Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner":
A Consumer's Guide
by George Soule
This is a slightly revised version of a talk presented on February 4, 2003, to the Wordsworth Winter School, at the Red Lion Hotel, Grasmere, Cumbria, U.K. Michael's Nook is a very elegant and expensive restaurant on the edge of town; Baldry's is a homey teashop located a stone's throw from the Red Lion.
I think we'd agree that consumer's guides are useful. When I want to buy a car or a fridge, I consult Consumer's Reports. In England you have your Which? I especially like restaurant guides. I use Zagat's in London, and in Grasmere I once used the Good Guide to the Lakes, 1989 edition. It said that Michael's Nook offered "imaginative five-course dinners, but some find the antiques and décor a bit fussy." It called Baldry's "A nice café in an area which is otherwise starting to slip." That's not very nice. But even though guides say such nasty things, we consumers can pick and choose. They have their uses.
Today I'm going to attempt a consumer's guide to "The Ancient Mariner." I didn't say a scholar's guide or a critic's guide or a biographer's guide. There are such people in this room, and I hope what I say will interest them. But I offer a consumer's guide--a consumer being simply an amateur reader of poetry. Of course, in writing my guide I've had help from critics and scholars and biographers--as well as from a number of friends who, when I told them of my project, seemed compelled, Mariner-like, to talk.
The first thing a consumer of "The Ancient Mariner" feels is its Orphic power, the power of great art. I feel it, the critics feel it, and so have my mesmerized friends. Though I will not address this directly, the poetic power of "The Ancient Mariner" is the most important thing about it.
When we consumers try to understand the poem, confusions begin: we may feel that its parts do not add up, do not produce a coherent whole. We are not alone: over the last 75 years, many eminent critics have had their say about this poem but have not agreed on what it says. Some incoherence is not surprising when we consider how the poem was written. A recent study described how here in Grasmere in 1802 Wordsworth and Coleridge routinely wrote parts of each other's poems, incorporating suggestions from Dorothy and the Hutchinsons as well. In the annus mirabilis from July 1797 to June 1798, Coleridge and the Wordsworths lived near each other at Nether Stowey and Alfoxden in the same spirit of poetic cooperation. For example, in early November Coleridge proposed (probably to make money) that they cooperate on a three-canto poem about Cain-another man who like the Mariner was forced to become a "vagabond." Coleridge produced his part, but Wordsworth could hardly write a word. The scheme then, in Coleridge's words, "broke up in a laugh: and the Ancient Mariner was written instead."
"The Ancient Mariner" was begun a few days later, perhaps November 12, 1797 as the poets (with Dorothy) walked a few miles from Alfoxden to nearby Watchet, where they probably spent the night. On the way, the poets (again to make money) planned a ballad to be published along with some of Wordsworth's poems. The germ of the ballad was a nightmare experienced by a friend of Coleridge's-a nightmare of a spectral ship. An incredible moment! Here we have, not only the birth of "The Ancient Mariner" but the conception of Lyrical Ballads itself!
After a while it became clear that the ballad was better suited to Coleridge's talents. Over the next week, the three companions had a pleasant walk along the south coast of the Bristol Channel to Lynton and then circled inland back to Nether Stowey by way of Dulverton (almost a hundred miles!). Coleridge reported that by the time he arrived home, he had written about 300 lines of his ballad. He amplified the poem slightly in the next three months, but then doubled its length between mid-February, 1798, and mid-March. So "The Ancient Mariner" was written in several spurts of activity over a period of time: not exactly the best recipe for a coherent poem.
Moreover, although Coleridge wrote most of "The Ancient Mariner," parts of it are Wordsworth's. He supplied several lines and the idea of the dead sailors running the ship. Most importantly, he gave Coleridge the poem's central action. We learn this from what he said years later. In 1843, Wordsworth told Miss Fenwick that before he dropped out, he suggested that the Mariner's "spectral persecution" should be the result of some crime. He had been reading Capt. Shelvocke's A Voyage round the World By the Way of the Great South Sea and remembered that near Cape Horn the sailors had seen "Albatrosses in that latitude, the largest sort of sea-fowl, extending their wings 12 or 13 feet." Shelvocke also tells about a ship's officer thought one particular albatross was an ill omen and shot it. Miss Fenwick does not record that Wordsworth told her about this real shooting, but she does say that Wordsworth told her he suggested to Coleridge that the Mariner should shoot the albatross. Wordsworth also told Miss Fenwick that he told Coleridge (and this is Wordsworth's addition to Shelvocke) to describe "the tutelary Spirits of these regions" avenging "the crime." So Wordsworth's footprints are to be found in many crucial places in Coleridge's poem.
Moreover, Shelvocke's volume includes a map showing his journey from the England down the North Atlantic, across the equator, down the coast of Argentina, round Cape Horn, and into the South Pacific. Lowes thinks Coleridge saw the map in Wordsworth's book but does not comment further . But even if Wordsworth had only described Shelvocke's southward route, the important thing is that Coleridge adopted it. The dream of a specter-ship required the story to be set at sea, but Coleridge chose to send the Mariner's ship on a southward voyage across the equator and then around Cape Horn. But why? I'll return to this point.
Back to our consumer's guide. Not only may we suspect that Wordsworth's contributions made the poem somewhat fragmentary, the matter is further complicated by revisions; the final text of 1834 is quite a bit different from the version of 1798. Some of these revisions may have been made by Wordsworth or else made at Wordsworth's suggestion. Coleridge also made additions. Sometime before 1817 he added an epigraph and most of the marginal glosses. To sum up, it's hard being a consumer of this poem, for Coleridge is not its sole author, and the poem itself changed in the 36 years after it was written. We should not be surprised if it does not completely hang together.
The way "The Ancient Mariner" is constructed is also confusing. Let us compare it to a standard novel, say Jane Austen's Emma. Emma has one story told in the third-person by a minimally intrusive author and has a classically comic plot; the time is the present. Coleridge's central story is told in the first person by Mariner himself; this central story takes place in the past-how many years ago it is impossible to say. Yet the matter is much more complicated. Coleridge's poem also has a framing story told in the present in the third person: the Mariner (or Old Navigator, as Coleridge liked to call him) stops the Wedding Guest, tells his story, draws a moral, and leaves. But then Coleridge introduced a third element: marginal glosses. What are we to think of these glosses? Are they another one of Shelvocke's influences? Probably not, for such things were common in older books. Is the author trying to clarify what is already in the poem? Or to change the original meaning of certain passages? Or to make it seem more like an ancient text? Or, as Richard Holmes and others have suggested, has Coleridge added a new character, "a learned antiquarian, a Christian commentator from the seventeenth century, who seeks to interpret the ballad like some mystical allegory of punishment and redemption."
Perhaps we consumers should concentrate on the Old Navigator's central story. Even here matters are confusing. The plot does not fall neatly into the usual categories. It does not end in marriages and revelry as does a comedy like Emma. It is not a tragedy either. Though the action may seem tragic (for the Mariner goes from happiness to unhappiness), after he recognizes the beauty of the snakes and the albatross falls off, he seems happy once more. But after that up until the end, the episodes are alternately happy and unhappy, so that readers get little sense of progression. Plenty of people die, but unlike, say, Hamlet or Othello, the Mariner is very much alive at the end.
An old colleague of mine, Professor John Tallmadge, has a theory about the poem's plot. He suggests that both comedy and tragedy are based on initiation rituals. Comedy begins in suffering and ends in felicity; its central characters are successfully initiated into life. Tragedy begins in felicity but ends in suffering; the initiation has failed. To Tallmadge, The Mariner's initiation is indefinitely "suspended," the process has been "short-circuited." He is neither released nor redeemed. Not for him the calm of the dying Othello or Hamlet (who ask others to tell their story), but an obsessive need to button-hole every third man. What genre is this? (A digression: Tallmadge finds the same plot in a real story of a journey to the South Atlantic: Shackleton's tale of his Antarctic exploration. )
The Mariner's story is confusing in other ways. How old is he? He seems quite old in the present (he is after all an "ancient" mariner), but when exactly did his adventure take place? Why did he leave land in the first place? The ship leaves England with no discernable mission or destination. It has no cargo for trade; it isn't equipped for battle or piracy or exploration. It rounds Cape Horn, but where is it going? It has mariners but no captain. The only specifically-mentioned crew members are a helmsman (70, 335) and the Mariner's nephew (341).
And the poem's moral? Two friends of mine think the poem should simply be treated as the symptom of a deep trauma. But The Mariner gives a moral. He praises communal prayer and says the best prayers are offered by those "who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast" (612-613) and "All things great and small" (615). Lovely lines, lines which draw upon the Mariner's earlier love of "happy living things" (282). But do they adequately reflect what the Mariner has been though? Or, for that matter, what the reader/consumer has been through? However eloquent, don't they seem "tacked on"?
Is the poem fatally disjointed, a farrago of sensational passages? We should be grateful for one thing: comparing "The Ancient Mariner" to "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan," my wife remarked "At least he finished it." But finished what?
Dr. Johnson once remarked that no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures, and this poem's poetic power continues to please after 200 years, exceeding by a century Dr. Johnson's test for great art. It is anthologized everywhere. The Oxford Book of Quotations cites forty per cent of it. When asked about it, The search engine Google provided me with 31,000 entries. Whenever I assigned it to undergraduates, they loved it; when I left it out of my syllabus, they complained. One of my friends revealed that when she was little her father recited bits to her every night when she went to bed. Another reported that he had been transfixed by it when he was 14. Now there may be works of art that please people by their confusion, but I doubt it. So the Big Question is: Given the confusions and unanswered questions I have noted, why do we continue to consume "The Ancient Mariner"-and to consume it with pleasure?
When thought about this question, I knew I didn't want to revel in the poem's problems. "The Ancient Mariner" is a great poem, and who was I to be negative? I looked for a different and perhaps new approach. Taking my inspiration from the Vikings who centuries ago preyed on the shores of Cumbria, I decided to resort to pillage. I proposed to raid "The Ancient Mariner" and take away what seemed to be its heart, its unconfused center. I decided that if there were elements that didn't fit into my scheme, like the Vikings I would simply leave them behind. Some may say that my approach resembles those sleazy CDs that feature only Tchaikovsky's greatest tunes. I reply that desperate situations call forth desperate remedies. An autobiographical note: I have Viking blood, so I come by this approach naturally.)
So I read the poem, marking the lines I really liked, lines that were particularly striking and memorable. When I looked at the poem again, I found I had marked much of Part 1, most of Parts 2 though 4, and only a few lines in each of Parts 5 through 7. Assuming that the 291 lines of Parts 1-4 correspond roughly to the 300 lines Coleridge composed on his walk with William and Dorothy before he returned to Nether Stowey, I decided I was on safe ground: my pillaged lines pretty much made up Coleridge's initial poetic impulse. (I reserve the right to pillage a bit in other parts of the poem. That's what we Vikings are like.)
Before focusing on the Mariner's life at sea, let me remind you of the poem's framing story. The Old Navigator does not perform his "penance" (409) willingly. "A woeful agony" (579) forces him to stop "one of three" (2). Even though the agony then leaves him (578-581), he knows it will return, and his heart will burn until he tells his "ghastly tale" again (582-585). And like Cain, whose wanderings Coleridge had just plotted, or like "The Wandering Jew," whose ballad Coleridge had (in all probability) recently read, the Mariner must "pass, like night, from land to land" (586). The agony would have been even worse if nobody paid attention to him. But he has mesmerizing powers over the persons he selects: "I have strange power of speech" (586).
Now on to Parts 1 through 4, roughly "The Pillaged Mariner." It is a serious, simple story. It moves ahead in time without complicated flashbacks or flash-forwards. Its setting is painted in primary colors. It is stark and elemental, at times grotesque and sensational. It is a first person narrative. This person is not highly defined. He is male, we assume, but of no particular age. We assume he is English, for the place he leaves and returns to seems English. He has no story before the voyage (except that he has a brother and a nephew). He has no rank, and, despite the fact that Coleridge referred to him in jest as the Old Navigator, no duties or purpose. In fact, outside of shooting the Albatross, he hardly does anything. He has no friends. He does not talk to other people--yet.
Because "The Pillaged Mariner" is blatantly unrealistic, many questions we usually ask about stories will here have unconventional answers. Most important is the question "Why did the Mariner shoot the Albatross?" Coleridge must have known from Wordsworth that Shelvocke's officer had a motive. He knew too that Cain and the Wandering Jew, Mariner analogues, were motivated as well. The answer to our question must be an evasion: Coleridge wanted The Mariner to be motiveless. Why? What did the Mariner do before his voyage? Coleridge knew this was not important. Why? What cargo did the ship carry? Ditto. How did the ship get blown back to England from the Pacific without passing over North or South America? Ditto. The conclusion I draw is not a very surprising one, one which may apply to many Romantic stories, but it must be underlined: what is important in "The Pillaged Mariner" are not motives or geography, but that it evokes with brilliant poetry the related states of one kind of Romantic mind.
It's not enough just to say that. Just what kind of mind does "The Pillaged Mariner" reveal? First of all, he can be happy in an ordinary way: "The ship was cheered, the harbor cleared, / Merrily we did drop / below the kirk" (21-23). But he is not usually happy. He is fearful as storms chase them:
With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward ay we fled. (45-50)
Then when they get caught between icebergs, he is not only
fearful, but suffers and marvels:
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast high, came floating by,
As green as emerald. (51-54)
While he suffers from the cold, he responds to the amazing things he sees. That wonderful iceberg "green as emerald"!
He continues to suffer. After the Albatross is shot and the ship rounds Cape Horn into the Pacific, the Mariner's sufferings turn from cold to hot. "All in a hot and copper sky, / The bloody Sun, at noon" makes the becalmed ship dry up. Later on "The charmèd water burnt always / A still and awful red" (270-271). An even more frightening image of fire occurs when the skeleton-ship comes between the Mariner and the Sun:
As if through a dungeon grate he [the Sun] peered
With broad and burning face. (179-180)
The Mariner's extreme sufferings here recall those of the devils in Book II of Paradise Lost. Just as The Mariner sails south from civilization to the regions of ice and fire, Milton's devils fall from heaven to a similar fate. In Hell, some devils explore rivers that have "waves of torrent fire" (2.581), while others travel over regions of "snow and ice" (2.591). Milton comments that the devils are brought to "feel by turns the bitter change / Of fierce extremes, extremes by change more fierce, / From Beds of raging Fire to starve in Ice" (2.597-600). Coleridge evokes Milton's Hell to suggest some ingredients of The Mariner's experience: excruciating pain (and alienation from God as well).
Coleridge goes beyond Milton when he adds parching thirst to the Mariner's woes.
Water, water everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink. (119-121)
Not surprisingly, in time "every tongue, though utter drought, / Was withered at the root" (135-136). Why does Coleridge add thirst, I wonder. To suffering and fear and thirst, Coleridge adds horror at the animal and perhaps vegetable world:
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea. (123-126)
The sea is "rotting" (240) later on, and the "thousand thousand slimy things" (238) return, though without those terrifying legs.
I think the standard school-boy misreading of this poem is that the Mariner feels guilty about shooting one particular Albatross and feels generally guilty about harming one of nature's creatures. This moral and ecological reading is implied by what the Mariner says at the very end about the importance of loving "man and bird and beast" (612). But Coleridge himself seemed to play down these lines when he told Mrs. Barbauld that his poem had too much of a moral. And I noted before that this "moral" seems "tacked on," does not seem adequate to many of the central stanzas of the poem. Although The Mariner admits he had "done a hellish thing" (91), he never expresses any guilt for his actions. Although he reports he has been accused (91-96, 398-405), guilt adds little to his suffering.
What affects the Mariner most is the reproach-indeed the curse--of his fellow-sailors. They accuse him of killing "the bird / that made the breeze to blow" (93-94). When they dream that a "Spirit" follows the boat, they hang the Albatross around the Mariner's neck. Coleridge makes perhaps the poem's most memorable image an emblem of the men's reproach. Then all they do is stare. As they die, "Each turned his face with a ghastly pang / And cursed me with his eye" as they "dropped down one by one" without a sound (214-219). Then:
The souls did from their bodies fly-
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my crossbow! (220-223)
Wow! All these cursing souls whizzing by his very nose! Even after death, their stare confounds the Mariner.
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.
An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die. (255-262)
Why did the sailors have to die? You could say that they were victims of the curse brought on by the Mariner's act. But I say they died because the poem is not about their fates, but is about the Mariner's mental states. Coleridge wants them standing there, alive and then dead, staring accusingly at the Mariner and causing in him a self-conscious agony more powerful than simple guilt.
Now the Mariner is not technically alone. There are the live and dead sailors and plenty of spirits about (the most memorable of which roll dice for his soul). Later on, he meets the Pilot and the Boy. Unlike the sailors, these two do not stare at him; they just go crazy.Yet he is very much alone, spiritually alone-far, far from home and cursed by other men in what appears to be a Godless world:
Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony. (232-235)
The Mariner's state is one of spiritual isolation.
His isolation has another aspect. In some of the poem's most memorable lines, the Mariner seems to be conscious that he is undergoing a new kind of experience, that human beings have not been here before, that his mental anguish is something new in history. "We were the first that ever burst / Into that silent sea" (105-106). For Milton, suffering had been the same for devils and for human sinners from before creation until at least 1672. But though The Mariner's suffering resembles that of the devils, it is utterly new as well. I will return to this idea.
Soon Coleridge moves the his Navigator from the extremes of suffering to the extremes of bliss. Suddenly and without any initiative on the Mariner's part, what he sees in the sea looks different:
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; an every track
Was a flash of golden fire. (277-281)
The colors now are exotically beautiful; there is fire, but it is golden. His despair turns to ecstasy:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware . . . . (282-285)
He can love God's creatures. His love is extreme, and consequences are extremely swift:
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea. (290-291)
That is much of what I pillaged from the poem. "The Pillaged Mariner" is an evocation by means of a simple and sensational story and lyric verse of a significant kind of mind. I don't think the poem is literally autobiographical, but I do think Coleridge drew upon his experience and imagination to evoke and explore one kind of Romantic mind. To understand this mind better, let me recall once more the pattern of a descent into hell, a pattern seen in a number of literary works but most obviously in Paradise Lost. Northrop Frye wrote that literary descents into hell often reveal what an age is trying not to acknowledge. I would add that what an age tries to ignore are often the new forces that will eventually have to be acknowledged. (See Prince Hal's descent from the orthodox court into an anarchic tavern world in Henry IV, Part I and see my treatment of The Excursion in which the central characters descend from the heights of Blea Tarn to the humanity of common people in Grasmere churchyard. See, for that matter, The Aeneid.)
Remember that Coleridge chose to send his Mariner to the south, descending down a map or globe. In his descent from our comfortable England to the vastness of the southern oceans so far away, the Mariner finds something new, something with which mainstream England had not come to terms-a new sensibility ("We were the first that ever burst / Into that silent sea" (105-106)). This new sensibility is passive and not purposeful (in this The Mariner resembles the Hamlet of Coleridge's later criticism) and acutely sensitive. This mind does not so much feel guilt as suffer from the extremely self-conscious--even paranoiac--realization that ordinary men regard it with suspicion and reproach. This mind knows it is alone, not so much cut off from ordinary human experience as isolated by the intellectual and emotional extremes it is living through. (The stares of the ordinary sailors may resemble the way the radical Coleridge thought ordinary main-stream Englishmen looked at him in 1797.) The Mariner's sufferings are acute enough to justify the comparison to Milton's devils in Hell. Remember that Coleridge added thirst to The Mariner's tortures--a thirst, a yearning for what? Companionship? Release? God's grace? Love? (Not a yearning for sexual fulfillment; this is not a sexy poem.) This sensibility is conscious that it suffers, but not really why it deserved to suffer. (Milton's devils knew why. Adam and Eve knew why. But look at stories like "Michael" and "The Ruined Cottage." Neither Michael nor Margaret or even her husband Robert deserved to suffer.)
This new sensibility involves not only acute suffering, but sometimes, suddenly, wonder and love-- moments in which through no effort of his own (but perhaps made possible by his heightened sensitivity) The Mariner is able to experience-what shall we call it? The coming-on of a new imaginative vision? One Life? A sense of unmerited salvation? It is not surprising that this sensibility cannot be expressed in the old genres, like comedy and tragedy, which depend on structures which coherently link beginnings, middles, and ends.
Later, The Mariner learns that having experienced such extraordinary visions means that from now on he will be different from ordinary people, ordinary people who look on him accusingly as the dead sailors do, or, like the Wedding-Guest, with a certain distaste. Even so, he knows he must tell such ordinary people his story, over and over.
I think this sensibility is peculiarly Romantic. I can't imagine it being created by the main-line story-tellers before Coleridge (or by Jane Austen). "The Ancient Mariner" shows a mind at the cutting edge of its day, as were Wordsworth and Coleridge in so many ways in their early years. It is not surprising that not everyone liked it at first (I think of Southey). It may be that the poem exhibits a Romantic type of story in another way. The Mariner transfixes one in three. Many of Wordsworth's poems are epitaphs that ask, overtly or implicitly, something like "Pause, stranger." Perhaps Romantic story-tellers are aware they have such unusual tales to tell that they must grab their audience's attention.
The readers of "The Ancient Mariner" have responded to over the years. To the extent that Romantic patterns of feeling and thought are still with us, the sensibility defined by these lines is contemporary. And we consumers also respond to the fact that The Mariner is compelled to tell his story. We can identify (I know I can) with a figure who must tell his tale without being sure what the effect of his story will be. The Old Navigator at least knows that he has the poetic power to transfix his audience. Most of us are not so lucky.