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Samuel Taylor Coleridge The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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The following entry presents criticism of Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). See also, "Kubla Khan" Criticism and Lyrical Ballads Criticism.

A major work of the English Romantic movement, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is considered one of the most significant and famous poems in the English language. While the poem was poorly received during Coleridge's lifetime, it is now praised as a classic example of imaginative poetry, characterizing Coleridge's poetic theories, of which he said in the Biographia Literaria, "My endeavors should be directed to persons and characters spiritual and supernatural, or at least romantic."

Biographical Information

In 1796 Coleridge met the poet William Wordsworth, with whom he had corresponded casually for several years. Their rapport was instantaneous, and the next year Coleridge moved to Nether Stowey in the Lake District, where he, Wordsworth and Robert Southey became known as "the Lake Poets." Much of Coleridge's most admired work was composed between the years 1798 and 1800, his most prolific period as a poet. During that time, Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on Lyrical Ballads, with a few Other Poems (1798), in which The Rime of the Ancient Mariner appears. Lyrical Ballads marks the beginning of the Romantic movement in England, and is a landmark of world literature.

Plot and Major Characters

Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner appears in Lyrical Ballads in a purposefully "archaic" form, with words spelled in the manner of an earlier day. Coleridge changed some of the archaic diction of the original Ancient Marinere for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads and added glosses in the margins when it was included in Sibylline Leaves (1817). In its original form and in the modified version that followed, the poem describes an elderly mariner who, compelled to wander the Earth repeating his tale of woe, narrates his story to a wedding guest he meets in a village street. The story he tells relates how, in his youth, the mariner had set out on a sea voyage to the Southern Hemisphere with two hundred other men aboard a sailing ship. During the voyage, the ship is shadowed by an albatross, a huge seabird considered an omen of good fortune by seafarers. For no good reason, the mariner shoots the albatross dead with his crossbow, to the horror of his companions. In a short time, the ship is becalmed, and soon all the crew members die of thirst—all except the mariner. Before they died, the angry crew hung the dead albatross around the mariner's neck for his folly; and now, stricken with the horror of his deed's consequences, the mariner spends his time watching the phosphorescent trails of slimy creatures who writhe and coil in the night waters in the ship's shadow. In his heart, he blesses these humble creatures for their life and beauty, and at that moment, as he leans over the ship's side, the curse on his life begins to lift, as the albatross falls from his neck and sinks into the sea. The rest of the poem tells of the supernatural events that took place as spirits and angels propel the ship north into the snug harbor of the mariner's home town and his rescue by a holy hermit, who pronounces the terms of the mariner's penance upon him. The poem presents a variety of religious and supernatural images to depict a moving spiritual journey of doubt, sin, punishment, renewal, and eventual redemption.

Major Themes

The Ancient Mariner begins with almost the sense of classical Greek tragedy, with a man who has offended against pagan forces condemned to wander the world and repeat his tale to passersby when the daemon within him moves him. There is much in this poem concerning luck, fate, and fortune; this and the theme of death-in-life appear throughout the poems first half, with death-in-life, graphically symbolized by the revivified crew of corpses, appearing from the poem's mid-point almost too the end. There is a point of transition between pagan and Christian elements in the poem, falling at the moment the mariner blesses the sea-snakes in his heart. Death-in-life continues, and elemental spirits converse in the poet's conscious. Yet now, a redemptive presence is at work in the mariner's life, and even the elemental spirits and the living dead are subservient to it, as it becomes apparent that angelic beings have taken over the bodies of the dead crew and are bringing the ship into port. Christian themes and imagery become more pronounced as the poem nears its end, with the mariner declaiming about the quiet, longed-for joy of walking to church with his friends in the village, and then uttering one of the most-quoted stanzas in the entire poem: "He prayeth best who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all"—lines expressing sentiments endorsed by even so formidable an agnostic as Theodore Dreiser. Much of the poem's Biblical and medieval Catholic imagery has sparked radically different interpretations, and several commentators consider it an allegorical record of Coleridge's own spiritual pilgrimage. Coleridge himself, however, commented that the poem's major fault consisted of "the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader. . . . It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates."

Critical Reception

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was initially disliked and, because it was the longest poem in the collection, helped keep Lyrical Ballads from success. In a review shortly after its first publication, Southey called it "a Dutch attempt at German sublimity," and even Wordsworth disliked the negative appraisal the poem seemed to garner their entire volume. Although critical estimation of The Ancient Mariner increased dramatically after Coleridge's death, relatively little positive commentary was written on it until the turn of the century. Today, most critics agree that the poem constitutes a seminal contribution to English literature. Perhaps the most important twentieth-century study of The Ancient Mariner appeared in 1927 in John Livingston Lowes's magisterial work The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Here, Lowes brought his broad and deep knowledge of poetic history, poetic diction, and the imagination to bear on Coleridge's early poetry in general and The Ancient Mariner in particular. Of Coleridge's first major poem, Lowes harked to themes from the works of Apuleius, Josephus, Michael Psellus, Marsilio Ficino, and many others to "make it clear—where for dæmons of the elements, or water-snakes, or sun, or moon—that the rich suggestiveness of a masterpiece of the imagination springs in some measure from the fact that infinitely more than reached expression lay behind it in the shaping brain, so that every detail is saturated and irradiated with the secret influence of those thronged precincts of the unexpressed. . . ." Other major scholars who have written at length on The Ancient Mariner include E. M. W. Tillyard, C. M. Bowra, Robert Penn Warren, A. E. Dyson, and Julian Lovelock. In response to critics such as Warren, who have read moral overtones into the poem, Camille Paglia has ruminated upon The Ancient Mariner as an expression of pagan visions of sexuality and possession—what T. S. Eliot termed "fear of fear and frenzy" and "fear of possession"—layered over with a veneer of Christian symbols. To Paglia, writing in her Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), the Mariner is a "male heroine," who is the receptor of all the active forces of nature which bear him down during the course of the poem's story. The symbols that recur in The Ancient Mariner, discussed by Paglia and others, have inspired critical debate over their aptness and Coleridge's use of them. James Stephens has written that "this poem is extreme, its fantasy is extreme, its knowledge of music and colour and pace is extreme," concluding, "No miracle of talent or technique can quite redeem untruth from being initially and persistently inhuman in both life and letters." Other critics, notably Lowes and Bowra, have found otherwise, with the latter writing that the poem succeeds because it is nevertheless "founded on realities in the living world and in the human heart." While a few commentators consider the poem overrated, contemporary scholars generally look to the poem as one of the greatest works of the English Romantic movement.

William Norman Guthrie (essay date 1898)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4849

SOURCE: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as Prophecy," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, April, 1898, pp. 200-13.

[In the following essay, Guthrie discusses Coleridge's poetry, claiming that it expresses a clear Christian ethic]


If ever a great poet set about his work with a deliberate religious purpose, Coleridge is that man. He believed a new and happier age had begun. His studies in the great philosophic systems of Germany, then new to the world, equipped him, he thought, for the task of reconciling science, political liberty, and the "Truth in Christ." He had, as he tells us in his glorious ode entitled "Dejection," the "Fancy" that made him "dreams of happiness" out of "all misfortunes;" and the "shaping spirit of Imagination" that could give living utterance to subtlest thought and feeling—utterance whereby they obtained a new dignity and a new power. Only when this "spirit" deserted him (for cause) did he turn to mere "abstruse research," the poet dying into critic, expounder of philosophy, and theologian.

It is, of course, as the poet of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner that he is most renowned. Had he written nothing else, he would not have been born in vain. Not merely as a stirring ballad, nor for its picturesque qualities, the skilful handling of the supernatural it evinces, does the average reader prize the famous Rime. Somehow he feels so much "more is meant than meets the ear" or even the mental eye. No doubt he loves it most for the light, mysterious play, as of heavenly fingers over the secret keys of his soul, so that unheard music thrills his being through and through.

An allegory it is, but an essentially poetic one, and as such irreducible to plain prose. The poet has always to choose, when attempting to convey abstract thought in concrete form, as for instance, in a narrative, between two evils, that which seems to him least. Either his tale will not be forcible, faithful, plausible enough, as such to interest the reader, save as a vehicle for doctrines that gain his assent; or the doctrine will be forced to recede from the foreground and, now and then, be wholly lost to the sight even of the keenest eye. The charm of the "Faëry Queene" is just this: that Una, Sir Guyon, Britomart, and all Spenser's other delightful figures, are no mere personifications; that often he himself forgets their sense and the sense of their doings and sufferings to take a tale-teller's delight in them and their adventures. Hence, while in Milton's words, "more is meant than meets the ear," it is not always so. At times the story is meaningless—story, and nothing more. When it becomes again significant, our joy in the "sense" is the keener for its brief absence. Allegory, then, rather gains by discreet introduction of meaningless details. For the very reason that they are meaningless, they appear to be full of meaning too deep and wonderful for words. The inexpressible, elusive is suggested. The reader is "teased out of thought," as by Keats's "Grecian Urn" and set to musing for himself. This is surely legitimate poets' charlatanry. At times, to be sure, it has been somewhat maliciously practised, as by the great and shrewd Goethe, who was not above tempting over-ingenious readers to discover marvelous senses in his occasional flashes of deliberate nonsense. And may it not perhaps be true that even our serious Browning set a cunning snare for ultrazealous interpreters now and then out of sheer mischievous delight in watching them sink up to their pensive, hand-supported chins in the quagmire of their own profundity.

A mechanical exegesis of the poem—line by line—would then deservedly expose a critic to ridicule. For surely never was allegory more artistically fashioned by its poet to satisfy first and foremost the demands made of a thrilling tale. Its message is like the perfume of a flower, invisible to the eye that delights in the color and form, and quite unnecessary, so to speak. The beauty suffices that sense. There are no frostbitten petal edges that have to seek for an excuse in the perfume. The perfume is absolutely over and above the perfect pleasure of the eye, a free gift to another, more intimate sense. It is to the spirit, rather than to the intellect, that the doctrine of the Rime is addressed. But surely it will gain for us every way if we acquaint ourselves with the philosophy and theology of the poet, constituting, so to speak, the atmosphere in which bloomed this perfect, rare-scented, sevenfold flower of a ballad.

Skilfully, the whole weird tale of wondrous incident and experience is told, so that the closing, lines leave one in doubt:

A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.

Perhaps after the astounding relation, you think, do you, that the wedding-guest slept? Such a tale, so told, under the glittering eye of such a teller, could well be expected to scare sleep away for one night at least from the weariest eyelids in the world. But then, it may have been all a dream—that walk with two friends to the wedding-feast, that weird arrest by the seaman, that spell-bound hearing of his yarn—and then how natural would be his waking with the moral well digested, that made him a "wiser" man, and "sadder" only in the sense of not being able to deceive himself as hitherto with regard to what is really "love." He had rightly thought "love" the best thing in the world. He had thought love was chiefly present at the romantic wedding-feast. Has he now no doubt that what is there is always—"love?" that divine love that is the most precious thing in the world?

At all events, in the Rime, the killing of the albatross in a mood of recklessness, for the mere display of skill, brought on the mariner a curse. The Polar Spirit, whose bird it was, demanded the life of its slayer. The law of nature is: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!" His fellows openly disapproved of the deed. They were thus not guilty with the mariner, and the Polar Spirit could not punish him without punishing them; so the fair breeze went on blowing.

But these men judged not of a deed as a deed; they did not refer it to its motive, or half-conscious impulse, and condemn it for that. For the mariner's guilt as such they cared nothing. It was not the lack of love that allowed of his thoughtless cruelty, or his marksman's vanity that outran his love, which shocked them. They did not judge of the bird-victim by its actual character, and pity its undeserved fate. So when their fears seemed vain—for the favorable wind kept blowing—they ceased to believe the bird one of good omen, in spite of its old friendliness, and ascribed to it the mists that now had cleared. They therefore congratulated the mariner, and his crime passed for a meritorious piece of prowess. So the Polar Spirit was free now to exact a penalty. All on board were alike guilty of a lack of "love," and the mariner's fellows, most of all, as was proved by the fact that he at least was "plagued" from the start by fiends of remorse, whilst they—approvers of the deed if its issues only were fortunate—tried to fix the whole guilt on the remorseful doer as soon as the general punishment began.

Death reaches them. The mariner falls to the lot of life-in-death. His remorse will make him a useful instrument of God, in spreading the true doctrine of "love." His fellows could be of no service whatever. Could they be released from danger, they would never pray to be "shriven" of any sin. The moral they would have carried away would have been: "If any one, by a loveless deed to God's creatures brings wrath upon us (who, though quite as loveless, have abstained from actual deeds), let us hate him, and then our hatred will purchase us pardon of the God of love!"

But the death of his fellows seems to the mariner himself an inexplicable mystery—an unjust doom visited on them for his own sin. He does not realize their guilt, greater even than his. He himself still thinks the reckless deed was his sin, not the lack of love. So to him they seem innocent. Their hatred, he had incurred, torments him. He sympathizes almost in their hatred of him. He hates his life, that is continued, when so many were stricken dead for his crime. And the continued life of the low creatures of the sea, his only quick companions, now seems but another form of the same monstrous injustice. He would have them dead too, with himself, or his old shipmates alive and hale.

But at last he looks up to the moon, and then to the quiet stars. An ecstasy of joy in their beauty comes over him. He looks down and sees these same sea creatures which in the bitterness of his insane remorse he had cursed. Their beauty, their happiness, dazzles him. He blesses them:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.

His sin had been an unconscious one. His atonement, too, was unconscious. The remorse had only deepened his lack of love into a general hatred of life. But God's beauty stole over his spirit—emitted as divine light from all his creatures, stars and snakes alike—and the spell was lifted, the sin was blotted out, because the lovelessness whence it proceeded was neutralized by the new love. All that remained for him was such an expiation of his fault as should render the cure permanent; as should make indelible the impression produced by that vision of universal beauty—namely, the new deep-saving obligation of love to all that lives—and render him a lifelong apostle of the doctrine; conscious of a terrible "woe is me" if he preach it not everywhere and always to him that the Spirit should point out.


Often among a poet's works are found artistic failures, valuable only because they furnish the reader with a convenient commentary on his artistic successes. The latter usually maintain proud—nay, haughty—silence if cross-questioned as to the opinions of their author. A poet's prose works are not half so reliable. Often the man and the poet differ considerably. But these unhappy children of the poet are, nevertheless, a poet's children. They are brothers of his best offspring. In the case of Coleridge, "Religious Musings" and the "Destiny of Nations" are poems from which lines may be culled which give definite expression to his spiritual philosophy, and a number of quotations will now be made with a current comment. It is not the part of the present writer to criticize, but merely to interpret.

What marks the higher man from the lower is chiefly a fuller development of what is nowadays termed the "social sense." Among the higher animals homes exist, monogamous lifelong relations of mates, and devoted care of the young. Villages of prairie-dogs or beavers, monarchical states and military republics among bees and ants, witness to this capacity for organization. With man alone does it bear spiritual fruits in a religious faith.

The savage roams,
Feeling himself, his own low self, the whole.
"Religious Musings."

If anything else enters into his notion of the "whole," it is the fear of fellow savage and the hope of plentiful game. Only after long experience of ever-enlarging horizons, as he climbs the great Mount of Vision, does he come to realize how

'Tis the sublime in man
Our noontide majesty, to know ourselves
Parts and proportions of one wondrous whole.
"Religious Musings".

The thought of a universe dawns on him. The thought of a universal consciousness brings the full spiritual day. Law and order everywhere the condition of beauty; everywhere this law and order the evidence of one living Will! Man himself part of this universe! If he put himself, then, in the right attitude toward it, he becomes one with it. As a hero's deeds are appropriated by his proud people, so the mountains, the plains, the seas, the beasts, the flowers, the dews, the skies, the sun, moon, and stars become man's very own.

The savage roams,
Feeling himself, his own low self, the whole,
When he by sacred sympathy might make
The whole ONESELF.

This attitude of mind is called "sacred sympathy." Why so? Actually (according to the philosophy of Coleridge), the unity of all things is the result of a Will holding them together, dwelling in each part as its life, and making out of them a larger whole, of which He is again the Life in a more intimate sense. But because men's physical organs are separately impressed by things each in turn, things seem not only distinct but separate entities. Here is a stone; there, a tree. Only after much experience do we learn that they are parts of one planet. Here is our earth; there in the heavens are Mars, Venus, and Saturn. Only after centuries of study have we learned that they are part of one solar system. Here is the sun; there is Sirius or Aldebaran. Only in the future will we understand how they constitute one stellar universe. Now we know things are united. We utter our conviction whenever we use the word "universe." But we continue to perceive things separate. God makes them be, in fact, one whole. We can make them appear to us as God makes them be. For this we must share the divine mood; we must be in "sacred sympathy" with him; we must do in our little world of thoughts and feelings that correspond to the external things what He does with the things themselves: unify them, and impart to them of our one life.

But from the great unity men's minds are not excluded.

As one body seems the aggregate
Of atoms numberless, each organized,
So by a strange and dim similitude
Infinite myriads of self-conscious minds
Are one all-conscious
—"Destiny of Nations."

When the man has become sufficiently spiritual to hold a conception of this substantial unity of the soul with God, he becomes eager to realize the conception. He will not have it remain a barren piece of philosophic speculation. We are self-conscious. We only infer God. Why are we not as directly conscious of God as we are of ourselves? Because our eyes are impure? How shall we then, purify them?

The drowsed soul
. . . Of its nobler nature 'gan to feel
Dim recollections, and thence soared to hope; . . .
From hope and firmer faith to perfect love
Attracted and absorbed; and centered there,
God only to behold and know and feel,
Till, by exclusive consciousness of God
(All self-annihilated), it shall make
GOD its identity—GOD all in all,
We and our Father ONE.
—"Religious Musings."

This is but a poetical description of the old method common to all the saints of the Catholic Church, that of devout meditation. Mystical systems differ in nomenclature; specific methods differ also in details; but, directly or indirectly, all aim at denial as forgetfulness of self. Self stands out against self, mutually repellent forever. What is mine cannot be thine; what is thine must be mine. To affirm and remember self (the opposite of self-denial or self-forgetfulness) involves eternal warfare. How shall the self be denied effectually or forgotten? Only by the affirmation and perpetual remembrance of One who includes both, who is me more truly than I am, and yet is as really my friend and my foe alike. The thought of my origin in God makes me wonder at my possibilities. I hope to be other than I am. I trust I shall indeed become all that I vaguely descry, and more. I love That whence I came, whither I go, and which upholds me now upon my way. I feel this God as my very SELF. Do I who believe myself a child of God dare call this man that I appear to be, myself? If I remember him, I deny him. Probably, however, I am so attracted and absorbed by the supreme beauty that I have utterly forgotten him. So the old self-love has become SELF-love; the old selfishness, selflessness—the love of all in ONE.

What becomes of the sensible world to one so rapt in the vision of God?

All that meet the bodily sense
I deem symbolical.
—"Destiny of Nations."

Far indeed is he from growing indifferent to it. He shall (Coleridge's wish for his infant son)

Wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountains, and beneath the clouds
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great Universal Teacher! He shall mold
Thy Spirit, and by giving make it ask.
—"Frost at Midnight".

In a certain sense, to be sure, the mystic will despise all things. He will not, at all events, prize the sound of the eternal language more than its sense. He will never wish to rest in things. He will spurn them under foot, yet only because he is

Treading . . . all visible things
As steps that upward to the Father's throne
—"Religious Musings."

Should there come, however, a time when he can see, not feel, how beautiful they are, all the glorious things in earth and sky, will any diligent contemplation of their beauty make him once more "feel" what he only "sees." Surely not. "Outward Forms" cannot yield

The passion and the life whose fountains are within.

For, of a truth, "we receive but what we give," and to us at least

In our life alone does nature live.

If we are to behold God in nature, or aught of his glory,

Oh, from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the earth.

This beautiful and beauty-making power may best be called "joy," "life and life's effluence."

We in ourselves rejoice.

And this "joy" the pure in heart have given to them of God, as a babe the milk from its mother. Of this inner "joy" comes the power to see in nature a divine, continuous sacrament. For this "joy" itself is the witness of the Spirit, and reveals God in us and nature, and makes of all that is in turn a vehicle of our fervent worship—the prayer becoming visible to the eye as Mt. Blanc that cleaves with his peak of sunlit snows the heaven of heavens.


To many it may perhaps prove an unwelcome thought that a poem they have enjoyed merely as a poem should have anything to teach them. There are those who irreverently remark that the poets probably see no farther than their respective noses. If so, I fear some have noses that will considerably damage the classic profile of their poetic owners. Not a few give evidences of being exceptionally far-sighted. Things close at hand they do not see. Things at a great distance seem close at hand. They live in anticipated joys. In winter-time for them the trees are full-leaved, the bushes in blossom, the air shivering with song, and richly charged with manifold fragrance. Social conditions that the wildest theorist regards as possibly existing on the earth centuries hence are to the poet, if only he perceives their causes at work, already realized. We have the habit of estimating distances by the relative distinctness of the objects fixed by the eye; what we see in detail we imagine near, what appears blurred and indefinite we suppose to be far off. Now the poet, as man, does what we all do in this matter. When, however, the poetic fury assails him, he becomes preternaturally keen sighted. The indefinite defines itself, the vague stands out boldly, the neutral tints give birth to many brilliant colors; but his old habit of judging of distances remains in force, and so he cries, "Behold! it is at hand! it is at the very doors!" And such has been always the custom of prophets, not that for rhetorical effect they eliminated the element of time, and deliberately represented processes as finished products, but that they themselves were ignorant of "times and seasons."

Just because a poet is free to speak what he thinks, feels, and fancies, without any sense of obligation to his past self, to logic or structural consistency; because he is by common consent emancipated from the tyranny of premises, as one is in dreams; just because no sane reader will call him to account for every word, or expect him to define his terms and avoid equivocation, or explain away the difficulties he seems to create in his progress; for these very reasons is he fitted to promulgate difficult doctrines. We often know the truth before we can prove it; the facts are not all given, the premises cannot even be framed, yet the conclusion is already certain. Should one appear as a witness to such "transcendental truths" in the garb and guise of a moral philosopher, we should undoubtedly subject him to the severest cross-questioning; and if we succeeded in confusing him by our impertinences and technical objections, we should declare him perjured, and scoff at his difficult doctrine as false and absurd. But a poet we treat more graciously. He comes to give us pleasure. If incidentally in pleasing us he insinuates a bit of doctrine, we blink the fact in case the doctrine is not such as we favor. But the skilfulest poet will cunningly oblige the reader to assume the doctrine just for the nonce, because otherwise the full pleasure of the poem cannot be obtained. He does not insist that you shall believe the doctrine, much less put it into practise! He may himself do neither. He himself may only have "assumed" it.

When Coleridge makes the ancient mariner prefer

To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!
To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,

to the marriage-feast and all its "loud uproar" the "bridesmaids singing," and in the garden bower the bride; "when he goes farther yet, and prefers simple philanthropy and gentle consideration for animals to the formal worship, saying:

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—

when Coleridge says these things, so earnestly but so picturesquely, and has them not on his own lips, but puts them in the mouth of a wise old madman, why of course no one presumes to contradict him!

Perhaps some reader may remember the savage words of a certain critic to the effect that poor Coleridge "had no morals;" another will recall his shiftlessness, his incapacity of continuous devotion to duty, his practical desertion of wife and children, his unfortunate opium habit! And all this is, alas! too true. An apology can be framed. He who knows the intoxication of the Spirit, and who for personal faults has in some manner driven him away, may be tempted to obtain from drugs a stimulation that shall deceive him momentarily into believing himself once more visited from heaven. Our Rime, however, dates from his best year, his twenty-seventh. The "shaping spirit of the imagination" walked with him often. For companion besides he had his friend Wordsworth, and his home was sunny with hope. This man, who could philosophize so acutely, and hold all England spellbound by his strange eloquence, knew well that "abstruse research," whatever his demands, did not require inspiration, not even the exercise of strenuous will, while good poetry assuredly does.

Now the lines beginning "He prayeth well" are not a homiletic after-thought. They constitute the very germ of the whole poem. But Coleridge, with an artist's true cunning, does not betray the secret of his Rime till it is well-nigh ended.

Accept for one moment as true the thought of a conscious omnipotent Source of Being, a God who is truly the universal Father. All that he has made must be well made. All must reflect his character, all must be very good. If not, he would not preserve it with loving care. Grant, furthermore, that a relation with this God is possible to his intelligent creature man; that he is given some natural mode of access, no matter how difficult; that he is, therefore, competent to form some conception of His being, and to feel love for Him. How can you now escape the doctrine of the Rime? The true worshiper finds that, whether he will or no,

From himself he flies
Stands in the sun, and with no partial gaze
Views all creation; and he loves it all
And blesses it, and calls it very good.
"Religious Musings".

God's universal fatherhood implies a universal brotherhood of all created things. Conversely he who, from abounding "joy" within, calls all very good, blesses it, and loves it all, finds himself, whether he will or no, transported to the central Sun, sees things from the divine point of view, and so enters into "sacred sympathy" with that "Sun," that he is at length wholly rapt in the thought of "God all in all," and in the feeling for which there are no words; "he and his Father—ONE." From the universal brotherhood of created things, which to the poet, when in poetic mood, is axiomatic, one can reason transcendentally to a universal Father.

From God to nature; from nature to God.

Nature . . . may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to love and beauty.
No sound is dissonant which tells of life.
—"This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison".

For is not all life from the Father of lives? Is not biology in a certain sense theology? Even the "foal of an ass" would the poet take with him

In the dell
Of peace and mild equality to dwell.
—"To a Young Ass".

Wherefore not? Is not God seen as well in least as in greatest? Indeed, what tests a worshiper's sincerity? Humble before God when conscious of his presence? or rather, tender to His weaker creatures where

So lovely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be?

To love them that love us is surely no wonderful virtue! To love them that can help us may be mere selfish prudence. But love for God's sake is most distinctly seen when it goes out to those whose need is greatest, and therefore whose own claims are least. The love at the wedding-feast, if it be really love, goes out to bride and—albatross! Not merely the love that after long loneliness "hails it in God's name," "as if it had been a Christian soul;" but the love that makes murder as difficult as suicide; that considers the dignity of life, and the glory of the Life-Giver, rather than the use of the individual living thing for us; the love that makes the unnecessary killing of fellow beast as loathsome as the unnecessary killing of fellow man.

Somewhat fanatical doctrine, you object? Is not war an honorable calling? Is not hunting of animals a most respectable manly sport? The poet has no answer to make to your objections or to mine. If he hears us, he shrugs his shoulders, and smiles ironically. He is bound to poetical logic alone. The germ of his poem was love. If God loves all, and we love God, we must love all. If we love all, we would harm none. Do we then love God? Such is the question the poet insists on asking. And he reminds us that we, to whom he has told his tale, need it:

I know the man that must hear me;
To him my tale I teach.

We are wedding-guests? We are in haste? So much the worse for us. We shall have to wait. His glittering eye will hold us. He will hint that we are wedding-guests indeed, bidden by another Bridegroom. Long afterward, whether we agree with them or not, his words will go on obstinately ringing in our ears:

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare;
A spring of love gushed from my heart
And I blessed them unaware!
The self-same moment I could pray!

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.

John Livingston Lowes (essay date 1927)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7703

SOURCE: "The Bird and the Dæsmon," in The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, 1927. Reprint by Vintage Books, 1959, pp. 201-20.

[In the following essay, Lowes discusses the source material that inspired The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, insisting that its dæmonic imagery exemplifies "the voyaging, Neoplatonizing, naively scientific spirit of the closing eighteenth century."]

Across the course of the voyage, just where its great loop swings around the southern termination of the continent, the albatross comes through the fog. And the shooting of the albatross sets the forces of the invisible world in motion. And the action of those forces is in turn bound up with the normal evolution, in experience, of cause and consequence. The albatross, in a word,—"that white phantom [which] sails in all imaginations," as Herman Melville in an eloquent passage calls it—binds inseparably together the three structural principles of the poem: the voyage, and the supernatural machinery, and the unfolding cycle of the deed's results.

It is the second of the three which we must now take into account. And the supernatural machinery, like the architectonic conception of the voyage, falls into our scheme, not as a series of interesting and often singular details, but as a controlling imaginative design. It determines, in a word, the action of the poem, precisely as the ground-plan of the voyage set its course and fixed its background. And like the voyage, the unfolding of the action stirs to life, and sweeps within its compass, and fuses into unity, the latent imagery of those deep-lying tracts which we have called "the Well"—"that lifeless, twilight, realm of thought," in Coleridge's phrase, which is, for thoughts, "the confine, the intermundium" between consciousness past and consciousness perhaps to come. We are simply approaching from a fresh angle our old theme—the assimilating and incorporative power of the shaping spirit. And the ingredients with which that spirit this time had to work were these: the figure of the Mariner himself; the shooting of the albatross; the "spectral persecution"; the skeleton bark; the navigation of the ship by the dead sailors; and the angelic interposition at the end. Those are the constituent elements of the action, and the fortuitous fashion in which, on a dark November evening, they combined, is matter of curious record. And that record we must first be clear about. But more important far than the quaint accessories of their conjunction are the operations of these ethereal chemicals (to paraphrase John Keats) upon the potential stuff of poetry in Coleridge's brain. And upon that interplay of masses of associations falls the emphasis in the three chapters now to come.


The day, almost the hour, when fragmentary hints of birds and ships and mariners and spectres flashed back and forth from mind to mind and swiftly wove a shining plan, along a road that went down to the sea—this eventful day is fixed for us by Dorothy Wordsworth, who wrote November 20, 1797:

We have been on another tour: we set out last Monday evening at half-past four. The evening was dark and cloudy; we went eight miles, William and Coleridge employing themselves in laying the plan of a ballad, to be published with some pieces of William's.

November 20 fell that year on Monday. "Last Monday," accordingly, was the 13th. Of the two other members of the party, Coleridge has left one brief comment on the expedition, but Wordsworth reverted to it often in his later years.

In the long prefatory note to "We are Seven," dictated to Miss Fenwick in or about 1843, Wordsworth, with the privileged inconsequence of age, broke into his account of the little girl at Goodrich Castle, and of the joke before the "little tea-meal" about "dear brother Jem," to tell a less domestic story. It is ancient history, but every word of it is needed:

In the autumn of 1797, he [Coleridge], my sister, and myself, started from Alfoxden pretty late in the afternoon, with a view to visit Linton, and the Valley of Stones near to it; and as our united funds were very small, we agreed to defray the expense of the tour by writing a poem . . . Accordingly we set off, and proceeded, along the Quantock Hills, towards Watchet; and in the course of this walk was planned the poem of the "Ancient Mariner," founded on a dream, as Mr. Coleridge said, of his friend Mr. Cruikshank. Much the greatest part of the story was Mr. Coleridge's invention; but certain parts I suggested; for example, some crime was to be committed which should bring upon the Old Navigator, as Coleridge afterwards delighted to call him, the spectral persecution, as a consequence of that crime and his own wanderings. I had been reading in Shelvocke's Voyages, a day or two before, that, while doubling Cape Horn, they frequently saw albatrosses in that latitude, the largest sort of sea-fowl, some extending their wings twelve or thirteen feet. "Suppose," said I, "you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the South Sea, and that the tutelary spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime." The incident was thought fit for the purpose, and adopted accordingly. I also suggested the navigation of the ship by the dead men, but do not recollect that I had anything more to do with the scheme of the poem. . . . We began the composition together, on that to me memorable evening. . . . As we endeavoured to proceed conjointly (I speak of the same evening), our respective manners proved so widely different, that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have been a clog.

A few years earlier, in a significant connection, Wordsworth had given to the Reverend Alexander Dyce substantially the same account, which was first made public in a note to The Ancient Mariner in the Poems of 1852:

When my truly honoured friend Mr. Wordsworth was last in London, soon after the appearance of De Quincey's papers in "Tait's Magazine," he dined with me in Gray's Inn, and made the following statement, which, I am quite sure, I give you correctly: "The Ancient Mariner was founded on a strange dream, which a friend of Coleridge had, who fancied he saw a skeleton ship, with figures in it. . . . I had very little share in the composition of it, for I soon found that the style of Coleridge and myself would not assimilate. . . . The idea of 'shooting an albatross' was mine; for I had been reading Shelvocke's Voyages, which probably Coleridge never saw. I also suggested the reanimation of the dead bodies, to work the ship."

The signal importance of Wordsworth's contributions to the scheme of The Ancient Mariner admits no question. He suggested the shooting of the albatross, the "spectral persecution," and the navigation of the ship by the dead men. The first two are the mainsprings of the action, and the third is an essential stage in its development. Yet Wordsworth was not so generous as just, when he declared that "much the greatest part of the story was Mr. Coleridge's invention." The "skeleton ship, with figures in it," of Cruikshank's dream, and the "Old Navigator" himself were clearly in Coleridge's mind from the beginning, and they are presupposed in Wordsworth's suggestion of the crime and of its supernatural avenging. And granting unreservedly that Wordsworth supplied the links which knit the loose materials of narrative into a story, and fanned to flame a smouldering conception, it remains no less true that the magnificent imaginative elaboration of the jointly assembled ingredients of a plot is Coleridge's own, as truly as Hamlet and Lear and Anthony and Cleopatra, on grounds essentially the same, are Shakespeare's. Wordsworth, in fact, had builded far better than he knew. His suggestions stirred to life the throngs of dormant memories which had been gathering for just this fateful hour, and before the evening which saw the poem's birth was ended, he had recognized that the spirits which he had evoked called Coleridge master but not him.

Five of the six determining factors of the action, then, fell into place while talk flew fast in the nipping air, and the tang of the sea grew sharper, as Watchet neared. Two owed their origin to Coleridge, three to Wordsworth, and the part played by angelic intervention may or may not have been an afterthought. Each of the six tapped a brimming reservoir, and the shooting of the albatross comes logically first.


The albatross brings us to Shelvocke, and the history of Wordsworth's copy of the Voyage suggests an irresistible postscript to the Fenwick Note. There is in the Widener Collection in the Harvard College Library a precious little volume—outwardly a cheap household account-book, suggesting in its general physiognomy that "butcher-ledger-like book" in which the first jottings of "In Memoriam" were kept—which has written in ink on the cover: "Account of the Books lent out of the Library at Rydal Mount." The entries, with ruled columns for names and dates of withdrawal and return, are in the hands of the various members of the Wordsworth family, and show that from 1824 on, Wordsworth's books were at the service of his friends and neighbors. On November 8, 1832, "Shelvockes Voy." was lent to a "Mrs. Godwin." The volume, then, was on Wordsworth's shelves as late as 1832. And it was still in his Library a dozen years later, when the Fenwick note was made, for it was among the books sold at public auction after his death.

Now the passage which Wordsworth had been reading in Captain George Shelvocke's Voyage round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea is of interest in more ways than one. Let us turn first to a couple of sentences a dozen pages before the important paragraph:

From the latitude of 40 deg. to the latitude of 52 deg. 30 min. we . . . were constantly attended by Pintado birds. . . . These were accompanied by Albitrosses, the largest sort of sea-fowls, some of them extending their wings 12 or 13 foot.

Wordsworth's statement to Miss Fenwick is worth looking at again:

I had been reading in Shelvocke's Voyages, a day or two before, that, while doubling Cape Horn, they frequently saw albatrosses in that latitude, the largest sort of sea-fowl, some extending their wings twelve or thirteen feet.

Wordsworth was seventy-three when he dictated these words, and the reading to which he referred lay forty-five years behind him. Had Shelvocke's exact phraseology stuck in his memory for almost half a century? I doubt it. The book was there in the library at Rydal Mount, and I strongly suspect that while the adoring Isabella Fenwick waited, pen in hand, her "beloved old poet" walked over to the bookcase and refreshed his memory!

However that may be, the passage in Shelvocke which set the action of The Ancient Mariner going is this:

We had continual squals of sleet, snow and rain, and the heavens were perpetually hid from us by gloomy dismal clouds. In short, one would think it impossible that any thing living could subsist in so rigid a climate; and, indeed, we all observed, that we had not had the sight of one fish of any kind, since we were come to the Southward of the streights of le Mair, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black Albitross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley, (my second Captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagin'd, from his colour, that it might be some ill omen. That which, I suppose, induced him the more to encourage his superstition, was the continued series of contrary tempestuous winds, which had oppress'd us ever since we had got into this sea. But be that as it would, he, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the Albitross, not doubting (perhaps) that we should have a fair wind after it.

That raises at once an interesting question. What was this "disconsolate black Albitross" which Captain Hatley shot? The albatross which Captain Shelvocke earlier describes, with its wingspread of twelve or thirteen feet, is clearly the great Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) of the Southern Seas, and that is white. It is the bird which Buffon depicts across the page, and which Herman Melville rhapsodizes over in a famous passage in the chapter on "The Whiteness of the Whale." For the layman it is the albatross par excellence, and we have tacitly assumed that it was Coleridge's albatross. But there is another bird, the so-called "sooty albatross" (once Diomedea fuliginosa, now, in scientific parlance, Phoebetria palpebrata antarctica), which haunts the same latitudes; and this albatross, as its name in the vernacular implies, may quite properly be called black. I have never seen it living, but I have seen it dead, and I have little doubt that it was the bird which Captain Hatley shot. Whether or not it was Coleridge's albatross is quite another matter. He may or may not have known that albatrosses are not all alike. But in any case we may, I think, acquit him of one charge.

The size of the albatross, in a word, has long been a stone of stumbling to matter-of-fact souls, who protest that Coleridge has strained verisimilitude to the breaking point through his patent misconception of the albatross's size. For he has suspended about a sailor's neck a bird the sweep of whose regal wings was twice a tall man's height, and, in the poem as it originally stood, has fed the Brobdingnagian creature "biscuit worms," as if it had the tastes and the dimensions of a wren. There is little to choose, such unbending spirits will complain, between Coleridge and that paragon of cheerful faith, the visionary gardener in Sylvie and Bruno:

He thought he saw an Albatross
That fluttered round the lamp;
He looked again, and saw it was
A Penny-Postage-Stamp.

One may admit at once the piquant incongruity of the biscuit worms, which were promptly banished from the poem. As for the rest, Coleridge was intent upon poetic truth, not ornithological fact. But even a poet may be presumed to know that size is a matter of species and age, and the sooty albatross, which is much the smaller bird, might readily enough, as I know from experiment, have been carried suspended from a sailor's neck. And in another passage which entered into the very fabric of The Ancient Mariner there is warrant enough for Coleridge's impression. For the three sentences which immediately follow the well-conned account of the luminous protozoa in Captain Cook tell of "two large birds [which] settled on the water, near the ship." And one of them, which was little more than half the size of the other, "seemed to be of the albatross kind . . . upon the whole, not unlike the sea-gull, though larger." In the use to which Coleridge puts the albatross in the poem, neither ornithological fact nor poetic truth moults a feather.

All this, however, is beside the main point. The essential matter is that the incident in Shelvocke crystallized the structural design of the poem. The earlier chapters of this book have made it clear that a vast concourse of images was hovering in the background of Coleridge's brain, waiting for the formative conception which should strike through their confusion, and marshal them into clarity and order. And among them, on Wordsworth's evidence, was the person of the Mariner himself. What Wordsworth did was to catch up Coleridge's Old Navigator out of general space, where presumably he was floating unattached, and to set him down definitely, cross-bow in hand, at the entrance to the South Sea, after the doubling of Cape Horn. But that implied the circumnavigation of the continent. And on "A Correct Map of the World Describing Capt. Shelvocke's Voyage round," prefixed to the book, runs, in a distinct dotted line from Equator to Equator around the Cape, the great curve of the voyage. I think (for reasons which I have given in the Notes) that Coleridge saw this curve; but whether he did or not, the shooting of the albatross carried in its train the ground plan of the poem. And the thronging images which that released we have already seen.

But Wordsworth's suggestion set free another host. "'Suppose,' said I, 'you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the South Sea, and that the tutelary spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime.'" Precisely what Wordsworth may have had in mind, I do not know. But what sprang into life in Coleridge's memory is clear enough. For the albatross flies into a supramundane mise en scène which had been preparing even longer than the background of the voyage, which Wordsworth's suggestion also stirred to life. The fitness of the setting in Antarctic seas is obvious enough. But I question if ever another fowl, before or since, found itself inter-meddled (as Chaucer would say) with Plotinus and Porphyry, and Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, and Marsilio Ficino of the Florentine Academy. The lucky bird, to be sure, is immortal as they are now; and it is so, largely by virtue of this imaginative merging of its brief career with the visions of centuries, which just then, like the ancient associations of the southern voyage, were once more stirring in men's minds.


One of those "wingy mysteries" which haunt the upper regions of the air, and descend to earth at intervals to captivate the thinking of a period is that elusive changeling left by Plotinus in Plato's house, and nurtured there by Porphyry and Iamblichus and Proclus, and their followers. This is no place for an exposition of Neoplatonism, even were I a competent expositor. To call it the shimmering mist into which the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces of Plato's luminous fabric had dissolved, would be, I know, to the Greeks foolishness, and anathema to spirits of sternly philosophic mould. But as Sir Thomas Browne has comfortably said, "where there is an obscurity too deep for our reason, 'tis good to sit down with a description, periphrasis, or adumbration," and that astute procedure is the better part in dealing with "airy subtleties . . . which have unhinged the brains of better heads." Nor for our purpose is rigid definition needful. It is happily not the collective profundities of the system, but a single aspect only of its occult and misty supernaturalism, with which we have to do.

To follow the strand, however, which leads to The Ancient Mariner, we must go back for a moment to the early Christian centuries. For through Plotinus, and Porphyry, and Iamblichus, and Proclus, and their followers, there came about a singular impregnation of Platonic philosophy with the theosophic mysticism of the Orient, and the more esoteric tenets of Judaism and Christianity. With the nebulous and grandiose conceptions which resulted, we have nothing whatever to do. The one thing which does come into our reckoning is the fact that into this metaphysical cloudland there drifted strange waifs and strays from those obscure fastnesses of the supernatural, and rites and mysteries of the ancient cults. The mélange, with its soaring visions and its haunted deeps, was as cosmopolitan as the crumbling empire, and in that catholic but utterly uncritical inclusiveness lay, in part, the secret of its fascination for imaginative minds. And on the roll of its adherents is a galaxy of starry names: the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who gave of late to Ibsen a high theme for tragedy; that Hypatia of Alexandria, who shines, snow-white in Kingsley's pages; her friend Synesius, "the hyperplatonic Jargonist" (I quote the Note Book), whose recondite Hymns Coleridge translated with his mother's milk (one gathers!) scarce dry upon his lips; Macrobius, whose voluminous commentary on the Dream of Scipio cast a spell upon the Middle Ages; the grave and lofty figure of Boethius, who numbered among his translators a king, a queen, and two illustrious poets—Alfred the Great, Jean de Meun, Chaucer, and Elizabeth. Even Michael Psellus, preserved for most of us in Coleridge's gloss, like some glittering but forgotten fly in amber, has come to life again, in 1921, in the Eudocia of Eden Philpotts! Dreamers they were, if you will, but assuredly no feeble line of mere visionary spinners of the cobwebs of the brain. And all these rich and varied minds called Plato master.

Then came, in the fulness of time, the stirring of fresh life, through the Renaissance, in the forgotten mysteries. And the Platonic Academy at Florence fell eagerly upon Plato, and no less avidly upon the Neoplatonists. Marsilio Ficino translated into Latin not only the works of the master, but also the mystical teachings of Plotinus and his followers. And as Iamblichus and Proclus had incorporated with the Platonic myths the hoary mysteries of Egypt and Mesopotamia and Tyre, so the most brilliantly gifted of the Florentine Academicians, Pico della Mirandola, sought to blend with Neoplatonic philosophy the vast, bizarre agglomeration of the Jewish Cabbala. And so reinterpreted, Neoplatonism permeated the mystical thought and fitfully glimmered through the poetry of the next two centuries. Then, at the close of the eighteenth century, history repeated itself. And that brings us back to Coleridge, and, in the end, to the immortal albatross.

One of the most pithy and memorable letters that Coleridge ever wrote was addressed to John Thelwall, before the two men met. It is dated from Bristol, November 19, 1796, and I doubt if more of Coleridge were ever packed in briefer compass. It contains an almost matchless tour de force of self-description—equalled only, perhaps, by that ineffable portrait of himself which the aged but still gallant Samuel Richardson penned for a lady who had never seen him—and I am reluctant to omit a line of it. But I shall, and here is the part which is pertinent:

I am, and ever have been, a great reader, and have read almost everything—a library cormorant. I am deep in all out of the way books, whether of the monkish times, or of the puritanical era. I have read and digested most of the historical writers; but I do not like history. Metaphysics and poetry and "facts of mind," that is, accounts of all the strange phantasms that ever possessed "your philosophy"; dreamers, from Thoth the Egyptian to Taylor the English pagan, are my darling studies. In short, I seldom read except to amuse myself, and I am almost always reading. Of useful knowledge, I am a so-so chemist, and I love chemistry. All else is blank; but I will be (please God) an horticulturalist and a farmer. [That is not pertinent; but as quintessential comedy I leave it in] . . . Such am I. I am just going to read Dupuis' twelve octavos, which I have got from London. I shall read only one octavo a week, for I cannot speak French at all and I read it slowly.

Then follows a characteristic postscript, which rivals the letter in significance:

P.S. I have enclosed a five-guinea note. The five shillings over please to lay out for me thus. In White's (of Fleet Street or the Strand, I forget which—O! the Strand I believe, but I don't know which), well, in White's catalogue are the following books:—

4674. Iamblichus, Proclus, Prophyrius, etc., one shilling and six pence, one little volume.

4686. Juliani Opera, three shillings: which two books you will be so kind as to purchase for me, and send down with the twenty-five pamphlets. But if they should unfortunately be sold, in the same catalogue are:—

2109. Juliani Opera, 12s. 6d.

676. Iamblichus de Mysteriis, 10s. 6d.

2681. Sidonius Apollinaris, 6s.

And in the catalogue of Robson, the bookseller in New Bond Street, Plotini Opera, a Ficino, £1.1.0, making altogether £2.10.0.

If you can get the two former little books, costing only four and six pence, I will rest content with them.

"Thelwall," says E. H. Coleridge, "executed his commission. The Iamblichus and the Julian were afterwards presented by Coleridge to his son Derwent. They are still in the possession of the family."

The postscript is a bead-roll of Coleridge's "dreamers." "Thoth the Egyptian" (Milton's "thrice-great Hermes") is there, concealed beneath the pregnant "etc." of the "one little volume" which heads the memorandum. "Taylor the English pagan," otherwise Thomas Taylor the Platonist, credulous, uncritical, and pedestrian in style, but fired with the ardour of a devotee, was doing for England what Marsilio Ficino, three centuries before, had done for Italy, and was at the moment busily translating everybody mentioned in Coleridge's list—Iamblichus, Proclus, Porphyrius, Julian, and Plotinus—with the sole exception of Sidonius Apollinaris. Nor was this commission to Thelwall Coleridge's first or last attempt to possess himself, by hook or crook, of his precious purveyors of strange phantasms. In a batch of memoranda of 1807, which no one who would see how Coleridge browsed, or (better) grazed, in bookshops can afford to overlook, he is still proposing to "hunt for Proclus." Charles Lamb wrote racily in 1796, and again in 1814, about pressing instructions from Coleridge to pick up Plutarch and Porphyry and Proclus. The famous passage in "Christ's Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago" is no less in point—that description of "the young Mirandula . . . unfolding in [his] deep and sweet intonations the mysteries of Iamblichus or Plotinus." And Iamblichus and Plotinus and their followers down to Pico starred his pages to the end. The errand on which Thelwall was dubiously sent to either Fleet Street or the Strand not only exhibits one of Coleridge's inveterate preoccupations, but also epitomizes one of the strangest tendencies which marked the tumultuous exit of the century. For Neoplatonism was again in the air, and in Coleridge's postscript Bristol and London join hands, through Florence, with Alexandria, Constantinople, Athens, and Rome—the eighteenth century, through the fifteenth, with the Platonizing third, fourth and fifth.

But what of Dupuis's twelve octavos which Coleridge was painfully going through, a volume a week, in French? Well, if Thomas Taylor was the plodding British counterpart of Marsilio Ficino, the eighteenth century had also its flock of inglorious, though anything but mute, Mirandolas, and the voluminous Dupuis was one of them. The title of his work is: Origine de tous les Cultes, ou Religion universelle, par Dupuis, Citoyen Francois. And it was printed "L'an III. de la République, une et indivisible" (which in years of Our Lord was 1795), and on the title-page below the date stands the legend: "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité." The treatise is, I am compelled to think (for I have sedulously turned some hundreds of its pages), a mad performance, as the flaunted banner of its title-page might lead us to suspect. I doubt whether Coleridge got anything from it beyond those unconsidered trifles which genius has the trick of filching as it goes, for conversion into jewels rich and strange. But explicit in its footnotes and implicit in its text are the ubiquitous Neoplatonists—Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Julian, Hermes, and Marsilio Ficino. And mingled with the testimony of the ancient witnesses is an array of observations, reported by voyagers and explorers, touching the rites and customs. The genii and dæsmons and angel guardians, of primitive tribes. And excerpts from these same voyages were even then enriching with anthropological data the Philosophical Transactions.

Ancient cults, in a word, and primitive religions, Neoplatonic speculations, ethnology and oxygen and electricity were all seething together in men's minds. And with the new wonders of the air which science was disclosing merged the immemorial beliefs in its invisible inhabitants, whether vouched for by Iamblichus, or Hermes Trismegistus, or Captain Cook. Nobody who knows the period can dream of isolating its poetry from the ferment of its thought, or of detaching Samuel Taylor Coleridge from that ferment. And when Wordsworth suggested his "spectral persecution," all this accumulated lore, held in solution in Coleridge's brain, was precipitated in the strange vengeance which overtook in haunted seas the slayer of a solitary albatross. What the fortunate bird acquired, in fact, along with immortality, was the efficient, if belated, championship of a fully accredited Neoplatonic daemon.


For the cloud of witnesses whom we have summoned from here and there along the course of sixteen centuries were unanimous in the recognition they accorded to one powerful order in the hierarchy of being—the order of the dæmons. I have no intention of going into the beginnings of Greek and Roman dæmonology. That has been done to repletion in two colossally learned monographs in the Transactions of the Berlin and Leipzig Academies respectively, for anyone who cares to track his dæmons from the egg. But I do wish to observe that Coleridge, whatever the obliquities of slipshod editors, spells the word correctly in his gloss. For a dæmon and a demon are not one and the same thing. And it is daemon, in its Platonic sense of a being intermediary between gods and men—not demon, with its Judæo-Christian import of an unclean, evil, or malignant spirit—that we must keep in mind. This would once have been superfluous caution, but not, alas! when Coleridge is made to mention, in school editions of the poem, "The Polar Spirit's fellow-demons" (that pair of dæmons of the air who are the Chorus of the poem) as if the "voice as soft as honeydew" boasted, as appanages, horns, hoofs, and tail.

The gloss of the first stanza in which the Polar Spirit appears reads thus:

A Spirit had followed them; one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted. They are very numerous, and there is no climate or element without one or more.

Let us turn back, now, to that No. 4674, catalogued by White at one and sixpence, which Coleridge wanted, and Thelwall got for him. It contained, in its 543 closely printed, four-and-a-half by three inch pages, Iamblichus De Mysteriis Ægyptorium, Chaldœorum, Assyriorum; Proclus In Platonicum Alcibiadem de Anima, atque Dœmone; Porphyrius De Divinis atque Dœmonibus; Psellus De Dœmonibus; and the Pimander and Asclepius of Hermes Trismegistus—all edited by Marsilio Ficino. It is a vade mecum of Neoplatonic dæmonology, and a most seducing and frequently unintelligible little volume. And quite the most seductive pages in it are those which bear the heading: "Ex Michaele Psello de Dœmonibus, Interpres Marsilius Ficinus." For Michael Psellus writes of dæmons, not with the philosophic detachment of Porphyry òr Proclus, but with the conviction of one who has himself hobnobbed with them on occasion. Witness, for example, his engaging tale of the daemon who seems to have carried on a conversation in Armenian, and the nice point raised by Psellus whether dæmons employ the language of the country of which they are (as it were) "nationals," so that a Chaldæsan daemon should properly speak Chaldee, a Greek daemon Greek—and so on for Persian, Syrian, Hebrew, and Egyptian dæmons. It is, accordingly, perfectly good form, dæmonically speaking, that in the poem the Polar Spirit's fellow-dæmons should speak English in their aërial dialogue. Apropos of Polar Spirits, moreover, one is interested to learn that the bitterest cold is nothing to dæmons (cum enim in locis habitent profundissimis, ad summum quiden frigidis), and that the dæmons of the water sometimes take the form of birds (Aquatiles vero . . . se avibus . . . similes reddunt). But the point on which Psellus lays most stress, with rich and curious detail, is the distribution of the dæmons among the elements—earth, air, fire, and water—with the subterraneous and light-shunning orders (these last a jocund company, genus lucifugum, imperscrutabile, ac penitus tenebrosum) for good measure. The last thing that Coleridge, who knew good dæmonology when he saw it, would be likely to forget would be that panorama of the peopled elements. And when Wordsworth, with Shelvocke's albatross in mind, suggested tutelary spirits to avenge a creature of the sea and sky, the flood-gates of Coleridge's Neoplatonic lore were opened, and the invisible inhabitants of the waters and the middle air, with Michael Psellus as their sponsor, took possession of the poem.

But Coleridge's acquaintance with Psellus was not confined to Marsilio Ficino's little book. He certainly knew the Chaldœan Oracles, for he jots down in the Note Book a fragment of one of the most magnificent of them . . . and any edition of the Oracles which he knew would include the Commentary of Michael Psellus. And in his commentary Psellus once more unfolds his doctrine of the dæmons of the elements. But Coleridge encountered the conception at every turn in the books that he was reading at the time. He took a volume of Apuleius from the Bristol Library in November, 1796—-enthusiastically scrawling in the Library record, in lieu of the date, a pæan of victory: "9 Dutch ships taken, with 3000 troops Bravo"—and he speaks with admiration of the Florida. And the De Deo Socratis of Apuleius contains the most lucid and entertaining and suggestive discourse on elemental dæmons that I know. But it was not only on his Neoplatonists that Coleridge drew. Dupuis's first two volumes are a riot of genii, dæmons, angel guardians, and tutelary spirits of every feather. To the uninitiated it is bewildering balderdash, but, as Charles Lamb says of brawn, "'tis nuts to the adept." And Coleridge was nothing if not that. And now the haunts of the albatross come into the picture. The astrologers, Dupuis tells us, divide the universe into climates and regions ("there is no climate or element," says the gloss, "without one or more"), and five planets are assigned to the five zones. The south polar zone (la zône glaciale du pôle austral) falls to Mercury, but not to Mercury alone. For genii or angels are also guardians of the zones (On put en faire autant de Génies ou d'Anges tutélaires des zônes), and among them are included Polar Spirits. Maurice, whose bubble of ice and Chinese astronomers caught Coleridge's fancy, tells also, in the same History of Hindostan, of "ancient Indian geographers," who represent "the southern hemisphere that is the region immediately under them .. . as a land of darkness and horrors, inhabited by evil dæmons." The austral seas are still the haunted mare tenebrosum. Finally (for even dæmons may wear out their welcome) Taylor the English pagan quotes, in his commentary on the Phœdrus, from the Platonic Hermias: "But there are other dæmons transcending these, who are the punishers of souls, converting them to a more perfect and elevated life.'' And Taylor was one of Coleridge's "darling studies," and that is the function of the polar daemon in the poem.

Then straight into that huge conglomeration flew an unsuspecting bird! There was really no escape for the albatross. It was doomed to its daemon from the first.

But what is the learned Jew, Josephus, doing in that galley? With adepts by the score to choose from, why should he, in the field of dæmonology no more than an authority of sorts, be singled out? He was, to be sure, not without standing as a witness to the phenomena of demoniacal possession. In the curious treatise, for example, of Balthazar Bekker, Doctor of Divinity, entitled The World Bewitched, he is drawn on for pertinent evidence, and that eminent authority on all matters dæmonological, Johannes Wierus, takes issue with him on a knotty point, when, in his edifying work on the Illusions of Dæmons (De Prœstigiis Dœmonum), he discusses the treatment of those who are so hapless as to fall victims to the sorceries of lamias. And other names might easily be added. But without special reason, Josephus was indubitably a bird of strange feather to flock with Michael Psellus.

There is, I think, an answer to the question, and it lies in a most interesting association of ideas. There is excellent reason why Josephus was very definitely present in Coleridge's mind at just this period. It will be remembered that in the preface to "The Wanderings of Cain" Coleridge declared that after he and Wordsworth had made a botch of that particular essay at collaboration, "the Ancient Mariner was written instead." And in "Aids to Reflection" he states explicitly that "The Wanderings of Cain," The Ancient Mariner, and "the first Book of Christabel" were written in the same year. Now since nobody has paid any real attention to the Note Book, it is not remarkable that nobody has observed that Coleridge was getting ready to write his "Cain" by reading Josephus. For in the Note Book stand, in the Greek, two excerpts from the second chapter of Book I of the Antiquities, which contains certain uncanonical information about Cain. Cain, and the "Old Navigator," and a strange and shadowy third were moving almost simultaneously towards the light, in Coleridge's brain. And with Cain was associated Josephus. But besides this large and general connection there was a closer link. Just three pages before Psellus "Concerning Dæmons" in Coleridge's little Neoplatonic Bible, stands, in Porphyry's discourse "On the Abstinence of the Ancients," a summary of Josephus's account of the Essenes. And Porphyry's summary, with the name of Josephus in its first line, centres about the doctrine of departed souls—disembodied spirits, who "possesse the empire of the aire." Three pages later, in his opening paragraph, Psellus draws a sharp distinction between angels and dæmons, in their respective natures There, in a word, within three compact pages, are Josephus, and Psellus, and departed souls, and angels, and dæmons. Turn, now, once more to Coleridge's description of his daemon: "one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted." Whether Coleridge wrote the gloss at or near the time when the poem was composed, or later, before 1817, makes little difference. To such a reader Josephus and Michael Psellus were grappled together, once for all, by hoops of steel.


There is a remarkable passage in Jerome Cardan, physician and philosopher of the sixteenth century, from that richly curious chapter of his work "On the Variety of Things" (De Rerum Varietate) which treats illuminatingly of "Dæmons and the Dead" (Dœmones et Mortui):

Do not wonder, Reader, a man is no more able to know about a dæmon than a dog about a man. The dog knows that the man is, that he eats, drinks, walks, sleeps—no more. It knows also his form: so with a man in the case of dæmons. But you say, a man has a mind, a dog has not. But the mind of a daemon differs far more in its operation from the mind of a man, than the mind of a man from the sense of a dog.

That reads amazingly like a remark of William James which stands, not without pertinence, at the head of the first chapter in Algernon Blackwood's The Centaur: "We may be in the Universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all." Let me quote again:

Every element has its own living denizens. Can the celestial ocean of ether, whose waves are light, in which the earth herself floats, not have hers, higher by as much as their element is higher, swimming without fins, flying without wings, moving, immense and tranquil, as if by a half-spiritual force through the half-spiritual sea which they inhabit, rejoicing in the exchange of luminous influence with one another, following the slightest pull of one another's attraction, and harboring, each of them, an inexhaustible inward wealth?

That is not Apuleius on the dæmons of the elements (though it might well be!), but an excerpt from an exposition of the philosophy of Gustav Fechner, who died in 1887. And more profoundly eloquent than all is Goethe's confession of faith in the Dæmonic (das Dämonische), near the opening of the last book of Dichtung und Wahrheit. Are there still peopled deeps which obscurely call, while the intellect claps its fingers to its ears, to strangely peopled deeps in us?

"I can easily believe," wrote Thomas Burnet in the lines from the Archœologiœ Philosophical which Coleridge in 1817 prefixed as a motto to The Ancient Mariner—"I can easily believe that there are more Invisible than Visible beings in the Universe (Facile credo, plures esse Naturas invisibiles quam visibiles in rerum universitate)." And in a moment, as Burnet goes on, the old familiar faces, passed over by Coleridge as he quotes, reappear: "The Ethnic Theologians philosophize at large about the invisible World—the World of Souls, of Genii, of Manes, of Dæmons, of Heroes, of Minds, of Powers, of Gods. As one may see in Iamblichus on the Mysteries of the Egyptians, in Psellus and Pletho on the Chaldean Oracles, and everywhere in the Platonic writers." Yet the stately prologue which ushers us into an invisibly populated world closes on another note: "But in the mean Time, we must take Care to keep to the Truth, and observe Moderation, that we may distinguish Certain from Uncertain Things, and Day from Night." "Facile credo . . . sed veritati interea invigilandum est": what, after all, do we readily believe, and what is the moderation that we keep, as we come under the compelling magic of the poem?

Coleridge announced, in the Biographia Literaria, "the critical essay on the uses of the Supernatural in poetry, and the principles that regulate its introduction: which the reader will find prefixed to the poem of The Ancient Mariner." The essay—with its counterpart "on the 'Preternatural,'" to be annexed to Christabel—lives only, with other phantasms, as one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, and neither Josephus or Michael Psellus can this time lend us aid. But one pregnant sentence in the Biographia goes far to console us for our loss. Coleridge set out in the Lyrical Ballads, he tells us, to deal with "persons and characters supernatural .. . yet so as to transfer from our inward nature . . . a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." And as for dæmons, the grounds of our willing suspension are clear. They belong, like spectra-barks and eternal wanderers, to that misty midregion of our racial as well as literary inheritance, towards which we harbour, when the imagination moves through haunted chambers, the primal instinctive will to believe. And as the immemorial projections of elemental human questionings and intuitions—shadows of things divined, "which having been must ever be"—they are the poet's inalienable possession.


Now let us clear our minds of possible confusion. The incommunicable beauty of The Ancient Mariner is probably not enhanced one whit for anybody by a single line which I have written in this chapter. I am neither so ingenuous nor so pedantic as to cherish that particular illusion. The spell of beauty in the poem is sovereign in its exercise, and apt to pour on rashly proffered aid its beautiful disdain, and I have had another aim. For the ways of the spirit which creates the spell challenge the arduous effort to understand, by virtue of that very beauty in the thing created which exalts the faculty that gives it birth. And if that faculty be supreme, as we with one accord proclaim it is, then no attempt to fathom its workings is labour wholly lost—unless, indeed, we have recourse, as a last shift, to the miraculous, and relegate the plastic spirit of imagination to the category of the thaumaturgie and occult. If, then, I have made it clear—whether for dæmons of the elements, or water-snakes, or sun, or moon—that the rich suggestiveness of a masterpiece of the imagination springs in some measure from the fact that infinitely more than reached expression lay behind it in the shaping brain, so that every detail is saturated and irradiated with the secret influence of those thronged precincts of the unexpressed—if I have made that clear, my purpose is attained. I am not forgetting beauty. It is because the worth of beauty is transcendent that the subtle ways of the power that achieves it are transcendently worth searching out.

For The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is "a work of pure imagination," and Coleridge himself has so referred to it. And this study, far from undermining that declaration, is lending it confirmation at every turn. For a work of pure imagination is not something fabricated by a tour de force from nothing, and suspended, without anchorage in fact, in the impalpable ether of a visionary world. No conception could run more sharply counter to the truth. And I question, in the light of all that is now before us, whether any other poem in English is so closely compacted out of fact, or so steeped in the thought and instinct with the action which characterized its time. Keats, in "La belle Dame sans Merci," distilled into a single poem the quintessence of mediaeval romance and balladry. And what "La belle Dame sans Merci" is to the gramarye of the Middle Ages, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is to the voyaging, Neoplatonizing, naively scientific spirit of the closing eighteenth century. It has swept within its assimilating influence a bewildering diversity of facts in which contemporary interest was active. The facts are forgotten, and the poem stays. But the power that wrought the facts into the fabric of a vision outlasts both. And if we are rifling the urns where the dead bones of fact have long quietly rested, it is because the unquenchable spirit which gives beauty for ashes is there not wholly past finding out.

Irving Babbitt (essay date 1929)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7477

SOURCE: "The Problem of the Imagination: Coleridge," in On Being Creative and Other Essays, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932, pp. 97-133.

[In the following essay, Babbitt claims that, especially in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge overemphasizes the natural self ignoring a higher will in favor of a subrational animalistic self]

A striking feature of the whole modern movement has been its passion for origins. Tendencies that in other respects diverge widely agree in the assumption that, not the end as Aristotle asserts, but the beginning is 'the chief thing of all.' One may detect at least this likeness between the man of science who scoffs at the very idea of final causes and seeks to get back to electrons or chromosomes, and the primitivist who has a predilection for 'art's springbirth so dim and dewy' and sets 'the budding rose above the rose full blown.' We no longer believe in the nobility of the savage, but still hope, under the obsession of evolutionary theory, to derive our chief enlightenment regarding the human race itself from an endless prying into pre-history. Similarly, in dealing with the individual, we delve in the depths of the subliminal self and incline to interpret maturity in terms of childhood. Here again the backward glance is a bond between points of view that, at first sight, seem utterly dissimilar. At the very age, for example, when the child is hailed by Wordsworth as 'mighty prophet, seer blest,' he is most likely, according to Freud, developing an 'Œdipus complex.'

This passion for origins has been especially conspicuous for several generations past in both the creation and the critical study of art and literature. It has at last made possible a work like the recent important volume on Coleridge by Professor John Livingston Lowes [i.e., The Road to Xanadu, A Study in the Ways of the Imagination]. The search for sources—in this case the sources of The Ancient Mariner and "Kubla Khan"—has perhaps never been carried on more competently. In tracking Coleridge's immense and recondite reading Professor Lowes has displayed an industry little short of prodigious. He has claims to be regarded as the most accomplished of literary sleuths. He has devoted well over four hundred pages of his book to building up the background of two short poems, not to speak of a hundred and fifty pages of notes which are, in his own phrase, 'securely kenneled in the rear.' Moreover, he does not mean that his investigation should cater merely to learned curiosity. He has related it to another main preoccupation of our time—that with subliminal psychology—in the hope of thus throwing light on the mystery of the creative imagination itself.

Professor Lowes distinguishes three stages in the creative process. The first stage is conscious: the fixing of the attention on some particular field and the accumulation of material that bears upon it. In the second and, it would seem, essential stage the material thus accumulated sinks into the region of the subliminal self and there enters into new and unexpected associations. Professor Lowes seeks to show how in The Ancient Mariner and "Kubla Khan" the images that Coleridge had derived from his multifarious reading, especially of books of travel, were thus magically modified in the 'deep well of unconscious celebration.' The view of creative genius that has been popular ever since the eighteenth century has encouraged emphasis on the unconscious and the spontaneous, more or less at the expense of the purposeful. Thus Ruskin writes of Turner: 'He only did right when he ceased to reflect; was powerful only when he made no effort, and successful only when he had taken no aim.' In much the same vein Emerson declares of the Parthenon and the Gothic cathedrals: 'These temples grew as grows the grass'(!). Even the partisan of a pure spontaneity cannot, however, if one is to believe Professor Lowes, afford to be ignorant. An ample preliminary enrichment of the mind is desirable, if only that the unconscious may have something to work upon.

The third stage of the creative process recognized by Professor Lowes is, like the first, conscious. However magically the material supplied by the unconscious may have been modified, it is still more or less inchoate. It is only by an effort, deliberate though still imaginative, that it can be fashioned into a harmonious whole. The 'shaping spirit of imagination' has thus presided over The Ancient Mariner, whereas it is absent from "Kubla Khan". This latter poem may indeed be regarded as the most notable example in literature of creation that has not got beyond the second stage; at least if one accept the usual belief, based on Coleridge's own statements, that it came to him precisely in its present form as a fragment of an opium-dream. One may grant that Professor Lowes's account of the 'ways of the imagination' is relevant to the two poems he has studied and yet ask if he has not exaggerated its general relevancy. He says in his preface that he does not propose to consider whether The Ancient Mariner is classic or romantic or whether it meets the Aristotelian test of high seriousness. Actually, he has answered these very questions by implication in the body of the book when he mentions the poetical Coleridge in the same breath with Homer, Dante and Milton and uses the phrase 'supreme imaginative vision' in connection with The Ancient Mariner. My own endeavor will be to show that the imagination displayed in The Ancient Mariner is qualitatively different from that displayed in poetry that may rightly be regarded as highly serious. The whole problem has an importance transcending Coleridge and his influence, far-reaching though that influence has been. The imagination, as Pascal puts it, disposes of everything—even of religion, to an extent that Pascal himself would probably have been loath to admit. The importance of the subject is, however, equaled only by its difficulty. The chief difficulty is that 'imagination' belongs to a class of words, unhappily tending to increase, that have been used in so many meanings that they have almost ceased to have any meaning. One's first temptation is simply to banish words of this type from one's vocabulary. A saner precedure is to strive for more accurate definition, definition which, if it is to be valid, should be based first of all on a broad historical survey of what the general term under consideration actually has meant.

What one discovers in dealing in this fashion with the word imagination is that it has in the past been used primarily to describe the various impressions of sense or else a faculty that was supposed to store up these impressions. It therefore gives only appearances and not reality. Here is a main source of the persistent suspicion of the imagination that can be traced from early Greek times to the eighteenth century. When Saint Bonaventura, for example, says that the 'soul knows God without the support of the outer senses' he merely means to affirm that man is not dependent for his perception of religious truth on the imagination.

The association of imagination or phantasy with mere appearance no doubt explains why Aristotle does not employ the word at all in his Poetics. For poetry, he tells us, that is to be accounted highly serious, must penetrate beyond the impressions of sense to the universal. To be sure, this universal is not achieved directly, but only with the aid of 'myth' or fiction. Moreover, the art of representative fiction, as Aristotle conceives it, is intensely dramatic. To imitate the universal means practically to depict human actions not at random but with reference to some sound scale of ethical values. Centrality of vision is necessary if poetry is to have 'probability,' if, in other words, it is to disengage true unity and purpose from the welter of the actual. But though Aristotle's prime emphasis is in poetry and elsewhere on purpose, he recognizes man's almost insatiable craving for the marvelous. The more wonder the better, he seems to say, provided it does not involve an undue sacrifice of truth to the universal. Tragedy that has with the aid of representative fiction or significant illusion succeeded in portraying the universal through the particular, tends to raise the spectator to its own level and, as a result of this enlargement of spirit, to relieve him of what is merely petty and personal in his own emotions. This is the true katharsis that Milton has, with the intuition of a great poet, rendered so admirably at the end of Samson Agonistes.

I have been pointing out in my essay on Johnson that the neo-classic theorist made much of imitation and probability, but tended to divorce them from fiction in the sense of illusion; that fiction in this sense had come to be associated with certain forms of romantic extravagance; and that one of the reasons for the distrust of the imagination was its identification with a one-sided quest of wonder. Yet Voltaire himself had declared that 'illusion is the queen of the human heart.' The neo-classic inadequacy at this point was a chief factor in the rise of the romantic movement, a movement marked at its inception, as I have said, by the appearance of a new phrase, the 'creative imagination.' This creativeness was associated not with imitation but with spontaneity, which came to mean practically emotional spontaneity. Furthermore the movement speedily took on a primitivistic coloring.

The eighteenth-century theorists of originality and genius thus prepared the way for Wordsworth's definition of poetry as 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,' and for the closely related idea that this overflow is most likely to be found in peasants and other simple folk who are still close to 'nature.' Wordsworth, however, goes beyond the earlier primitivists by reinterpreting, largely it would seem under the influence of Coleridge, the word imagination. Imagination in the older sense of fiction, whether probable or improbable, he disparages. He himself lacked what he terms the 'human and dramatic imagination,' but felt he had something better in the 'enthusiastic and meditative imagination.' The imagination to which he accords his homage is not only 'Reason in her most exalted mood,' but the faculty that enables one, in contradistinction to the more or less arbitrary associations of mere 'fancy,' to achieve a true spiritual unity, not to be sure immediately but mediately through the objects of sense. For the Wordsworth of Tintern Abbey, God is, in M. Legouis's phrase, a 'gift of the senses,' a position radically opposed to that which appears in the sentence of Saint Bonaventura I have just quoted. Wordsworth has coined for his imaginative blending of himself with the landscape the phrase 'a wise passiveness.' But can one regard this imaginative blending as meditative? Genuine meditation requires effort. One may speak properly of the act of recollection but not of the act of revery; and it is pantheistic revery that Tintern Abbey plainly encourages. At all events, a striking feature of Wordsworth's poetical theory and, to no small degree, of his practice, is his dissociation of the imagination from effort or action in either the ordinary dramatic or the religious sense.

For the relationship he establishes between sight and insight and the resulting facility with which he reads a transcendental significance into the 'meanest flower that blows,' Wordsworth was, as I have said, indebted to Coleridge, who was in turn indebted to the Germans; though as to the exact extent of the indebtedness in either case it is well not to be too dogmatic. One would therefore have anticipated that Coleridge in his treatment of imagination and kindred topics in the Biographia Literaria would be in accord with Wordsworth. Coleridge would not, however, be the baffling figure he is if such were entirely the case. In the earlier chapters of this work he does indeed set out to define imagination in a way that would apparently have confirmed Wordsworth at essential points, but tends to get lost in what he himself terms 'the holy jungle of transcendental metaphysics.' One is reminded by all this portion of the Literary Life of Carlyle's inimitable account of Coleridge's conversation at Highgate: if anyone asked him a question, Carlyle reports, instead of answering it, or decidedly setting out towards an answer of it, he would 'accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear for setting out.' After much preparation of this kind in the Literary Life, he seems in chapter thirteen to be getting under way at last; but just at this point someone writes him a letter (the someone as we know now was Coleridge himself) warning him that he is getting beyond the depth of his public and advising him to reserve his more recondite considerations for his work on the Logos (which was of course never written). Where upon Coleridge turns from Schelling and the Germans to Aristotle.

The result of this escape from the 'jungle' is a sudden increase in clarity. There arises out of the transcendental haze one of 'the balmy sunny islets of the blest and the intelligible' that, according to Carlyle, also emerged at times in Coleridge's conversation. Indeed the chapters in which Coleridge deals on Aristotelian grounds with the paradoxes into which Wordsworth had been betrayed by his primitivism constitute the chief islet of this kind to be found in his prose writings. Thus (if I may be pardoned for summarizing material so familiar) Coleridge, having laid down the principle that poetry requires an 'involution of the universal in the individual proceeds to apply this principle to The Excursion. Wordsworth has in this poem put sublime philosophic discourse in the mouth of a peddler. Some particular peddler may be sublime, Coleridge retorts, but peddlers as a class are not sublime. The peddler of The Excursion is a possible but not a probable peddler. Again, a child of six who is a 'mighty prophet' can scarcely be regarded as a representative child. Coleridge objects in like Aristotelian fashion to Wordsworth's assertion that the true language of poetry is to be found on the lips of dalesmen who enjoy the advantage of contact with the 'beautiful and permanent forms of nature.' Excellence of speech, Coleridge replies in substance, is a product of conscious culture. So far as the dalesmen possess it, it has come to them, not as an emanation of the landscape, but as a result above all of their reading of the Bible. Wordsworth was right in rejecting the 'gaudiness and inane phraseology' that had arisen from the imposition on poetry of the artificial decorum of a social class. But there is a true as well as an artificial decorum. Though the poet should eschew mere polite prejudice, he cannot afford to neglect in his choice of words their conventional associations, as Wordsworth, a recluse with a defective sense of humor, was at times too prone to do. The intrusion of words with trivial associations into serious verse will produce on readers the effect of 'sudden and unpleasant sinkings from the height to which the poet had previously lifted them.' Wordsworth is also guilty at times of a somewhat different type of indecorum—namely of using 'thoughts and images too great for the subject.' This latter type of disproportion Coleridge terms 'mental bombast.'

Though Coleridge's critique of Wordsworth is thus Aristotelian in its details, transcendentalism would seem to reappear in its conclusion; and transcendentalism is a doctrine that mixes about as well with that of Aristotle as oil with water. 'Last and preëminently,' he says,' I challenge for this poet [i.e., Wordsworth] the gift of IMAGINATION in the highest and strictest sense of the word.' If Coleridge had been a more thoroughgoing Aristotelian, he might have found that the chief source of 'mental bombast' in Wordsworth arises from the disproportionate significance that he had been led by his transcendental philosophy to attach to natural appearances; when, for example, he exclaims, on his discovery of the small celandine, that he will 'make a stir, like a sage astronomer.' The stir would seem justified only in case it could be shown that, through imaginative communion with the small celandine, he attained a real spiritual unity. But what proof is there of the reality of a communion achieved in that way? One may perhaps best reply in the words of Coleridge:

Oh, William, we receive but what we give
And in our life alone does nature live.

In that case the nature with which one communes is not nature as known to the impartial observer but merely a projection of one's own mood on outer objects—in other words, a form of the pathetic fallacy. It follows, as I have remarked in a previous essay, that the unity thus achieved is not real but fanciful, so that the distinction between imagination and fancy that both Wordsworth and Coleridge strove to establish breaks down at the center.

Compared with the poetry that portrays action through the medium of fiction with reference to normal experience, communion with nature of the transcendental sort would appear to be only a new and fascinating mode of escape. The need of escape is deep-seated and universal and has been satisfied in manners manifold in the literature of the past. One would not, indeed, err greatly in choosing as epigraph for about nine tenths of this literature these lines of Emily Dickinson:

I never hear the word 'escape'
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation,
A flying attitude.

The chief instrument of escape is the imagination—a certain quality of imagination. One need not quarrel with imagination of this quality when it shows itself frankly for what it is. It becomes dubious only when put at the basis of what purports to be idealism or even religion. This form of self-deception has flourished especially in connection with our modern return to nature. Thus Rousseau writes: 'My soul wanders and soars in the universe on the wings of imagination in ecstasies that surpass every other enjoyment.' The results that follow from indulging this type of imagination are scarcely of a kind to satisfy either the humanist or the man of science. The wandering and soaring, they would agree, are for the most part, not in the universe, but in the tower of ivory. Similarly the 'liberty' and 'intensest love' to which Coleridge lays claim as a result of 'shooting his being through earth, sea and air' are accomplished only in dreamland. Like the Wordsworth of Tintern Abbey, Coleridge is setting up in this passage of "France: An Ode", pantheistic revery as a substitute for true meditation.

This is not of course the whole truth about either Wordsworth or Coleridge. Wordsworth attains at times to a truly religious elevation. In associating this elevation, however, with the 'light of setting suns' or some other aspect of outer nature, he is encouraging a confusion between spiritual and æsthetic perception. As a matter of fact, the first person who seems to have done justice aesthetically to the light of setting suns is 'the notorious ribald of Arezzo,' Aretino (letter to Titian, May, 1544).

There is, again, in Coleridge an element of genuine religious vision. He seems singularly different, however, in the total impression he produces, from the religious teachers of the past. These teachers, whether a Saint Bernard or a Buddha, are as energetic and purposeful as the head of some great industrial enterprise in our own time, though, one scarcely need add, in an entirely different way; whereas one can scarcely find in the whole annals of literature another personality so richly endowed as Coleridge and at the same time so rudderless. According to the familiar anecdote, he could not even determine which side of the garden walk would suit him best, but corkscrewed back and forth from one side to the other. There is more here than the ordinary contrast between the willingness of the spirit and the weakness of the flesh. His irresoluteness is related in at least some measure to his primitivism—above all to his notion that genius is shown primarily in a capacity for sinking 'back again into the childlike feeling of devout wonder.' It is no doubt true, as Mencius remarked long ago, that the great man is he who has not lost his child's heart; but it is also true that greatness appears in the power to impose on life a masculine purpose. It is not easy to estimate the precise proportion of primitivistic to genuinely religious elements in Coleridge himself. Regarding his major influence, it is possible to speak more confidently. This influence has, in Walter Pater's phrase, been a 'part of the long pleading of German culture for the things behind the veil.' Practically this has meant an interest in the elusive phenomena that are off the center of normal consciousness; the very phenomena, in short, to which Professor Lowes had devoted so much attention. As a result of his preoccupation with these crepuscular regions Coleridge impressed at times those who approached him as almost somnambulistic. The picture Peacock has drawn of him in Nightmare Abbey with his curtains drawn at midday and sprinkling salt on the candle to make the light burn blue has at least the truth of caricature.

This interest in the abnormal was by no means confined to Coleridge. It has been said of his age in general that it 'grovelled in the ghastly and wallowed in the weird.' Such an age had in The Ancient Mariner its appropriate masterpiece. In its psychology and incidents and scenic setting it marks the extreme sacrifice of the verisimilar to the marvelous. It is at a far remove from the Aristotelian high seriousness, which not only requires relevancy to normal experience but a relevancy tested in terms of action. Apart from the initial shooting of an albatross the Mariner does not do anything. In the literal sense of the words he is not an agent, but a patient. The true protagonists of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Professor Lowes remarks rightly, are the elements—'Earth, Air, Fire and Water in their multiform balefulness and beauty.' As Charles Lamb puts it:' I dislike all the miraculous part of the poem, but the feelings of the man under the operation of such scenery dragged me along like Tom Piper's magic whistle.' Between a poem like The Ancient Mariner in which the unifying element is feeling and a poem which has a true unity of action the difference is one of kind; between it and let us say The Fall of the House of Usher the difference is at most one of degree. In this and other tales Poe has, like Coleridge and indeed partly under his influence, achieved a unity of tone or impression, a technique in short, perfectly suited to the shift of the center of interest from action to emotion.

Intense emotion, especially under the stress of a unique experience, is isolating. Perhaps no work embodies more successfully than The Ancient Mariner the main romantic motif of solitude. ('Alone, alone, all, all alone!') Here if anywhere the soul is a state of the landscape and the landscape a state of the soul—the outer symbol of a ghastly isolation. The mood of solitude based on the sense of one's emotional uniqueness is closely interwoven, again, as every student of the modern movement knows, with the instinct of confession. Rousseau himself says of certain childhood experiences:' I am aware that the reader does not need to know these details but I need to tell them to him.' In much the same fashion the Wedding Guest does not need to hear the Mariner's tale, but the Mariner needs to relate it to him. The psycho-analysts have, with rare effrontery, applied to the relief that results from a yielding to the confessional urge the noble term katharsis. It should be apparent that the term cannot be applied in its correct meaning to mere emotional overflow nor again to fiction in which wonder and strangeness prevail so completely, as in the present case, over imaginative imitation of the universal.

It follows from all that has been said that The Ancient Mariner, judged by the quality of the imagination that informs it, is not only romantic but ultra-romantic. One should not therefore disparage it, or in general regard as the only test of poetry its degree of conformity with the model set up by Aristotle in his Poetics. One must insist that in the house of art are many mansions. It does not follow that the mansions are all on the same level or of equal architectural dignity. That The Ancient Mariner is good in its own way—almost miraculously good—goes without saying. The reason for thinking that this way is inferior to the way envisaged by Aristotle is that it is less concerned with moral choices in their bearing on the only problem that finally matters—that of man's happiness or misery. Professor Lowes's praise will seem pitched in too high a key to anyone who accepts this or some similar scale of poetical values. He himself is not quite consistent at this point. At one moment he agrees with Coleridge that the fiction of the poem should have been openly irresponsible like that 'of the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a genie starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son.' In general Professor Lowes seems to dismiss the whole demand for probability as worthy only of literary philistines like Mrs. Barbauld, who complained, it will be remembered, of The Ancient Mariner that it was 'improbable and had no moral.'

At other moments, though recognizing the grotesque disproportion between the Mariner's initial act and its consequences, Professor Lowes seems to take the tale seriously as a treatment of the great drama of guilt and expiation. The fact is that it is impossible to extract any serious ethical purport from The Ancient Mariner—except perhaps a warning as to the fate of the innocent bystander; unless indeed one hold that it is fitting that, for having sympathized with the man who shot an albatross, 'four times fifty living men' should perish in torments unspeakable.

In the meanwhile, contrary to Mrs. Barbauld's assertion, The Ancient Mariner actually has a moral ('He prayeth best, who loveth best,' etc.). Moreover, this moral, unexceptionable in itself, turns out, when taken in its context, to be a sham moral. The mode in which the Mariner is relieved of the burden of his transgression, symbolized by the albatross hung about his neck—namely, by admiring the color of the water-snakes—is an extreme example of a confusion to which I have already alluded: he obtains subrationally and unconsciously ('I blessed them unaware') the equivalent of Christian charity. Like many other works in the modern movement, the poem thus lays claim to a religious seriousness that at bottom it does not possess. To this extent at least it is an example of a hybrid and ambiguous art.

By turning their attention to the wonder and magic of natural appearances Wordsworth and Coleridge and other romantics opened up an almost inexhaustible source of genuine poetry. Wonder cannot, however, in this or in any other form serve as a substitute for the virtues that imply a something in man that is set above the phenomenal order. If we are to believe the great teachers of the past, the pathway to religious wisdom does not lie through the flower in the crannied wall or the equivalent. The attempt to base religion on wonder becomes positively grotesque when Walt Whitman declares that 'a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.' The underlying confusion of values has, however, persisted in less obvious forms and is indeed the most dubious legacy to our own time from the romantic age. Thus Mrs. O. W. Campbell asserts that 'Christ was the first romantic and the greatest.' According to Mr. Middleton Murry, again, when a person does not dare to come out and attack Christ openly he vents his spleen on Rousseau.

The distinction between two entirely different orders of intuition that is being blurred or obliterated by the writers I have just been citing is closely related to the problem of the imagination. Perhaps no recent critic has spoken more wisely on the nature of this relationship than a French contemporary of Coleridge—Joubert; and that at the very time when Coleridge was insinuating that 'a Frenchman is the only animal in the human shape that by no possibility can lift itself up to religion or poetry.' Joubert not only displays the same high type of vision that appears at times in Coleridge but he has the advantage over Coleridge of not being addicted either to opium or German metaphysics. The most important distinction made by Joubert is that between an imagination that does not rise above the impressions of sense and an imagination that gives access to the supersensuous, that is, in short, an organ of insight. It is only with the aid of this latter type of imagination that one achieves the 'illusion of a higher reality'; the illusion is indeed, according to Joubert, 'an integral part of the reality.'

One cannot afford to disdain in the creative process what may be termed the spontaneities, all that seems to come as a free gift, for example, the magical combinations and permutations of images in the 'deep well.' Coleridge, however, falls into a dangerous primitivistic exaggeration when he says that 'there is in genius itself an unconscious activity; nay, that is the genius in the man of genius.' The imagination that Joubert calls the 'eye of the soul' is fully conscious and also creative, though in a different sense: it creates values. It does so by coö perating with reason in the service of a higher will. The unconscious activities must be controlled with reference to the values thus created with the help of the ethical imagination, as one may term it, if they are to have direction and purpose, in other words human significance. Technique is admittedly something that must be consciously acquired. The question of the ethical imagination is, however, plainly one that concerns not merely the technique or outer form of creative work, but its inmost essence.

Failure to make some such distinction as that I have been attempting, exposes one to the risk of confounding work that has abundant human substance with work that has little or none. Serious confusions of this kind are rife at the present time—more serious indeed than any with which Professor Lowes may be properly charged. For example Mr. E. E. Kellett writes in his recent volume Reconsiderations: 'There is something in the very choice of subject which marks out the supreme poet from his fellows. It is not an accident that Coleridge chose to write of diablerie and witchcraft. . . . The fact that Chaucer's subjects are in the main of the earth, earthy, is significant of the limits of his poetic genius.'

It may be maintained that Dante has a depth of religious insight that puts him definitely above Chaucer. But to accord to romantic diablerie the same rating as to religious insight and to dismiss Chaucer, one of the most human of poets, as 'of the earth, earthy' in comparison with the Coleridge of The Ancient Mariner, is surely inadmissible. Here and elsewhere in his volume, Mr. Kellett reminds one of the French partisans of 'pure poetry.' So much is eliminated by the Abbé Bremond, the chief spokesman for this group, as not being of the essence of poetry, that it is, like Jowett's idea of God, in danger of being defecated to a pure transparency. Poetry becomes a je ne sais quoi, an 'electricity,' an indefinable magic that is similar, the Abbé Bremond would have us believe, to the mysterious and impalpable something that is present in the attitude of prayer. The truth is that the Abbé is ready to make an abject surrender of conscious discrimination and control in favor of a pure spontaneity, with a resulting confusion of the subrational with the superrational and finally of romanticism with religion that, in so prominent a churchman, is positively disconcerting.

The sacrifice of human substance to the Moloch of spontaneity is even more manifest in the contemporary French group known as the 'superrealists' (surréalistes), affiliated in their point of view with the English and American writers who abandon themselves to the 'stream of consciousness.' The very name that the members of this group have assumed would indicate that they are in error as to the direction in which they are moving. What they term 'reality' is plainly not above but below the human and rational level. The upshot of the quest of creative renewal in this region would appear to be, if one may judge from some of the contributions to transition, the organ of the group, a sort of psychic automatism.

I am not going too far afield in speaking of the surréalistes apropos of Coleridge. If a poem like "The Pains of Sleep" anticipates Baudelaire, "Kubla Khan," as I have already remarked, probably remains the best example of a spontaneity that, so far from having been disciplined to either humanistic or religious purpose, has not even undergone any technical shaping of the kind one finds in The Ancient Mariner. It illustrates what Coleridge himself calls the 'streamy nature of association' in revery at least as well, and far more agreeably, than, let us say, the closing pages of Joyce's Ulysses.

The notion that one becomes creative only by being spontaneous is closely related to the notion that one becomes original only by being unique. If we are to judge by surréalisme and other recent literary cults the time is approaching when each writer will, in the name of his genius conceived as self-expression, retire so completely into his own private dream that communication will become impossible. To be sure the drift of these recent cults towards sheer unintelligibility marks a violent extreme of the kind that usually comes towards the end of a movement. It is an extreme, however, that points to a one-sidedness in the movement from the start—the tendency, namely, to exalt the differences between man and man and to disparage or deny the identities. The result has been a fatal confusion between individuality and personality. True personality is not something that, like individuality, is bestowed upon a man simply because he has taken the trouble to be born. It is something that he must consciously win with reference to a standard set above his merely temperamental self; whereas there has probably never been a blade of grass, which, if it become vocal, might not say truthfully, in the language of Rousseau, that, if not better than other blades of grass, at least it was different. The notion that one may become creative simply by combining temperamental overflow with a greater or lesser degree of technical skill has resulted in work that often displays genius indeed but suffers at the same time from a taint of eccentricity; work in which, in Aristotelian parlance, the wonderful quite overtops the probable. Anatole France writes of Victor Hugo, perhaps the extreme example of genius of the eccentric type: 'One is saddened and at the same time frightened not to encounter in his enormous work, in the midst of so many monsters, a single human figure. . . . He wished to inspire wonder and long had the power to do so, but is it possible always to inspire wonder?'

The doctrine of imitation, setting up as it does some standard with reference to which a man must humanize his gift, whatever that gift may chance to be, is, in all its forms, chastening; perhaps, in some of its forms, too chastening. One remembers the prostration of the literary aspirant before the models during the neo-classic period. On the other hand, the doctrine that discredits imitation in favor of spontaneity does not put a man sufficiently on his guard against what Buddha and other sages have declared to be the two root diseases of human nature—conceit and laziness. It would not be difficult to find modern applications of a sentence that was written by Robert Wolseley as long ago as 1685: 'Every ass that's romantic believes he's inspired.'

But to return to Coleridge: at his best, especially when he insists that great poetry must be representative, he can scarcely be charged with having encouraged the over-facile type of inspiration. One may ask however whether he has brought the doctrine of representativeness, with its inevitable corollaries of imitation and probability, into sufficiently close relation with his actual defining of the imagination and its rôle. The most famous of his critical phrases, 'that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,' does not appear to afford any adequate basis for discriminating between poetic faith and poetic credulity. The fact that a fiction of any kind is enthralling is no sure proof that it has human substance. Otherwise certain detective stories would merit a high literary rating. The phrase was actually framed with a view to justifying The Ancient Mariner, a tale that lacks probability, not only in Mrs. Barbauld's sense, but, as I have been trying to show, in Aristotle's as well. Nor is it enough to speak of 'the shaping spirit of imagination,' for the imagination may shape chimeras. One cannot again be wholly satisfied with the definition of 'the primary imagination' as 'a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.' This would seem to be an invitation to the romantic to exalt himself to the level of deity before making sure of the validity of his imaginings apart from his own emotions.

We must conclude therefore that, in spite of many admirable remarks by the way, Coleridge does not succeed in disengaging his theory of the imagination sufficiently from the transcendental mist. It is to be regretted above all that he did not affirm clearly the rôle of the imagination in giving access to a supersensuous reality; an affirmation that is necessary if the doctrine of imitation and probability is to be relieved of every suspicion of formalism. Instead, he inclined to see the highest use of the imagination in Wordsworth's communing with natural appearances, and so became one of the promoters of the great pathetic fallacy that has been bewildering the human spirit ever since.

Wordsworth, who tended to read into the landscape what is not there (for example, 'unutterable love'), at the same time that he rendered, often fortunately, the wonder that is there, disparaged science. Yet probably the chief reason for the comparative eclipse of the imagination that seizes what is normal and central in human experience in favor of the imagination that yields to the lure of wonder has been the discoveries of science. These discoveries have engendered an intoxication with novelty for which the past offers no parallel. The modern man has been kept on the tiptoe of expectation by one marvel after another. For the moment he is thus imaginatively enthralled by the conquest of the air. He is infinitely removed from the Horatian nil admirari, even though he does not set out deliberately, like a certain French minor poet, to 'live in a state of bedazzlement.' As a result of the interplay and coö peration of the various forms of naturalism, the attitude of the modern man towards life has become purely exploratory—a sheer expansion of wonder and curiosity. He cannot even conceive another attitude. Yet a situation is gradually growing up that may force him to conceive it. Wonder has a large place in the scheme of things, but is after all only a sorry substitute for the law of measure of the humanist or for the religious virtues—awe, reverence and humility.

If one wishes to understand how humanism and religion have been more or less compromised by the modern movement with its 'Renascence of Wonder,' it is still helpful to go back to its earlier stages. Matthew Arnold expressed the opinion that the burst of creative activity in English literature through the first quarter of the nineteenth century had about it something premature. Whatever justification there may be for this opinion is found in the failure of the romantic leaders to deal critically enough with the idea of creation itself. The doctrine of creative spontaneity towards which they inclined, though in the case of Coleridge with reservations, suffered, as I have been trying to show, from a one-sidedness that has persisted to the present day. Unless this one-sidedness is corrected, it is to be feared that art and literature will be menaced with a more than Alexandrian decline. As a matter of fact, Joyce's Ulysses, which has been saluted by Miss Rebecca West, speaking for no inconsiderable portion of the younger literary set, as a work of 'majestic genius,' marks a more advanced stage of psychic disintegration than anything that has come down to us from classical antiquity. If there is to be any recovery of humanistic or religious truth, at least along critical lines, it would appear desirable to associate the creative process once more, not with spontaneity, but with imitation, imitation of the type that implies a supersensuous model imaginatively apprehended. According to the late Stuart Sherman, 'the great revolutionary task of nineteenth-century thinkers was to put man into nature. The great task of twentieth-century thinkers is to get him out again.' Superficially, the most serious danger of the primitivistic immersion of man in nature to which Sherman refers is that it leads to a denial of reason; a still graver danger, one finds on closer scrutiny, is that it leads to an obscuring of the true dualism—that between man's natural self and a higher will—or more frequently to the setting up of some subrational parody of this will such as one finds in The Ancient Mariner. The obscuring of the higher will has coincided practically with the decline of the doctrine of divine grace with which it has in the Christian Occident been traditionally associated. The issues involved evidently extend far beyond the boundaries of literature. But, to consider literature alone, it would seem necessary to recover in some form, perhaps in a purely psychological form, the true dualism, if creation is once more to be achieved that deserves to be accounted highly serious—creation, in other words, that is informed by the human and dramatic quality of imagination.

G. K. Chesterton (essay date 1934)

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SOURCE: "About S.T.C.," in As I Was Saying: A Book of Essays, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1936, pp. 86-91.

[In the following excerpt, Chesterton derides criticism that would overemphasize the influence of opium on Coleridge and his poetry.]

It seems to me that the central genius of a man like Coleridge is not a thing to be dealt with by critics at all. If they really had anything worth saying about such a poet, they would write it in poetry. It is the curse upon all critics that they must write in prose. It is the specially blighting and blasting curse upon some of them, that they have to write in philosophical or psychological or generally analytical prose. I have never read a page of such criticism, however clear and clever, which brought me the most remote echo of the actual sound of the poetry or the power of poetical images, which are like magic talismans. Therefore, in writing about a man like Coleridge, we are driven back upon secondary things; upon his second best work, or upon the second- or third-rate controversies aroused by that work. In that sense, of course, there are any number of second-rate things to be said of Coleridge. It is suggested, for instance, that the abnormal or enormous enlargement of his imagination was due to a dirty habit he had of taking opium. I will confess that I am sceptical about the divinity of the drug; or the power of any drug to act like a god, and make a man other than he really is. I will merely suggest that if exactly the same quantity of opium had been given to a number of Coleridge's contemporaries—let us say to George the Third, to Mr. Bentham, to the Duke of Wellington, to Mr. Gifford, to Beau Brummel or to William Pitt himself, not to mention Mr. Perceval—I gravely doubt whether any or all of these persons together would have produced a line of "Kubla Khan". It was a pity that Coleridge took opium; because it dissolved his great intellect in dreams, when he was perhaps more fitted than most men of his time to have made some structural logical system, that should have reconciled Revolution and Religion. But Christabel and The Ancient Mariner were written by Mr. Coleridge and not by Mr. Opium. The drug may have accelerated or made easy a work which some weaknesses in his moral character might have made him avoid or delay, because they were laborious; but there is nothing creative about a narcotic. The point is perhaps worthy of remark; for nobody who knows the nineteenth-century literature can fail to notice that there was a curious effort, under the surface, to make such Asiatic drugs as normal as European drinks. It is a sort of subterranean conspiracy that ranges from the Confessions of De Quincey to the Moonstone of Wilkie Collins. Fortunately, tradition was too strong for it; and Christian men continued to prefer the grape of life to the poppy of death.

Then it would be easy to add, upon this secondary plane, that Coleridge did really suffer from other misleading influences besides opium. The Ancient Mariner is probably one of the most original poems that were ever written; and, like many original things, it is almost antiquarian. Like most Romantics reviving the Gothic without understanding the medieval, he carried archaism to lengths that were almost comic. I am not sure that he did not call the Mariner a Marinere. All that affects us as too reminiscent of the Olde English Tea-Shoppe. A more serious difficulty was that he turned too sharply from France to Germany. It was very natural that a Romantic should take refuge in the German forests, and still more in the German fairy-tales. It was a more unfortunate adventure that he took refuge with the German philosophers. They encouraged him, as did the drug, in a sort of misty infinity, which confused his real genius for definition and deduction. It was in every way excellent, of course, that the great German literature of the great German age, the age of Goethe and of Lessing, should be opened up to English readers; and perhaps it could have been done by Coleridge more calmly and luminously than it was afterwards done by Carlyle. But if Goethe was the great and good influence of Germany, Kant was on the whole the great and bad influence. These two great Germans offer any number of aspects to be admired or criticized; but, on the whole, Goethe made Germany a part of Europe, while Kant cut it off from Europe, following a wild light of its own, heaven knows where. Coleridge the philosopher can be criticized on various grounds; including the ground that he did not know the great philosophy of Christendom that was behind him. But Coleridge the poet cannot be criticized at all.

E. M. W. Tillyard (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: "Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798," in Poetry and Its Background, Illustrated by Five Poems, 1470-1870, Chatto & Windus, 1970, pp. 66-86.

[In the following excerpt, Tillyard discusses how The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is characteristic of Romanticism generally, and particularly "of the diversity of the Ancient Mariner, of the multiple layers of meaning, of the different uses to which nature is put."]


First let me explain that I shall not try to criticise [The Rime of the Ancient Mariner] in the sense of conveying something of the total effect. It is a rich and complicated poem, and to put in words the total effect issuing from this complication would be at once surpassingly difficult and unnecessary for the humbler objects I have in view. All I seek to do is to enumerate some of the layers of significance that go to make up the whole.

First, it is an exciting story, imitated from the old ballads, drawing much of its material from old books of travel, enlivened by touches of realistic natural description, yet partly appealing to that side of our natures that delights in superstitions and in the supernatural. Secondly, in spite of the supernatural happenings, of which no rational explanation is given, the main events of the story happen logically in a sequence of cause and effect. In such a sequence the moral motive naturally enters, and the question arises of what this amounts to. Late in his life Coleridge censured the presence of a motivating morality. In reply to an objection of Mrs Barbauld that the poem lacked a moral he answered that it had too much:

It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a genie starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son.

Probably Coleridge was stung to perversity by Mrs Barbauld's being so stupid, and did not mean what he said. In truth, the moral story, the punishment of a crime, is the core of the poem; each part ends with a reference to the crime, the killing of the albatross: remove the moral, and the poem collapses. Granted the moral, we must beware of narrowing it to the familiar modern doctrine of kindness to animals. If the albatross had been a crow or vulture or other bird of ill omen, there would have been no crime in shooting it; yet by humanitarian standards the act would have been just as bad. The reasons for not shooting the albatross were superstitious or at least primitive. By standards of superstition animals are good or bad. It is unlucky to kill the good; the bad (the toad, for instance) can be persecuted to any extent. The albatross was a good bird, and they "hailed it in God's name". It was also their guest, and in a primitive world treachery to a guest was a terrible crime. Coleridge's gloss sums the matter up: "The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen." Whether the act itself apart from its consequences can be motivated is a matter of opinion. Should we simply accept it as a piece of plot-mechanism, like Lear's resolution to divide his kingdom, or should we detect a reason? Certainly there is a very simple reason to hand. The act could be interpreted as the essential act of devilment, the act of pride, of the unbridled assertion of the self. It was what Satan did when he rebelled and what Defoe made Crusoe do when he thrice rejected God's offer of a virtuous middle way of life. Whatever the answer, we are suitably impressed by the enormity of the mariner's crime and readily accept the straits into which he falls. The way he gets out of these straits is also motivated but with a richness that makes it difficult not to encroach here on other layers of the poem's meaning. One reason for his escape is the sheer fulfilment of a frightful penance: he issues out of his prison like a prisoner who has served his time, whether repentant or not. And this punitive motive corresponds well enough to the purely superstitious crime of killing a bird of good omen. But there is the further reason of his blessing the water-snakes. And this was an act of repentance, a moral reversal of his grossly self-regarding act of killing the albatross, a forgetfulness of self in recognising the beauty of something quite independent. The crime, however, is not expiated at once. One of the two voices in the air says there is more penance to do. It is the one defect in the poem's structure that this further penance hardly exists and that the final expiation in line 442 ("And now this spell was snapt . . .") comes in very casually. Having learnt to expect motivation, we are disappointed when it is lacking. Even if we assume that the penance is now really complete, we still miss a further act of repentance to correspond to the blessing of the water-snakes. Thenceforward everything is credible in its context. The crime has been such that we accept the mariner's final doom of having periodically to relive his old experience through recounting his tale.

I have spoken of the simple narrative interest and of the moral motivation together because the second helps the first along: a logical is more emphatic than a mere casual sequence. As Lowes says in his Road to Xanadu: "The sequence which follows the Mariner's initial act accomplishes two ends: it unifies and it 'credibilizes' the poem". But Lowes notices something more about the morality: its truth to the ordinary experience of life. He writes:

The train of cause and consequence is more than a consolidating factor of the poem. It happens to be life, as every human being knows it. You do a foolish or an evil deed, and its results come home to you. And they are apt to fall on others too. You repent, and a load is lifted from your soul. But you have not thereby escaped your deed. You attain forgiveness, but cause and effect work on unmoved, and life to the end may be the continued reaping of the repented deed's results.

Though this is not how we think of the poem when we read it, we do ratify Lowes's words on reflection. And they are important, for they convey a part of the meaning that is too often forgotten. And it is precisely the blend of this sheer truth to human experience with the narrative power the fantastic happenings and the brilliant pictures that makes the Ancient Mariner so rich and so surprising.

But the Ancient Mariner is more than a fascinating story with a moral. It may be that H. I' A. Fausset is right in seeing it as an allegory of Coleridge's own life: his strange mind, his terrors, his loquacity. The Mariner, repeating his tale, may well be Coleridge, "seeking relief throughout his life in endless monologues". But even if Fausset is right, he is indicating a very minor layer of the poem's meaning. What matters is not that Coleridge should be speaking for himself but that he should be speaking for many others. Miss Bodkin in her Archetypal Patterns in Poetry chooses the Ancient Mariner as one of the poems "the ground of whose appeal is most evidently the impression of the inner life", but she rightly does not confine the inner life to Coleridge's. And if, as I think we should, we take the Mariner's voyage as a mental one, it should figure the adventures not of Coleridge alone but of all mental voyagers.

Once we postulate an allegory we are beset with dangers, above all with the temptation to grow excited, to see too much, to mistake a simple picturesque detail for a complicated moral truth. I will try to keep to the more obvious and plausible significances.

The general drift of the poem in its mental action can readily be recognised by two passages from other poets: Webster,

My soul like to a ship in a black storm
Is driven I know not whither;

and Shelley,

The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven.
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar!

The sea-voyage, then, indicates spiritual adventure, as the ordinary journey or pilgrimage indicates the course of normal life. And it is not everyone who goes out of his way to seek adventure. There is a passage in Coleridge's prose that both says this and has its bearing on the Ancient Mariner.

The first range of hills, that encircles the scanty vale of human life, is the horizon for the majority of its inhabitants. On its ridges the common sun is born and departs. From them the stars rise, and touching them they vanish. By the many, even this range, the natural limit and bulwark of the vale, is but imperfectly known. Its higher ascents are too often hidden by mists and clouds from uncultivated swamps, which few have courage or curiosity to penetrate. To the multitude below these vapours appear, now as the dark haunts of terrific agents, on which none may intrude with impunity; and now all aglow, with colours not their own, they are gazed at as the splendid palaces of happiness and power. But in all ages there have been a few, who measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the feet of their furthest inaccessible falls have learned, that the sources must be far higher and far inward; a few, who even in the level streams have detected elements, which neither the vale itself nor the surrounding mountains contained or could supply. .. . It is the essential mark of the true philosopher to rest satisfied with no imperfect light, as long as the impossibility of attaining a fuller knowledge has not been demonstrated.

The Ancient Mariner and his ship represent the small but persisting class of mental adventurers who are not content with the appearances surrounding them but who attempt to get behind. (It may be added that though the class is small it stands for a universal impulse which is dormant in most minds and not absent from them.) Further, and here I recognise the danger of seeing too much, it is possible that the different degrees of nearness to normality represented in the poem do correspond to the apprehension of such degrees in actual life. The harbour-town, occurring in a narrative, is less real than the wedding-guest and the wedding but more so than the realms visited in the voyage; and these degrees of reality can hardly be without their effect.

Granted that the Mariner and his voyage signify the mental adventure of an unusually inquiring spirit, the outline of that adventure becomes tolerably clear, while it would be senseless to seek more than an outline. From the social point of view these spiritual adventurers are criminals: they disturb the existing order and they imply a criticism of the accepted round of life: they are self-appointed outcasts. The shooting of the albatross in the present context was an anti-social act: something that by everyday rules would not be done. And the avenging spirit takes the Mariner into a region and a situation the utter loneliness of which is both the logical consequence and the avengement of his revolt against society. This same region is one more version of that aridity that besets all isolated mental voyagers at one stage of their voyage. Other versions are Donne's conceit of himself in A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day as the quintessence of the primeval nothingness out of which God created the world; the emptiness experienced by the poet in Shelley's Alastor, who, when he awakes from his dreams, sees the "garish hills" and "vacant woods", while his "wan eyes"

Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly
As ocean's moon looks on the moon in heaven;

and the landscape in Browning's Childe Roland. The Mariner escapes from his isolation by the enlargement of his sympathies in the manner least expected and he is allowed to return to common life. And he does so as a changed man. He has repented of his isolation; his greatest satisfaction is to worship in company with his fellows of all ages. But he is still the marked man, the outcast, the Wandering Jew, the victim of his own thoughts. Further, although he has been judged by society, he has the reward of the courage that propels the mental adventurer: that of arresting and disturbing and teaching those who have had no such experiences. And this ambivalent criterion enriches the poem incalculably.

But there may be yet one more important layer of meaning; something so simple and fundamental that it extends beyond the rarer sphere of self-imposed mental adventure to the common inevitable workings of the human mind. Miss Bodkin sees in the Ancient Mariner a rendering of the pattern of rebirth, which is at once the theme of tragedy and a very law of human life: the process of renovation through destruction. This theme is certainly present. It was only through the destruction of his old state of mind that the Mariner was able to achieve the new, enlarged state of mind that could include the water-snakes in its sympathies. But the Ancient Mariner is unlike the most satisfying works that render the theme, for instance the Oresteia or Lycidas, in that the renovation brought about is less powerful than the thing from whose destruction it has sprung. There is nothing to correspond to the thrust of energy that ends Lycidas with

To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

The Ancient Mariner has been born again into a ghostly existence, not rejuvenated. And the haunting terror of the destructive experience remains the dominant theme of the poem:

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea.

So much for some of the layers of meaning. It is (may I repeat?) their co-existence and their interplay that makes the Ancient Mariner a poem of which one never tires. Finally, and before I go on to the ideas which Coleridge shared with his age, there is a detail in the plotting which parallels the co-existence of two layers of meaning. At one of the high points of the poem there is a discrepancy between the emotional-rhythmical plot and the asserted or factual plot. I refer to lines 257 onwards. The stanza beginning with 257 is the climax of the Mariner's suffering, and the bare factual meaning of the words that follow is that the suffering continues.

Her beams bemocked the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread;
Bet where the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charméd water burnt alway
A still and awful red.

The moonbeams are hostile, mocking the sultry main, while the water beneath the ship's shadow was a horrible red. It is only later that the mood changes and the Mariner blesses the water-snakes. But rhythmically and emotionally the change had already come in line 263 with

The moving Moon went up the sky
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside.

The relaxation in the rhythm is unmistakeable, and the playing off this relaxation against the contradictory assertion that the horror is still there is a wonderful poetic stroke. And this playing off is confirmed by line 287 when we learn that the Mariner blessed the water-snakes unaware. The rhythm of line 263 is the index of the first unconscious motion of the mind towards renewal.


The claims made above for a complexity of meaning in the Ancient Mariner have a direct bearing on the extent to which the poem reflects the contemporary world. Most people think of it as a delightful poem and typical of its age principally for arousing our sense of wonder. Fewer will think of it as exhibiting many contemporary habits of thought. Yet it exhibits them so richly and in some points contrasts so aptly with the other poems I have chosen that it embarrasses by the amount of material it offers. All I can do is to select some of the main topics.


A very remarkable thing in the Ancient Mariner is the strength of the religious or at least numinous feeling. And equally remarkable is the great variety of such feeling it contains. In these matters it speaks for a part of its age. Indeed but a part; for after the Augustan Age it becomes increasingly hard to find ways of thought and feeling universally accepted in England. And along with an undoubted expansion of religious sensibility was the steady advance of the utilitarian and scientific principles.

To begin with more general matters the Ancient Mariner is permeated with the sense of what people now call the numinous, with the sense of impalpable spirituality. It haunts the borders of the unknown and gives hints of terrors and joys that are awaiting exploration. It is true that Coleridge's knowledge of medieval angelology and demonology gives his poem a semblance of preciseness, but in addition there is this pervading sense of the numinous, which unites it to some of the early Wordsworth, to much of Shelley, to Ruskin and much nineteenth century writing, and which separates it from any of the poems hitherto discussed. This side of the Ancient Mariner may be vaguely religious but it is untheoiogical. The Testament of Cresseid is not primarily a religious poem, but its tragic story is conducted under a precise, though general, theology. What theology there is is schematic. Henryson is more certain and mathematically correct about his planetary powers than Coleridge is about his spirits. If Henryson had used these spirits, he would have sorted graded and labelled them. Coleridge was learned in medieval theology and he knows about the chain of being. But he uses the links in it out of their old context and in a new context of vague numinous evocation. The spirits in the Ancient Mariner are akin to Shelley's:

Oh! there are spirits of the air
And genii of the evening breeze,
And gentle ghosts—

and alien to the precisely ordered spiritual hierarchies of Dionysius the Areopagite. And the albatross is no part of a scheme but a detached symbol, useful to the poet in isolation.

Along with the numinous is the hint of pantheism, again uniting Coleridge with Wordsworth and Tennyson and later writers. This hint is given by the episode of blessing the water-snakes. The Mariner watches them not as a past age would have done as moral emblems or as servants of man, or as witnesses of the ingenuity of God's craftsmanship, but as creatures with a life of their own. In so doing he is eminently modern; for apart from a purely scientific interest this delight in the autonomy of animals, in their having their own proper business, is to-day the chief attraction of watching them. Such a feeling need not lead to pantheism, witness Hopkins's very orthodox poem, the Windhover, where with the words, "my heart in hiding stirred for a bird", the feeling comes in. It was the bird's going about its business utterly separate from and oblivious of the watcher that gave the special excitement. Nevertheless it is easy to see how such a feeling can tend to pantheism. Once you give animals a life of their own, you can easily suggest that it is just as good a life as the human. And once you do that, you tend to confound the classic divisions of existence and to make no unclosable chasm between inanimate and animate, between spiritual and non-spiritual. And with these divisions gone, it is natural to identify God and creation and to make him both all phenomena and its animating spirit,

one intellectual breeze
At once the Soul of each, and God of all,

rather than a person who has created his separate world out of nothing.

Next (and very obviously) there is the superstitious side appealing to that in human nature which dreads giving offence to a little-known and unpredictable supernatural power. In exploiting this feeling Coleridge was at one with his age. The eighteenth century as a whole had tended both to overestimate the speed with which such feelings were dwindling in the human mind and to dislike their occurrence in earlier ages. In compensation the next age paid them marked attention. The superstitions attached to the albatross have been mentioned already. The wedding-guest's fear of the Ancient Mariner is superstitious: he might have the evil as well as the compelling eye. And the Mariner himself, although self-propelled from land to land, is yet akin to the outcasts whose gift of bringing ill-luck to whatever land they inhabit makes them wanderers over the earth. Most obviously of all, the ballad form of the poem unites it with the medieval ballad and the world of the Fairy Tale. It thus represents a contemporary happening. People were tiring of the restricted anthology of Fairy Tales—mainly the selections and adaptations of Perrault—that prevailed in polite eighteenth century circles. The brothers Grimm were collecting their folklore during the Romantic period and in 1812 began to publish their Kinderund Hausmärchen (first translated into English in 1823). Nor can the crudest of all contemporary exploitations of the feeling for superstition be left unmentioned, the Gothic novel, for however remote in subtlety from the Ancient Mariner it does present some community of substance.

The Gothic novel suggests still another side of religion, the antiquarian; for the Ancient Mariner is very much of an antiquarian, Neo-Gothic poem. It is so good that we tend to forget this, just as much Neo-Gothic architecture is bad enough to remind us constantly that it is pastiche. Along with the ballad form is the medieval Catholic setting. The setting is a world of mariolatry, hermits, shriving, guardian saints and angels. However different the effect, this antiquarianism is comparable with Scott's and it has its contemporary importance. George Borrow blamed Scott for the Oxford Movement; and though he may have erred in concentrating his blame on one man, there is no doubt that the very wide antiquarian interest of the early nineteenth century in medieval things prepared the ground for a large religious movement that went right beyond the antiquarian. The hearty fun of the Ingoldsby Legends at the expense of the Middle Ages has its relation to the Ancient Mariner and testifies to the interests which contributed to the Oxford Movement.

And lastly the Ancient Mariner is religious in a much profounder way. Like the Testament of Cresseid it deals not only with the dreadful experience but with the salvation of a human soul. The Mariner is a sinner, and his blessing of the water-snakes is not only a reversal of feeling but an act of repentance. Again, the religion is little schematised. Cresseid, we can clearly infer, committed two of the Seven Deadly Sins, and her repentance followed a dictated plan. If the Mariner's sin was pride, we say so only by conjecture, and his conversion and repentance are conducted not on a plan but on the suppositions of human psychology. An interesting comparison is with T. S. Eliot's Family Reunion, suggesting that Coleridge looks forward not back. The turning point in Harry's mind is when he decides to follow the Eumenides not to fly from them. Just so the Mariner blesses the water-snakes instead of abhorring them. Again Coleridge speaks for his age. Between him and Dryden had interposed the expansion of the old Puritanism into the Wesleyan movement with a resultant emphasis on a sense of personal sin and on conversion. But to follow up this topic would anticipate my section on individualism.

With such different religious strains present simultaneously in a poem of six hundred lines it is astonishing that we experience no discomfort or sense of incongruity in the reading. On the contrary it is only with an effort that we can distinguish and perceive separately these strains; and we are surprised to find they are so many. Coleridge had every right to call the imagination the esemplastic power after having given so perfect a demonstration of its unifying operation.


Not only in religion but in nature Coleridge sees different things. Natural objects have ceased to be clearly arranged in the chain of being, but they can be numinous or terrifyingly fantastic, or purely picturesque, or correlatives of human emotion. The variety is astonishing, as the quality of descriptive power is superlatively good. For simple picturesque effect no contemporary or later poet has surpassed the description of the moonlit harbour on the return:

The harbour-bay was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn!
and on the bay the moonlight lay,
and the shadow of the Moon.

The rock shone bright, the kirk no less,
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness
The steady weathercock.

But the terms in which one of the Voices describes another moonlit seascape are very different indeed.

Still as a slave before his lord,
The ocean hath no blast;
His great bright eye most silently
Up to the Moon is cast—

If he may know which way to go;
For she guides him smooth or grim.
See, brother, see! how graciously
She looketh down on him!

There is little of the purely picturesque here but much that stirs our hidden and vaguely defined emotions. This utter servitude of the sea, more familiarly a symbol of unregulated violence or, considered in its vastness, of eternity, comes as a shock, and yet, with that portion of our mind that can still understand animism and magical habits of thought, we respond. It is interesting to compare Davies's lines on the same theme containing the same metaphor:

For lo, the sea, that fleets about the land
And like a girdle clips her solid waist,
Music and measure both doth understand;
For his great crystal eye is always cast
Up to the moon and on her fixed fast;
And as she danceth in her pallid sphere,
So danceth he about the centre here.

There is nothing primitive in Davies's thought, but with fantastic and sophisticated ornament he decks out a fixed inherited piece of information. For the emotional use of nature, the simple "pathetic fallacy", take another lunar description:

Her beams bemocked the sultry main,

or the single epithet of "star-dogged Moon".

The uses to which the nineteenth century put nature are well enough known to make it unnecessary to say more than that in his various modes of description Coleridge was the representative of his age.


There is a total lack of politics in the Ancient Mariner. Admittedly with such a subject politics are not to be looked for; yet here is a poem of six hundred lines and without the glimmering of a reference to any body politic. It was not that Coleridge was not interested in politics: on the contrary he had just written some very political poetry. In both these matters he represents his age. There was much political activity and yet how little do politics get into the best literature. Cowper's most poignant and effective verse is personal not political. Crabbe is social rather than political. Blake, according to Bronowski, is full of covert politics, but he is read for other things. Wordsworth was passionately interested in politics and spent much time in thinking on them and some time in writing on them in prose. Yet his effective verse, when it concerns man, concerns individual and unpolitical man. Shelley indeed is political, but it is not his political verse we most know him by. Keats is not political at all. This poetical shift away from politics is new. In Henryson politics and the Church were so interconnected that his orthodox theology can include the political field, not to speak of his serene acceptance of the social divisions of the Commonwealth. In Orchestra Elizabeth and her court have their inalienable importance in the world scheme, just as the idea of royalty and the history plays form an organic part of the complete works of Shakespeare. Even if for Shakespeare the individual may count ultimately for most, there is, even in his most purely tragic or romantic plays, a wonderfully strong counterpoise to these other motives in the powerful political values in the background. In the Ode on Anne Killigrew the royalism is organic. But in the most intense and serious poetry of the Romantics (Byron perhaps excepted) the body politic and organised man have dwindled in importance, while individual man with all the complexities and perplexities of his cerebration counts for so much more: a statement which leads to the next topic.


The Ancient Mariner speaks for its age in turning from social man to individual man and in caring for his inner motivation more than for his external activities. The two trends are not the same but they spring from such similar causes that it is hard to keep them apart.

For the novelty of this individualism contrast the Ancient Mariner with what Dryden makes of Anne Killigrew. Dryden praises her accomplishments with an extravagance which, taken at its face value, is ridiculous. But it is so ridiculous that we cannot possibly apply what he says, to one person. Inevitably our minds turn from the individual to the class of poets and thence to general ideas about poetry and painting; they come to rest on the social and on the political. Coleridge in his way is not less extravagant than Dryden, but with how different a result. His extravagances do correspond to what can take place in a human brain; they spring not from decorum but from a kind of truth. Even if they make a fascinating objective narrative, they do, in suggesting a psychological or even pathological reality, direct our attention to, or rather into, the individual mind.

The Ancient Mariner indeed illustrates wonderfully the psychological trend of thought which, beginning with Locke, grew powerful in the early nineteenth century, and has been a dominant thing in men's lives till the present day. Whether the death of Freud marks its decline remains for a later age to perceive.

Coleridge has put his psychology in terms of the religious idea of salvation, of sin and forgiveness. It happens that Henryson dealt with the same topic; and it is instructive to compare or contrast the two poets on this point. Cresseid, however pathetic a figure, behaves according to a formulated, classic set of rules. She falls into two classic sins; she is punished condignly; she repents; she is assured of salvation. The result is that even though her story is extremely moving it does not individualise the sufferer, rather it turns her into a version of the medieval Everyman. The Mariner, on the other hand, although given a greater semblance of acting by rules than most Romantic figures, behaves primarily according to the inner motions of the human heart. He blesses the water-snakes unaware; and how remote this unaware from the mathematical precision of medieval motivation. Again, the Mariner takes a journey; yet how different that journey from the pilgrimage governed by the precise moral geography of the medieval allegory. Between the medieval reliance on a religion whose rules were precisely laid down and the Mariner's heart-searching interposes a large change of ways of thought. Protestantism had put the weight on the individual act of faith as against the sufficient performance of duties. Puritanism by agonising over the act of faith had opened up strange byways in the human mind. And in the eighteenth century the scientific curiosity of Locke about the human brain and the spread of Puritan habits of thought through the Wesleys combined to effect a revolution. Not to speak of the self-communings of Rousseau. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is a wonderfully apt work of transition. In form it is highly schematised and follows the old tradition of the medieval allegory; but in effect it expresses the Puritan exaltation of faith over works, and shadows not the keeping of a set of rules or the fulfilment of certain obligations but the inner struggle to be saved.

In finding that the Ancient Mariner typifies Romantic individualism I have brought up a very obvious and familiar topic: more so than any mentioned hitherto, through its being so close to us. But it is precisely the familiar things with which I am principally concerned, and though this additional familiarity suggests brevity it must not be allowed to impose silence. I will mention at least two sides of Romantic individualism, both implied by the Ancient Mariner.

First, with the stress on the individual mind, it was natural that the less obvious as well as the more obvious parts of the mind should be taken into account. When a man agonises over a decision and relies on his own natural powers of choice and not on a set of religious ordinances or social conventions he will find that he makes his decision for reasons he cannot fathom or analyse. As the Mariner blessed the water-snakes unaware, so he makes his decisions not by conscious weighing in a balance but intuitively. Along with the new preciseness and rigorous discipline of the scientific movement of the nineteenth century was a shift of emphasis from the conscious to the unconscious part of the mind, from the sophisticated to the primitive, from reasoned choices to intuition. It was a shift carried to extremes in D. H. Lawrence, for instance, for whom "politics, principles, right and wrong" are a "desert void" and who pronounces that "when it comes to living, we live through our instincts and our intuitions". Further illustration is superfluous.

Second, when choices are to be made not by a preordained set of rules but by individual preference, it becomes natural that such a choice should be more highly valued if it is new and surprising than if it is repetitive; for repetition might easily become a formula and a fixed criterion. Hence, in part, the nineteenth century cult of originality. How powerful this cult is we can see at once by the instinctive welcome we give the word. A headmaster, considering the testimonial of a would-be assistant, little as he would like a man to be odd, would emit approval if he read that the man had a vein of originality. Contrariwise to say of someone that he has no originality is an unmitigatedly adverse criticism. Such a state of affairs did not exist before the nineteenth century.

Thirdly, Romantic individualism with its interest in the composition of the human mind shows itself in the trend of literary criticism in the nineteenth century. From Wordsworth with his talk of the passions to Bradley with his analysis of motives, criticism has been predominantly psychological. Poetry for Sidney was the glimpse of a state of things better than the actualities of life after the Fall of man allow, for Rymer an exhibition of decorum; for Wordsworth and the nineteenth century it is a rendering of individual human emotion.

Lastly, the Ancient Mariner represents a form of individualism characteristic of the Romantic period rather than of the rest of the nineteenth century. In their love of the individual the Romantics had a special fondness for a type so differentiated and original that he could not fit into ordinary human society. This type was so sensitive, or so wicked, and so obsessed by his own thoughts that he could not stay still but was driven on an unending pilgrimage. He forms a part of the true mythology of the Romantic age, and the Ancient Mariner is an eminent example of him. Shelley's Alastor is another example, and his self-description in Adonais perhaps the classic account of the type.

Midst others of less note, came one frail Form,
A phantom among men; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature's naked loveliness,
Actaeon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o'er the world's wilderness,
And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey.

The Byronic hero, though more of a man of action than Shelley's poet in Alastor, is clearly one of the type. Marmaduke, in Wordsworth's Borderers, turns at the end into the outcast and wanderer, unfit for human society:

A wanderer must I go . . .
No human ear shall ever hear me speak;
No human dwelling ever give me food,
Or sleep, or rest: but over waste and wild,
In search of nothing that this earth can give,
But expiation, will I wander on.

At his worst the self-propelled wanderer expressed a kind of snobbery of pessimism: only the inferior and insensitive find repose; the best people are like Io, driven round the world by the gadfly of remorse or of hypertrophied sensibilities. But Coleridge is exempt from the accusation of any such snobbery. Whatever his weaknesses his self-pity or the sanctimoniousness of his repentances, his desire to explore strange and frightening mental regions was genuine, as were his courage and persistence in maintaining the quest.


I spoke above of the diversity of the Ancient Mariner, of the multiple layers of meaning, of the different uses to which nature is put. This diversity is the true index of the vast complication of life that occurred in the Romantic period. It was as if the data for living had suddenly been multiplied. Not only were people learning more about the human mind but about human history and about the physical world. The industrial revolution was yet another complication. The situation was all the more difficult because on the whole the eighteenth century had pretended that their own rather simpler world was much simpler than it actually was. There is no need to labour the predicament of the Romantics, for we have inherited it and many added burdens of knowledge. The Ancient Mariner is modern in quite a special way through expressing, however subtly, this terrifying complexity.

It was an irony that the urge to put the burden of choice on the individual should have occurred when the difficulties of choosing had been incalculably increased.

C. M. Bowra (essay date 1949)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8537

SOURCE: "The Ancient Mariner" in The Romantic Imagination, 1949. Reprint by Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 51-75.

[In the following essay, Bowra contends that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner "creates not a negative but a positive condition, a state of faith which is complete and satisfying because it is founded on realities in the living world and in the human heart."]

When the first signs of the Romantic spirit appeared in the eighteenth century, the time-worn theme of the supernatural took a new character and received a new prominence. The fashionable cult of strangeness turned inevitably to this alluring world of the unknown and exploited it with a reckless carelessness. The result is that ghosts and goblins crowd the Romantic poetry of Germany, and in England the spate of "Gothick" novels spent its none too abundant resources in trying to make the flesh creep with death-pale spectres and clanking chains. The result, it must be admitted, is not very impressive. Instead of creating real horror and dread, this literature tends to be factitious and a little silly. It fails because it has not mastered the lessons of the past on how the supernatural should be treated. Instead of making it a subordinate element in a wider scheme, as Homer and Shakespeare do, the writers concentrate on it to the exclusion of almost everything else, and this over-emphasis spoils a subject which is effective only when it is taken in small doses. In the second place, they do not really believe in the supernatural as the great writers of the past did. It is not an authentic chapter of human experience, but an indulgence, an exercise or ghoulish fancy, and therefore unconvincing and dull. When the Romantic movement came to maturity, this cult was already largely discredited. There are, it is true, traces of its influence in Shelley's love for charnel-houses, and it is not entirely absent from Keats' Lamia, but these are no more than legacies from a past generation. It meant nothing to Blake or to Wordsworth, for whom it was at once too unreal and too foolish. But with Coleridge it was different. It appealed to him with a special power and was responsible for his finest work.

In 1797, being then twenty-five years old, Coleridge suddenly found the full scope of his genius. The outburst of creation lasted for about two years and then began to fail, but not before he had written the first part of Christabel, The Ancient Mariner, and "Kubla Khan." He had already composed good poetry, and in the long years afterwards he was to compose it again. But in 1797 and 1798 he wrote three poems which no one else could have written and which he himself was never again to equal or approach. At this time something set all his powers to work and brought to the surface all the hidden resources of his conscious and unconscious self. The dreamer was able to give a concrete form to his dreams, the omnivorous reader to fuse the heterogeneous elements of his reading into magical combinations, and the critic to satisfy his own exacting ideas of what a poem ought to be. In his later years Coleridge too often wrote with only a part of himself and was unable to speak from his full experience or to use the whole range of his powers, but into the three great poems he put all that he had. Why this happened we cannot say. We can do no more than note that here was a young man who suddenly found a voice new and strange and indisputably his own. But we can at least say what was not responsible for this. It is wrong to connect the flowering of Coleridge's genius with the formation of the opium habit; for though he had begun to take opium, it was not yet a habit, and as yet he took it only at intervals to get rest and sleep. It certainly does not explain the prodigious outburst of energy needed to create his unique poems. On the other hand, it is possible that his new acquaintance with the Wordsworths helped to unloose his hidden strength. Coleridge was always a prey to doubts and afterthoughts and rambling speculations, but Wordsworth encouraged and sustained him and kept him to his task. And though Coleridge had a remarkable sensibility to physical nature, it is abundantly clear that this was enhanced by the quiet and delicate observation of Dorothy Wordsworth. Nevertheless, the genius was Coleridge's own, and, whatever set it to work, it is the genius that counts. Coleridge's supreme contribution to poetry was the three poems, and of all English Romantic masterpieces they are the most unusual and the most romantic.

All three poems are concerned with the supernatural. "Kubla Khan," it is true, is less directly concerned than Christabel or The Ancient Mariner, but into its wild magnificence the supernatural has found its way, whether in the "woman wailing for her demon-lover" and the "ancestral voices prophesying war," or in the magical music of its close when the poet seems to break the bounds of human kind and become a wild spirit of song. In Christabel the whole scheme is based on the supernatural. The evil spirit who haunts the body of Geraldine and tries to ruin the innocent happiness of Christabel is in the true tradition of vampires, and Coleridge infuses a mysterious dread into her. In her we see an embodiment of evil powers from another world and realize how helpless ordinary human beings are against them. It is the last, and indeed the only, triumph of the "Gothick" taste for the phantoms bred by darkness and fear, and it succeeds because Coleridge believes so much in his subject that he relates it to life and to living experience. Both "Kubla Khan" and Christabel are fragments, and we can only imagine what they might have been. The Ancient Mariner is complete. In it Coleridge did what he set out to do and showed what his powers could be. It too deals with the supernatural, on a large scale and in a generous sense. From what divers sources it came may be read in the pages of John Livingston Lowes' The Road to Xanadu, which shows the strange alchemical process of its creation. To that superb work of scholarship there is nothing to add. What we have to consider is not how The Ancient Mariner came into existence, but what it is and what it means.

Coleridge intended to introduce The Ancient Mariner with an essay on the supernatural. Like so many of his projects, this was never realized, and though Coleridge seems to have lectured on the subject in 1818, we do not know what he said or what his views were. Perhaps it is as well, since when Coleridge began to theorize on literary matters, he was apt to forget his own practice or at least to make it out to be more elaborate than it was. We have therefore to deduce his theory from his practice and to look at what he actually did. His first idea came from a Mr. John Cruikshank, who, according to Wordsworth, had a dream about "a person suffering from a dire curse for the commission of some crime" and "a skeleton ship with figures in it." Coleridge spoke of this to Wordsworth, who saw that it was a subject well suited to Coleridge's genius and would fit into the part allotted to him in the plan of the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth was to take the subjects "chosen from ordinary life," and Coleridge another class in which

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.

On a walk in the Quantock Hills on November 20th, 1797, the plan of The Ancient Mariner was formed. Wordsworth contributed not only one or two phrases but the part played by the albatross and the navigation of the ship by dead men. The rest is the work of Coleridge, and on March 23rd, 1798, he brought the finished text to the Wordsworths at Alfoxden.

In taking the supernatural for his province, Coleridge must at the start have had to face a certain degree of prejudice. The subject was outmoded in the view of good judges, and any attempt to revive it might be greeted with suspicion. On the surface, The Ancient Mariner belonged to a class of poetry which provoked adverse comment. Even Hazlitt, who regards it as Coleridge's "most remarkable performance," adds less kindly that "it is high German, however, and in it he seems to 'conceive of poetry but as a drunken dream, reckless, careless, and heedless, of past, present, and to come.'" Charles Lamb responded with greater sympathy, but he too had his doubts about the use of the supernatural and said: "I dislike all the miraculous part of it, but the feelings of the man under the operation of such scenery dragged me along like Tom Piper's magic whistle." Coleridge set himself a difficult task. To succeed in it he must do a great deal more than reproduce the familiar thrills of horrific literature: he must produce a poetry of the supernatural which should in its own way be as human and as compelling as Wordsworth's poetry of everyday things. Coleridge saw these difficulties and faced them courageously. Though his poem has a supernatural subject, its effect is much more than a thrill of horror. He lives up to his own program and interests the affections by the dramatic truth of what he tells.

The triumph of The Ancient Mariner is that it presents a series of incredible events through a method of narration which makes them not only convincing and exciting but in some sense a criticism of life. No other poet of the supernatural has quite done this, at least on such a scale and with such abundance of authentic poetry. In his conquest of the unknown, Coleridge went outside the commonplace thrills of horror. Of course, he evokes these, and his opening verses, in which the Mariner stays the Wedding-Guest, suggest that at first Coleridge followed familiar precedents in appealing to a kind of horrified fear. But as he worked at his poem, he widened its scope and created something much richer and more human. To be sure, he chose his subject well. The weird adventures of his Mariner take place not in the trite Gothic setting of a medieval castle, which Coleridge used once and for all in Christabel, but on a boundless sea with days of pitiless sun and soft nights lit by a moon and attendant stars. Nor are his "machining persons" of the same breed as his Geraldine. They are spirits of another sort, who may have their home in some Neo-Platonic heaven, but are transformed by Coleridge into powers who watch over the good and evil actions of men and requite them with appropriate rewards and punishments. The new setting and the new persons with which Coleridge shapes the supernatural give to it a new character. Instead of confining himself to an outworn dread of spectres and phantoms, he moves over a wide range of emotions and touches equally on guilt and remorse, suffering and relief, hate and forgiveness, grief and joy. Nor has his creation the misty dimness commonly associated with the supernatural. What he imagines is indeed weird, but he sees it with so sharp a vision that it lives vividly before our eyes. At each point he anticipates the objection that his is an outmoded kind of composition, and does the opposite of what his critics expect.

The first problem for any poet of the supernatural is to relate it to familiar experience. So long as it was accepted as part of the scheme of things, there was no great difficulty in this. No doubt Homer's audience accepted the ghost of Odysseus' mother because they believed in ghosts and saw that they must be like this and behave in this way. But Coleridge could not rely on his readers' feeling at home with his unfamiliar theme. He must relate it to something which they knew and understood, something which touched their hearts and imaginations, and he did this by exploiting some of the characteristics of dream. Here was something which would appeal to them and through which they could be led to appreciate the remoter mysteries which he keeps in reserve. No doubt Coleridge did this because his first impulse to The Ancient Mariner came from Mr. Cruikshank's dream, but, once he saw this, he made full use of it and shaped his poem in accordance with it. Dreams can have a curiously vivid quality which is often lacking in waking impressions. In them we have one experience at a time in a very concentrated form, and, since the critical self is not at work, the effect is more powerful and more haunting than most effects when we are awake. If we remember dreams at all, we remember them very clearly, even though by rational standards they are quite absurd and have no direct relation to our waking life. They have, too, a power of stirring elementary emotions, such as fear and desire, in a very direct way, though we do not at the time ask why this happens or understand it, but accept it without question as a fact. It is enough that the images of dreams are so penetrated with emotional significance that they make a single and absorbing impression. Coleridge was much attracted by their strange power. In Christabel he speaks of

such perplexity of mind
As dreams too lively leave behind,

and The Ancient Mariner bears the marks of such a liveliness. On the surface it shows many qualities of dream. It moves in abrupt stages, each of which has its own single, dominating character. Its visual impressions are remarkably brilliant and absorbing. Its emotional impacts change rapidly, but always come with an unusual force, as if the poet were haunted and obsessed by them. When it is all over, it clings to the memory with a peculiar tenacity, just as on waking it is difficult at first to disentangle ordinary experience from influences which still survive from sleep.

In the criticism of The Ancient Mariner which Wordsworth added to the edition of Lyrical Ballads published in 1800, he complained that "the events, having no necessary connection, do not produce each other." Now no one expects the events of dream to have the kind of necessary connection which we find in waking life, and Wordsworth's criticism is beside the mark. Indeed, he is less than fair to Coleridge, who gives to the world of his poem its own coherence and rules and logic. Things move indeed in a mysterious way, but not without some connecting relations which may reasonably be called causal. When in a fit of irritation or anger the Mariner shoots the albatross, he commits a hideous crime and is punished by the doom of "life-in-death," which means that, after being haunted by the presence of his dead comrades, he carries a gnawing memory to the end of his days. His shipmates, too, are the victims of the same laws when they are doomed to death as accomplices in his crime for saying that he was right to kill the bird. In such a system it is no less appropriate that when the Mariner feels love gushing from his heart at the sight of the water-snakes, he begins to break the first horror of his spell, and the albatross falls from his neck. Once we accept the assumption that it is wrong to kill an albatross, the rest of the action follows with an inexorable fatality. It is true that this assumption is perhaps the hardest which The Ancient Mariner demands of us, but of that Wordsworth was in no position to complain, since it was he who suggested the idea to Coleridge.

This imaginary world has its own rules, which are different from ours and yet touch some familiar chord in us. Nor, when we read the poem, do we really question their validity. Indeed, they are more convincing than most events in dreams, and we somehow admit that in such a world as Coleridge creates it is right that things should happen as they do. It is not too difficult to accept for the moment the ancient belief that spirits watch over human actions, and, once we do this, we see that it is right for them to interfere with men and to do extraordinary things to them. Both the figures on the skeleton ship and the spirits who guide the Mariner on his northward voyage have sufficient reality for us to feel that their actions are appropriate to their characters and circumstances. Nor is it absurd that, when the ship at last comes home, it sinks; it has passed through adventures too unearthly for it to have a place in the world of common things. It and its stricken inmate bear the marks of their ordeal, and it is no wonder that the Pilot's boy goes mad at the sight or that the only person able to withstand their influence is the holy Hermit. Coleridge makes his events so coherent and so close to much that we know in ourselves that we accept them as valid in their own world, which is not ultimately very dissimilar from ours. Because it has this inner coherence, The Ancient Mariner is not a phantasmagoria of unconnected events but a coherent whole which, by exploiting our acquaintance with dreams, has its own causal relations between events and lives in its own right as something intelligible and satisfying.

Coleridge knew that he must make the supernatural convincing and human. In the Biographia Literaria, after saying that such poetry must interest the emotions and have dramatic truth, he adds that his aim is

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 for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

We may connect these words with what Coleridge said in 1818 in a lecture on dreams:

In ordinary dreams we do not judge the objects to be real;—we simply do not determine that they are unreal.

It is clear that Coleridge felt about the creations of his imagination something similar to what he felt about dreams. He assumes that while we have them we do not question their reality. The Ancient Mariner lives in its own world as events in dreams do, and, when we read it, we do not normally ask if its subject is real or unreal. But this is due to a consummate art. Each action, and each situation, is presented in a concrete form in which the details are selected for their appeal to common experience. Coleridge exercises an imaginative realism. However unnatural his events may be, they are formed from natural elements, and for this reason we believe in them. We may even be at home with them because their constituents are familiar and make a direct, natural appeal. Once we have entered this imaginary world, we do not feel that it is beyond our comprehension, but respond to it as we would to actual life.

In other words, though Coleridge begins by appealing to our experience of dreams, he so uses it as to present something which is more solid and more reasonable and more human than the most haunting dreams. He uses the atmosphere of dreams to accustom us to his special world, and then he proceeds to create freely within his chosen limits. At each step he takes pains to see that his eery subject is real both for the eye and for the emotions, that it has both the attraction of visible things and the significance which belongs to actions of grave import. His natural background for instance, could have been fashioned only by a man who had learned about nature from loving observation and shared the Wordsworths' devotion to it. Amid all these strange happenings nature remains itself, and its perseverance in its own ways sometimes comes in ironical contrast to what happens on the ship, as when, at the moment when the Mariner is haunted by the look in his dead comrades' eyes, the moon continues her quiet, unchanging course:

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside.

Even when nature breaks into more violent moods, it is still itself, and each touch of description makes it more real, as when Coleridge sketches a storm with something of Turner's delight in wild effects of sky and cloud:

The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.

In such scenes there is no indeterminacy of dream. Each detail comes from the known world and gives a firm background to the supernatural events which accompany it.

This realistic treatment of the setting is matched by the appeal which Coleridge makes to our emotions in handling his human persons. The Mariner and his comrades are hardly characters in any dramatic sense. They lack lineaments and personality. But perhaps this is well, since what touches us in them is the basic humanity of their sufferings. They are more types than differentiated human beings, and for this reason their agonies are simply and universally human. We feel that what happens to them might in similar circumstances happen to anyone, and we respond readily to their pathos and their misery. And these Coleridge conveys with a masterly directness. He portrays the helpless agony of thirst in the crew becalmed at sea:

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

When at last the rain comes, and the Mariner's thirst is slaked as he sleeps, Coleridge makes no less an appeal to elementary human and physical feelings, as with a striking economy of words he shows how this happens and what a wonderful relief it is:

My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams,
And still my body drank.

Of course, physical sensations play a large part in dreams, but Coleridge describes them as we know them in a waking state, and the lively way in which he handles them creates a powerful emotional effect.

What is true of physical sensations in The Ancient Mariner is no less true of mental states. The Mariner passes through an ordeal so weird and so fearful that it might seem impossible to make it real for us. We shrink from asking what such suffering means in conditions so unfamiliar and so hideous as those in the poem. To rise to such an occasion and to give a persuasive and moving account of what the Mariner endures demands a powerful effort of the imagination. Coleridge rises to the full claim of his subject and by concentrating on elementary human emotions makes the most of them. His Mariner is indeed in a fearful plight, alone on a ship, surrounded by the dead bodies of his comrades, and Coleridge conveys the full implications of his state by drawing attention to his sense of utter helplessness and solitude:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

That is the authentic anguish of a man who feels himself abandoned both by God and man and faced with the emptiness of his guilty and tormented soul. Conversely, when the ship at last comes to land, the Mariner sees angels standing by the dead bodies and feels an infinite relief. The very silence of the celestial presences fills him with hope and joy:

This seraph-band, each waved his hand,
No voice did they impart—
No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart.

Coleridge understood the extremes of despair and of joy, and he distilled them into these brief moments. Because his poem moves between such extremes it has a certain spaciousness and grandeur and reflects through its variations the light and the shadow of human life.

Coleridge expects us to suppose that his situations are real, and to have some kind of human feelings about them. This is no doubt easy enough when they belong to ordinary experience, but when the supernatural takes command it demands a more unusual art. Then Coleridge makes it look as natural as possible because, however strange it may be, he forms it from elements which are in themselves familiar. The paradoxical nature of the Mariner's voyage from England to the Southern Pacific, from the known to the unknown, from the familiar to the impossible, is conveyed in a verse which begins with something delightfully friendly and then, without ado, breaks into an uncharted, spellbound world:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

There is perhaps nothing fundamentally strange in the silence of this sea, and yet after the bustle of the waves and the wind it comes with a magical surprise. When dreadful and unnatural things happen, the same art shows how they would look and what impression they would make. When the albatross first begins to be avenged, the sea changes its appearance, and horrible things are seen on it:

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

Though this is seen by a man in the last agonies of thirst and has some qualities of delirious hallucination, it is poignantly real. It has the right degree of exactness for such an occasion, and it is well that the "slimy things" are not described more precisely. But when exactness is needed, Coleridge uses it with a masterly economy. When the dead men stir and begin to do again in death what they used to do in life, Coleridge epitomizes the weird situation in one highly significant action:

The body of my brother's son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope,
But he said nought to me.

No more is needed than these very simple words. The habitual, perfunctory action, now conducted by a dead man and a living man together, has an extraordinary horror.

Coleridge's realism is of course much more than an art of circumstantial details. It is a special form of poetry, the reflection of his love for the sensible world and his sensitiveness to its lights and shades and colours and sounds. He possessed to a high degree that cardinal quality of poetry which he calls "the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature." And he has more than "faithful adherence." He is by no means photographic or merely descriptive. His eye for nature is for its more subtle charms and less obvious appeals. In his choice of details we can see his affinity with the Wordsworths, but there is much that is indisputably his own, especially in the richer and more luxurious pleasure which he takes in some natural things. Nature was no moral teacher for Coleridge; he preferred to bask in its favours and enjoy them without any ulterior satisfaction that it was doing him good. Moreover, he was bolder than Wordsworth in describing scenes which he himself never saw, like the icebergs around the ship or the single sudden stride of the tropical night. Wordsworth was perhaps capable of doing this, but he was too conscientious to try. Coleridge, for whom the contents of books had a vivid reality, was able to see with the mind's eye, as if objects were literally in front of him. More, too, perhaps than Wordsworth, he evokes the magical associations of sound, whether it be an angel's song or the pleasant noise of the sails:

A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.

The Romantics knew how to use their senses, and Coleridge despite his love of metaphysical abstractions, was in this respect a true member of their company. He used nature to give colour and music, solidity and perspective, to his creations, and it is one of the chief means by which he sustains the enchantment of his poem.

Most of us, when we read The Ancient Mariner, are content to respond to its magic and to ask no questions about any ulterior purpose or symbolical significance that it may have. It lives so fully by its own rules in its own world that it seems impertinent to ask for more. And in this attitude Coleridge himself seems to support us. So far from agreeing with the worthy Mrs. Barbauld that his poem has not a sufficient moral, he said that its moral is too emphatically expressed; and so far from allowing that the action has some secondary meaning, he said that it has no more than may be found in a tale of the Arabian Nights. Worse even than this, he seems to rule out any attempt to explain his practice by his theories when he says: "For my part, I freely own that I have no title to the name of poet, according to my own definition of poetry." Nor can any justification for a symbolical purpose be found in what Coleridge says about the kind of poetry which he was to write in the Lyrical Ballads. The "willing suspension of disbelief is hardly a state in which we look for ulterior meanings and concealed mysteries. Even in his later years, Coleridge seems to have been satisfied if readers of The Ancient Mariner supposed his situations to be real and responded to their dramatic truth with appropriate emotions. He must have known that he was successful in doing what he set out to do and that he had carried out his bargain with Wordsworth. It is therefore not surprising that most readers of The Ancient Mariner are quite happy that it should be a story of supernatural events and do not wish it to be anything else.

And yet, though this position is natural and reasonable, we cannot but feel doubts about it. How are we to accommodate a poem, which is no more than a work of fancy, to all that Coleridge says about the imagination and its relation to truth and reality? If The Ancient Mariner is no more than a glittering fairy-tale, why did Coleridge not take account of this in his many elaborate statements about the nature of poetry? It is of course true that most of these statements were made at a considerable distance of time from his wonderful creative years, and that in the interval he may have changed his views or at least have fitted them not to the poetry which he had written but to that which he vainly hoped to write. Yet it is clear that, even when he wrote The Ancient Mariner, Coleridge believed in the imagination as a vehicle of truth. Both some of his early poems and his own account of the effect which Wordsworth had on him indicate that, if he had not yet formed his full, mature doctrine of the imagination, he had already made up his mind on some fundamental points. It is therefore all the more strange if in writing The Ancient Mariner Coleridge did not put some of his theories into practice.

However much we may enjoy The Ancient Mariner, we must surely feel that there are moments when it breaks beyond illusion and calls to something deep and serious in us. It has after all a moral, and though Mrs. Barbauld thought it inadequate and Coleridge too emphatic, it cannot be dismissed:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Now, whatever its faults may be, this states something which is clearly serious and must be heard. It is not enough to treat it as an archaism, a piece of medieval simplicity which Coleridge introduces to complete a poem which has already many old-world themes and phrases. The important thing is that Coleridge thought it necessary to include this moral and did not exclude it, as he did many other verses, when he revised the poem in later life. Of course, it is true that he was unhappy about it in later years and would have liked it to be less emphatic. This means not that he disapproved altogether of it, but that he was not satisfied with the way in which he had stated it. In other words, he still felt that the poem needed a moral, and there is no warrant for thinking that, whatever its form might have been, he intended its substance to be other than what it is. And this is surely of great importance.

Coleridge, who thought that the "secondary imagination," with which poetry is concerned, is itself concerned with eternal values, slips into his poem his notion of the values which it represents. It is an all-embracing theory of love between living creatures, and that in some way the poem illustrates.

If we keep these considerations in mind, we see that there is much in the poem which is more weighty and more serious than the actual episodes demand. We may begin by asking, as others have, why there is all this "pother about a bird," but we end by seeing that, whatever the pother may be, it involves grave questions of right and wrong, of crime and punishment, and, no matter how much we enjoy the poetry, we cannot avoid being in some degree disturbed and troubled by it. Now this is surely the effect which Coleridge wished to produce. Through his concrete story he reaches to wider and vaguer issues, and his poem is symbolical in the sense which he gives to the word:

A symbol .. . is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual, or of the general in the special, or of the universal in the general; above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal.

For Coleridge a symbol is something which presents the eternal in a temporal, individual shape, and since by "eternal," he means belonging to the world of absolute values, a symbol's task is to present in poetry an instance of a universal truth. This is what The Ancient Mariner does. Its story, presented and enriched with the appeal of high poetry, passes beyond its immediate purview to something vague and remote and yet intimate and important.

In other words, The Ancient Mariner is a myth. It presents in an unusual and lively form certain issues with which we are all familiar and forces us to look afresh at them. It is the advantage of such a myth that it first dissociates certain ideas and then gives a new appeal to them by setting them in new associations. By this means it gives a fresh emphasis to much that we know and takes us to the heart of many matters to which custom has dulled us. By creating an impossible story in impossible conditions, The Ancient Mariner draws attention to neglected or undiscovered truths. And this is what Coleridge believed to be the task of poetry. Because through creation the poet reveals the secrets of the universe, especially in the sphere of absolute values, he is often forced to work through myths. They enable him to rearrange familiar material in such a way that we see fundamental issues in their right proportions and in their true nature because of the vivid illumination which the imagination gives to them. To be sure, the myth is only one kind among many kinds of poetry, but it is specially adapted to Coleridge's outlook because it can deal with supernatural issues. It is an extension of the use of symbols. Just as Blake has special symbols for the many mysterious powers which he saw at work in the universe, or Shelley for his far-ranging prophecies, so too Coleridge has his for the mysterious issues which excite him. In The Ancient Mariner he shapes these symbols into a consistent whole and subordinates them to a single plan, with the result that his poem is in the first place a story which we enjoy for its own sake, but in the second place a myth about a dark and troubling crisis in the human soul.

Reduced to its lowest terms in the dry language of abstraction, The Ancient Mariner is a tale of crime and punishment. It falls into seven sections, and each section tells of a new stage in the process. In each, of course, what counts is the imaginative and poetical effect, the emotional impression which the words make on us. It is this which illuminates the relentless progress from the commission of a crime to its last results. Coleridge puts into his myth the essential qualities which make crime and punishment what they are and shows what they mean to the conscience when it is sharpened and clarified by the imagination. He goes to the heart of the matter in its universal character, and he is able to do this because his myth is so striking that we pay special attention to it. The first section tells of the actual crime. To us the shooting of a bird may seem a matter of little moment, but Coleridge makes it significant in two ways. First, he does not say why the Mariner kills the albatross. We might infer that it is in a mood of annoyance or anger or mere frivolity, but these are only guesses. What matters is precisely the uncertainty of the Mariner's motives; for this illustrates the essential irrationality of crime, which we may explain by motives but which is in many cases due to a simple perversity of the will. Secondly, this crime is against nature, against the sanctified relations of guest and host. The bird, which has been hailed in God's name "as if it had been a Christian soul," and is entirely friendly and helpful, is wantonly and recklessly killed. There is no need to argue that Coleridge was at this time obsessed by Neo-Platonic ideas of the brotherhood of all living things. Perhaps he was, but it does not matter. What matters is that the Mariner breaks a sacred law of life. In his action we see the essential frivolity of many crimes against humanity and the ordered system of the world, and we must accept the killing of the albatross as symbolical of them.

In the second section the Mariner begins to suffer punishment for what he has done, and Coleridge transfers to the physical world the corruption and the helplessness which are the common attributes of guilt. The world which faces the Mariner after his crime is dead and loathsome. The ship has ceased to move and the sailors are tortured by thirst, while the only moving things in the hideous scene are the slimy creatures on the sea and the death-fires which dance at night. The immediate results of crime are portrayed in the image of a universe dying of thirst and haunted by menacing phantoms. The third section shows how the guilty soul becomes conscious of what it has done and of its isolation in the world. The Mariner first begins to realize the consequences of his action for himself when he sees the phantom ship which decides his doom:

The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The night in which the Mariner's companions die symbolizes the darkness in the soul when it suddenly finds itself alone and robbed of familiar ties. In the fourth section this sense of solitude is elaborated. The guilty soul is cut off not merely from human intercourse but from the consoling friendship of nature which mocks it with majestic detachment. Then a turn comes for the better. When the Mariner, albeit unaware, blesses the water-snakes, he begins to reestablish relations with the world of the affections. This is not much, and it is by no means the end, but it opens the way to the future. Instead of being dead, the spirit shows some small signs of that love which holds life together.

The fifth section continues the process of the soul's revival. The ship begins to move, and celestial spirits stand by the bodies of the dead men. The Mariner hears heavenly music in the air and is comforted by it. Before he can be fully healed, he must establish relations not merely with men but with God, and this, faintly and feebly, he begins to do. When the music flows into his soul and delights him, he is on the way to recovery. But much awaits him. He has still his penance to do, but he is ready for it. In the sixth section the process of healing seems to be impeded. The Mariner is haunted by the presence of his dead comrades and feels that he is pursued by some fearful power of vengeance:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

In the figure of the Mariner haunted by memories and fears Coleridge gives his special symbol of remorse. But because remorse brings repentance and humility, the section closes with the vision of angelic forms standing by the dead sailors. The forgiveness of God awaits even the most hard-hearted sinners if they will only be ready to receive it. In the last section the end, such as it is, comes. The guilty man has been shriven and restored to a place among living men. Most of the visible traces of his crime have been obliterated, but the punishment of "life-in-death" is still at work. Since he has committed a hideous act, the Mariner will never be the man that he once was. He has his special past and his special doom. At times the memory of what he has done is so insistent that he must speak of it:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

The need for confession is to be found in most criminals, and the Mariner's need to speak is specially appropriate, because by forcing others to listen to him he regains some of that human converse of which his crime has robbed him. Coleridge does not tell the end of the story, but leaves us to suppose that the Mariner's sense of guilt will end only with his death. The poem is a myth of a guilty soul and marks in clear stages the passage from crime through punishment to such redemption as is possible in this world.

The Ancient Mariner, then, is a myth of guilt and redemption, but of course it is also much more. Its symbolical purpose is but one element in a complex design. Though Coleridge has his own poetry of a guilty soul, it is not comparable in depth or in insight with the poetry of some other men who have given the full powers of their genius to writing about crime and the misery which it engenders. None the less, Coleridge's introduction of this theme into The Ancient Mariner gives to it a new dimension. What might otherwise be no more than an irresponsible fairy-tale is brought closer to life and to its fundamental issues. The myth of crime and punishment provides a structure for the supernatural events which rise from it but often make their appeal irrespective of it. Much of the magic of The Ancient Mariner comes from its blend of dark and serious issues with the delighted play of creative energy. Coleridge had good reasons for fashioning his poem in this way. In the first place, the combination of different themes responded to his own complex vision of existence. For him life had both its dark and its bright sides, its haunting responsibilities and its ravishing moments of unsullied delight. He saw that the two were closely interwoven and that, if he were to speak with the full force of his genius, he must introduce both into his poem. In the second place, he saw life not analytically but creatively, and he knew that any work of creation must itself be an extension and an enhancement of life. He must preserve the mystery and the enchantment which he knew in his finest moments, and for him these came alike from the beauty of the visible world and the uncharted corners of the human soul. The shadow cast by the Mariner's crime adds by contrast to the brilliance of the unearthly world in which it is committed, and the degree of his guilt and his remorse serves to stress the power of the angelic beings which watch over humankind. The result is a poem shot with iridescent lights. It appeals to us now in this way, now in that, and there is no final or single approach to it.

In creating The Ancient Mariner in this way Coleridge obeyed the peculiar and paradoxical nature of his genius. In him the poet and the metaphysician were uneasily blended, and the creative spirit, which was capable of such rapturous flights, worked most freely when it was free from metaphysical speculations. His three great poems owe nothing to his study of philosophy or his own conscious theories about the universe. But to attain and enjoy this freedom and to allow his creative gifts to work unhindered, Coleridge needed subjects remote from his ordinary existence. Only when he was free from the topics which engaged his philosophic curiosity was he able to release all his imaginative powers. That is why his unequalled successes were secured with subjects so unusual as those of Christabel and "Kubla Khan" and The Ancient Mariner. In these poems he was able to fling the whole of his poetical self into a subject which had no connection with metaphysical abstractions and to concentrate on the particular effects of which he was a master, but which would have been ruined if he had allowed himself to speculate about them. In The Ancient Mariner he does indeed treat a subject of universal interest, about which philosophers have had something to say, but he succeeds in making it poetry just because he keeps at some distance from his habits of abstract thought. Once Coleridge had set his theme in this strange world, he was able to give to it a special life and to make each element tell. The great advantage of a myth is that it enables a poet to concentrate on the issues which really concern him and, despite an apparent remoteness from life, to convey in a vivid form some fundamental truths which may be fogged or lost in a more literal treatment.

We may well ask why, in all his three great poems, Coleridge felt the attraction of the supernatural, and why he used it for his myth in The Ancient Mariner. We might suppose that if guilt and punishment were his theme, he could have treated them more realistically in some subject closer to ordinary experience and have found some crime more immediately hideous than the killing of an albatross. But this would not have suited Coleridge. What touched his genius to its finest issues was his sense of mystery at unknown forces at work in life, and to keep this mystery intact he needed some subject which was in itself mysterious. Like Blake, he saw strange powers behind the visible world, and he believed that men were moved and directed by them. To show what he really saw in them he needed characters and circumstances in themselves strange and arresting. By introducing us to a world of dream and fantasy, he suggests how mysterious is the experience which concerns him. Once he had found a subject of this kind, his creative imagination set freely to work and built its own system. There was nothing to hamper the free play of his gifts, and he felt at home in the incredible and the unknown. What Wordsworth found in a world of vision, Coleridge found in the supernatural. It clarified his ideas for him and enabled him to present in concrete shapes many feelings and apprehensions which were not less haunting because they were undefined. He was both fascinated by the unknown and in some sense afraid of it. This helped him to make The Ancient Mariner. It gave him the thrill of excitement which he needed before he could concentrate his mind on a subject, and through it he sharpened his vision and purified his mind of many disturbing and distracting elements.

Like all great poetry, The Ancient Mariner suggests prospects and possibilities beyond its immediate subject. Indeed, it is a great poem largely because it does this. In creating this imaginary world Coleridge offers an alternative to familiar existence which is at the same time an illuminating commentary on it. Both in the main plan of the Mariner's crime and in the spiritual forces who battle over him, Coleridge emphasizes the state of man between persecuting horrors and enchanting beauties. Such a state was no doubt his own. He, whose genius in Hazlitt's words "had angelic wings, and fed on manna," was destined to know many dark and guilty hours of sloth and regret. The Ancient Mariner is his greatest poem because he put most of himself into it and in it spoke most fully from his inner being. The brilliant reality which he gives to this invention of his imagination comes from his prophetic insight into himself. He was to suffer, as few poets have suffered, from the discordant contrast between reality and dream, between blissful confidence and bitter, broken hopes, between the warmth of human ties and the cold solitude of the haunted soul. It was from some foretaste or premonition of these contrasts and these struggles that Coleridge made his poem, and they provide its relation to life. He was too modest when he said that all he wished to secure was "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." His poem creates not a negative but a positive condition, a state of faith which is complete and satisfying because it is founded on realities in the living world and in the human heart.

James D. Boulger (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5108

SOURCE: "Christian Skepticism in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,'' in From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 439-52.

[In the following essay, Boulger interprets The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a reaffirmation of faith in a natural order despite apparent chaos.]

For many years the essay of Robert Penn Warren on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner [i.e., "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: a poem of pure imagination" (1946)] held wide acceptance. Warren pointed out that the two major functions of the poem were the creation of a sacramental universe by means of creative imagination and the operation within this universe of the Christian pattern of Fall and Redemption. The nature of both functions was inferred partially from outside sources, Biographia Literaria, "The Friend," and "Aids to Reflection," but also in the action of the poem itself there existed evidence for a certain kind of Imagination and for a Will which falls in a spontaneous uninitiated act. Some few inconsistencies in detail were pointed out in later criticism of Warren's analysis, but hardly enough to remove the impression that the reading was consistent, convincing and meaningful. Reopening the case seemed hardly justified. The appearance of Elliot B. Gose's essay "Coleridge and the Luminous Gloom," which, by inversion of Warren's view of the Sun:Moon symbolism, reads like a parody of Warren's essay while doing violent injustice to the poem, seemed to suggest that the case had been well enough left alone.

Edward Bostetter has recently presented a view of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner entirely at odds with Warren's, and not on the trivial grounds and outside sources of Gose's essay. Disregarding the evidence in outside sources pertaining to Coleridge's characteristic feelings and values attached to the moon or sun, which all critics now must allow cuts both ways, Bostetter asserts that the Fall-Redemption pattern does not hold in the poem, and with its dismissal also disappears any notion of an active vision of creative imagination sustaining a sacramental view of the Universe. Instead Bostetter sees a nightmare world of inconsequence, illogic, terror and meaningless suffering. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a voyage into the irrational, flinging terror at the real world, and not an imaginative order confirming the values of the real world.

I should like to say something in favor of Warren's overall position against that of Bostetter. It will not be a defense of the moral or symbolic minutiae of Warren's thought, which time has proven wrong, but only of the view that the Mariner's world is ultimately a religious one, as against the nightmare world insisted upon by Bostetter. It is a far different religious world than that suggested by the idea of a sacramental universe. Warren arrived at this latter view by using the process of the understanding (critical analysis) to explain the process of imagination and vision. The notion that the Mariner's world is a dream world, a world of the active imagination, is not taken seriously enough by Warren or Bostetter: one supplies us with a Christian gloss provided mainly by Coleridge's prose, the other with a gloss made up of notions taken from extreme Calvinism (as Bostetter understands it) and from Freudian doctrine. In order to take Coleridge's idea of the primary imagination seriously as the ground of the action and process of the poem, one must consider the mode of action that occurs in dreams, since The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a dream vision. The soundest starting point for this view is in the now somewhat neglected seminal source for study of the poem, the final chapter of Lowes's Road to Xanadu, entitled "Imagination Creatrix." If Lowes's final position seems too scientifically detached today, a case history free of dogma and content, it at least is free of specific error. His hint was simply that the world of the primary imagination in the poem can be seen by analogy as having a good deal in common with what we know of dreams.

But a dream world as poem must have specific shape and source and inspiration, for which Lowes has supplied the most abundant evidence. From this evidence only a small amount will be drawn upon, by no means new; but not, thus far, considered of major importance in defining the dream quality of the poem. This is the relationship of certain passages in the sea world of the Mariner to ones of similar scope in various early books of the Aeneid. The similarities, but not the importance, were recognized by accomplished scholars like Lowes, who no doubt considered such schoolboy reminiscences in this connection inevitable. Source discussion has centered on more obscure yet more specific analogues, Purchas for instance. Two literary connections of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with the Aeneid make the Aeneid important as a source.

The first is the biographical one, revealed in the Notebooks, that Coleridge was reading the Aeneid afresh in 1795, '96, '97. This reading helped shape the nature of Imagination in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and its echoes in the poem are not meaningless reminiscence. More important are the qualities Coleridge would find in the Aeneid, not noticed by the scholars of the early twentieth century. Coleridge's age, or at least the persons like Coleridge in it, could read epic poetry at a level hardly reached again until recent times. Witness this quotation from Notebooks on Milton, which surely would have startled F. R. Leavis or the early Eliot:

A Reader of Milton must be always on his Duty: he is surrounded with sense; it rises in every line; every word is to the purpose. There are no lazy intervals: all has been considered and demands & merits observation.

If this be called obscurity, let it be remembered tis such a one as is complacent to the Reader: not that vicious obscurity, which proceeds from a muddled head &&.

One may assume, datis dandis, that he would notice the qualities in the Aeneid, especially in the books depicting the sea, which contemporary critics are again pointing out: the dreamlike quality of Virgil's vision of action, as opposed to Homer's dramatic sense, the pictorial quality of his scenes, the way in which elegy overtakes epic in places, along with a sense of detachment in the character of the main narrator, Aeneas himself, making his listeners attentive, as in the line (II, 1) Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant. The command, respect, and spellbinding quality of the respective narrators is the most obvious case in point. But there are also more subtle borrowings.

The few direct borrowings of Coleridge from the Aeneid were pointed out by Lowes. Aeneid (III, 193) caelum undique et undique pontus, became

"For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky" (250).

Aeneid (V 140-41, 150)

ferit aethera clamor


pulsati colles clamore resultant

appears in Coleridge as

And all was still, save that the hill
Was telling of the sound (558-9).

It is not these exact analogies that are of primary importance for our purposes, although they prove a necessary point, the fact of an exact connection between the two poems. It is the dreamlike, elegiac, detached quality of Virgil's sea world which influences in an all-pervasive spirit the Mariner's voyage of the mind, which is constructed in dream-logic sequences. This vividly alive, though detached world, allows for the active presence of winds and spirits, although Coleridge also had other sources for an animated world. In Virgil, as opposed to some of these later sources, there is no strain on credulity in accepting an active, animated universe. Amid the terrors and malignancy of the elements and the sea in Books I and III of Aeneid, as a part of the misfortune and seeming illogicality of certain events as seen by the participants, there remains a deeply religious sense of destiny in the hero, and an almost divine sense of benignity in the elements themselves. This sense carries over into The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, although Coleridge's method of achieving it must be different from Virgil's. The Mariner's world is religious for the reader, who is given the role of omniscient outsider played in the Aeneid by Virgil himself. The moral and intellectual confusions of the Mariner, the seeming incongruity and irrationality of his world, correspond to the view of the sea and circumstance taken by Aeneas and his tribe as they act out the destined sea scenes. But Aeneas' destiny is clear to the narrator and to the reader, while the Mariner's never becomes clear to him, and is clear in the overall structure only in a peculiar way intended by Coleridge. Both narrators of the events that have happened to them have a keen sense that the sea world is a dream world of illusion, as in the lines "a painted ship upon a painted ocean" (117-18), or Aeneid (III, 72) provehimur portu terraeque urbesque recedunt. There is an arbitrary givenness and sense of illusion about both sea worlds and about the predicaments of the narrators expressed in many ways in both poems. Coleridge's "It is an Ancient Mariner," "There was a ship," relate to Virgil's (I, 12) Urbs antiqua fuit and (I, 31-2) multosque per annos errabant acti fatis maria omnia circum. Although the ultimate benignity of Fate is asserted by both poets, the sense of fate and the acts of terror common to both poems may well seem malign to the modern reader as they pass before his eyes in a series of inscrutable acts. In both poems the narrator-subject is brought finally to an act of vision which allows him to see the ultimate positive vision of the author's world, but this final turn is arbitrary in both poems in the sense that no amount of reading in Coleridge's prose for meanings attached to Sun:Moon symbolism, or in the background of Virgil's Roman religion, is going to provide logical or theological proof of the vision. Virgil's vision is more assured than is Coleridge's, but in each case the validity of the vision is finally sanctioned only by the power of the poems themselves. This essay will not presume to analyze the methods of the Latin poet, but in Coleridge's poem it seems that the motion of the dream world itself, the special logic of the state of primary imagination, is what carries the poem along to its successful conclusion, and at the same time suggests the content of that conclusion, which in Virgil is given more directly as a fiat of fate working in the service of Roman destiny.

Dream is not nightmare, nor is it sacramental vision. Each is too easy and doctrinaire a solution to the meaning of the poem. At bottom there is mystery about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, not found in Aeneid, or for that matter in any previous English poem. It is the mystery of dealing with a series of effects having intelligible and satisfactory shape whose causes remain unknown. Virgil could provide in a frame the pseudo-rational formulae within which occur arbitrary, illusory, and terrifying events, the causes of which remain unknown to the narrator. Aeneas' piety and belief carry him through to vision. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner plunges into an arbitrary framework which is incomprehensible to the narrator-Mariner and to us. He acts out an ultimately successful pattern of action which exacts a toll in experience and suffering. In Aeneid, and Paradise Lost for that matter, there is religious mystery aplenty, but not ultimate religious mystery. The authors have their reasons and explanations for what has occurred, which the reader may or may not accept. Coleridge's poem is the first modern religious poem in the sense that it asserts a mysterious religious universe but cannot give us even partial explanations of its nature. Like Blake, he had seen through the Age of Reason, but his response was of a different order.

Earlier commentators on the poem, especially Gingerich, noting Coleridge's obsession with Necessitarianism in his 1795-98 letters, tried to work out a scheme for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on a necessitarian rationale. This provided an easy but erroneous explanation, ignoring both the intensity of Coleridge's religious mentality, and the subtlety of his mind as a philosopher. Coleridge's insight into the conclusions of Necessitarianism, whether of the religious or the scientific variety, was essentially that of Isaac Newton and Jonathan Edwards, namely, that necessitarianism explained nothing in the ultimate sense. It presents us with a series of related effects, ordered within themselves, the causes of which remain unknown, and the ultimate cause unknowable, in other words Kantianism by a different route (one Coleridge was also traveling at that time). As Perry Miller puts it, the Universe, whether or not God is postulated as Ultimate, is inscrutable:

When we get behind the brilliant façade of Newtonianism, the apparently rational system, of which poets sang and which Cotton Mather embraced, we are brought more terribly face to face with the dark forces of nature than any Puritan has been while staring into the dazzling glare of pre-destination. . . . Behind the mathematical analysis . . . concealed so carefully that only the most astute might catch a glimpse of it, moved a power that could not be seen by reason's light or dispelled by science, that hid itself in matter to hold the atoms in cohesion. . . . Edwards took it [Newton's theory] to mean that cause in the realm of mechanism is merely a sequence of phenomena, with the inner connection of cause and effect still mysterious and terrifying. .. . for him the secret of nature was no longer that an efficient cause of itself works such and such an effect, but is to be defined as "that after or upon the existence of which, or the existence of it after such manner, the existence of another thing follows." All effects, therefore, have their causes, but no effect is a "result of what has gone before it."

We may take it that Coleridge was as astute in these matters as Edwards, and that his greatest response to the situation was the dream world of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. His Opus Maximum and late Notebooks give us other responses, those of the systematic philosopher working out of the language of Kant.

Let us see how the above assumptions work out in a rough analysis of the structure of the poem. We now assume that the cluster of moon symbols does not consistently represent the workings of imagination, nor the sun symbols the discursive reason (Coleridge's prose understanding) together with a form of alienation, but that Imagination and understanding are present in the poem in more arbitrary ways. The epistemology of the act of cognition in the poem is quite different from our everyday mode of perceiving the world, or of our usual way of reading poems, which is to give them balance and rationality. Coleridge's conceptions of the Imagination as a participation in the great I Am (and of the Understanding used alone as the faculty which partakes of death) are to be taken quite seriously as the shaping force of the poem. Its nearest contemporary prose analogue is the philosophical system of symbolic form developed by Ernst Cassirer, which holds that philosophy can only describe phenomena and must give up the attempt to understand causality of things, but neither this system nor Coleridge's own descriptions of primary imagination in early nineteenth-century philosophical terms can be our primary guide. It is better to notice how things work out in the poem itself. For instance, understanding and syllogistic logic will be inferior categories to the higher level of imaginative perception in the action of the poem, without either being explained fully. The sailors use syllogistic logic and cause and effect in the ordinary way to calculate the morality of shooting the albatross, and of course the calculations fail, because the poem deals with effects whose causes are spiritual but unknown. Ordinary reason and dualistic cosmology are clearly inoperative in the poem, intuition has higher place than discursive reason, and a sense of the world as continuum or flux is clearly stronger than our ordinary view of a dualistic world of sense perception. But to know that the intuition in the poem corresponds to the mystical "eye of reason" of Coleridge's prose does not in any way lessen the mystery of the great imaginative intuitive act, the blessing of the water snakes by the Mariner. We see the hierarchy of categories, but have no easy prose definition to explain the nature of the categories. Perhaps as Lowes said, our memories of dreams, that state in which the senses and the conscious space-time restrictions inculcated by the reasoning process weakens, allowing (if Cassirer's view has any validity) the pre-conscious state of pure imagination in us all to reassert itself, are the only sound analogy to the pre-rational sense of the world of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, then, as a world of pure imagination, will have the logic of a dream, in so far as we can understand such logic. It is not an irrational world, as Bostetter claims, nor a sacramental vision which implies some orderly rational way of looking at reality religiously. Nor do we have to assume any specific content or archetypal patterns a priori in the Mariner's world, as did Maud Bodkin in her study of the poem. It is only the form, logic, and movement of the dream that is important, for that is what Coleridge saw as giving the nearest sense of immediacy to the religious and philosophical concerns much on his mind at the time of writing the poem. By postulating the imaginative process itself as the mode of analysis here, we may perhaps understand, but not rationalize away, the general meaning of the poem. The poet wants us to play the part of the wedding guest, to be drawn into the poem unwillingly, to resist with the understanding, and finally to share his epistemological and perhaps also, for the readers who still can do so, his religious anxieties.

The difference between the outside logical world and that of the poem is brought out sharply in the first stanza, where there is a conflict between the actual order and the dream world. The wedding, its festivities, and the anxiety of the Wedding Guest all fall within the ordinary world of sense and logic. The Wedding Guest is a reasonable man, so he thinks, he wants reasons for things, but the Mariner has none to give. He also wants to participate in a function of the actual order, while the Mariner has only his dream to offer, "There was a ship." The arbitrary givenness of both the Mariner and his adventure has been noted above in connection with Virgil. For a short while the two worlds compete, with the orderly rational world of conventional bride and wedding gaiety gradually giving way to the phantom ship, its sudden voyage, and the living sun and moon. The Mariner's glittering eye, which might be called the eye of the higher reason which surpasses understanding, transforms the Guest until the noise and conviviality of the actual world with its logic and causality are replaced by the living world of primary imagination, by the silent white seas of the pre-rational pure imagination, in which the Mariner's voyage took place. The Wedding Guest was agonized, "I fear thee Ancient Mariner," as his world slipped out from under him.

In this world of Imagination two things are immediately noticeable: the participation of all reality, living and non-living, real and spiritual, in one organic whole assumed by the author but not necessarily perceived by the participants; and the unending series of shifts between subject and object in the phenomena of the imaginative world. The Storm Blast, the mist and snow, and the Albatross are accepted without explanation by victims and readers. Normally real objects, like the sea, are not presented in descriptions which impart the qualities of actual things as we have experienced them. Everything is alive, there are no fixities and definites in this universe. At one point the Mariner is not entirely certain of his own identity (305-8). The ordinary ideas of causality and reason in this process are not operating, for whatever happens can be immediately accepted as a part of the unified whole perceived in a phenomenological way. Hence the killing of the bird as a gratuitous act of the will without causality is a very proper act to show the unexplainable failure in the Mariner's imaginative process to hold together all experience, and is the only proper way on this level to indicate the tension of pure imagination and rationalism. His Fall, and his Redemption, are basically psychological acts, whose ultimate cause, like that of the Universe itself, is inscrutable. For instance, before his Fall and after his Redemption the movement of winds, appearances of the sun and moon, the Polar Spirit, and the unifications between spirit and matter are accepted by the Mariner as modes of the imaginative whole which do not need explaining and cannot be explained rationally. When he does not rely upon logic to find out relationships and occurrences the answers are given to him according to the imaginative mode, that is, by spontaneous completion of related images as in dreams. He uses the ordinary modes of knowing during the time of his Fall only, to make mistakes in calculation, and to distinguish the "slimy" things of nature from himself. The alien world around him was of his own making. With the spontaneous act of blessing, as an uncaused and non-logical act, his imaginative power was restored. He simply accepted the water-snakes as a fact of experience, a mode of reality identified in some way with himself. At that point the Polar Spirit and other Spirits which had seemed malevolent were again viewed as they really were, and the continuum of all things existed again. The Sun and the Moon are important, but not overridingly so, as elements in this continuum. Everything again becomes a series of related effects, benign in appearance, whose causes remain unknown and now are wisely unsought.

After the imaginative synthesis has taken place, the Mariner no longer asks the wrong questions, but rather acts out his assigned role. Twentieth-century critics ask these wrong questions, reading the poem in the spirit of logicians. It does not really matter on the return voyage whether the Polar Spirit or the wind moved the ship, or whether the Sun-Moon patterns reoccur with systematic consistency. Critical preoccupation with such problems misses the point of the process itself. Such readings of the poem are not so far in spirit from the older moralistic ones, which made the poem appear as mere pother over a bird, in the sense that it applies too literal a significance to the phenomena, just as the early readers applied it to the moral action. Our view of the poem holds the Mariner's narration to be a vast dream-parable, understood partially by author and reader but not by Mariner or Wedding Guest. The Mariner's transgression, by gratuitous act of his Will, of the unity of the cosmos is a necessary failing common to us all, which is why he can speak to us; but the author speaks also of a world we can envision (and he as poet can create) but not return to or live in. The poetic logic of the world of ice and Albatross should not be entirely conformable to rationalistic analysis a posteriori. The analogy to our dream state where the primary imagination is again partially in control of our minds is the only entrance to the world of sudden, unmotivated succession of images which appear in the action of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The dream-state acts as an existential parable for the proposition that our "real" world is appearance, and the world of imagination and process "reality." This is naturally disturbing to rationalistic critics, as it was to Coleridge himself, no mean rationalist in certain moods.

Essentially then, one man, from the world of his dreams and poetic experiences, tells another, of ordinary understanding and pursuits, about his vision of the world and how it came upon him. The entire narration takes place in a dimension quite removed from the sensory and logically perceivable world of the listener, the reader, or of much poetry, for that matter. Space permits the mention of only a few details in the poem to prove this point. The world is like a painted ship upon a painted ocean. The ideal world of memory, dream and imagination has a correspondence in Virgil's verbal pictures, and in the art of painting itself. The voyages to and from the Pole take place with dreamworld vagueness and speed. All the normal distinctions in the real order, between living and non-living, natural, preternatural and supernatural, subject and object, are dissolved in this fusion and unity of the imaginative whole whose inner cause of unity is unknown. The dissolving and fusing processes in the poem are truly dreamlike, for the colors of objects, such as the red in the ocean and the shining white of the water snakes, are clearer to the percipients than the forms of the objects themselves. The objects as things are shimmery, dim, and unsubstantial. It is a world of effects interrelated in an acceptable way, but without "cause" and "substance" in the rationalistic sense, a world with antecedents in the science of Newton, the theology of Edwards, and the poetry of Virgil. The Mariner's trance, the merging of the Albatross and the Cross, and the identification of the Spirits with the sailors' bodies are a few more examples of the breakdown of ordinary reality, which reveals itself to us as contiguity and disparity of objects in the world. In the full realization of this imaginative vision, which is not without its terrors, and with the unexplainable breeze of the One Life upon him, the Mariner shouted,

O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway (470-71).

In this reading of the poem the return to harbor and to land at the end is perhaps the most shocking and difficult part to accept. Yet Coleridge manages to bring it off successfully. It is no surprise that the ship, the bodies, and all the spirits disappear on the approach of the normal order again. The Mariner's desire for ordinary Christian absolution can be understood as a reassertion of the laws of logical thinking and causality in his mind. His redemption has taken place in the world of symbolic action, but does not have status on land. The basic problem in this part of the poem is the possibility of successful confrontation of the Dream world with actuality. In a ghost story of the usual variety, where things are not to be taken too seriously, such as Burns's "Tarn O'Shanter," one object is usually brought back to the ordinary world as a sign of "proof that the spirit-world existed. In this poem it is the Mariner himself who is the living proof of a more serious and deeper moral order than ours, and this fact is outrageous to the normal rationalistic sensibility. The ending is supposed to leave the author, reader and Wedding Guest believing that the Mariner's voyage was a real one into the seas of the Imagination and that his haunting vision and intuitive knowledge are more valid and powerful than our everyday world. Because the world of vision does not adjust to the world of sense and understanding, either overwhelming it or frightening it away, critical rationalism must ignore this poem as an opium dream or tidy it up into being something other than it is. The life of the imagination extracts its toll, not only upon the Mariner and Wedding Guest, but upon the reader who learns that his own life, even in its most convivial and substantial forms, is a kind of alienation from deepest reality, and that the rational order of cause-effect and substance is merely a humanistic drop in an ocean of the unknown forces and causes that Newton, Edwards and Coleridge had come to intuit. The Mariner's revelations, taken seriously, are a poison cup from which one never fully recovers again into normal perception. He assaults the sensibilities of the outside world, while at the same time suffering the penance of being forced again to live in the life-in-death world of the understanding and sense realism. He is a parable of the creative poet, of course, working in the modern rationalistic world, but he is not maudit, but rather a necessarily suffering being, unless one is willing to grant that all creativity is an aberration.

Coleridge as poet was one of the first, with Blake, to envision this world of interrelated effects and of moral action unsupported by causes or a clear Divine cosmology. Like Blake, he did not like what he saw, but unlike him, he did not regard it as liberating the Imagination for a new humanism. As I said earlier, you might look upon the structure of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as an Aeneid without the author's voice and epic framework to make the unknown and terrible orderly and rational. Coleridge plunges himself, his Mariner, and his readers into a seemingly arbitrary world of effects without causes, and of accidents (appearances) without substances, presented dramatically as Storms, hidden malignancy, human evils; yet finally he manages to suggest some arational, incredibly deep faith in the nature of things, analogous to that of the stumbling yet pious Aeneas. Later in life, Coleridge was to find another analogy to this condition in the post-Kantian phase of Christian philosophy and theology, which confronts a rational pious Will against a skeptical, unknowable universe. He could never bring himself to publish his speculations on this subject, and, indeed, leaves the most daring of them in Greek or Latin. Yet these speculations would provide a better gloss to the poem's meaning than the archly pious and disingenuous one he gave, which has misled commentators in various ways. Coleridge's excuse, also holding for Newton's speculations, which remain unpublished to this day, was that he was afraid of his own vision, or at least of a part of it. The world of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is neither a sacramental universe nor a nightmare vision, but a parable of the uneasy Christian skepticism that has been with us since Newton and Kant.

A. E. Dyson and Julian Lovelock (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6010

SOURCE: "Uncertain Hour: The Ancient Mariner's Destiny," in Masterful Images: English Poetry from Metaphysicals to Romantics, Barnes & Noble Books, 1976, pp. 175-92.

[In the following essay, Dyson and Lovelock explore the moral and epistemologica! questions evoked by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.]

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stop'st thou me?'

'It is' . . . Coleridge's poem starts from the present tense, active, and, as it turns out, irresistible; the tense of absorbed narrative and compulsive confession. It is as if the whole poem is here in embryo: narrative vividness, fixed and immediate; human encounter, intense yet trancelike; questions, asked in terror or nightmare, needing answers but getting none, for whatever 'answer' there is comes obliquely. It is as if the story comes loose from time, gravitating towards that somehow eternal quality which haunts all its parts—the dramatic violence of sudden storms and appearances, sudden actions. 'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye'—strange invocation, as if feared and hypnotic qualities could be somehow besought! From the start, there is curious double vision; everything is fated and necessary, everything startling and dreadful. Whether 'it is' an ancient Mariner, or an albatross, or a ship of death or a hermit, we encounter the object and it encounters us as in a dream. Everything seems perfectly alive, perfectly unexplained, perfectly inescapable, terribly intense. The poem is full of elementals. Its setting, perhaps the only one possible, is the sea. Its images are calm and storm, sun and moon, life and death; its values are loyalty and betrayal, fear and hope, guilt and deliverance. Everything is extravagant—the extreme case, the ultimate possible image:

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could not laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

Is such poetry allegory? Certainly not, in any systematic fashion. Yet it is full of ideas. Is it a dream? Art so highly wrought must originate chiefly in the waking consciousness, radically heightened; yet it has the feel of a dream. Perhaps our best word for it is 'fantasy'—a form of literature which creates a world with its own rules and laws, depending wholly on inner consistency, yet which, at its best, continually draws strength from the 'real' world of human psychology, human intuition and spirituality, and continually feeds its own insights back into that world.

In terms of immediate influence, of course, Coleridge is directly indebted to the ballad form, which had been revived, along with much general feeling for the 'medieval', in the mid-eighteenth century, and which became a highly stylised and consciously 'literary' cult among many later romantics. The ballad is one of the most elemental and powerful forms of poetry. Like its near neighbour, the nursery rhyme, it is strongly rhythmic in form, basic and often brutal in theme, austere in diction, stark and archetypal in imagery, hypnotically repetitive in effect. Its total experience is caught up often in a refrain—some burden, grim or gay, returning with insistence, with precision, with mounting and complex irony, to intensify primitive feelings. For these reasons, the ballad is adapted to that kind of strong narrative line which demonstrates, rather than describes, human hopes, fears and sufferings, approximating to ritual re-enactment in its effect. Most of the best ballads have openings very similar to The Ancient Mariner in their power to arrest attention, to sketch in a situation that bypasses particulars such as names, places, dates, by drawing very immediately on the reader's own intensities:

The twelve-month and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
'O who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?

Such poetry stimulates personal echoes, personal resonances, much as the symbolists later consciously set out to do.

He was a brew gallant,
And he rid' by the ring;
And the Bonny Earl of Murray,
O he might have been a king.

Again, such poetry moves us beyond discussion and argument, as Coleridge believed creative imagination always should. In Coleridge's own categories The Ancient Mariner is poetry of 'Imagination', not of 'fancy'; of 'Reason', not of 'understanding'. Perhaps the function of great art is, nearly always, to probe beyond those arguments and reasonings which continually, and rightly, attend man's attempt to make sense of himself, seeking to initiate us rather, intuitively and directly, into psychic and spiritual realities of evil and good. We recognise such an achievement in Sophocles and Euripides, Shakespeare and Milton, Dickens and Dostoievsky, indeed in most literature and drama of high excellence. At a purely speculative level, we will wonder why Iago acts so (as he does himself), we will ponder Oedipus and Satan, Tulkinghorn and Raskolnikov, searching for clues. But, while motives are baffling, the truth is self-evident; no one can doubt the realism of their sufferings and deeds.

Coleridge recognised 'imagination' as the realm of revelation through recreation, the realm where beauty and goodness, and their mighty opposites, are known. Philosophers might then discuss the phenomena almost indefinitely (might so bemuse themselves, as often happens, that they become lost in words, and forget the experiences to which their words strive). But the artist, like the saint or the sinner, offers an image: a particular and tangible embodiment of complex truth. You can no more doubt Lady Macbeth, or Joe Gargery, than you can doubt Hitler, or Mother Teresa; you can no more hope to 'explain' the fictions, analytically and definitively, than you can the historical men. Coleridge recognised this great realm of 'reality' as the artist's province, just as, in his role of philosopher, he recognised it as the region of 'truth'. His poem is, therefore, in essence realistic, at this profound level, even though fantasy, not social realism, is its artistic mode.

The Biographia Literaria outlines the conscious plan which Coleridge and Wordsworth decided upon for Lyrical Ballads, and their decision to approach 'reality' in their art by two opposite paths. Since the passage is both justly famous and, by Coleridge's standards, readily accessible, it is best left to speak for itself:

During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbours, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. . . .

In this idea originated the plan of the Lyrical Ballads; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours 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 for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

Of course, this begs many questions; and Coleridge's phrase 'that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith' has been much discussed. For our present purpose, the important point is that Coleridge is 'to transfer from our inner nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient' for his intended effect. Many times, he recognises that effects akin to those he produces in The Ancient Mariner are known through various 'delusions'—through dreams, drugs, or delirium for instance, none of which we finally think of as 'real'. Yet he also recognises that 'the supernatural' is not always allied to phantom experiences but, rather, that its intensities link with good and evil, joy and dereliction, wholeness and damnation, in the inner life.

What then is the best way to start reading The Ancient Mariner! To our minds, it is best first to release the visual imagination, allowing this to roam through the images. Everything is striking and extraordinary. The visual play suggests a near meeting of dream psychology and conscious image-making, a world close to modern imagism or modern cinema. Something like Walt Disney's Fantasia might suggest itself for comparison. If so, could we attempt to match the poem with appropriate music, thereby creating a Fantasia in reverse? An approach of this kind has the advantage of directing our attention immediately towards the archetypal image, where the poem's power surely chiefly lives: a solitary man, caught up in a drama of mortal personal guilt and divine deliverance, doomed to roam the world, telling his tale when its moment comes. The affinity is with the wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman (a possible source for music?), with the exiled Cain even—stories linked only tangentially with religion in its orthodox forms. Perhaps we all have something of the Ancient Mariner in us (as Coleridge himself alleged of Hamlet)?—though if so, mercifully most of us keep him in check.

A legend of this kind attracts material from various sources like a powerful magnet, yet Coleridge's organisation excludes any systematic interpretation of one, definite, kind. From the literary point of view, his poem works a little like Eliot's Waste Land—to which, indeed, it is also spiritually akin. We are helped in our exploration if we know something of Coleridge personally, as modern scholarship has generously ensured that we may. The Road to Xanadu is a round-up of Coleridge's own extensive reading, looking for every possible source of his inspiration in other art. Coleridge's ideas have also been intensively studied, often by critics wishing to clarify, as well as to expound. Yet, in the end, Coleridge's poetic imagination had unusual licence, even apart from the conscious plan as he described it himself. He was familiar with opium visions, with their strange dislocation of consciousness, and their apparent heightening of consciousness in a fantasy world. The passage from Biographia Literaria already quoted includes the following puzzling words, again in connection with Coleridge's own part in the proposed scheme:

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 truths of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.

Such formulations leave the gap (the mystery?) between perception and objective reality notably yawning, and the emphasis on 'this' (Coleridge's italics) scarcely helps to make 'this' clear. Again, anyone reading Coleridge's poetry, and grappling (as we certainly should) with its relationship to his own powerful and influential theories of poetic imagination, cannot overlook the famous and bizarre prose introduction to "Kubla Khan", strangest among all the clues that the poet has left:

In the summer of the year 1797 [sic: though almost certainly he meant to write 1798: Eds], the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment when he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in 'Purchas's Pilgrimage': 'Here the Klan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And this ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed with a wall.' The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly set down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter.

If this is accepted, then it seems that Coleridge had a 'vision' (how accurately is this word intended?) in which words and images were alike 'given', in parallel form. It appears that the process of 'composition'—a word that Coleridge himself pauses over doubtfully in the context—was in fact a transcription from memory, interrupted fatally by the person from Porlock. The notion that images and words should have been equally 'given', in 'parallel production', and in a dream induced by a drug, moves us a long way from 'secondary imagination' in its official, Coleridgean form. None the less, we are also a long way from 'fancy', if that is to be defined merely as an intellectual and mechanical rearrangement of sense impressions derived from the waking world. What Coleridge appears to be saying is that he transmitted 'Kubla Khan' rather than that he created it. But, where the transmission originated, and how far it depended upon the breaking down and recreating of 'reality' in Coleridge's unconscious rather than in his conscious mind, remains to be judged. Perhaps many people sometimes wake up with the sense of having written great poetry, composed great music, in their recent dream consciousness, but this seldom if ever with most of us gets transcribed.

If we look at Coleridge's 'the Ancient Mariner' with open minds on these questions of 'intention', certain features are, however, clear. A critic who suggests . . . that the Mariner kills the albatross chiefly to make soup, and that the spiritual punishment of himself and the crew is therefore excessive, signifies a cheerful unwillingness to take the poem seriously at all. That we are indeed faced with a drama of betrayal and damnation, grace and penitence, seems too evident to require much defence. The poem cannot be assimilated to Christian theology by any direct process, yet the religious scheme is present throughout. The phrase 'O Christ!' occurs twice, jerked out of the Mariner first in horror and revulsion, as the universe becomes hell for him:

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

and later in fear and wonder, as he sees the angelic presences who have been animating the zombie crew:

I turned my eyes upon the deck—
Oh, Christ! what saw I there!

This seraph-band, each waved his hand:
It was a heavenly sight!
They stood as signals to the land,
Each one a lovely sight.

Mary is invoked twice, each time in the context of grace—first in appeal, when the ship of death becomes manifest ('Heaven's Mother send us grace!'), and later in praise, for release from torment:

To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.

In other places, the religious references are more eclectic, with neo-platonism a frequent source. The Spirit who pursues the ship from the north is glossed in the poem's prose commentary in a manner referring us well outside Christian tradition for its source: 'A spirit had followed them; one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted. They are very numerous, and there is no climate or element without one or more.' And later, again in the prose commentary, there is a beautiful and quintessentially neo-platonic description of the living universe (though in saying this, we should never forget the great synthesis of neo-platonic and Christian ideas which took place in the early centuries of the church, so that the two traditions, while differing on certain important fundamentals, have never been very far apart): 'In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth towards the journeying Moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.'

With this in mind, we can (and must) attempt to trace the poem's central development, whether this is thought of as tentative affirmation, prophetic vision, or as a stream of suggestion flowing gently through fantasy. And here, the present critics should make clear, no doubt, that in this central development the poem is, in their view, evidently and specifically Christian. It is Christian in this sense: that it is written by a Christian; that its most characteristic ideas originate inside Christianity; and that the colour of feeling inherent in the power of the verse would not be found in any writer not profoundly influenced by Christian experience. We put the matter in this manner in order to safeguard certain other aspects which modify its Christianity, and defeat any attempt to read it as systematic Christian allegory, some of which have already been touched on. Again, it seems clear that Coleridge, who was not consciously allegorising, would have thought of the poem's truth as universal rather than as sectarian, and would have expected it to speak first to the imagination, and to the experience, of readers, not to their religious 'beliefs'.

Where, then, are the specific marks of Christianity? First, the albatross is welcomed as a guest, and offered friendship—which is why its betrayal cannot plausibly be glossed in terms of bird soup:

At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came:
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

The 'as if suggests, of course, analogy rather than anything more definite, and it is obvious that the other mariners think of the bird merely superstitiously, hailing it as a good omen. When this view seems to be confirmed, yet the Mariner none the less kills it, they blame him not for betraying a living creature whom he has befriended, but for killing the bird that 'made the breeze to blow'. For this reason again, they praise him for killing the bird when a further reversal of weather appears now to prove the opposite:

'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay
That bring the fog and mist.

No doubt this is the reason why, later, they simply die, but the Mariner himself is reserved for a different fate. This is nothing to do with a spectacular vengeance from a cruel deity (as William Empson seems to think) but is, rather, an indication of the poem's direction. We are to focus on the plight of the one man who is a moral agent, knowing good from evil, rather than upon the fate of many men excluded from spiritual insight, and so from spiritual life. The crew belongs, to use a phrase of Coleridge's already quoted, with the 'lethargy of custom'—with that majority among men who miss alike the beauty and the suffering of life, having no eyes to see.

The Mariner, however, who has particularly offered friendship to the bird, and established trust with it, commits evil in the fullest sense. The bird has come to recognise him, to receive from him, to respond when he calls to it, so the slaying is 'hellish' in the strict, Christian sense. The ancient world, Greek and Christian alike, had accepted duty to a guest as sacred, and believed that to harm a guest or indeed to fail to protect him from evil was a wrong crying to Heaven for vengeance. Above all, duty to a friend was sacred; Dante puts Brutus and Judas Iscariot together, in hell's deepest pit.

It could be argued, of course, that this duty to guests and friends did not extend to animals, yet man's Lordship of Nature is a profoundly Christian belief. The book of Genesis asserts it, and Christ himself said that not a bird falls to earth without his Father's knowledge. For centuries, the church had tended to ignore this aspect of its teaching to such a degree that St Francis's close relationship with creatures seemed, in the strict sense of the word, eccentric. Perhaps this was because the assumption had grown that animals have no souls, and, therefore, that callousness towards them is permissible; certainly a divine relationship between man and the creatures lower than himself had been very generally lost.

One feature of romanticism was the radical recovery of a sense of man's kinship with all creation, and of understanding that the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy and peace, is not divisible. Blake expresses this, simply and memorably, in 'The Little Black Boy':

Look on the rising sun! there God does live,
And gives His light, and gives His heat away;
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noon day.

In Wordsworth, the unity of creation is everywhere asserted; and, in The Ancient Mariner, this insight is, more than anything, the poem's coherence. Because the albatross was really befriended, it was really betrayed; and the Mariner's punishment is precisely that of Macbeth. He passes into inner torment and dereliction, which is hell brought home to him. He cannot pray (one of the traditional signs of damnation), and, like Macbeth, he cannot sleep. When he tells of the killing of the albatross he looks demonic (Part I, final stanza), and he knows, as the other mariners do not, that he has done a 'hellish' thing. (The irony is that while the Mariner reports the phrase 'And I had done a hellish thing' as words said to him by his fellows, he alone knows the real meaning of the words, and their for truth.) Later, during his trance, he hears the dialogue between two spirits who direct the stricken ship: and, while these appear to belong to a universe more neo-platonic than Christian in concept, they bring home the moral in a directly Christian way:

'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

'The Spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.'

The reference to the crucifixion balances the somewhat untheological 'Spirit who bideth by himself, but the final two lines, with their image of a dance of delight and love between Creator and creatures that has been violated, are at once precise and profound. Perhaps the Christian understanding of the nature of evil has seldom been more simply and powerfully captured. There is a chain of love, including the Creator's love for the bird, and the bird's love for the man, which has been totally broken by the man. Towards the end of the poem, the community of all creation is again insisted upon, in lines which will look naïve or sentimental only to readers who wholly refuse the poem's imaged vision:

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.

Prayer, to which we shall return, is the key concept, the word, and activity, which is the poem's key theme.

When the Mariner kills love, he commits the sin which cuts him decisively from God, and from the life of God, which is love, and puts himself in the self-alone, the absence of God, which is hell. Total change comes with the moment of murder, and Coleridge signifies this through a tellingly simple inversion. In Part I, we have read:

The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

This description, marvellously buoyant and compressed, of the day's ritual, returns, inverted, at the start of Part II:

The Sun now rose upon the right:
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist, and on the left
Went down into the sea.

While a determinedly literal mind might deduce merely that the ship has now turned round and is going the other way, the evident force is that creation has turned round, the whole universe has turned round; and this indeed proves to be so. Arrest and fixity; dryness; horror:

The very deep did rot; 0 Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

This, now, is the Mariner's 'world', and above all, he is

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

Towards the end, the Mariner yet again stresses to the Wedding-Guest that the crowning horror of his suffering has been the absence, or the apparent absence, of God:

O Wedding-Guest! this soul has been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.

The universe dead and ghastly (a suicide's vision of reality?) is the Mariner's world after his sin. It belongs with Macbeth's world after the killing of Duncan, with the central quality of consciousness conveyed by T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, and indeed with all visions of loneliness and madness in literature, whether specifically Christian or not, where these sufferings are linked, in whatever manner, with man's violation, or loss, of love. But the poem is also about redemption. The Mariner is released from his suffering not through anything he can do himself—above all, he cannot pray even—but through a moment's pure grace:

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

'Unaware'. This word, often in the form 'unawares', was a favourite of Wordsworth's, and any determined student of the romantic sensibility could do worse than spend a few hours tracking it down. Here, it is pure grace: 'The selfsame moment I could pray.' With prayer comes release. The albatross falls away, and he can sleep. There's further penance to come, a strange doom of purgation, but the Mariner is no longer in hell. This release naturally calls to mind the moment in Pilgrim's Progress when Christian's burden of sin rolls away from him at the foot of the cross, since, though Coleridge is not an allegorist like Bunyan, his imaginative effect is most closely akin.

In The Ancient Mariner Coleridge is moving on the plane of Reason as he defines it; he is depicting realities of good and evil, all probing well beyond the world of 'understanding'. The actual killing of the albatross is no more 'explained' than is the sin of Judas as recounted in the four New Testament accounts of it, or the sin of Eve and Adam as recounted in Genesis. 'The man said, "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.'" 'The woman said, "The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat,'" that is all: and, though Milton, in his dramatic presentation, tried to 'understand', tying himself in knots along with the rest of us, Genesis simply stop here. So, for Adam and Eve, there is expulsion, and loss of Eden, as God had decreed; they and their seed are to wander in exile for the rest of time. The 'truth' of the story in Genesis is, simply, the truth of it; men have eaten the forbidden fruit, do wander in exile, God knows why. Coleridge leaves the Mariner's motives likewise unexplained and mysterious; but they are met by the equally unexplained and mysterious operations of grace. The Mariner is in hell (as most men sometimes may be, and some men habitually) and, in human terms, he has no route back. Yet suddenly he sees the water creatures, and they are beautiful; in place of the rot and slime, the horror, there is a dance of delight. Love wells up in his heart; he praises (the moment is entirely given); above all, he blesses them, 'unaware'. 'The self-same moment I could pray.' The universe turns round again, and, for the world of death, a world of life is returned. The water creatures are still the same, in their own reality; it is the Mariner who has changed, or been changed.

Why does human consciousness sometimes inhabit a world of deadness and horror, where life is unbearable, sometimes rejoice in a world radiant with God? If there is one theme that links Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, it is this one, the mystery of joy, and dereliction, in the inner soul. All three poets are driven men, like the Mariner, with an urgent message of healing for their fellows to hear. Yet they know they will be dreaded and resisted, prophets unheeded; that most men will shun the tale they have to tell.

As one would expect, the romantics are keenly aware of different frames of reference, different interpretations, and the tension between joy and fear is at the heart of their thought. If God is really there to be seen clearly, why do many men miss him? Various traditional insights and guesses are explored. Many men perhaps lose the visionary gifts at adolescence, preferring the 'light of common day' to the wonder of God. Perhaps this loss is part of the harvest of sin, the original exile from Eden; perhaps it is loss of moral purity through deliberate sin. May it be that God preordains some men to the darkness and horror; that, in Blake's words, 'Some are born to endless night'? Or does God appear only when he wills, and then withdraw himself, coming and going to laws not yet revealed? In certain moods Wordsworth and Coleridge toyed with the thought that since we 'receive but what we give' in living, then, when our exuberance and energy fail, the world must go dead. Energy, which (said Blake) is both 'eternal delight' and 'from the body', may indeed be the fuel, the vision, of the soul. Yet this view risks locking men in psychic solipsism, and mistaking the mechanisms of human perception for the realities perceived.

It may be that the romantic poets had to declare their strong sense of election in differing fashions, since this sense of election was also their gospel for men. But had they, by grace or purity, achieved particular insight, or were they perceiving in strange, and maybe disordered ways? Were they saner than the excluded majority, or madder, were they driven by divine, or by demonic powers? When their universe went dead, had they sinned exceptionally? Or had their mind broken; or had they merely grown old? As the nineteenth century went on, and the optimism of the early romantics receded, their successors often gravitated to bizarre and consciously perverse modes of thought. Could the heavenly light be as capricious even as the erotic, sending poor driven, infatuated men quite out of their wits? 'La belle dame sans merci', will o' the wisp glimpses of divinity; what kind of life, and destiny, were these?

The distinctive character of The Ancient Mariner, we are saying, is that it is Christian in its implicit understanding of such questions as these. The mystery is a Christian mystery, and to this degree accessible; while 'good' and 'evil are not 'explained', they are held under God. The poem offers a clear polarity between a universe where men pray and celebrate and love is paramount, and a universe where blessing is absent and horror prevails. In objective fact the universe is God's, and constant; but sin removes men to a vision where God is absent; to hell. Yet the Mariner receives grace, including the supreme grace of penitence, and is led back to a living, though wounded, destiny in the world of men. In knowing he has done a hellish thing, he makes grace possible; only failure to accept guilt could lock God finally out.

What, then, is the Mariner's destiny? In one sense he seems akin to any poet or artist, or any Christian, who, healed by grace, is driven to tell his tale. Freed from hell, he remains still in Purgatory, and is an object of terror to most whom he meets. The holy hermit is aghast, the Wedding-Guest afraid and reluctant; the Pilot's boy goes mad. The Mariner's destiny is not to start the voyage of sanctity and gradually to mirror holiness, but to remain visibly touched by hell, disturbing and disturbed:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
The heart within me burns.

The Mariner exists for this 'uncertain hour', which is also the hour of this poem; the hour chosen by God when some other man must hear the tale. The other chief aspect of the poem, which we have not so far touched on, is that its centre is really the Wedding-Guest. At the start, he is picked out by the Mariner, and himself 'arrested'; there are strong suggestions of hypnosis and trance. He fears the Mariner, tries to shake him off, but is held by him ; this is his moment, with no hope of escape:

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone;
He cannot choose but hear.

The Wedding-Guest's experience is, in this aspect, related to the Mariner's—especially at the point when, in a trance, the Mariner has heard the two spirits debate. Coleridge is dramatising the moment of encounter when, in the divine will, or the divine capriciousness, this man experiences the near approach of God. The encounter is unsought, it is an unwanted distraction, it is terrifying rather than comforting, but, just now, its moment has come. The Mariner's story, his destiny, is now for this man entirely, and everything romantic, and fantastic, will converge in its effect.

Coleridge, like Wordsworth, believed that most men are open on their God-ward side only occasionally; that normally, God's presence is ignored, or not even seen. But there are moments when a work of art springs to life, when a relationship crystallises, when something long known is seen suddenly—and, at such times, a response, a 'yes' or 'no' must be made. It is surely because Coleridge's poem dramatises this moment in images so bizarre, so altogether unearthly, that it can afford its moral to have the simplicity of a child's hymn. The last four stanzas of the poem, which in isolation may seem banal, rise from the poem with authentic, even with hypnotic power. The Wedding-Guest leaves the encounter not elated, but 'like one that hath been stunned / And is of sense forlorn'. None the less, he rises 'sadder and wiser'—which is certainly something; a valuable, if apparently modest role for art itself?

Lindsay Davies (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5551

SOURCE: "The Poem, the Gloss and the Critic: Discourse and Subjectivity in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, July, 1990, pp. 259-71.

[In the following essay, Davies claims that, contrary to the tendencies of most critics, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner cannot and need not be entirely unified and unambiguous.]

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which has been studied with great enthusiasm and ingenuity by many critics as a moral poem—an imaginative adventure with a moral lesson—seems actually to provide incessant problems for these critics in its refusal to finally unify to a point where all the poem's elements serve one particular reading. From the beginning the poem posed difficulties for those who strove to find in it a coherent relation of the parts to the whole. Indeed, Wordsworth himself, in his notorious criticism of the poem included in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), commented that "the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other". Yet despite the fact that, according to Wordsworth's criticism, Coleridge had failed to unify and harmonize the poem as a romantic poet should, critics nevertheless have since tried to compensate for this failure by imposing interpretations on the poem which attempt to "explain" the relation of parts to whole. Robert Penn Warren's "A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading" and Edward Bostetter's "The Nightmare World of the Ancient Mariner" are good examples of such attempts to provide consistent comprehensive readings of the poem in moral terms. But, considered together, these two articles also demonstrate the impossibility of containing the poem's meaning in a single interpretation. Warren's and Bostetter's readings of The Ancient Mariner are mutually exclusive. Warren argues that the poem tells "a story of crime and punishment and repentance and reconciliation", and he focuses primarily on the theme of sacramental vision and Coleridge's concept of the "One Life". Bostetter's mariner, on the other hand, is the victim of a chaotic and irrational universe. For him the mariner's adventure results in his eternal alienation; whereas for Warren, the mariner at the end becomes "a prophet of universal charity". Each critic constructs his argument from a very careful reading of the text. But the fact that they reach such opposite conclusions demonstrates the failure of each interpretation in its unifying mission. Instead Warren and Bostetter have helped to show that the mariner is both the prophet of unity and order (the One Life) and a figure of irreconcilable alienation. Indeed this disjunction of meaning leads the way to an examination of the poem which abandons the quest to uncover an overall "meaning" for the text, and which focuses instead on the effects produced by its textual network.

Central to the desire for establishing coherent and stable meaning in this poem is the romantic desire for a smooth transmission of thought and feeling from poet to reader. But The Ancient Mariner makes even the illusion of such a process impossible, and foregrounds instead a place of competing discourses and a variety of subject positions for a reader to adopt which draw attention not simply to the difficulties of reading the poem, but also to the paradoxes of the activity of interpretation itself. A literary critic always imposes an order on the text by constructing an argument about it. But the critic's tale of order is determined by its, and thus the critic's, alienation through difference from all other readings of the text. Just as the critic produces the poem, in the sense of opening it up to view, so the poem produces the critic, as it constitutes her subjectivity through the production of yet another text—the critic's interpretation. The critic, like the mariner and his curse, is determined by her discourse. And my examination of The Ancient Mariner will focus on the contingencies of subjectivity exposed through the specular representation of critical activity that can be seen in the poem's marginal gloss.

My discussion is based on two chief assumptions: first, that poetry is a particular mode of discourse; and, second, that subjectivity not only produces discourse through the relationship between a speaker and a listener, but that it is also an effect of discourse. No "self exists prior to language. Far from being an autonomous entity, understood as a psychologically unified and transcendental essence or "identity", subjectivity is determined by the discourses which produce it, and can come into being only by occupation of the subject positions provided within those discourses. That is, as Lacan has stressed, subjectivity only emerges in an intersubjective discourse with the Other. Moreover, even the English pronoun "I", which is used to assert autonomous identity, actually represents a split rather than a unification of subjectivity between the "I" speaking and the "I" spoken about. As Antony Easthope has put it so well [in Poetry as Discourse], "identity is only ever possible as misrecognition. For vision, I can only see myself in a mirror by seeing this reflection from somewhere else. For discourse, I can only identify myself in discourse by speaking about this character ('myself) from somewhere else".

Yet despite this disjunction, "self-expressive" texts, like romantic poetry or traditionally conceived autobiographical works, which foreground the pronoun "I" and suggest a unity between the subject of the text and the subject writing it, appear unproblematic because the materiality of language which disperses meaning is effaced by certain linguistic features that create the effect of a coherent stable voice within the text. That is, such texts provide a subject position easily adopted by the reader, who grasps the subject "behind" the voice as the authoritative and coherent originator of meaning, and thereby grasps her own "self as the receiver of this meaning. As Catherine Belsey has noted [in Critical Practice], "expressive" texts interpellate the reader as subject:

The reader is invited to perceive and judge the "truth" of the text, the coherent, non-contradictory interpretation of the world as it is perceived by an author whose autonomy is the source and evidence of the truth of the interpretation. This model of intersubjective communication, of shared understanding of a text which re-presents the world, is the guarantee not only of the truth of the text but of the reader's existence as an autonomous and knowing subject in a world of knowing subjects.

However, the meaning and knowledge supposedly shared through this kind of transparent discourse is less stable than it seems. Language, after all, is not transparent but a material from which meanings must be produced; and thus materiality will always interpose itself between the author's intentions and the reader's reception of the text. As Easthope notes, "however much a poem claims to be the property of a speaker represented in it, the poem finally belongs to the reader producing it as a reading".

Although a romantic poem, The Ancient Mariner departs from romantic expressivism by overlapping three modes of discourse. The subjectivities which determine these modes are: (1) Poet/Balladeer—Reader; (2) Author of Gloss—Reader; (3) Ancient Mariner—Wedding Guest. The first two groups of these positions can be described, in Roman Jakobson's terms, as subjects of enunciation; that is, the speaking subject and the producer of meaning. The third group, however, are the subjects of the enounced, the subjects represented within the discourse. For meaning to be produced, a reader must identify herself with one of these positions, and generally will gravitate towards the one which most immediately offers intelligibility. However, The Ancient Mariner does not provide such an easy process of identification for the reader. Instead it offers a range of conflicting positions which disperse the reader's subjectivity across the text. Yet, interestingly, through the maze of perspectives or subject positions offered by the poem (Coleridge, the balladeer, the mariner, the wedding guest, the editor of the gloss), one can still perceive what amounts to a thematization of the romantic ideal of self-expression in the exchange between the mariner and the wedding guest; the mariner tells his story to the wedding guest, who is affected and changed through empathie identification with what he hears. Moreover, in keeping with both romantic poetry and autobiography, the mariner's narrative constitutes a confessional exposure of selfhood.

Yet while the wedding guest finally has no problem understanding the mariner's tale, this poem denies the reader any easy access to its meaning; and so the process of constructing meaning, of producing the text, is made obvious in a way that it is not in transparent discourse. Denied a place where meaning coheres and appears obvious, the reader is forced to know herself and identify herself as a critic, or interpreter of the text. And the poem itself uncannily anticipates and complicates the reader's desire to occupy a stable position as interpreter by providing a model of just such a reader within its margins, thus reflecting back on the reader a contorted image of her very own activity.

The gloss was added to The Ancient Mariner for the version of the poem that appeared in Sibylline Leaves (1817). It was one of several changes made to the text that had been published in Lyrical Ballads (1798), and it was added partly in response to Wordsworth's criticism, and partly because Coleridge increasingly felt that the poem was too obscure. Accordingly today the reader is confronted with a text composed of two texts, and must either attempt to negotiate them both, or deliberately suppress one in order to appropriate the other. Generally, one would assume, the gloss is subordinated in favour of the poem. It is, after all, written as an accompaniment to the poem. But while it might be considered "natural" to focus on the poem itself, nevertheless this demands a deliberate suppression of the gloss. Indeed the gloss must be suppressed if one wishes to read the poem as unbroken narrative. However, when confronted with the puzzles of this narrative, the act of suppressing the gloss is easier said than done. Consequently, I will insist on an examination of the implications of the text as doubled text, a combination of two discontinuous texts.

If I describe the gloss and the poem as discontinuous with each other, however, it is important to define exactly the nature of this discontinuity, because presumably the gloss is added not to create more confusion but to make the poem more accessible. Lawrence Lipking, in his essay "The Marginal Gloss", devotes some time to the examination of Coleridge's gloss and is persuasive in demonstrating its role as interpreter of the poem. The gloss frequently makes explicit what the narrative of the poem only infers. For example, Lipking has shown how, in the very opening lines of the poem, the gloss begins its role as "anchorer" of meaning. The poem opens rather oddly with an "it" rather than a "he" ("It is an ancient Mariner" [1]) and the "one of three" (2) the mariner stops could be one of three of anything—the references are decidedly unstable. But the gloss accompanying the opening stanza clears up the problem by presenting the scene in a matter-of-fact and direct manner: "An ancient Mariner meeteth three Gallants bidden to a wedding feast, and detaineth one" (1-4). Moreover, the choice of the word "gallants" indicates the beginning of the gloss's role as moral judge. As Lipking points out, the gloss does not confine itself to facts, but "again and again it interprets the narrative by reading it as parable. In the world of the gloss, actions have causes and consequences, parts fit into wholes, and human motives are not arbitrary". It is the gloss, after all, that notes explicitly that the mariner's action of shooting the albatross is a "crime" (97-102). And it can be judged as such because, again, the gloss has made explicit what the poem only infers: that the albatross is a "pious bird of good omen" (79-82). The author of the gloss assumes from the start the system of universal order that the mariner, in his story, has to learn. Hence everything is interpreted accordingly; indeed, the very interpretive and explanatory agenda of the gloss corresponds with this assumption.

The gloss can not only interpret the mariner's actions but can also distinguish between the spirits, and understand man's place in both the natural and spiritual realms. Its longest entry meditates on the loneliness of the mariner by adding the perspective of the universe where the moon and stars, though constantly journeying, are nevertheless always at "home". The text of this entry reads:

In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth towards the journeying Moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival. (263-71)

The simple stanzas these phrases are curled around do not spell out their own significance.

The moving Moon went up the sky.
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside—

Her beams bemocked the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread:
But where the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charméd water burnt alway
A still and awful red. (263-271)

They are indeed suggestive lines; but they do not explain the mood of the mariner the way the gloss does. If anything, these stanzas express disconnection and alienation. And, instead, it is the gloss that provides the vision of universal connectedness which makes the transition to the mariner's act of blessing the water-snakes intelligible.

Indeed, the gloss plays no minor role. While convention would relegate it as a supporting text, its clarity and authority of tone, and the promise of elucidation implied by its presence, constantly draw the reader's eye away from the poem toward the margin. The gloss is always demanding attention: it attaches itself to the poem, sometimes in short phrases, sometimes in long sentences, and constantly disrupts the narrative continuity. Moreover, it also asserts itself by having a particular voice. The gloss is no deadpan script but the delivery of a voice which can move from being "civilized" and "scholastic", to being hauntingly lyrical in its tone. Far from being subordinate to the poem, the gloss in fact is, as Lipking puts it so well, "smugly-knowing. Not in thrall to the mariner's perspective, it understands the meaning of his experiences, it understands him as he cannot understand himself. The gloss competes with the poem, and it is this tension which creates a discontinuity that supersedes the supposed continuity between the two texts.

This competition takes place on the level of form as well as through content and tone. The gloss's choppy narrative is for the most part divided up by sentences—each sentence being a separate entry. But there are several places where the entry next to a stanza is only a clause. In these places the eye is led down the margin to find the other clauses and consequently to complete the sentence. The result of this adherence to syntactic wholeness is that several of the poem's stanzas are bypassed and the reader must go back to read them. Thus the eye is led back and forth as well as from side to side (from poem to margin), and the narrative flow of both poem and gloss are destroyed. Indeed, sometimes this disruption of narrative is overtly displayed by the typographical intrusion of the gloss into the stanzaic progression of the poem: in its longer sections the gloss bleeds across the page from the margin, filling the white spaces between stanzas.

Lipking ingeniously reads the tension between gloss and poem as the actual vehicle of identification for the reader. He argues that the gloss and poem simultaneously provide the experience and the interpretation of the mariner's tale. The movement of the reader tossed between the texts, where "shocking incident" in the poem is followed by "grave reflection" in the gloss, re-enacts the fundamental movement of the mariner's experience. And Lipking asserts a final healing of the divide by noting that at the very end the gloss and poem conclude together by saying the same thing. But by positing this final unification Lipking represses the differences between the discourses which he previously had demonstrated so well. So it is on this point that I must finally part company with Lipking. There are still two distinct voices speaking at the poem's end. The text is still doubled. And it seems to me that, rather than providing the means for identification between reader and text, the coexistence of gloss and poem—two competing voices, two subject positions—divides the reader's experience, preventing identification with any one stable voice, and thus preventing identification with any one stable voice, and thus preventing the cohesion of meaning. There is no final unity achieved: the voice of the gloss provides a conflicting position of subjectivity and forces the reader to participate simultaneously in two modes of discourse. Ironically, what is designed to assist and compensate for the difficulty of the poem, actually vastly increases the complexity of any reader's experience of it. Various positions of subjectivity compete with one another and demand that the reader shift from one mode of discourse to another, reorienting herself accordingly. The reader must choose between enthralment to the tale, or knowing interpretation of it, and the coexistence of both possibilities makes neither one tenable. The choice divides the reader. The positions of the mariner and the wedding guest, which are asserted over the subject of enunciation (that is, the speaking subject as "Coleridge" or the "balladeer"), demand that the reader "suspend disbelief, be mesmerized and enthralled, both sharing the urgency of the mariner's tale and being affected, like the wedding guest, by the burden of its message. Unlike the poem, however, the gloss foregrounds the subject of enunciation as the position of intelligibility. The voice of the gloss forces the reader to adopt a position in which she must participate in distanced and knowing interpretation of the poem, where the spell is broken by "wisdom". The inconsistencies and opacity that, supposedly, a successfully mesmerized reader would not notice, must be organized and coerced into a consistent schema by the reader of the gloss. And the intrusive presence of the gloss, offering the reader elucidation and interpretive distance, prevents her from being imaginatively captivated by the poem. The imaginative capacity of all humans which, it is suggested, should enable the reader to reach the truth and meaning of the poem (the wedding guest being our model here) is belied by the presence of the gloss. And by standing in for imagination's failure to unify the poem, the gloss offers not enthralment and mesmerization but reflection and interpretive distance. Thus the text, composed of two discontinuous discourses, undermines the unity of experience that the poem thematically supports, and offers instead its own linguistic materiality. The connectedness between all things and the unifying power of the imagination become ironic concepts to a reader who, unable to pin down meaning, must know herself as a subject in process, moving from one position of intelligibility to another.

Yet in its refusal to comfortably situate the reader, The Ancient Mariner actually becomes a spur to the act of critical interpretation. The presence of the gloss, which has helped to split the reader in the process of reading, also stands as an example of how the reading subject can overcome this dilemma. Composed of poem and gloss, The Ancient Mariner is, as Roland Barthes would say, a writable text: plural and multivalent, resistant to immediate assimilation, it is a text that can only exist in terms of meaning by our rewriting of it. The critic would transform the writable text into a readable one by rewriting it in such a way that it can be assimilated and immediately comprehended. In doing so, she both mimics the gloss and necessarily implies the failure of the gloss. But if the gloss fails to account for the poem satisfactorily, the question is raised whether another gloss can do any better. Instead of grounding meaning, the glosses only encourage further glosses. What is at stake in each interpretation of the poem, however, is not the meaning it offers but the subjectivity of the interpreter which the achievement of that meaning tentatively affirms.

In this sense, the critic writes herself, and the interpretation she produces is autobiographical in a new way. Earlier in this essay I note how autobiography, traditionally understood as "the description of a life written by the individual himself, is supposed to give direct access to the voice behind the text. The meaning of the narrative resides in the originating subject, the author who has spread the shaping of his identity before us in words. What I suggest here, however, is a reversal of this process. Instead of the author using words to "express" a self which is already given, it is the words themselves that actually constitute that self. The implications of this for autobiography are significant. Instead of affirming autonomous subjectivity, autobiography demonstrates in a heightened manner the subject in search of identity in discourse. And, in the writing of the self, it is language that has ultimate control. As Paul De Man has noted,

We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium?

Indeed, it has been posited by De Man and others that all texts are autobiographical insofar as they claim to be by someone, thus affirming both the subjectivity of that someone, and of the reader who knows herself in the act of reading and understanding. In the discourse of literary criticism, then, the critic can only know herself and be known as a critic by authoring a document that assumes mastery of the text in question. In writing her own text that lays bare the secrets of another text, she inevitably writes herself by substituting for own discourse for that of the other. The subjectivity of the autobiographer is constituted by the figuration in language of past "selves". But any kind of writing involves the figuration of selfhood, which is why, as Rudolphe Gasché has pointed out, autobiography can become a "paradigm for writing as such". And, insofar as her discourse determines her, the critic is also necessarily figured in her own text.

As a gesture towards the poem's themes and content which I have neglected in favour of formal and theoretical issues, I wish now to offer a brief reading of the poem which will focus on its figuration of the subject's constitution in language. And in presenting my reading, I too enter the tradition of Coleridge studies which has for years offered elucidation of the obscurities of the poem. Moreover, I will be following the example of the gloss—mastering the poem, purporting to know more about it than it knows about itself, or than any other reader knows about it. To be part of the critical discourse, however, is only to join the proliferation of texts this poem has produced. Insofar as my reading coheres it constitutes my position as critic, but it coheres only be elision and/or repression of difference.

Nevertheless, I proceed. Given the weighty moralism of the poem's ending, it seems that it does indeed attempt to cohere at the level of Christian morality. By shooting the albatross the mariner refuses to project himself imaginatively into the concept of "One Life"—the regenerative interchange and unity between man and nature in God's universe. Instead, he demonstrates a wilful capacity for unmotivated evil that fundamentally opposes universal harmony. However, although the mariner suffers and does penance for his deed, the autonomy and assertion of individualism that it represents is sustained throughout the poem by the sheer solitariness of his position. He is consistently apart from community, which is represented by both the wedding and the ship's crew; and although the moral of the poem's ending strongly favours both community of mankind and the overall community of man and nature in the universe, the mariner still remains alone. It is his penance to remain so, of course. But the nature of his penance also somewhat contradictorily elevates the mariner into a prophetic figure who, by maintaining separateness from community, supposedly performs a corrective role through the perpetual retelling of his tale. Each retelling recreates the deed, reasserts his wilful autonomy, and represents his solitariness and individualism. While each retelling is a further extension of his penance, and while the mariner presents his task as a curse, the ironic fact of the matter is that this task that separates him is performed for the sake of a vision of unity. The nature of his task contradicts the moral of One Life embedded in its message. In fact, it could be argued that the task replicates his initial crime of killing the bird: the hypnotic control the mariner asserts over the listener he has accosted is the usurpation of another's life against that other's will. Furthermore, the effect of this task, as it is presented in the poem, is one that is dominated by the voice and vision of the mariner. His "role" in society not only alienates him from that society and constantly reasserts his individuality, but also actually determines his subjectivity as it is constituted through language.

The mariner tells the wedding guest that he has "strange power of speech" (587). And within the world of the poem, certainly, his speech affects his listener. The wedding guest is changed—"A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn" (624-25)—through empathic identification with the mariner's suffering as it is told in the tale. But given the fate of the mariner to tell his tale over and over, one might be tempted to point out that it is the strange power of speech that has him, and not the other way around. The mariner's curse figures our compulsion to narrate the events of our lives to others; which we do in order to affirm present identity, both by the ability to retain and affect a listener and by the construction of a past identity in language which is taken to be continuous with that of the present.

Geoffrey Hartman has noted that the wilfulness of the mariner's act against nature implies, at the very least, a drive on his part for self-presence. However, this act reveals not only the desire for self-presence, but also that individuation is dependent upon a dialectical awareness of self and other. As Hartman observes, "what follows [the mariner's] self-determining, self-inaugural act is, paradoxically, the presence of otherness". Throughout the tale, the mariner's "self is constituted by differentiation. His subjectivity emerges somewhere between himself as observer and himself as observed. The most obvious example of this is the mariner's awareness of the cursing eyes of the dead crew which he imagines are fixed upon him. But more remarkable, perhaps, is the description of the sun as it appears through the mast of the skeleton ship:

The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.

It seemeth him but the skeleton of a ship.

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. (171-80)

It is ambiguous here whether it is the sun or the mariner who is imprisoned. But what is important is that the sun stares at him, and not the other way around. He is central to his world; but his central position is dependent upon the existence of others external to him. Hence his "aloneness" must be accompanied by corpses whose eyes still gaze, phantoms that discuss and decide his fate, and a personified sun which stares at him. It is these things which function as otherness and thus form, through diffentiation, the mariner's self. Indeed they and the wedding guest together demonstrate the dialogic structure of the self, where "I" can only be understood in relation to "non-I". But because the subjectivity of the pronoun "I" does not extend beyond the moment of a specific utterance, it must be perpetually recreated through the exercise of language—through discourse. And here a crucial contradiction emerges in the poem: insofar as the mariner's subjectivity is dependent upon his penance of perpetual discourse, his perpetual telling of himself in language, he is clearly an example of the determinate subject; yet this penance, by focusing so absolutely on the solitariness and selfhood of the mariner, at the same time continues to assert him as an autonomous individual.

The mariner's penance takes the form of transparent discourse; and for the wedding guest, who is mesmerized and drawn in, the speech is powerful. He locates "truth" in the autobiographical tale, and is affected and changed through imaginary identification and empathy with the mariner. The reader of the poem, however, is prevented from comfortably occupying the positions of either the mariner or the wedding guest, and is thus prevented from identifying with the experiences of either. As we have seen, the marginal gloss is the chief feature working against this process of imaginary identification and, under these conditions, the power of the mariner's speech is drained. Instead of being mesmerized by the "truth" of the mariner's tale, or by the "truth" of the wedding guest's experience of it, the reader is confronted with the inconsistency between the tale's moral emphasis on universal oneness that would dissolve individuality into itself, and the wilful assertion of individuality that the nature of the mariner's penance represents. This thematic contradiction, and the refusal of transparency produced by the discontinuity of poem and gloss, result in a fundamental resistance to stable meaning. And we are thus denied our place as knowing subjects unless we follow the example of gloss and write ourselves by rewriting, by interpreting the poem.

Because The Ancient Mariner demonstrates the powers and uses of transparent discourse within its content at the same time as it stubbornly refuses transparency in its form, it is hardly surprising that the task of fixing meaning has proved to be so difficult. But perhaps even more interesting is the self-conscious awareness the text of this poem brings to bear on the interpretive enterprise of literary criticism. The presence of the marginal gloss transforms the text into a figure of critical activity, and the discontinuity between the gloss and the poem stands as a reminder that the critical interpretive text is not a disinterested "accompaniment" to a literary work but a product of a discourse which has the specific goal of mastering the work in question and offering its own reading as the best access to meaning and truth. Just as the gloss and the poem compete, so do literary works and criticism. Moreover, the materiality of language, which causes meaning to be dispersed, also causes the proliferation of interpretive texts. And each one, while representing the interests of its author, will finally be received and understood according to the interests of the reader. The process is endless. The activity of criticism does not stabilize meaning but actually increases its dispersal. In addition, the marginal gloss and the poem collude in an allusion to the autobiographical element of all discourse. The gloss encourages us to posit an imaginary subject "behind" it (a seventeenth-century editor), a subject we can only identify through the language of the gloss itself. And, as readers of the poem, we see in the "editor" a distorted reflection of our own activity. We are like the editor, but yet different—and our difference, our own selfhood, resides in that other (and further) gloss of the poem we must ourselves produce. The mariner's curse of speaking himself into being is also the curse of the critic.

It is obvious that my reading of The Ancient Mariner is determined by the self-consciousness and anxiety that poststructuralist theory has injected into literary criticism. My understanding of this poem as a text which declares its own textuality and represents the constitution of the subject through discourse could thus be regarded as the product of contemporary critical discourse as it "speaks" me, the critic. Indeed, there is no question that my interests as critic are determined largely by the current dominant discourses of my field. At this point in this century there seems no way of returning to the confidence of New Criticism and its fundamentally romantic objectives of unity and autonomy; nor can we return to the romantic concept of subjectivity as a natural, privileged and unified psychological condition. Discontinuity and the anxiety of reflexivity become preferable to illusory unity in a time when truth and meaning are understood to be only ever reached asymptotically through the systems of language and representation. And it is from this perspective that The Ancient Mariner seems to be a remarkably unromantic romantic text.

Camille Paglia (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire: Coleridge," in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 317-46.

[In the following essay, Paglia argues against strictly moral interpretations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and rather insists that in the poem, "Jehovah has been obliterated by the vampire mother who rises from the slime of nature."]

Literature's most influential male heroine is the protagonist of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wordsworth was the first to notice the Mariner's passive suffering. In the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth lists the "great defects" of the poem: "first, that the principal person has no distinct character .. . secondly, that he does not act, but is continually acted upon." Bloom speaks of the Mariner's "extraordinary passivity." Graham Hough equates the ship's motionlessness with "complete paralysis of the will." George Whalley goes further: "The Mariner's passivity is Coleridge's too." My reading of The Ancient Mariner makes this passivity the central psychological fact of the poem. I reject moral interpretations, typified by Robert Penn Warren's canonical essay. Edward E. Bostetter argues against Warren point by point: "The poem is the morbidly self-obsessed account of a man who through his act has become the center of universal attention." Two hundred sailors, dying, stare dolefully at the Mariner. The male heroine, by operatic self-dramatization, is a prima donna triumphing through exquisite public suffering. The eyes of the universe are fixed on him. Coleridge's ring of eyes is part paranoiac reproach, part eroticizing adoration. Eyes crucify his protagonists, pinning them in immobilized passivity, an uncanny world fear.

Sagas of the male heroine are always artistically endangered by the serpentine dynamic of self-identification. The Mariner, with his "long grey beard" and "skinny hand," recalls those Wordsworthian solitaires of "grey hairs" and "palsied hand" in whom I see a self-identification by the poet so extreme as to debilitate the text by sentimentality. Parts of The Ancient Mariner are illwritten to the point of Lewis Carroll parody: '"Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!' / Eftsoons his hand dropt he." "The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast, / For he heard the loud bassoon." "Four times fifty living men . . . With heavy thump, a lifeless lump, / They dropped down one by one." Rhyme is merely ritualistic chiming, the darkening cloud of fate. Stanzas fall into slapstick and heedlessly sail on. The Ancient Mariner is one of the greatest poems in English, yet what it achieves is almost in defiance of language. Vision and execution often wildly diverge. Coleridge's sober "conversation poems" are in better taste; but they are minor works in literary history, belonging to the age of sensibility, and would never have made the poet's fame. The same disjunction of form and content afflicts Poe, Coleridge's heir. The French accused America of slighting her greatest poet in Poe, who may sound better in Baudelaire's translation than in English. Poe, like Coleridge, is a giant of imagination, and imagination has its own laws. In Poe's tales and Coleridge's mystery poems, the daemonic expresses itself nakedly. Dionysus always shakes off rules of Apollonian form.

Coleridge and Poe are seized by visions that transcend language, that belong to the dream experience beyond language. Psychoanalysis . . . overestimates the linguistic character of the unconscious. Dreaming is a pagan cinema. The wit of dreams comes from treating words as if they were objects. Coleridge and Poe have written works of cinema. Had film been available as a medium, perhaps that is the form they would have chosen, for language here is only an obstruction to vision. Evaluating the language of The Ancient Mariner by Renaissance or Augustan standards would be depressing. There are a few great lines in it; for example, "And ice, mast-high, came floating by, / As green as emerald." I maintain that all such wonderful moments in The Ancient Mariner look forward to Christabel, that Christabel, with its cold green snake, is struggling to be born throughout this poem. The rhetorical weaknesses in Coleridge and Poe have been produced by a warp of self-identification. Vision drives with such force from the unconscious that the craftsmanlike shape-making of consciousness lags behind.

The Ancient Mariner, a rhapsody of the male heroine, is filled with piercing arias: "Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide wide sea! / And never a saint took pity on / My soul in agony." Emotional expressionism of this kind is possible in Italian but not in English. At his maudlin fall, Shakespeare's Richard II cries, "My large kingdom for a little grave, / A little, little grave, an obscure grave" (III.iii. 152-53). Intensified littleness gives you a cartoon pinpoint of dancing dwarves. Coleridge's intoning "alones" overpopulate themselves, baying like a canine chorus. Sheer velocity of identification makes him miss the infelicity of rhyming "thump" with "lump." There is too much agrarian comedy latent in our Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. The principle at work in The Ancient Mariner, as in "To William Wordsworth," is pagan sexual exhibitionism. Self-pity in The Ancient Mariner is like the self-flagellation of the ancient goddess-cults. It is neither callow nor sick. It is a ritual device to facilitate daemonic vision. The Romantic male heroine is a self-emasculating devotee of chthonian nature.

Personae in The Ancient Mariner form a sexual allegory. The poem begins with the Mariner stopping the Wedding-Guest as he enters a marriage banquet. The scene's deep structure is exactly the same as at the opening of Christabel: a stranger with a "glittering eye" puts a spell on an innocent, who falls under daemonic compulsion. The Mariner detains the guest with his tale of woe, which takes up the whole poem. At the end, the guest gloomily turns away from the Bridegroom's door and departs. The merry feast goes on without him. My theory is this: Bridegroom, Wedding-Guest, and Mariner are all aspects of Coleridge. The Bridegroom is a masculine persona, the self comfortably integrated in society. This virile alter ego is always perceived longingly and at a distance, through an open door through which come bursts of happy laughter. The Wedding-Guest, "next of kin" to the Bridegroom, is an adolescent supplicant aspiring to sexual fulfillment and collective joy. To achieve this, the Wedding-Guest must merge with the Bridegroom. But he is always prevented from doing so by the appearance of a spectre self, the Mariner, the male heroine or hermaphroditic self who luxuriates in passive suffering. It's a case of always the bridesmaid and never the bride. The Wedding-Guest turns away at the end because once more the hieratically wounded self has won. The Guest will never be the Bridegroom. As many times as he attempts to pass through the door to the place of festivity, the Mariner will materialize and paralyze him with his seductive tale. This doorway is the obsessive scene of the Coleridgean sexual crux. Ostracism and casting out are the Romantic road to identity. Will that doorway ever be breached? Yes, in Christabel. And only by the most bizarre strategy of perversity and transsexualism.

The apparently pivotal event in the Mariner's tale is the killing of the albatross, from which follow all his sufferings. From the moment I read the poem in high school, I thought the albatross a superficial appendage, a kind of pin the tail on the donkey, and I found the stress on it by teachers and critics unconvincing and moralistic. Long afterward, I learned it was Wordsworth who suggested the idea of the albatross to Coleridge, which proves my point. This albatross is the biggest red herring in poetry. Its only significance is as a vehicle of transgression. The Mariner commits an obscure crime and becomes the focus of cosmic wrath. But he is as blameless as the shadow heroes of Kafka, who are hauled before faceless courts of law. In the world of The Ancient Mariner, any action is immediately punished. Masculine assertion is rebuked and humanity condemned to passive suffering.

Blake's "Crystal Cabinet" contains the same dramatic crisis: the moment the male acts, he is expelled into the wilderness. Blake's male is changed to a weeping babe in infantile dependency on a weeping woman. Coleridge's Mariner is also propelled backward to a maternal world. The ship is becalmed: "The very deep did rot: O Christ! / That ever this should be! / Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea." Stasis, slime. This is a vision of primal nondifferentiation, the chthonian swamp of generation. The universe has returned to one big womb, claustrophobic, airless, teeming with monstrous prehuman mud creatures. The Mariner's appeal to Christ is the opposite of what it seems. It shows that Coleridge, despite his conscious assent to Christianity, understands with the intuition of a great poet that the swamp-world of the Great Mother precedes the world of Christ and is ready at any moment to engulf it. Two remarks prove that Coleridge literally visualized a chthonian swamp: he once spoke of the "Sands and Swamps of Evil" and elsewhere of lust as "the reek of the Marsh."

The Ancient Mariner is one of Romantic poetry's great regressions to the daemonic and primeval. Every man makes a marine voyage out of the cell of archaic ocean that is the sac of womb-waters. We all emerge covered with slime and gasping for life. "The many men, so beautiful! / And they all dead did lie: / And a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on; and so did I." All hopes for beauty and manhood lie dead. Male power can never surpass female power. We live in the slime of our bodies, which hold imagination hostage. Our mother-born bodies are unregenerate nature, beyond God's redemption. The "slimy sea" of chthonian nature nullifies the words of Christ. Coleridge is overwhelmed by a pagan vision coming to him from below and beyond his own ethics. The Ancient Mariner transports its Gothic tale out of the historical world of castles and abbeys into the sublime theater of a desolate nature. But expansion of space is just another cul-de-sac. Coleridge brilliantly converts the open sea into a rotting sepulchre, which I called the daemonic womb of Gothic. This is one black hole from which Christ will never rise. The Ancient Mariner is the source of Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, with its disastrous voyage in a womb-tomb ship. Evolution and motion are an illusion in the dank prison space of chthonian nature. Hence the male heroine's crushing passivity. Mankind staggers under the burden of mother nature.

Language, I said, is mutilated for vision in The Ancient Mariner. Thus the appeal to good has a backlash effect, sparking the birth of evil. Invocation of Christ's name fails to release the Mariner from his imprisonment in ocean's nightmare womb. When a sail appears on the horizon, there is a moment of hope and joy. The Mariner attempts a new prayer: "Heaven's Mother send us grace!" But sacred language is profaned by daemonic revelation. On the ship is the grossest female apparition:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

Appeals to sky-cult are useless. As if irritated by references to her benign successor, the tender Madonna, the ur-mother makes her sensational appearance. She is the Whore of Babylon, the daemon unbound. Her lips are red with provocation and the blood of her victims. She is all health and all disease. She is a masque of the red death, a Medusa who turns men to stone but also the mother who stirs the blood pudding of her sons till their bodies congeal in her womb. To give life is to kill. This is heaven's mother, who comes when called. She is the vampire who haunts men's dreams. Aubrey Beardsley depicts a Coleridgean epiphany of the vampire Madonna in The Ascension of St. Rose of Lima. Mary, lasciviously embracing St. Rose, hovers in the air like a poison black cloud. Another monstrous epiphany occurs in Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly (1961), where a mad girl sees God as a sexually aggressive spider.

The Ancient Mariner surges forward on its wave of daemonic vision from Parts I through IV, but then something happens. Parts V through VII are a muddle. The poem recovers only when the Mariner's tale ceases and the narrative frame resumes, where the Mariner delays the Wedding-Guest at the Bridegroom's door. The Ancient Mariner drags on pointlessly for too long, and I think I know where and why it goes wrong. As Part IV ends, the Mariner sees water-snakes in the sea: "Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, / They coiled and swam; and every track / Was a flash of golden fire." This is one of the great moments in Romantic poetry. We are back at the dawn of time. Firmament has not yet separated from the waters. The sun is only a yolky yellow in the albuminous jelly of the mother-stuff. Primeval ocean swarms with slimy life. But the water is also man's body shot with veins. These serpents, writhing with Vergilian opalescence, are the chains that bind us, our physical life. Man is a Laocoön bedeviled by serpents. We all struggle in the toils of our mother-born body. Why are the sea-snakes veins? Because, as I said, all great lines in The Ancient Mariner look forward to Christabel, where the vampire has exquisite "blue-veined feet." Geraldine, the green snake who strangles the dove, is the daemon of chthonian nature, trampling man in her triumph of the will.

Coleridge has penetrated far into the daemonic realm. Too far, for there is an immediate retreat into conventional emotion. Vision fails, and the poem begins to drift. Why? What have the sea-snakes roused that Coleridge cannot face? The Mariner's response to them is embarrassingly simplistic. "A spring of love" gushes from his heart, and he blesses them. The moment he can pray, the albatross falls from his neck and into the sea. How dreadful to see our shaman-poet unmasked, cranking the bellows of afflatus like a stagehand. Coleridge is overcome by anxiety and surrenders to Wordsworth and to Christianity. Love and prayer are a ludicrously inadequate response to the chthonian horror that Coleridge has summoned from the dark heart of existence. The roiling sea-snakes are the barbaric energy of matter, the undulating spiral of birth and death. What is the proper response to this ecstatic hallucination? Coleridge is hemmed in. His protagonist, the Mariner, is insufficiently advanced as a sexual persona. The male heroine will need to be revised if daemonic vision is to be sustained. Christabel is a rewriting of The Ancient Mariner in new and more daring terms. There, as we shall see, when the protagonist meets the serpent face of nature, there will be no swerving away. The poet, disguised so that Wordsworth can no longer find him, will hurl himself into the chthonian abyss.

The problem with moral or Christian readings of The Ancient Mariner is that they can make no sense of the compulsive or delusional frame of the poem. If the "spring of love" felt by the Mariner were imaginatively efficacious, the poem should be able to conclude. Or at the very least, it should permit the Mariner to be redeemed. But the falling off of the albatross is followed by three more parts. And even at the end of the poem, the Mariner is still forced to wander the world, repeating his "ghastly tale" again and again. Having introduced a benevolent emotion into his daemonic poem, Coleridge is at a loss how to proceed. A new cast of characters is hustled in—seraphs, a Pilot, a Hermit. There is confused dialogue, a fuzzy twisting and turning. Here is the point: the moment the Mariner prays, the moment good rather than evil triumphs, the poem falls apart. At the end of Part IV, Coleridge is overwhelmed with fear at what he has written and vainly attempts to turn his poem in a redemptive direction. The superego acts to obscure what has come from the amoral id. Nineteen years later, Coleridge added the marginal glosses still adorning the poem. These dithery festoons are afterthoughts, revisions that often depart crucially in tone from the text they "explain." We hear in them the Christian Coleridge trying to soften the daemonic Coleridge, exactly as the older, Urizenic Wordsworth "corrected" his early nature poetry. By rationalization and moralization, Coleridge strove to put out the daemonic fires of his own imagination.

The poetic discordancies are blatant in the conclusion. The Mariner says, "O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been / Alone on a wide wide sea: / So lonely 'twas, that God himself / Scarce seeméd there to be." This is the truth. In the cosmos of The Ancient Mariner, Jehovah has been obliterated by the vampire mother who rises from the slime of nature. But the Christian Coleridge keeps stitching the veil he has rent. The Mariner illogically goes on to celebrate communal churchgoing under the kind gaze of the "great Father" and ends his message: "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all." What a frail twig to cling to in the maelstrom of chthonian nature. This is like Blake's ironic moral tags, evasive distortions of the severity of experience depicted in his poems: "So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm"; "Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door." The Mariner's farewell stanzas are a poetic non sequitur. They contradict everything that is great in the poem. Coleridge himself seems to have sensed this, for long afterward he remarked that The Ancient Mariner had "too much" of a moral in it: "The only or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader."

Imagination has the last word anyhow in The Ancient Mariner. Here are the closing lines, as the Wedding-Guest turns away from the Bridegroom's door: "He went like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn: / A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn." If one accepts the Christian interpretation of the poem, how explain this peculiar reaction? The Wedding-Guest is not morally strengthened by the Mariner's exhortations. He is plunged into gloom and severed from society. The Mariner counsels Christian love, but the Wedding-Guest walks away as if the Mariner has said, "There is no God, and nature is a hell of appetite and force." But this is the secret message that the Wedding-Guest has divined, the message that has slipped past Coleridge despite his vigorous efforts to steer the poem in a morally acceptable direction. The guest arises the next day "a sadder and a wiser man," because through the smokescreen of the Christian finale has come the terrible revelation of Coleridge's daemonic dream vision.

Further Reading

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Milton, Mary Lee Taylor. The Poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1935-1970. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981, 251 p.

Includes an extended introduction which discusses major issues and trends in Coleridge criticism.

Raysor, Thomas M.; Schulz, Max F.; and Wellek, René. "Coleridge." In The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism, third revised edition, edited by Frank Jordan, pp. 135-258. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1972.

Studies bibliographies and editions of Coleridge's notebooks, verse, and letters, including a section devoted to an overview of historical and literary criticism of Coleridge's poetry.


Bawer, Bruce. "Hungering for Eternity: Coleridge the Poet." The New Criterion 8, No. 8 (April 1990): 20-32.

Biographical essay on Coleridge's life and career.

Caine, Hall. Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Walter Scott, 1887, 154 p.

Biographical study drawing on a variety of sources, including "table-talk, letters, diaries, memoirs, reminiscences, magazine articles, [and] newspaper reports."

Charpentier, John. Coleridge: The Sublime Somnambulist, translated by M. V. Nugent. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1929,332 p.

Extensive examination of Coleridge's life and works.


Alcorn, Marshall W., Jr. "Coleridge's Literary Use of Narcissism." The Wordsworth Circle XVI, No. 1 (Winter 1985): 13-21.

Psychoanalytic study of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in which Alcorn discusses and disputes various interpretations of the poem's rich symbolic meaning and Coleridge's own view of the work as theological. Alcorn suggests "that the symbology portrays original sin as an expression of narcissistic incompletion; similarly, it grasps redemption as the sublimated recovery of an original narcissism."

Austin, Frances. "Coleridge." In her The Language of Wordsworth and Coleridge, pp. 122-68. London: Macmillan Education, 1989.

Analyzes the verse and language of the "mystery" and "conversation" poems and compares their style and syntax to Wordsworth's poetry.

Beer, J. B. Coleridge the Visionary. London: Chatto & Windus, 1959, 367 p.

Studies Coleridge's political, philosophical, and religious thought, as well as literary influences on his poetry, attempting to "throw light on both the intellectual organization of the poetry and the imaginative qualities implicit in the philosophy."

Bohm, Arad. "Text and Technology in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." English Studies in Canada XV, No. 1 (March 1989): 35-47.

Hermeneutical analysis in which Bohm "historicizes" The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Findlay, L. M. "Death or Life of the Spirit: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Thalassian Poetry in the Nineteenth Century." In Poetics of the Elements in the Human Condition: The Sea, from Elemental Stirrings to Symbolic Inspiration, Language, and Life-Significance in Literary Interpretation and Theory, edited by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, pp. 23-44. Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1985.

Explains the symbolic and metaphoric function of the sea and its correlation to identity and poetry in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Fogle, Richard Harter. "The Genre of The Ancient Mariner.'' In his The Permanent Pleasure: Essays on Classics of Romanticism, pp. 27-42. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1974.

Interprets The Ancient Mariner according to Coleridge's own remarks regarding Romanticism.

Gravil, Richard; Newlyn, Lucy; and Roe, Nicholas, eds. Coleridge's Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 277 p.

Collection of essays by Coleridge scholars such as John Beer, Thomas McFarland, J. Robert Barth, and others, offering diverse approaches to Coleridge's theories regarding the role and function of the imagination.

Grow, L. M. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Coleridge's Scientific and Philosophic Insights." Bucknell Review: Self Sign, and Symbol XXX, No. 2 (1987): 45-71.

Discusses Coleridge's scientific writings, placing them in the context of his other works, notably The Ancient Mariner.

Knight, G. W. "Coleridge's Divine Comedy." In English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by M. H. Abrams, pp. 158-69. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Comparison of Christabel, The Ancient Mariner, and "Kubla Khan" to Dante's Divina Commedia and the works of Shakespeare. Knight states, "These three poems .. . may be grouped as a little Divina Commedia exploring in turn Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise."

Magnuson, Paul. Coleridge's Nightmare Poetry. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974, 133 p.

Critical study of the major poems "that reveal an increasing awareness of [Coleridge's] failure to create the self, the resulting fear that gripped him, and the expression of that fear and guilt in dreams."

Marks, Emerson R. Coleridge on the Language of Verse. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981, 117 p.

Examines Coleridge's applications of his theories relative to diction, rhyme, and meter.

McFarland, Thomas. Originality & Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, 208 p.

Discusses Coleridge's role in developing the Romantic concept of imagination and belief in divine intervention at the time of poetic creation.

McGann, Jerome J. "The Ancient Mariner: The Meaning of the Meanings." In his The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory, pp. 135-72. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Considers the meaning of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in light of modern critical theory.

McKim, A. Elizabeth. '"An Epicure in Sound': Coleridge on the Scansion of Verse." English Studies in Canada XVIII, No. 3 (September 1992): 289-300.

Studies the use of rhyme and meter in Coleridge's verse.

Modiano, Raimonda. Coleridge and the Concept of Nature. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985, 270 p.

Examines Coleridge's philosophical concept of nature and its manifestation in his poetical works.

Newlyn, Lucy. Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Language of Allusion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, 214 p.

Explains that Coleridge and Wordsworth "mythologized their relationship" in their poetry, "presenting themselves as joint labourers, even while they were moving apart."

Ower, John. "The 'Death-Fires,' the 'Fire-Flags' and the Corposant in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Philological Quarterly 70, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 199-218.

Examines metaphysical imagery in The Ancient Mariner.

Paley, Morton D. "Apocalypse and Millennium in the Poetry of Coleridge." The Wordsworth Circle XXIII, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 24-34.

Investigates the influence of millenarian thought on Coleridge's verse.

Peterfreund, Stuart. "The Way of Immanence, Coleridge, and the Problem of Evil." English Literary History 55, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 125-58.

Explicates the poetical and other writings that reveal Coleridge's theological views in relation to eighteenth-century scientific, philosophical, and religious beliefs.

Piper, H.W. The Singing of Mount Abora: Coleridge's Use of Biblical Imagery and Natura; Symbolism in Poetry and Philosophy. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1987, 124 p.

Analyzes the symbolism and imagery of Coleridge's verse.

Randel, Fred V. "Coleridge and the Contentiousness of Romantic Nightingales." Studies in Romanticism 21, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 33-55.

Examines Coleridge's use of the nightingale as a common Romantic symbol as well as a metaphoric vehicle for his critique of John Milton's work.

Sanders, Charles Richard. "The Ancient Mariner and Coleridge's Theory of Poetic Art." In his Carlyle's Friendships and Other Studies, pp. 312-30. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1977.

Considers The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a conscious expression of Coleridge's literary theory.

Stevenson, Warren. Nimbus of Glory: A Study of Coleridge's Three Great Poems. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1983, 98 p.

Regards "Kubla Khan," The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Christabel as a unified grouping because of the time and place of their writing. Stevenson's study finds the impact of Wordsworth on Coleridge to be far greater than previously imagined by other scholars.

Tave, Katherine Bruner. The Demon and the Poet: An Interpretation of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' according to Coleridge's Demonological Sources. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1983, 98 p.

Traces sources Coleridge used for creating The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, concluding that the poem "illustrates the sometimes divergent, sometimes parallel actions of the forces of God and the forces of Evil."

Warren, Robert Penn. "A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading." In his Selected Essays, pp. 198-272. New York: Random House, 1951.

Extensive explication of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Watkins, Daniel P. "History as Demon in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Papers on Language & Literature XXIV, No. 1 (Winter 1988): 23-33.

Argues that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner "is a symbolic formulation of the contradictions and struggles within history."

Watson, George. Coleridge the Poet. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966, 147 p.

Critical study of textual influences on Coleridge's poetry and interpretations of his most popular works.

Wheeler, K. M. The Creative Mind in Coleridge's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981, 189 p.

Investigation of the literary, political, and philosophical influences operating in Coleridge's imagery and language in several of his prominent poems.

Woodring, Carl R. Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961, 270 p.

Focuses on social, political, and philosophical themes in Coleridge's poetry.

The Wordsworth Circle XXII, No. 1 (Winter 1991).

Issue devoted to Coleridge, containing eleven papers given at the Coleridge Summer Conference held in 1990 at Cannington College in Cannington, England.

Wormhoudt, Arthur. "Coleridge." In his The Demon Lover: A Psychoanalytical Approach to Literature, pp. 17-50. New York: Exposition Press, 1949.

Discusses psychoanalytic themes in Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Additional coverage of Coleridge's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 93, 107; Discovering Authors; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 9; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 11; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present.

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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