Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), along with other great poets such as William Wordsworth, believed that traditional poetry had become hardened and lifeless. Coleridge wanted to inject a new vocabulary into his work that would help to create new insights.
This was the period we call “Romanticism,” a time in which great creativity and change in literature resulted in fine gothic novels as well as great lyrical poetry.
Graham Allan, in his essay “Romantic Verse Narrative,” explains: “…characters often go through a process of transformation, and certainly meet danger, temptations and obstacles before the ending.”
The Birth of Romanticism
In “Romanticism” in his book, Our Greatest Writers and Their Major Works, John Carrington says: “In the Eighteenth Century, there occurred in the movement of ideas a steady shift away from the Augustan stress on the general and the rational and an increasing valuation of the individual and the emotional.”
It is in this uncertain climate, one which occurred during a period of great political unrest, for example, the Industrial Revolution, the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, that ideas about literature turned upside-down and the power of the imagination became a major influence.
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Carrington explains: “The Romantic developments in British poetry divided broadly into two generations, that of Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, followed by Byron, Shelley and Keats.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Afflicted with Self-Doubt
John Carrington emphasises how deeply Coleridge suffered. He was a sensitive intellectual, who longed for friendship and love, but whose relationships and marriage were unsuccessful. His great love was Sara Hutchinson, who was Wordworth’s sister-in-law.
As a result of his unhappiness in his relationships, Coleridge didn’t finish all of his poems, and became addicted to opium. In 1816, the poet had a breakdown and Dr. James Gillman, a London surgeon, took him in and cared for him.
Carrington says, “Charles Lamb, a good friend to this likeable and fragile man, described him as ‘an archangel slightly damaged.'” Poet William Hazlitt was less generous, saying “Frailty, thy name is Genius.”
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Together, Coleridge and Wordsworth planned their “Lyrical Ballads,” but while Wordsworth would focus on ordinary life event, his friend Coleridge would immerse himself in exploring the supernatural.
Key to this project for both poets was the use of the imagination and a reliance on symbol and myth.
Unsurprisingly, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” describes the story of a man who suffers; a mariner who commits the terrible sin of shooting an albatross at sea. This one, thoughtless act curses all on board the vessel.
“The spell of the curse breaks as he involuntarily blesses some living sea creatures, but his lonely penance is to endure periodic recurrences of his soul’s agony. These can be relieved only by his retelling of his tale,” says John Carrington.
The Literary Device of the Uncanny
The language is direct and strangely disturbing, and Coleridge combines imagination with the literary device, “the uncanny” which is based on uncertainty. We are not sure if the narrator shows us the real world, or an unreal world.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem that dwells heavily on spirits, demons and visions to represent the supernatural. (Many Romantic ballads contained supernatural elements.)
Coleridge describes the ice as a malevolent power:
“And now there came both mist and snow / And it grew wondrous cold: / And ice mast-high, came floating by, As green as emerald.” / And through the drifts the snowy clifts / Did send a dismal sheen / No shapes of men nor breasts we ken – / the ice was all between. / The ice was here, the ice was there, / The ice was all around: / It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, / Like noises in a swound.”
The ballad begins in the narrative and then becomes a dialogue, dominated by the mariner’s tale, and so we experience a first-hand account. The “wedding guest” is intent upon joining the wedding feast, but the mariner’s “glittering eye” and his direct way of speaking, “There was a ship,” indicate that there is a momentous tale to tell.
Coleridge uses dark forces to express the supernatural through symbolism and allegory.
Horrific Visions: A Struggle Between Good and Evil
The mariner experiences horrific visions. “Yes, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea,” while he suffers “utter drouth.” Then the ghastly realisation of the magnitude of his crime: “Instead of the cross the albatross / About my neck was hung.”
The struggle between the powers of good and evil brings to mind aspects of religion. The albatross, for example: “As if it were a Christian soul, / We hailed it in God’s name.” It is clear that when the mariner shoots the albatross without apparent motive, it is as though the mariner has rejected God and goodness and surrenders himself to dark forces and supernatural retaliation.
The albatross represents nature, as well as truth, light and goodness, and the light, when destroyed or abandoned, allows dark supernatural forces to come into play.
When the spectral ship appears, we see the male, skeletal death figure: “His bones were black with many a crack,” while the death-in-life female is contrasted with the line: “Her skin is white as leprosy.” The allegorical figures depart as the men drop dead.
After the mariner has blessed the water, there is a sense of unreality when the dead men come alive and man the ship. “The body of my brother’s son / Stood by me knee to knee.” The reason is hidden from us until: “Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,” and we realised good spirits motivate them.
Alienation from the World
Coleridge shows us, through morality, spirituality and allegory, the effect on a man of a destructive attitude to nature and subsequent alienation from the world. It is a journey of self-discovery, aided by his kind feelings towards the beautiful water-snakes. “A spring of love gusht from my heart.” Eventually, he achieves something like enlightenment in a desire to repeat his story for the benefit of others. Maybe this in itself, is a further penance.
The poem contains a universal and a personal truth because the mariner has learned about himself and about his relation to the world through his supernatural experience.