The Merchant of Venice, Portia acknowledges the rights of justice, but appeals instead for “mercy’ which “droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven”.
And for the Mariner, this rain is indeed a mercy which frees him from some of the consequences of Justice.
This pattern follows that of the Biblical dispensations: Old Testament Mosaic Law demanding judgement /justice and the new dispensation offering mercy and grace.
But the pattern can also be understood in terms of recognised psychological truths.
When the Mariner “looked to Heaven” he looked away from himself. And when he looked away from himself he was able to see the beauty in other life – the sailors, and later the water-snakes. [vii]
This question of the relation of the subjective self (I am) to the objective created world (It is) has always been a fundamental concern of philosophy and of religion. It ‘concerned’ Coleridge in many of his writings.[viii]
He saw in the Christian idea of redemption one process by which the individual self is saved from its confines by acknowledging its part in a larger creation.
But he also saw this in more general psychological terms. It was for him a truth about what it means to be human.
He explicitly defied the Enlightenment idea of Man as the measure of all things. A late poem contains an explicit defiance to Pope’s famous injunction:
Know then thyself; presume not God to scan.
The proper study of Mankind is Man. Essay on Man
What is there in thee man, that can be known?....
Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God! Self-Knowledge
True self-knowledge comes with knowing the creator and his creation, from looking out.
Coleridge’s philosophy would complete the circle of Blake’s aphorism “As a man is, so he sees” by recognising the corresponding truth, that as a man sees, so he is.
The Beautiful and the Good are miniatured on the Heart of the Contemplator as the surrounding Landscape on a Convex Mirror.[ix]
And in a lighter vein he celebrates the view from his residence at Greta Hall, Keswick.
I question if there be a room in England which commands a view of mountains, and lakes, and woods and vales superior to that in which I am now writing. If impressions and ideas constitute our being, I shall have a tendency to become a god, so sublime and beautiful will be the series of my visual existence.[x]
In more recent times the philosopher Iris Murdoch recognises a similar psychological process.
“Following a hint in Plato (Phaedrus 250) I shall start by speaking of what is perhaps the most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’, and that is what is popularly called beauty.... Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings..... Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.”
And she spells out the moral significance:
Action...tends to confirm, for better or worse, the background of attachment from which it issues.[xi] (my italics)
Here as for the mariner, aesthetic experience has a moral effect. For Coleridge this background was God’s creation, his ‘Second Book’, and through it God communicates with and influences man, providing occasions for possible transformation.[xii]
A frequent criticism of the poem is that the mariner’s concluding words to the wedding guest are a trite and inadequate moral to be drawn from his nightmarish experience:
Farewell, farewell ! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest !
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small ;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
but to the Mariner they express the essence of what he lost, and has only partly regained –the warmth and completeness of community where the single self finds meaning.
[i] “we found our data dissimilar” Collected Letters I 18th May, 1798
[ii] In a letter to John Thelwall Coleridge imagines meeting him in Heaven, when ‘I with transport in my eye shall say—“I told you so, my dear fellow” ’ (Collected Letters I: 285).
[iii] Quoted by J Robert Barth in “Coleridge and Christian Doctrine” Fordham University Press 1987 p1.
[iv] Cited in Russell M. Hillier "Coleridge's dilemma and the method of 'sacred sympathy': atonement as problem and solution in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Papers on Language & Literature 45.1 (2009) p 1
[v] The Friend Essay XI MLC p522
[vi] But what of his companions? The two consecutive stanzas in which they offer two ‘certain’ but opposing assessments of the killing show clearly that their behaviour is exactly what the epigraph warns against. The gloss explains that this makes them complicit in the crime.
[vii] In The Nightingale, also 1798, the melancholy “night-wandering man” is suffering because he, “poor wretch! filled all things with himself, / And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale / Of his own sorrow”
[viii] Coleridge was mocked For this by Thomas Carlyle (in his Life of John Sterling Ch 8):” I still recollect his "object" and "subject," terms of continual recurrence in the Kantean province; and how he sang and snuffled them into "om-m-mject" and "sum-m-mject," with a kind of solemn shake or quaver, as he rolled along. No talk, in his century or in any other, could be more surprising.”
[ix] Lecture 6 1795 on Politics and Religion p224
[x] Collected Letters 333 To William Godwin May 28, 1800.
[xi] Iris Murdoch The Sovereignty of Good 1970
[xii] Coleridge even believed that the Prison system could make use of this influence to reform criminals. Osorio. "The Dungeon"
Thou pourest on him thy soft influences,
Thy sunny hues, fair forms and breathing sweets,
Thy melodies of woods, and winds, and waters,
Till he relent, and can no more endure
To be a jarring and a dissonant thing.
from The Voice Magazine NSW Speech and Drama Association October 2013
editor: Zita Denholm Triple D Books Wagga NSW