The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most popular poem. It opened the 1798 first edition of Lyrical Ballads, where it first appeared; Coleridge revised it for the 1800 edition and undertook further revisions later, after his sea voyage to Malta (where he went to recover his health), revisions that include the wonderful marginal glosses. Nevertheless it would probably be better to see the different versions of the poem as essentially true to the same vision and to regard them as presenting that vision with the slight stereoscopic differences that allow us to see depth.
In chapter 14 of his intellectual quasi-autobiography, Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge describes how he and William Wordsworth decided to split the writing of Lyrical Ballads so that Coleridge would do the so-called supernatural poems and Wordsworth the entirely naturalistic ones. The idea was that Wordsworth would treat natural events as though they had the special interest that ballads had traditionally found in the supernatural; while Coleridge would do the converse, which is to say he would treat supernatural events as they would be experienced by psychologically real human beings. Both procedures would meet in the attention they focused on the reactions, psychological and expressive, to be represented (as Wordsworth put it in the preface to the 1800 volume) by “fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” For Wordsworth, the vividness of sensation would be communicated by intensity of language in the naturalist poems; for Coleridge, the intensity of language would reflect the vividness of sensation that the supernatural elements would necessarily produce, but it was the sensation of real people and not its supposed supernatural occasions that was the source of the poetic language. Thus, he wrote in perhaps the most famous passage in Biographia Literaria, “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.”
In a letter to Wordsworth about the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, which Wordsworth had just sent him, Charles Lamb had foreshadowed just this language in a deeply insightful comment on the poem: “I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his Ancient Marinere, a Poet’s Reverie; . . . What new idea is gained by this title but one subversive of all credit—which the tale should force upon us—of its truth!” He goes on, “For me, I was never so affected with any human tale. After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days. 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 Pipe’s magic whistle. . . . the Ancient Marinere undergoes such trials as overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was—like the state of a man in a bad dream, one terrible peculiarity of which is, that all consciousness of personality is gone” (letter dated January 30, 1801). This comment is perhaps the single best thing ever said about the poem. The Ancient Mariner is a man reduced to his simple, bare essence, and that essence is simply the obsessive memory of what brought him to this extremity.
Coleridge later said that Anna Laetitia Barbauld complained of the poem that it had no moral. He replied that he thought “the poem had too much: and that the only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. 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” (Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge ). This is just what Lamb admired about the poem, the sense that it gives, through supernatural means, of being thrown into the world of mortality and loss for obscure and even impenetrable reasons. On one level—this might be the extent to which the poem might seem to have too much of a moral—the reason seems evident: the mariner is guilty of shooting the albatross. But how much of a sin can that be? What is sinful about it is its apparent randomness. He never explains why he shot it, only that after shooting it, everything went wrong.
Why did he shoot it? One reason is that Wordsworth suggested it, giving Coleridge the idea as the central plot point of the poem. This is not a facetious answer: To be alive is to have a story to tell, and to have a story to tell is to be able to point to some moment of arbitrary and shocking deviation from the expected and the norm. The Ancient Mariner himself does not know why he shot the albatross, just as the Wedding Guest cannot make sense of his sudden change of demeanor. Nothing in his character or in his story prepares us for the moment; nothing in his character or in his story has prepared him for it. He has done so with the same unremarkable thoughtlessness of the merchant throwing the shells (the pits) of the dates aside, and it is therefore part of his experience of being thrown into the world of mortality and loss that he is also thrown into the world of guilt.
The remarkable thing about the poem is its analysis of a sense of guilt without a corresponding sense of willful wrongdoing. The mariner is saturated with guilt—but it is important to see that the main content of his guilt is guilt for the punishment that he has brought down on the entire crew. He is guilty because he is being punished, more than he is being punished for his guilt.
The importance of this moral and psychological insight may be underscored by its reappearance in a poem that might at first seem very different—Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode. There Wordsworth sees as the saving moment the sudden sense within the self of “high instincts before which our mortal nature / Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised” (ll. 145–46). Unfounded guilt is the way the mind preserves a sense of itself as in the world but not of the world. In the psychological lexicon of romanticism, it is the original sin of subjectivity itself—that is, a sense of being different from the world that demands one be a part of it. Guilt registers our failure to be a part of the world.
This is why the Ancient Mariner can make the Wedding Guest feel guilty as well. The mariner ends his tale by saying that he recognizes the person he must tell it to. But what has the Wedding Guest done? He desires to be part of the social world, to belong to it fully and happily. There is no albatross in his past. But the mariner’s tale fills the guest with fear and wonder and makes it impossible for him to feel unquestioningly of the world any more. He has been submitted to the eeriness of whatever poetic impulse corresponded in Coleridge’s mind to the guilt in the mariner’s.
If the story had a simple moral, it would be that the mariner’s unconscious impulse of love and pity is saving. He blessed the “happy living creatures” unawares because some kind saint took pity on him as well. But it is one of the central puzzles of the poem that this blessing turns out not to be nearly enough. It is the beginning of penance and redemption, but not the end. In fact, the end never comes. The return of the wind, the return to harbor, the subsequent years— none free him of the eternal burden of repeating his tale when he sees a person somehow like himself. The beauty of the blessing and of the impulse to bless does not restore him to his original state. Rather, it sustains itself as a sense of movement toward love in a world that is hostile to love. The world’s hostility to love is what makes its creatures suffer, and the love that seeks to counter that hostility can never ignore or transcend the world’s suffering.
Here, too, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner foretells the Intimations Ode, in which Wordsworth also feels a sudden and, he hopes, saving impulse of love toward the “blessed creatures” (l. 36) that surround him. But the impulse would not be saving if blessing were enough. Wordsworth needs to feel that the world is a world of loss, and what he and the Ancient Mariner have in common is the realization that all the living creatures in it are similarly thrown into it without orientation, bearing, or hope of escape from the burden of subjectivity. Both poems are about the irremediable discovery of the weight of this burden on all human beings, and the intensity of insight this discovery brings. The poem shares the insight even as it shares the burden, in Coleridge with the Wedding Guest. It is not too much to say that Coleridge hopes, perhaps rightly, that the Wedding Guest is Wordsworth himself, profoundly affected by the poem and surprised in his mortal nature by his own high instincts.
Bate, Walter Jackson. Coleridge. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
Bloom, Harold. The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961.
Brisman, Leslie. Romantic Origins. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Selected Poems. Edited by William Empson and David Pirie. Manchester, England: Fyfield, 1989.
Frank, Robert H. Passions within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York: Norton, 1988.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 17: 219–256. London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74.
Janowitz, Anne. England’s Ruins: Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990.
Lowes, John Livingston. Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1930.
Parker, Reeve. Coleridge’s Meditative Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.