As one of the three primary figures of the first generation of the traditional canon of English Romantic poets, Coleridge is responsible along with Wordsworth for the Lyrical Ballads, which is generally viewed as the opening salvo of English Romanticism. Coleridge’s masterwork is that great vision of sin and Redemption, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which begins the volume, but he wrote other magnificent poems and contributed substantially to literary theory.
In fact, in many respects, English Romanticism might not have occurred without the synergy of the two poets in the mid-to late 1790’s and into the first decade of the nineteenth century. Critics have interpreted Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell” and “The Idiot Boy” as reactions to or attempted corrections of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Also, Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” is often seen as engaged in a “lyrical dialogue,” to use critic Paul Magnuson’s expression, with Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” in which both poets ponder emotional despair and what it means for themselves in the world and as poets, as well as what each thinks of the other’s ideas.
One of Coleridge’s earliest contributions to English Romanticism was the “conversation poem,” a form that he invented, which critic M. H. Abrams later termed the “greater Romantic lyric.” In this form, a speaker describes to a silent listener the physical surroundings and the passage of his thoughts until some insight, related to the landscape and yet also transforming both it and him, arises. Other Romantic poets borrowed the form (William Wordsworth’s “Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” and John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” might be considered examples), but no one surpassed the compact power of “The Eolian Harp,” “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” and “Frost at Midnight.”
For Coleridge, the conversation poem was particularly well suited to his evocation of the One Life, a philosophy of pantheism with which he was much taken in the 1790’s. In brief, this philosophy holds that the Creator and the created are one, that God suffuses and interfuses the universe, and that all that lives is in and of God. Coleridge, however, was uncomfortable subscribing to this idea for very long, and age, care, and experience seem to have taken their toll and restored him to the Church of England. Nonetheless, his restless imagination explored the implications of the established religion, as well. Late in life, his prose works reflected these interests.
Many of Coleridge’s projects share the recurring Romantic characteristic of fragmentation. For the Romantics, the fragment was testament to the partiality of the human ability to understand and to re-create the world. For Coleridge, in particular, the fragment also testified to his own tendencies to start vast projects that would, for a variety of reasons, fail to be realized in their entirety. Nonetheless, in the Romantic period great merit was located in the portion that abided, and fragments by Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Lord Byron have all been published, while Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and Biographia Literaria are all billed as incomplete. Despite their tentativeness, however, they are triumphs of artistry, celebrating the mystery of the universe coupled with the insatiable and indestructible talent to fabricate, which Coleridge understood, both as practitioner and as philosopher.
Coleridge devised theories to account for the functioning of the imagination and offered inspired commentary on many other great writers, including William Shakespeare and John Milton, as well as his former collaborator, Wordsworth. For Coleridge, creativity imitated the divine act recorded in the biblical book of Genesis, not as blasphemy but as homage and as the best of which humanity was capable. Also, aesthetic value, he believed, derived from the degree to which art achieved or approached organic form rather than stylized or artificial construction. Thus, he linked art with the vitality of the living thing, which he saw as also celebrating multifaceted integrity, what he called “multeity in unity”—a phrase that sums up, as well, the varied legacy subsumed under the name of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
First published: 1798 (collected in Lyrical Ballads, 1798)
Type of work: Poem
On a long sea voyage, a sailor kills the faithful albatross, which then brings down upon him ghostly punishment and penance.
Coleridge’s masterpiece, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was first published as part of the Lyrical Ballads (1798), which thereby secured its position as one of the landmark poems of its age, despite its archaic ballad form. Structured as a frame narrative, the poem begins with the Mariner’s detaining a guest on his way to a wedding with the spellbinding account of a most strange ocean voyage. The Mariner tells of a southbound voyage to the Antarctic. He describes how the ship, as it clears the horizon, ominously dips below the church and below all of civilized and conventional authority, descending toward the unknown, the wild, and the hellish. Reaching the frozen, seemingly blank, polar world, the sailors call to and feed a white albatross, a large seabird, as an apparent friend or messenger from another realm. The Mariner inexplicably shoots it, sacrificing it, innocent and pure, with his crossbow (echoing Easter imagery). Thereupon, the ship idles without wind to move it while the superstitious crew grows increasingly thirsty and hangs the dead bird around the Mariner’s neck to punish him for his cruelty, which they feel in some way has stalled their trip.
At last, a ship is sighted, but it is a skeleton ship, carrying the Spectre-Woman, “Life-in-Death,” and her mate Death, who are types of avenging spirits of the albatross. The two of them toss dice to determine who will decide the fate of the Mariner’s ship, and the Woman wins. She imposes a penance on the Mariner, which begins with the death of the crew while the Mariner lives on, unable to die, unable even to sleep. Watching the...
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