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Coleridge and His Mariner

Updated on April 12, 2017

Criticism: A Beginning

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has been critiqued since it was written. Coleridge even had the chance to respond to criticisms by people such as Anna Letitia Barbauld and Robert Southey. Barbauld claimed that the entire poem was “improbable and had no moral”. However, over the years it has become apparent to various types of literary theorists that the problem with Coleridge’s poem isn’t that it doesn’t have a moral, but rather that it is unclear what that moral is specifically. There are multiple reasons that the poem could be considered Freudian, Historical, or even Transcendental in some manners. There are obvious themes of romanticism, but in other ways Coleridge manages to oppose the very things that romanticism stood for.
Coleridge struggled with his faith for most of his adult life, and this was directly correlated with his involvement in politics. Coleridge had first hand experience with Catholicism, and belittled all other religions, comparing them to savagery, but his worldview dramatically shifted over the course of editing the poem, causing it to exhibit somewhat opposing ideas. While there are obvious religious tie-ins to the poem, there are also many characteristics of romanticism that remain separate from the sacrament-like Albatross and Mariner’s drinking of his own blood. The Mariner is surrounded by nature until his great crime of killing the Albatross, which causes the entire crew to be cast into an abyss of unnatural torture.

Coleridge's Psyche

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Freudian Dream Theory, an article written by Joseph C. Sitterson, Jr. in 1982 takes a look at the ever present possibility that the Mariner may have been subconsciously enduring these toils in somewhat of a dream-sequence. Sitterson explains in detail the method behind his views of the poem through psychoanalysis, as well as providing reasons that critics would look at it in other ways than as a giant dream. He looked at how some of the psychoanalytical criticisms of the poem say that the Mariner’s tale seems to have come from the mind of a child, whether it be from the Mariner’s child-like mind, or Coleridge’s. Sitterson suggested that the Albatross may be symbolic of Coleridge’s mother, and his Mariner’s killing of the great bird would obviously account for misplaced aggression. This idea allows for the Albatross to be the central theme of the poem, which Hillier seems to believe as well.

The Religion of the Ancient Mariner

In 1979, Homer Obed Brown took a look at Robert Penn Warren’s critique of Coleridge’s poem in his article The Art of Theology and the Theology of Art: Robert Penn Warren’s Reading of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Brown elaborates on Warren’s critical analysis, saying that the way in which Coleridge brings to light his moral is through the “organic” use of nature. Warren himself had taken note of Mrs. Barbauld’s formerly mentioned quote, and sought to explain Coleridge’s response that “the only, or chief fault… was the obtrusion of the moral so openly on the reader”. Brown stated that the Mariner’s killing of the Albatross for absolutely no reason makes a determination of personal fate for the Mariner. To Brown, Coleridge exhibits obvious signs of a Romantic writer, giving the Mariner a lack of motive, aside from his ability to do so, in killing the Albatross.
Tim Fulford took a look at Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s religious and political affiliations and their influence on his writing in 2001. In his article Catholicism and Polytheism: Britain’s Colonies and Coleridge’s Politics, Fulford noted that Coleridge’s Catholic views may have originally led him to believe that God was within man, including himself as the writer, and the Mariner as a subject. This revelation to the reader would link the Mariner to a representation of Coleridge immediately. Coleridge began to question his Catholic beliefs during his writing and editing of the poem, and his Mariner exhibits characteristics of various religious views, most likely as a result. The time that Coleridge spent reviewing his religious and political beliefs not only influenced with whom he associated, but also how he created and developed the Mariner. Coleridge’s political affiliations and experiences shaped his changing religion, and therefore shaped the religious symbolism of The Ancient Mariner.
Daniel M. McVeigh also took a look at Coleridge’s poem through the eyes of a Historian in 1997, in his article Coleridge’s Bible: Praxis and the “I” in Scripture and Poetry. Looking at the importance of religion in Coleridge’s life, McVeigh seeks to focus on the poet’s “practical” in relation to Bible study. Even in the course of his questioning what religion was correct, Coleridge never seems to have just denied the existence of God. While Coleridge’s life took a strong stand in his political and religious opinions, the morals he writes of seem to transcend basic moral laws and universal truths. McVeigh notes that Coleridge associates beauty with goodness, and this exhibits itself in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner through the obvious shift from beauty to horror once the Albatross has been shot. By focusing on the religious opinions of Coleridge, McVeigh unearths a lot of the true meaning behind how Coleridge’s writing process worked.

The Moral Mariner

Eric Brown compares Coleridge’s poem to Dante’s Inferno in his article Boyd’s Dante, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and the Pattern of Infernal Influence, written in 1998. Looking at the hellish and religious aspects of the poem, Brown notes that the Mariner is suffering a punishment that could only be imagined by someone with a mindset like Dante’s. Brown also looks at the Divina Commedia in relation to Coleridge’s poem, saying that both follow a similar pattern from sin to atonement, and the spiritual journey along the way. He looks at the Romantic purpose of
wind, and quotes M. H. Abrams, saying that “air-in-motion, whether it occurs as a breeze or a breath, wind or respiration… is not only a property of the landscape, but also a vehicle for radical changes in the poet’s mind”. The idea of Romanticism fits perfectly with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, because of Coleridge’s ever-changing editions of the poem.
In 2009, Russell M. Hillier wrote an article of the sin and atonement and crime and punishment aspects of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In his article entitled Coleridge’s Dilemma and the Method of “Sacred Sympathy”: Atonement as Problem and Solution in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Hillier looks at the ideas surrounding Christian redemption and Coleridge’s focus on them. Rather than seeing the journey to atonement as something beautiful and pleasing, Coleridge sends the Mariner to the nightmare that he must endure in order to become righteous in God’s eyes (Hillier 9). While Hillier looked at other critics who said that the most important aspect of the poem is the blessing that the Mariner eventually receives, he saw the killing of the Albatross to be the central part of the poem that all other things stem from. Hillier thought that the “Mariner’s crime only turns his eyes inward into his spotted soul,” and that the real purpose of the Mariner’s plight may have been self-realization and self-judgement.
Some critics suggest that the Mariner, being forced to tell his story to people for as long as he lives, is not only cursed in being made to speak, but to speak in a way that is difficult to understand. There are obvious dark sides to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where men are made lifeless and are then raised up like ghosts, a man is cursed, and there is hardly a sign of atonement for sins. Modiano notes in her article Words and “Languageless” Meanings: Limits of Expression in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, that “The Ancient Mariner has been variously interpreted as a sacramental vision of crime, punishment, and salvation,” showing the reader the obvious existence of a moral. Modiano looked at the “gloss”, which is an example of the words that the Mariner wants to express but cannot clearly say to the Wedding Guest. She suggested that Coleridge may not have intended for the reader to literally trust the words in the gloss either, because while they were intended to bring clarity to the Mariner’s speech, they may in fact confuse the reader to the true meaning of the poem. Even the gloss may be an edited version of the true happenings to allow for “imaginative growth,” and to dramatize particular scenes of the Mariner’s tale. Modiano denies that there is any more depth to the character of the Wedding Guest, which other critics have tried to salvage and derive some deep meaning from, and says that he is simply the instrument through which the reader is able to hear the Mariner’s Rime.
Alice Chandler seemed to believe that the happenings of the Mariner’s journey is a sort of trip through the looking glass, where the Mariner’s worldview is completely changed by being put into a different perspective. In 1965, she writes that there are important spiritual elements to the Mariner’s killing of the Albatross in her article Structure and Symbol in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Chandler writes of a shift from life to death upon the murder of the Albatross, where colors of the sky and changes in the wind. She focuses a good deal on spiritual symbolism, and notes that the Mariner’s drinking of his own blood to sustain his life, is in fact, killing him, while the blood of Christ was meant only to bring life. This opposes the idea that the Mariner is a representation of Christ, and makes it impossible for him to be atoned.

Coleridge and His Mariner

While some of the criticisms of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner have very similar schools of thought, most of them touch on very different subjects within their own literary theories. From Freudian dream theory to Historical and religious theories this great poem has been reviewed by nearly every school of thought, and even individuals within these schools have different ideas about Coleridge’s true moral. Opposing ideas of what Coleridge intended to teach the Wedding Guest, the Mariner, or even just the reader make this poem even more interesting to read. While Coleridge may have hated his mother, wished to be atoned for his sins, or even wanted to show two sides of nature, one thing is and always will be true of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: it is one of the Coleridge’s greatest works.

Outside Sources

Brown, Eric C. "Boyd's Dante, Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, And The Pattern Of Infernal Influence." Studies In English Literature (Rice) 38.4 (1998): 647. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Brown, Homer Obed. "The Art Of Theology And The Theology Of Art: Robert Penn Warren's Reading Of Coleridge's The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner." Boundary 2 8.1 (1979): 237. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Chandler, Alice. "Structure And Symbol In "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner." Modern Language Quarterly 26.3 (1965): 401. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Fulford, Tim. "Catholicism And Polytheism: Britain's Colonies And Coleridge's Politics." Romanticism 5.2 (1999): 232. Advanced Placement Source. Web. 13 Jan. 2014.
Hillier, Russell M. "Coleridge's Dilemma And The Method Of "Sacred Sympathy": Atonement As Problem And Solution In "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.." Papers On Language & Literature 45.1 (2009): 8-36. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
McVeigh, Daniel M. "Coleridge's Bible: Praxis And The "I" In Scripture And Poetry." Renascence 49.3 (1997): 191-207. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 13 Jan. 2014.
Modiano, Raimonda. "Words And "Languageless" Meanings Limits Of Expression In The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner." Modern Language Quarterly 38.1 (1977): 40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Sitterson Jr., Joseph C. "'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner' And Freudian Dream Theory." Papers On Language & Literature 18.1 (1982): 17. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.

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