Coleridge: "The Ancient Mariner"

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

"The Ancient Mariner"

"The Ancient Mariner" was first printed in the first edition of "Lyrical Ballads," 1798, again with considerable changes in the second edition, 1800, and without further significant change in the editions of 1802 and 1805. Its fifth appearance was in "Sibylline Leaves," 1817, again with some important changes, and the addition of the Latin motto and the marginal gloss. In the "Poetical Works," 1828, and again in the "Poetical Works," 1829, the poem appeared in its final form as we now have it,-differing very little from the form it had in "Sibylline Leaves." One or two significant minor changes will be mentioned in the notes.

Coleridge's own account of the genesis of the poem, given in the Biographia Literaria nearly twenty years later, is interesting. "During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbours, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moonlight or sunset, diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the poetry of nature. The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life; the characters and incidents were to be such as will be found in every village and its vicinity where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice them when they present themselves.

"In this idea originated the 'Lyrical Ballads'; in which 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. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the wonders and loveliness of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

"With this view I wrote 'The Ancient Mariner,' and was preparing, among other poems, 'The Dark Ladie,' and the 'Christabel,' in which I should have more nearly realized my ideal than I had done in my first attempt. But Mr. Wordsworth's industry had proved so much more successful, and the number of his poems so much greater, that my compositions, instead of forming a balance, appeared rather an interpolation of heterogeneous matter. Mr. Wordsworth added two or three poems written in his own character, in the impassioned, lofty, and sustained diction which is characteristic of his genius [among them the "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey"]. In this form the 'Lyrical Ballads' were published."

Lyrical they hardly were, in any current meaning of that word; they were narrative. But they were ballads as the word was then understood. The two cardinal points of poetry that Coleridge says they had in view in this partnership production were both believed to be special marks of the ballad; the charm of homeliness and simplicity, and the spell of the supernatural and romantic. Bishop Percy's "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry," 1765, had created a taste for the traditional poetry of humble folk. Spreading to Germany and uniting there with the sentimental sensationalism of the eighteenth century, this taste found expression in Burger's "Lenore," which in turn had a powerful influence in England, five distinct translations of it appearing in 1796. Of the distinction so much insisted on by later analysts of the true popular ballad-its communal origin, its impersonality, its freedom from adornment, its lack of conscious art-the Englishman of Coleridge's time took no account. "The Ancient Mariner" is not a ballad in the sense in which "Sir Patrick Spens" or "Young Waters" is a ballad. It is in the highest degree a work of conscious and individual art. It is rather to be classed, like "Christabel," as a romance. But it was conceived and written under the influence of the "ballad revival," and bears many marks of that influence both in its general structure and in its details of workmanship.

Much of the archaic diction and antique spelling, as well as the ruder grotesquerie, that in the first edition proclaimed its relation to the pseudo-balladry of the time disappeared in the later editions. But the archaisms, the "unpoetical" diction, and especially the disregard of tense coherence in the poem as we now have it, contribute greatly to the atmosphere of romance-as of a story removed alike from the commonplace experience of every day and from familiar literary conventions-which it was Coleridge's intention to produce. By a few devotional ejaculations-"Heaven's Mother send us grace!" "To Mary Queen the praise be given!"-we are made to feel that the Ancient Mariner lived before the Reformation, in the ages of wonder and faith. Repetition, as in many stanzas of Part IV., is a device caught from the folk-ballad and modified to produce the effect of a spell, which is so strong a mark of the poem. The abrupt opening, the unannounced transitions in dialogue, the omission of all but the vital incidents of the story, all belong to the ballad style. The verse form is what is known as the ballad stanza (stanza of four lines-a line of four accents followed by one of three, the second and fourth lines riming) variously extended and modified to suit the mood of the passage. The prose summary in the form of a marginal gloss, first added in the edition of 1817, is a practice taken from early printed books, but not from balladry, which is normally oral.

Of the literary qualities of the poem much might be said, but I call attention here to but two: the organic structure of the story and the character of the imagery, two important aspects of creative imagination. The seven parts are seven stages of the narrative, each, except the last, closing with a reference to the Mariner's sin. The story proceeds like the successive acts of a play. In Part I. the deed is committed; in Part II. the punishment begins; in Part III. the punishment reaches its climax. Part IV. brings the "turn"; in the crisis of his sufferings comes the consciousness of fellowship with other creatures and repentance for his cruelty. Parts V. and VI. relate his penance begun, and his return by supernatural agencies to the world of human fellowship; and Part VII. brings us back to the opening scene, closing the whole with a moral. The moral is so plainly set forth that one wonders how Mrs. Barbauld could ever have complained, as Coleridge tells us she did, that the poem "had no moral." His reply is worth recording: "I told her that in my opinion 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." But the poet of 1798 knew better than the metaphysician of 1830. The moral is as essential a part of the whole poem as moral consciousness is of man; without it the poem would be without the coherence of human interest which alone can secure for "these shadows of imagination" "poetic faith." The moral, really, is suffused throughout the work, is the blood of its being; that it should be formulated at the close is quite in accord with the simplicity which marked the whole conception of the "Lyrical Ballads," and is moreover perfectly harmonious with the spirit of the poem itself. There have been poets who seemed to be without the moral sense, and who have written poetry quite free from any moral, like Poe and his landscape visions, but wonderful as they are, they are abnormal, and are less great as they are less completely human. It may be that Wordsworth, as one infers from recollections of the composition of the poem, suggested the moral plot; but if so it entered at once and completely into Coleridge's imagination and governed the shaping of the poem from the start. In all the very considerable changes and omissions that the poem underwent after it was first printed, there was none that either retrenched from or added to the moral interpretation of the tale.

Of its imagery the most evident characteristic is what may be called the anthropomorphic treatment of nature. This, although in accord with modern conceptions of primitive culture, is not at all a mark of the popular ballad. Sun, and moon, and storm-wind, and ocean are in folk-song sun and moon and wind and water and nothing more; but in "The Ancient Mariner" they are living beings.

"And now the Storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along."
"And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face."
"Still as a slave before his lord,
The ocean hath no blast;
His great bright eye most silently
Up to the Moon is cast—
"If he may know which way to go;
For she guides him smooth or grim.
See, brother, see! how graciously
She looketh down on him."

This is the most noticeable of the "modifying colours of imagination" in "The Ancient Mariner." The practice might be classed as a sort of personification; but how utterly different in its effect from the conventional "literary" personifications of the eighteenth century-of Gray in the "Elegy," for instance! Grandeur, and Envy, and Honour, in that admirable poem, are not real persons to the imagination; the abstraction remains an abstraction. But in Coleridge's poem all nature is alive with the life of men. Other elements of "that synthetic and magical power to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination," and which blends "the idea with the image" and "the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects" will be felt as the poem is studied.

Wordsworth related in after years that the suggestion for the poem came from a dream of a phantom ship told to Coleridge by a friend, and that he (Wordsworth) proposed the shooting of the albatross, the revenge of the "tutelary spirits," and the "navigation of the ship by the dead men," and contributed the fourth stanza of the poem and the last two lines of the first stanza of Part IV. He had been reading Shelvocke's "Voyages," a book in which he had found a description of albatrosses as they are seen in far southern waters. Other reading that may have suggested some of the scenery is described in the "Notes" to the Globe edition of Coleridge's poems. There are also passages and situations in the last two acts of Wordsworth's play, "The Borderers," which Coleridge read with great admiration in the summer of 1797, that have evident kinship with "The Ancient Mariner," and Wordsworth's "Peter Bell" (composed at Alfoxden, but printed many years later) suggests what the story might have become if Coleridge instead of Wordsworth had withdrawn from collaboration.

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