History of Literature


Samuel Taylor Coleridge


"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"


Illustrations by Gustave Dore


Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) was an English poet, critic and philosopher who was, along with his friend William Wordsworth, one of the founders of the Romantic Movement in England and one of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, as well as his major prose work Biographia Literaria. After the death of his father in 1781, contrary to his desires, he was sent to Christ's Hospital. The school was originally founded in the 16th century in Greyfriars, London and Hertford. It is now a boarding school in West Sussex. The school was notorious for its unwelcoming atmosphere and strict regimen under the Rev. James Bowyer, many years head master of the grammar school, which fostered thoughts of guilt and depression in young Samuel's maturing mind.

However, Coleridge seems to have appreciated his teacher, as he wrote in detailed recollections of his schooldays in Biographia Literaria:

“ I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master...At the same time that we were studying the Greek Tragic Poets, he made us read Shakspeare and Milton as lessons: and they were the lessons too, which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure. I learnt from him, that Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes....
In our own English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words... In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? your Nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose! ... Be this as it may, there was one custom of our master's, which I cannot pass over in silence, because I think it ... worthy of imitation. He would often permit our theme exercises, ... to accumulate, till each lad had four or five to be looked over. Then placing the whole number abreast on his desk, he would ask the writer, why this or that sentence might not have found as appropriate a place under this or that other thesis: and if no satisfying answer could be returned, and two faults of the same kind were found in one exercise, the irrevocable verdict followed, the exercise was torn up, and another on the same subject to be produced, in addition to the tasks of the day.

” Throughout life, Coleridge idealized his father as pious and innocent, while his relationship with his mother was more problematic. His childhood was characterized by attention seeking, which has been linked to his dependent personality as an adult. He was rarely allowed to return home during the school term, and this distance from his family at such a turbulent time proved emotionally damaging. He later wrote of his loneliness at school in the poem Frost at Midnight: "With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt/Of my sweet birthplace"

From 1791 until 1794, Coleridge attended Jesus College, Cambridge. In 1792, he won the Browne Gold Medal for an ode that he wrote on the slave trade. In November 1793, he left the college and enlisted in the Royal Dragoons, perhaps because of debt or because the girl that he loved, Mary Evans, had rejected him. Afterwards, he was rumored to have had a bout with severe depression. His brothers arranged for his discharge a few months later under the reason of "insanity" and he was readmitted to Jesus College, though he would never receive a degree from Cambridge.

Pantisocracy and marriage

At the university, he was introduced to political and theological ideas then considered radical, including those of the poet Robert Southey. Coleridge joined Southey in a plan, soon abandoned, to found a utopian commune-like society, called pantisocracy, in the wilderness of Pennsylvania.

In 1795, the two friends married sisters Sara and Edith Fricker, but Coleridge's marriage proved unhappy. He grew to detest his wife, whom he only married because of social constraints. He eventually divorced her.

The years 1797 and 1798, during which he lived in what is now known as Coleridge Cottage, in Nether Stowey, Somerset, were among the most fruitful of Coleridge's life. In 1795, Coleridge met poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. (Wordsworth, having visited him and being enchanted by the surroundings, rented Alfoxton Park, a little over three miles [5 km] away.) Besides the Rime of The Ancient Mariner, he composed the symbolic poem Kubla Khan, written—Coleridge himself claimed—as a result of an opium dream, in "a kind of a reverie"; and the first part of the narrative poem Christabel. The writing of Kubla Khan, written about the Asian emperor Kublai Khan, was said to have been interrupted by the arrival of a "Person from Porlock"—an event that has been embellished upon in such varied contexts as science fiction and Nabokov's Lolita. During this period, he also produced his much-praised "conversation" poems This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, and The Nightingale.

In 1798, Coleridge and Wordsworth published a joint volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, which proved to be the starting point for the English romantic movement. Though the productive Wordsworth contributed more poems, Coleridge's first version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was the longest poem and drew more immediate attention than anything else in the volume.

In the spring of 1798, Coleridge temporarily took over for Rev. Joshua Toulmin at Taunton's Mary Street Unitarian Chapel[1] while Rev. Toulmin grieved over the drowning death of his daughter Jane. Poetically commenting on Toulmin's strength, Coleridge wrote in a 1798 letter to John Prior Estlin,[2]

I walked into Taunton (eleven miles) and back again, and performed the divine services for Dr. Toulmin. I suppose you must have heard that his daughter, (Jane, on 15 April 1798) in a melancholy derangement, suffered herself to be swallowed up by the tide on the sea-coast between Sidmouth and Bere (sic. Beer). These events cut cruelly into the hearts of old men: but the good Dr. Toulmin bears it like the true practical Christian, - there is indeed a tear in his eye, but that eye is lifted up to the Heavenly Father.[3]

In the autumn of 1798, Coleridge and Wordsworth left for a stay in Germany; Coleridge soon went his own way and spent much of his time in university towns. During this period, he became interested in German philosophy, especially the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, and in the literary criticism of the 18th century dramatist Gotthold Lessing. Coleridge studied German and, after his return to England, translated the dramatic trilogy Wallenstein by the German Classical poet Friedrich Schiller into English.

In 1799, Coleridge and Wordsworth stayed at Thomas Hutchinson's farm on the Tees at Sockburn, near Darlington. There both of them fell in love, Coleridge with Sara Hutchinson ('Asra'), and Wordsworth with her sister Mary, whom he married in 1802.

It was at Sockburn that Coleridge wrote his ballad-poem Love, addressed to Sara. The knight mentioned is the mailed figure on the Conyers tomb in ruined Sockburn church. The figure has a wyvern at his feet, a reference to the Sockburn worm slain by Sir John Conyers (and a possible source for Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky). The worm was supposedly buried under the rock in the nearby pasture; this was the 'greystone' of Coleridge's first draft, later transformed into a 'mount'. The poem was a direct inspiration for John Keats' famous poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci. [4]

Coleridge's greatest intellectual debts were first to William Godwin's Political Justice, especially during his Pantisocratic period, and to David Hartley's Observations on Man, which is the source of the psychology which is found in Frost at Midnight. Hartley argued that one becomes aware of sensory events as impressions, and that "ideas" are derived by noticing similarities and differences between impressions and then by naming them. Connections resulting from the coincidence of impressions create linkages, so that the occurrence of one impression triggers those links and calls up the memory of those ideas with which it is associated (See Dorothy Emmet, "Coleridge and Philosophy").

Coleridge was critical of the literary taste of his contemporaries, and a literary conservative insofar as he was afraid that the lack of taste in the ever growing masses of literate people would mean a continued desecration of literature itself.

In 1800, he returned to England and shortly thereafter settled with his family and friends at Keswick in the Lake District of Cumberland to be near Grasmere, where Wordsworth had moved. Soon, however, he was beset by marital problems, illnesses, increased opium dependency, tensions with Wordsworth, and a lack of confidence in his poetic powers, all of which fueled the composition of Dejection: An Ode and an intensification of his philosophical studies.

Drug use

In 1804, he traveled to Sicily and Malta, working for a time as Acting Public Secretary of Malta under the Commissioner, Alexander Ball. He gave this up and returned to England in 1806. Dorothy Wordsworth was shocked at his condition upon his return. From 1807 to 1808, Coleridge returned to Malta and then traveled in Sicily and Italy, in the hope that leaving Britain's damp climate would improve his health and thus enable him to reduce his consumption of opium. Thomas de Quincey alleges in his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets that it was during this period that Coleridge became a full-blown opium addict, using the drug as a substitute for the lost vigour and creativity of his youth. It has been suggested, however, that this reflects de Quincey's own experiences more than Coleridge's.

His opium addiction (he was using as much as two quarts of laudanum a week) now began to take over his life: he separated from his wife in 1808, quarreled with Wordsworth in 1810, lost part of his annuity in 1811, and put himself under the care of Dr. Daniel in 1814.

In 1809, Coleridge instigated his second attempt to become a newspaper publisher with the publication of the journal entitled The Friend. It was a weekly publication that, in Coleridge’s typically ambitious style, was written, edited, and published almost entirely single-handedly. Given that Coleridge tended to be highly disorganized and had no head for business, the publication was probably doomed from the start. Coleridge financed the journal by selling over five hundred subscriptions, over two dozen of which were sold to members of Parliament, but in late 1809, publication was crippled by a financial crisis and Coleridge was obliged to approach "Conversation Sharp"[5], Tom Poole and one or two other wealthy friends for an emergency loan in order to continue. The Friend was an eclectic publication that drew upon every corner of Coleridge’s remarkably diverse knowledge of law, philosophy, morals, politics, history, and literary criticism. Although it was often turgid, rambling, and inaccessible to most readers, it ran for 25 issues and was republished in book form a number of times. Years after its initial publication, The Friend became a highly influential work and its effect was felt on writers and philosophers from J.S. Mill to Emerson.

Between 1810 and 1820, this "giant among dwarfs", as he was often considered by his contemporaries, gave a series of lectures in London and Bristol – those on Shakespeare renewed interest in the playwright as a model for contemporary writers. Much of Coleridge's reputation as a literary critic is founded on the lectures that he undertook in the winter of 1810-11 which were sponsored by the Philosophical Institution and given at Scot's Corporation Hall off Fetter Lane, Fleet Street. These lectures were heralded in the prospectus as "A Course of Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton, in Illustration of the Principles of Poetry." Coleridge's ill-health, opium-addiction problems, and somewhat unstable personality meant that all his lectures were plagued with problems of delays and a general irregularity of quality from one lecture to the next. Furthermore, Coleridge's mind was extremely dynamic and his personality was spasmodic. As a result of these factors, Coleridge often failed to prepare anything but the loosest set of notes for his lectures and regularly entered into extremely long digressions which his audiences found difficult to follow. However, it was the lecture on Hamlet given on 2 January 1812 that was considered the best and has influenced Hamlet studies ever since. Before Coleridge, Hamlet was often denigrated and belittled by critics from Voltaire to Dr. Johnson. Coleridge rescued Hamlet and his thoughts on the play are often still published as supplements to the text.

In August 1814, Coleridge was approached by Lord Byron's publisher, John Murray, about the possibility of translating Goethe's infamous cult classic Faust (1808). Coleridge was regarded by many as the greatest living writer on the demonic and he accepted the commission, only to abandon work on it after six weeks. Until recently, scholars have accepted that Coleridge never returned to the project, despite Goethe's own belief in the 1820s that Coleridge had in fact completed a long translation of the work. In September 2007, Oxford University Press sparked a heated scholarly controversy by publishing an English translation of Goethe's work which purported to be Coleridge's long-lost masterpiece. The text in question first appeared anonymously in 1821.[6]

In 1817, Coleridge, with his addiction worsening, his spirits depressed, and his family alienated, took residence in the home of the physician James Gillman, first at South Grove and later at the nearby 3 The Grove, Highgate, London, England. He remained there for the rest of his life, and the house became a place of literary pilgrimage of writers including Carlyle and Emerson. In Gillman's home, he finished his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria (1815), a volume composed of 23 chapters of autobiographical notes and dissertations on various subjects, including some incisive literary theory and criticism. He composed much poetry here and had many inspirations — a few of them from opium overdose. Perhaps because he conceived such grand projects, he had difficulty carrying them through to completion, and he berated himself for his "indolence". It is unclear whether his growing use of opium (and the brandy in which it was dissolved) was a symptom or a cause of his growing depression.

He published other writings while he was living at the Gillman home, notably Sibylline Leaves (1820), Aids to Reflection (1823), and Church and State (1826). He died of a lung disorder including some heart failure from the opium that he was taking in Highgate on 25 July 1834. Coleridge had spent 18 years under the roof of the Gillman family, who built an addition onto their home to accommodate the poet.

Coleridge is probably best known for his long poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Even those who have never read the Rime have come under its influence: its words have given the English language the metaphor of an albatross around one's neck, the quotation of "water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink (almost always rendered as "but not a drop to drink")", and the phrase "a sadder and a wiser man (again, usually rendered as "sadder but wiser man")". Christabel is known for its musical rhythm, language, and its Gothic tale.

Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment, although shorter, is also widely known. Both Kubla Khan and Christabel have an additional "romantic" aura because they were never finished. Stopford Brooke characterised both poems as having no rival due to their "exquisite metrical movement" and "imaginative phrasing."

Coleridge's shorter, meditative "conversation poems," however, proved to be the most influential of his work. These include both quiet poems like This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison and Frost at Midnight and also strongly emotional poems like Dejection and The Pains of Sleep. Wordsworth immediately adopted the model of these poems, and used it to compose several of his major poems. Via Wordsworth, the conversation poem became a standard vehicle for English poetic expression, and perhaps the most common approach among modern poets.The Eolian Harp, Speaking symbolically in terms of harp and breeze, Coleridge's implication is that each being is but a single part of the world-soul or over-spirit that emanates from the One. It is interesting to note that Coleridge for the moment feels he has ventured too far, for he then retracts "these shapings of the unregenerate mind," and concludes the poem vowing to forsake "vain philosophy's aye-babbling spring."

Despite not enjoying the name recognition or popular acclaim that Wordsworth or Shelley have had, Coleridge is one of the most important figures in English poetry. His poems directly and deeply influenced all the major poets of the age. He was known by his contemporaries as a meticulous craftsman who was more rigorous in his careful reworking of his poems than any other poet, and Southey and Wordsworth were dependent on his professional advice. His influence on Wordsworth is particularly important because many critics have credited Coleridge with the very idea of "Conversational Poetry". The idea of utilizing common, everyday language to express profound poetic images and ideas for which Wordsworth became so famous may have originated almost entirely in Coleridge’s mind. It is difficult to imagine Wordsworth’s great poems, The Excursion or The Prelude, ever having been written without the direct influence of Coleridge’s originality.

And as important as Coleridge was to poetry as a poet, he was equally important to poetry as a critic. Coleridge's philosophy of poetry, which he developed over many years, has been deeply influential in the field of literary criticism. This influence can be seen in such critics as A.O. Lovejoy and I.A. Richards.

Coleridge and the influence of the Gothic
Gothic novels like Polidori’s The Vampire, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk were the best-sellers of the end of the eighteenth century, and thrilled many young women (who were often strictly forbidden to read them). Jane Austen satirized the style mercilessly in Northanger Abbey.

Coleridge wrote reviews of Mrs Radcliffe’s books and The Mad Monk, among others. He comments in his reviews:

“ Situations of torment, and images of naked horror, are easily conceived; and a writer in whose works they abound, deserves our gratitude almost equally with him who should drag us by way of sport through a military hospital, or force us to sit at the dissecting-table of a natural philosopher. To trace the nice boundaries, beyond which terror and sympathy are deserted by the pleasurable emotions, - to reach those limits, yet never to pass them, hic labor, hic opus est. ”


“ The horrible and the preternatural have usually seized on the popular taste, at the rise and decline of literature. Most powerful stimulants, they can never be required except by the torpor of an unawakened, or the languor of an exhausted, appetite... We trust, however, that satiety will banish what good sense should have prevented; and that, wearied with fiends, incomprehensible characters, with shrieks, murders, and subterraneous dungeons, the public will learn, by the multitude of the manufacturers, with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured. ”

However, Coleridge used these elements in poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Christabel and Kubla Khan (published in 1816, but known in manuscript form before then) and certainly influenced other poets and writers of the time. Poems like this both drew inspiration from and helped to inflame the craze for Gothic romance. Mary Shelley, who knew Coleridge well, mentions The Rime of the Ancient Mariner twice directly in Frankenstein, and some of the descriptions in the novel echo it indirectly. Although William Godwin, her father, disagreed with Coleridge on some important issues, he respected his opinions and Coleridge often visited the Godwins. Mary Shelley later recalled hiding behind the sofa and hearing his voice chanting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.



Type of work: Intellectual autobiography
Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
First published: 1817

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria begins as an account of the major influences on the development of his philosophy and his literary technique, but the total effect of the work is considerably less coherent than this plan would indicate. As he progressed the author apparently altered his purpose, and he discussed at considerable length intellectual problems of special interest to him and gave some of his standards of literary criticism with comments on specific works. In his opening paragraph he speaks of his work as "miscellaneous reflections"; the description seems appropriate.
The loose, rambling structure of the Biographia Literaria accords well with the picture of Coleridge that has been handed down, that of a man of great intellectual and poetic gifts who lacked the self-discipline to produce the works of which he seemed capable. Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt both characterized him as an indefatigable and fascinating talker, full of ideas, and this trait, too, plays its part in the creation of the Biographia Literaria, which is, in essence, a long conversation, ranging widely over the worlds of poetry, drama, philosophy, and psychology. The lack of a tight organizational plan in no way prevents the book from being both readable and profound in its content; Coleridge's comments on the nature of the poetic imagination have never been surpassed, and his criticism of Wordsworth's work is still perhaps the most balanced and judicious assessment available, a model for all scholars who seek to form general views on the basis of close examination of individual texts.
In the opening chapter Coleridge pays tribute to his most influential teacher, the Reverend James Bowyer of Christ's Hospital, who insisted that his students learn to think logically and use language precisely, in poetry as well as in prose. Coleridge also discusses the poetry he preferred in the years when his literary tastes were being formed; he turned toward the "pre-romantic" lyrics of minor writers rather than to the terse, epigrammatic intellectual poems of the best known eighteenth century literary men, most notably Alexander Pope and his followers. At an early stage he developed sound critical principles, looking for works that gained in power through rereading and for words that seemed to express ideas better than any phrases substituted for them could, and he quickly learned to distinguish between the virtues of works of original ideas and the faults of those that made their effect through novel phraseology. He confesses, however, that his critical judgment was better than his creative talent: his own early poems, though he thought highly of them when he wrote them, left much to be desired.
The harshness of critics in his time is a recurrent theme throughout Coleridge's autobiography, and in his second chapter he ponders on the tendency of the public to side with them rather than with the poets, who are considered to be strange, irritable, even mad. Yet the greatest writers, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, seem to him unusually well balanced, and he suggests that the popular heresy results from the frustrations of the second-rate writer who pursues fame without real talent. These general comments are closely linked to Coleridge's sense of injustice at the vituperative attacks on him that issued regularly from the pages of the popular reviews, partly as a result of his association with Wordsworth and Robert Southey. The three poets were accused of trying to revolutionize, to vulgarize, poetry; they were avowedly interested in freeing poetry from the limitations of the eighteenth century poetic tradition. Coleridge denies that they deserved the abuses hurled at them.
After making some comments on the works of Wordsworth and Southey, Coleridge turns to a number of philosophical problems that fascinated him, questions of perception, sensation, and the human thought processes. It is this section of his work that provides the greatest difficulty for the uninitiated reader, for he assumes considerable familiarity with the works of German philosophers and English psychologists and mystics. He surveys the theories of Thomas Hobbes, David Hartley. Aristotle. Descartes, and others as they relate to problems of perception and of the development of thought through the association of ideas, and he assesses the influence of Immanuel Kant on his own philosophy.
Coleridge digresses from the complex history of his intellectual growth to describe his first literary venture into the commercial side of his world, his publication of a periodical called The Watchman. His attempts to secure subscriptions were ludicrous, and his project met with the failure that his friends had predicted; one of them had to pay his printer to keep him out of debtor's prison.
One of the most important periods in Coleridge's life was his 1798 trip to Germany, where he widened his knowledge of the literature and philosophy of that country. He returned to England to take a position with a newspaper, writing on literature and politics: he attacked Napoleon so vociferously that the French general actually sent out an order for his arrest while he was living in Italy as a correspondent for his paper. Coleridge evidently enjoyed his journalistic work, and he advises all would-be literary men to find some regular occupation rather than to devote all their time to writing.
Returning to his philosophical discussion, Coleridge lists several of his major premises about truth and knowledge. He is particularly concerned with distinguishing between the essence of the subject—the perceiver—and of the object—that which is perceived. Related to this distinction is the nature of the imagination, which Coleridge divides into two parts. The primary imagination is that power in man which perceives and recognizes objects; the secondary imagination acts on these initial perceptions to produce new thoughts: "It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create."
Coleridge next turns to a presentation of his literary standards, referring especially to the Lyrical Ballads, the volume containing much of Wordsworth's poetry and some of his own. He tries to define poetry, pointing out that it has as its "immediate object pleasure, not truth," and that it delights by the effect of the whole, as well as of individual parts. In one of the most famous passages in the book he discusses the function of the poet who, by the power of his imagination, must bring unity out of diversity, reconciling "sameness, with differences; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement."
Coleridge applies these general tenets to specific works, analyzing Shakespeare's early poems, The Rape ofLucrece and Venus and Adonis to determine what in them reveals genius and what is the result of the poet's immaturity. He praises particularly Shakespeare's musical language and his distance from his subject matter, saying, with reference to the latter point, that the average youthful writer is likely to concentrate on his own sensations and experiences. Shakespeare's greatness seems to him to lie, too, in the vividness of his imagery and in his "depth, and energy of thought."
While he was closely associated with Wordsworth in the creation of the Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge does not hesitate to indicate the points at which he differed from his colleague. He takes issue most strongly with Wordsworth's assertion that the speech of low and rustic life is the natural language of emotion and therefore best for poetry. Coleridge stresses rather the choice of a diction as universal as possible, not associated with class or region, and he says that it is this kind of language that Wordsworth has, in fact, used in almost all of his work. He feels that in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth was, to a certain extent, exaggerating in order to make clear advantages of natural, clear language over the empty poetic diction of the typical poetry of the time.
Coleridge's comments on Wordsworth lead him to an extended attack on the practices of the critical reviews, whose commentary on his friend's works seems to him both biased and absurd. He ridicules the tendency of anonymous reviewers to offer criticism without giving examples to support their assertions; they hardly seem to have read the works they lampoon. So as to counteract their ill-tempered, inconsistent judgments he sets down his own views on Wordsworth's most serious flaws and his outstanding talents. He criticizes his "inconstancy of the style," a tendency to shift from a lofty level to a commonplace one; his occasionally excessive attention to factual details of landscape or biography; his poor handling of dialogue in some poems; his "occasional prolixity, repetition, and an eddying instead of progression of thought" in a few passages; and, finally, his use of "thoughts and images too great for the subject."
With these defects in mind Coleridge commends Wordsworth's work for the purity and appropriateness of its language, the freshness of the thoughts, the "sinewy strength and originality of single lines and paragraphs," the accuracy of the descriptions of nature, the pathos and human sympathy, and the imaginative power of the poet.
The major portion of the Biographia Literaria ends with a final assessment of Wordsworth's work. However, Coleridge added, in order to give the reader a picture of his early maturity, a group of letters written to friends while he was traveling in Germany, containing amusing accounts of his shipboard companions, his meeting with the famous poet Klopstock, and some of his literary opinions. To show how little his critical standards had changed, he also included a long and devastating critique of a contemporary melodrama, Bertram, or the Castle of St. Aldobrand, an essay published just before the Biographia Literaria.
Coleridge's concluding chapter, as rambling in subject matter as the rest of the book, treats briefly the harsh critical reaction to his poem, Christabel, then turns to his affirmation of his Christian faith and his reasons for holding it. He makes no attempt to summarize his volume, which has presented a remarkably full portrait of his wide-ranging, questioning mind.


Type of work:
Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Тyре of plot: Ballad fantasy
Time of plot: Late medieval period
Locale: A voyage around the Horn into the Pacific and then home to England
First published: 1798

Coleridge's intention in writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was to make the supernatural seem real. To do so he carefully moves his reader from a realistic sea voyage, reinforced by concrete details from the everyday world, to a nighmarish otherworldly setting, where supernatural powers force the Ancient Mariner to undertake an allegorical quest for understanding and redemption.

The Story

Three young gallants on their way to a wedding were stopped by an old gray-headed sailor who detained one of them. The Ancient Mariner held with his glittering eye a young man whose next of kin was being married in the church nearby and forced him to listen, against his will, to the old seaman's tale. The Ancient Mariner told how the ship left the home port and sailed southward to the equator. In a storm the vessel was blown to polar regions of snow and ice.
When an albatross flew out of the frozen silence, the crew hailed it as a good omen. The sailors made a pet of the albatross and regarded it as a fellow creature. One day the Ancient Mariner killed the bird with his crossbow. The superstitious sailors believed bad luck would follow.
Fair winds blew the ship northward until it reached the equator, where it was suddenly becalmed and lay for days without moving. The thirsty seamen blamed the Ancient Mariner and hung the dead albatross about his neck as a sign of his guilt.
In the distance a ship appeared, a skeleton ship which moved on the still sea where no wind blew. On its deck Death and Life-in-Death were casting dice for the crew and the Ancient Mariner. As a result of the cast, Death won the two hundred crew members, who dropped dead one by one. As the soul of each dead sailor rushed by, the Ancient Mariner was reminded of the whiz of his crossbow when he shot the albatross. Life-in-Death had won the Ancient Mariner, who must now live on to expiate his sins. Furthermore, the curse lived on in the eyes of the men who died accusing him. One night the Ancient Mariner, observing the beauty of the water snakes around the ship, blessed these creatures in his heart. The spell was broken. The albatross fell from his neck into the sea.
At last the Ancient Mariner was able to sleep. Rain fell to quench his thirst. The warped vessel began to move, and the bodies of the dead crew rose to resume their regular duties as the ship sailed quietly on, moved by a spirit toward the South Pole.
The Ancient Mariner fell into a trance. He awoke to behold his own country, the very port from which he had set sail. Then the angelic spirits left the dead bodies of the crew and appeared in their own forms of light. Meanwhile, the pilot on the beach had seen the lights, and he rowed out with his son and a holy Hermit to bring the ship into harbor.
Suddenly the ship sank, but the pilot pulled the Ancient Mariner into his boat. Once ashore, the old man asked the Hermit to hear his confession and give him penance. The Ancient Mariner told the Wedding Guest that at uncertain times since that moment, the agony of his guilt returned, and he must tell the story of his voyage to one who must be taught love and reverence for all things God has made and loved.
The merry din of the wedding had ceased, and the Wedding Guest returned home a sadder and a wiser man.

Critical Evaluation

Critical opinion about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner runs the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous; one commentator gives each line a gloss from the Bible, while another wonders why all the fuss is made about a bird. A modern critic (David Beres) finds in the poem a systematic description of an orally fixated, homosexual personality; another (Elder Olson) declares that the poem does not have to mean anything and that it stands simply as a beautiful object. A beautiful object it undeniably is, for read aloud its stanzas fall on the ear like music. But to view the poem simply as a travelogue is perverse. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's contemporaries, for all their bewilderment about it, never doubted its high import; Coleridge himself added the gloss to the fifth edition in order to make the allegory more accessible, so it seems reasonable to conclude that he did not intend it merely as a Gothic horror tale. But what did he intend?
Born the son of an Anglican minister, he turned to Unitarianism at Cambridge, but before writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had returned to orthodox belief. Meanwhile he had absorbed certain tenets of Neoplaton-ism, which clearly helped to shape The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. For example, Coleridge and other Romantics believed that men were united with all living things in having been divinely created. They thought that palpable reality was but a screen beyond which a higher reality existed. In addition, the notion that places and elements were inhabited by tutelary spirits had acquired a vogue in literary circles at least at that time. Elements of Protestantism and Neoplatonism, then, formed the philosophical impulses of the poem.
The physical circumstance and details that are their vehicle are equally easy to trace. At the time of composition Coleridge had never been to sea, but it is known that some years previously—perhaps in preparation for a voyage to North America, where he and the poet Southey intended to set up a Utopia—he had begun to read accounts of voyages around Cape Horn and to the hot climes of the Pacific. Navigational details of such voyages were familiar to everybody; the greater part of the descriptions of natural things, such as the green color of the polar ice and the sounds it makes, the phosphorescence clothing the "water-snakes," and the abrupt onset of night in the tropics, can be found almost verbatim in one or another chronicle or traveler's memoir of the time. The plot evolved strangely, from the smallest of seeds. A friend told the poet of a dream he had had of a skeleton craft worked by a ghostly crew. Coleridge decided to write a poem about this in collaboration with Wordsworth, in order to earn five pounds to pay for a walking tour. Wordsworth contributed a few lines and the suggestion that an albatross be the victim of the mariner's crime, before dropping out of the project, and Coleridge thereafter, in four months of sustained effort most uncharacteristic of him, completed the poem. It is the greatest of his poems— mysterious, ambiguous, and deliciously terrifying, defying pat interpretation.
Coleridge wanted to write a poem of which the virtue would "consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany [supernatural] situations, supposing them real." (Coleridge, quoted in The Annotated Ancient Mariner by Martin Gardner.) His first object, then, was to anchor the physical circumstances firmly in the known. To begin with, he employed the ballad form and strategic archaisms, as evocative and familiar as "Once upon a time." Then he set the tale upon the sea. No one in England can live farther from the sea than a hundred miles or so, and all Englishmen look on seafaring as their birthright. In addition, the navigational details in the poem are flawlessly correct: the sun overhead at noon when the ship is on the Equator, the frightful cold and emptiness of the polar passage, the sudden glare of the sun when the ice-fog is left behind, the trade winds blowing northeasterly that carried the ship north to the line again. Other details too—the warping of the deck in the calm, the thin rotting sails at the end of the voyage—all help to anchor the story in quotidian reality. At what point, then, does the ship pass into the spirit-haunted world of guilt, retribution, and rebirth? At the point farthest from home, the passage around Cape Horn. It is here that the Albatross appears, that Christlike creature that "loved the man/ who shot him with his bow." The act of shooting the albatross is so boldly stated, without any attempt at motivation or explanation, that it packs a tremendous emotional punch. Upon this act as on a pivot the entire plot turns; it is the reason for everything that follows. The reader is given notice that he is entering the realm of the supernatural. Yet it all happens so gradually that the sense of reality is preserved. The ship is becalmed in the tropics; what could be more ordinary?
The kind of suffering experienced by the mariner leaves no doubt about the Christian character of the allegory. The albatross is hung from his neck as a Christian wears a cross. He suffers the agonies of thirst, dryness being a universal symbol of spiritual drought, separation from the creative principle. He is brought by the grace of God to understand his kinship to the monsters of the calm, and so to all living things ("Sure my kind saint took pity on me,/ and I blessed them unaware). He is refreshed with rain, baptized anew when, by supernatural agency, the ship sinks in the home harbor. He is shriven of the guilt but not the memory of his crime, and like the Wandering Jew roams the world, telling his tale of death-in-life and rebirth in love.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


Illustrations by Gustave Doré


    Part I



    How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole ; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean ; and of the strange things that befell ; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.


    An ancient Mariner
    meeteth three Gallants
    bidden to a wedding-feast,
    and detaineth one.
    It is an ancient Mariner,
    And he stoppeth one of three.
    "By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
    Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?


    The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
    And I am next of kin;
    The guests are met, the feast is set:
    May'st hear the merry din."


    He holds him with his skinny hand,
    "There was a ship," quoth he.
    "Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"
    Eftsoons his hand dropt he.



    Plate 1: Wherefore stopp'st thou me?


    The Wedding-Guest is
    spell-bound by the eye
    of the sea-faring man,
    and constrained to hear
    his tale.
    He holds him with his glittering eye--
    The Wedding-Guest stood still,
    And listens like a three years' child:
    The Mariner hath his will.


    The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
    He cannot choose but hear;
    And thus spake on that ancient man,
    The bright-eyed Mariner.


    "The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
    Merrily did we drop
    Below the kirk, below the hill,
    Below the lighthouse top.



    Plate 2: The Wedding Guest

    The Mariner tells how
    the ship sailed southward
    with a good wind and fair
    weather, till it reached
    the Line.
    The Sun came up upon the left,
    Out of the sea came he!
    And he shone bright, and on the right
    Went down into the sea.


    Higher and higher every day,
    Till over the mast at noon--"
    The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
    For he heard the loud bassoon.



    Plate 3: Red as a Rose is the Bride
    The Wedding-Guest heareth
    the bridal music; but the
    Mariner continueth
    his tale.
    The bride hath paced into the hall,
    Red as a rose is she;
    Nodding their heads before her goes
    The merry minstrelsy.


    The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
    Yet he cannot choose but hear;
    And thus spake on that ancient man,
    The bright-eyed Mariner.



    Plate 4: The Ship Fled the Storm

    The ship driven by a
    storm toward the
    south pole.
    "And now the storm-blast came, and he
    Was tyrannous and strong:
    He struck with his oértaking wings,
    And chased us south along.


    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 aye we fled.


    And now there came both mist and snow,
    And it grew wondrous cold:
    And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
    As green as emerald.



    Plate 5: It was Wondrous Cold

    The land of ice, and of
    fearful sounds where
    no living thing was
    to be seen.
    And through the drifts the snowy clifts
    Did send a dismal sheen:
    Nor shapes of men nor beasts 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!



    Plate 6: The Ice was All Around

    Till a great sea-bird,
    called the Albatross,
    came through the snow-fog
    and was received with
    great joy and hospitality.
    At length did cross an Albatross,
    Thorough the fog it came;
    As if it had been a Christian soul,
    We hailed it in God's name.


    It ate the food it neér had eat,
    And round and round it flew.
    The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
    The helmsman steered us through!



    Plate 7: The Albatross


    And lo! the Albatross
    proveth a bird of good
    omen, and followeth the
    ship as it returned
    northward through
    fog and floating ice.
    And a good south wind sprung up behind;
    The Albatross did follow,
    And every day, for food or play,
    Came to the mariner's hollo!


    In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
    It perched for vespers nine;
    Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
    Glimmered the white Moon-shine."


    The ancient Mariner
    inhospitably killeth
    the pious bird
    of good omen.
    "God save thee, ancient Mariner!
    From the fiends, that plague thee thus!--
    Why look'st thou so?"--With my cross-bow
    I shot the albatross.



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