Samuel Taylor Coleridge The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
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."
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.
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."
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.