Study Guide

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Perhaps what is most strange about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not its uniqueness, which makes it seem strange, but its transparency. It is about what it says it is about. An epigraph, marginal glosses, and a moral at the end state the poem’s ideas so clearly that one may try to second-guess them. A reader may also argue that the poem succeeds in its stated aim—to teach lessons of the spirits, of guilt, of expiation, and of love for all of God’s creations—and that the poem’s oddity is instrumental in this success. Without the novelty of the tale, the ancient and simple lessons would be easier to ignore.

The epigraph by Thomas Burnet states that “[f]acile credo” (I believe with ease, or I may easily believe) there are many invisible beings in the universe. Burnet next points out that, while it is also easy to get bogged down in questions regarding such creatures, and therefore, implicitly, create an attitude of cynical skepticism, it is spiritually enriching to contemplate the invisible realm and thereby to imagine a greater and better world. Such thought gives one better perspective on the trivial concerns of daily life. Such contemplation, Burnet concludes, is not intended to lead away from truth. This epigraph may be interpreted, in the context of the poem, to state the following ideas: First, there is a spiritual realm, and its mysteries are to be respected although not fully understood. The Mariner makes the mistake of showing contempt for the spiritual world by killing what seems to be one of its representatives. Second, spiritual mysteries are wonderful, miraculous, and terrible. They can be described, but they are best understood emotionally rather than through analysis. When the Mariner “blessed them unaware” (part 4, line 285), his spiritual rebirth begins. Third, the marvels of the invisible can lead one to greater understanding. This is clear in the Mariner’s case. Fourth, the marvels of the spiritual world are not intended to lead one away from truth. Perhaps to Burnet, truth meant doctrinal orthodoxy. To the Mariner, truth may mean, as Burnet says, avoiding extremes and telling day from night. In the Mariner’s case, this means putting his hard-won knowledge to use in the world. He tells others what he learned. Perhaps to Coleridge, truth was the practice of his art, the creation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was published in the famous volume Lyrical Ballads (1798), a collaboration between Coleridge and William Wordsworth. The volume contains two kinds of poetry. In one type, as Coleridge would later write in chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria (1817): The incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural, and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. . . . In this idea originated the plan of the Lyrical Ballads, in which it was agreed that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief which constitutes poetic faith. . . . With this view I wrote The Ancient Mariner.

Whether the faith be Christian, poetic, or pagan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is about, among other things, faith. For example, in part 1 of the poem, the albatross appears to guide, or seems to guide, the ship out of the ice, “As if it had been a Christian soul,/ We hailed it in God’s name.” A bird, after all, is not foreign to Christian symbolism. Coleridge hedges somewhat (“as if” and “supposing them real”), but this hedging is the test of faith. Readers may decide to take the poem literally, to accept it as a work of imagination that tells important spiritual truths, or to consider the poem simply a strange story of no consequence.

The quotation from Burnet (translated in most modern editions) should alert readers to the fact that Coleridge, who once planned to be a clergyman, is concerned in this poem with demonstrating the inadequacy of materialism and rationalism as interpretations of reality. Materialism is the belief that only matter and motion exist (as opposed to spiritual reality of any kind). Rationalism is the belief that reason is capable of comprehending the totality of nature. Although Coleridge was inconsistent as a philosopher, he regularly opposed both of these suppositions.

In a letter of December 31, 1796, for example, he opposed materialism and regarded himself as “a mere apparition—a naked Spirit!—And that Life is I myself I!” In January, 1798, he described himself as a committed defender of religion, regarding scientific discoveries of any kind as being important primarily for their theological revelations. In later years also, Coleridge would emerge as a significant religious teacher who always believed in a spiritual reality beyond the material one. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, defying both reason and materialism, is something of a sermon on the sanctity of life, which in all its forms is a manifestation of the divine. It may be said that the poem argues, with perhaps deceptive simplicity and candor, that the laws that govern living things are not physical but moral and come from God.

Close reading of the poem can reveal how its spiritual themes, often discussed in reference to text not belonging to the poem, are developed. The poem’s frame (the Mariner telling his story to the Wedding Guest), for example, may be examined in terms of Christian symbolism, the psychology of the reader (whose responses to the Mariner may be much like the guest’s), and the creation of the willing suspension of disbelief. The Mariner’s story follows a clear pattern of guilt, penance, expiation, and confession, and this pattern may be examined in terms of the flow of the narration and the uses of the irregular stanzas and of the glosses. Finally, what may be the poem’s most memorable element—its descriptions of natural and supernatural phenomena—may be examined in terms of sheer poetic technique. In any case, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s uniqueness is indisputable, and its spiritual themes may be considered to be no less authentic for being stated clearly.