The Rime of The Ancient Mariner: A Critical Analysis of Coleridge's Romantic Imagery

In 1797 and 1798 Coleridge wrote 3 poems which had no equal and which he himself was never again to equal or approach: "Christabel," "Kubla Khan" and "The Ancient Mariner." These three poems are concerned with the supernatural. Both "Kubla Khan" and "Christabel" are fragments while the Ancient Mariner is complete.

Coleridge had a difficult task; he must produce a poetry of the supernatural which should be as human and as compelling as Wordsworth's poetry. In "The Ancient Mariner" he presents a series of incredible events through a method of narration and this makes them not only convincing but in some sense a criticism of life. In his conquest of the unknown, Coleridge went outside the commonplace thrills of horror. The weird adventures of the Mariner take place on a boundless sea and not in a trite Gothick setting of a medieval castle. His characters are not of the same breed as Geraldine. They are spirits and they are transformed by Coleridge into powers who watch over the good and evil actions of men and give them the appropriate rewards and punishments. This new setting and new persons give the supernatural a new character. Instead of confining himself to phantoms, he moves over to a wider range of emotions (guilt, remorse, grief, joy, suffering, and relief...)

The first problem for any poet of the supernatural is to relate it to familiar experience. But Coleridge could not rely on his reader's feeling at home with his unfamiliar theme. He must relate his theme to something which they knew and understood, something which touched their hearts and imaginations, and he did this by using some characteristics of the dream. Dreams can have a curiously vivid quality which is often lacking in waking impressions. They have, too, a power of stirring elementary emotions, such as fear and desire. The Mariner commits a hideous crime when he shoots the albatross. He is haunted by the presence of his dead comrades, and he carries a gnawing memory to the end of his days. His comrades were doomed to die because they helped him in his crime when they said the imaginary world has its own rules which are different from ours. They are more convincing than most events in dream. The Ancient Mariner has its own casual relations between events and lives in its own right as something intelligible and satisfying.

It is clear that Coleridge felt about the creations of his imagination something similar to what he felt about dreams. When we have them, we don't question their reality. However unnatural his events may be, they are derived from natural elements, and that is why we believe in them. We may even be at home with them because their constituents are familiar and make a direct, natural appeal. Once we enter this imaginary world, we do not feel that it is unreachable, but rather we respond to it as we would to actual life. 

In other words, though Coleridge begins by appealing to our experience of dreams, he uses it as to present something which is more solid and more reasonable and more human than the most haunting dreams. He uses the atmosphere of dreams to accustom us to his special world, and then he proceeds to create freely within his chosen limits. At each step he takes pains to see that his eery subject is real both for the eye and for the emotions, that it has both the attraction of visible things and the significance which belongs to actions of grave import. His natural background, for instance, could have been fashioned only by a man who had learned about nature from loving observation and shared the Wordsworth's devotion to it. Amid all these strange happenings nature remains itself, and its perseverance in its own ways sometimes comes in ironical contrast to what happens on the ship, as when, at the moment when the Mariner is haunted by the look in his dead comrades' eyes, the moon continues her quiet, unchanging course: 

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside.

Even when nature breaks into more violent moods, it is still itself, and each touch of description makes it more real, as when Coleridge sketches a storm with something of Turner's delight in wild effects of sky and cloud: 

 The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.

In such scenes there is no indeterminacy of dream. Each detail comes from the known world and gives a firm background to the supernatural events which accompany it. Coleridge has his own realistic treatment of the setting which is matched by the appeals he makes to our emotions in handling his human persons. The Mariner and his comrades are hardly characters in any dramatic sense. They lack lineaments and personality. But what touches us in them is the basic humanity of their sufferings. Their agonies are simply and universally human. What happens to them might in similar circumstances happen to anyone and we respond to their pathos and their misery. Physical sensations play a large part in dreams, but Coleridge describes them as we know them in a waking state. He handles them in a lively way which creates a powerful emotional effect. What is true of physical sensation is no less true of mental state. The Mariner is indeed in a fearful plight alone on a ship surrounded by the dead bodies of his comrades. Coleridge describes his state by drawing attention to his sense of helplessness and solitude:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony

This is the real anguish of a man who feels himself abandoned both by God and man and faced with the emptiness of his guilty and tormented soul. Conversely, when the ship at last comes to land, the Mariner sees angels standing by the dead bodies and feels an intimate relief. The very silence of the celestial presences fills him with hope and joy:

This seraph-band, each waved his hand,
No voice did they impart 
No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart.

Coleridge understood the extremes of despair and of joy, and he distilled them into these brief moments. Because his poem moves between such extremes it has a certain spaciousness and grandeur and reflects through its variations the light and the shadow of human life. 

Coleridge expects us to believe that his situations are real, and to have some kind of human feelings about them. This is easy if they belong to the ordinary experience, but when supernatural takes place it demands a more unusual art. Then Coleridge makes the supernatural look as natural as possible because, however strange it may be, he forms it from elements which are in themselves familiar. 

Coleridge's realism is of course much more than an art of circumstantial details. It is a special form of poetry, the reflection of his love for the sensible world and his sensitiveness to its lights, shades, colors, and sounds. He possessed to a high degree that cardinal quality of poetry which he calls "the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature." And he has more than "faithful adherence." He is by no means photographic or merely descriptive. His eye for nature is for its more subtle charms and less obvious appeals. In his choice of details we can see his affinity with the Wordsworth's, but there is much that is indisputably his own, especially in the richer and more luxurious pleasure which he takes in some natural things. Nature was no moral teacher for Coleridge; he preferred to bask in its favors and enjoy them without any ulterior satisfaction that it was doing him good. Moreover, he was bolder than Wordsworth in describing scenes which he himself never saw. Wordsworth was perhaps capable of doing this, but he was too conscientious to try. Coleridge, for whom the contents of books had a vivid reality, was able to see with the mind's eye, as if objects were literally in front of him. More, too, perhaps than Wordsworth, he evokes the magical associations of sound, whether it be an angel's song or the pleasant noise of the sails: 
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month if June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.

The Romantics knew how to use their senses, and Coleridge, despite his love of metaphysical abstractions, was in this respect a true member of their company. He used nature to give color and music, solidity and perspective, to his creations, and it is one of the chief means by which he sustains the enchantment of his poem.

When Coleridge wrote the Ancient Mariner, he believed in the imagination as a vehicle of truth. Coleridge thought that the "secondary imagination" with which poetry is concerned, is itself concerned with eternal values. For Coleridge a symbol is something which presents the eternal in a temporal, individual shape. He means by eternal belonging to the world of the absolute values, a symbol's task is to present in poetry an instance of universal truth. "The Ancient Mariner" passes beyond its immediate purview to something remote and vague. In other words, "The Ancient Mariner" is a myth. It presents in an unusual and lively form certain issues with which we are all familiar and forces us to look afresh at them. It draws attention to neglected or undiscovered truths. This is what Coleridge believed to be the task of poetry. Through creation the poet reveals the secrets of the universe, especially in the sphere of absolute values. The myth is only one kind among many kinds of poetry, but it is specially adapted to Coleridge's outlook because it can deal with the supernatural issues. It is an extension of the use of symbols. In "The Ancient Mariner," he shapes these symbols into a consistent whole, and subordinates them into a consistent whole, and subordinates them into a single plan, so the poem is in the first place a story which we enjoy for its own sake, but in the second place a myth about the dark and troubling crisis in the human soul.

"The Ancient Mariner" is a tale of crime and punishment. It falls into seven sections. What matters is the imaginative and poetical effect, the emotional impression which the words make on us. Coleridge in his myth shows the essential qualities of crime and punishment. He shows what they are and what they mean. He goes to the heart of the matter in its universal character. In the first section, Coleridge tells the actual crime. To use the shooting of the bird may seem a normal act, but to Coleridge it is significant in two ways. First, he does not say why the Mariner kills the albatross. The Mariner may be annoyed or angry, but what matters is the uncertainty of the Mariner's motives. Secondly, this crime is against nature, against the sanctified relations of guest and host. The bird, which has been hailed in God's name "as if it had been a Christian soul," and is entirely friendly and helpful, is wantonly and recklessly killed. At that time Coleridge was obsessed by the Neo-Platonic ideas of the brotherhood of all living things. Perhaps he was, but it does not matter. What matters is that the Mariner breaks a sacred law of life. In his action we see the cruelty of many crimes against humanity and the ordered system of life and the killing of the albatross as symbolical of them.

In the second section, the Mariner begins to suffer punishment for his crime. Coleridge transfers to the physical world the corruption and the helplessness which are the common attributes of guilt. The world which faces the Mariner after his crime is dead and loathsome. The immediate results of crime are portrayed in the image of a universe dying of thirst and haunted by menacing phantoms. The third section shows the repentance of the guilty soul and its isolation in the world. The Mariner begins to realize the consequence of his action. The phantom ship decides his doom:

The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The night in which the Mariner's companions die symbolizes the darkness in his soul. The fourth section focuses on the sense of solitude and loneliness. The guilty soul is cut off not only from any human intercourse but also from any consoling friendship of nature which mocks it with majestic detachment. Then there is a turning point for the better. When the Mariner, unaware, blesses the water snakes, he begins to re-establish relations with the world of affections. This opens the way to the future. Instead of being dead, the spirit shows some small signs of that love which holds life together. The fifth section continues the process of the soul's revival. Before he can be fully healed, the Mariner must establish relations not merely with men but with God, and this is what he begins to do. In the sixth section the process of healing seems to be impeded. The Mariner is haunted by the presence of his dead comrades and feels that he is pursued by some fearful power of vengeance:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread. 

In this figure of the Mariner, Coleridge gives his special symbol of remorse. But because remorse brings repentance and humility, this section closes with the vision of angelic forms standing by the dead-sailors. The forgiveness of God awaits even the most hard-hearted sinners if they will only be ready to receive it.  In the last section, the end comes, the guilty man has been shriven and restored to a place among living men. Most of the visible traces of his crime have been erased, but the punishment of life-in-death is still at work. Since he has committed a hideous act, the Mariner will never be the man that he once was. He has his special past and his special doom. At times the memory of what he has done is so insistent that he must speak of it:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

The Mariner's need to confess is appropriate, because by forcing others to listen to him he regains some of that human converse of which his crime has robbed him. Coleridge doesn't tell the end of the story, but leaves us to suppose that the Mariner's sense of guilt will end only by his death. 

"The Ancient Mariner" is a myth of guilt and redemption. Though Coleridge has his own poetry of a guilty soul, it is not comparable in-depth or in insight with the poetry of some other men who have given the full powers of their genius to writing about crime and the misery it engenders. Much of the magic of "The Ancient Mariner" comes from its blend of dark and serious issues with the delighted play of creative energy. Coleridge fashioned his poem in this way for two reasons. In the first place, the combination of different themes responded to his own complex vision of existence. For him life had both its dark and its bright sides. He saw that the two were closely interwoven and he must introduce both into his poems. In the second place, he saw life not analytically but creatively, and he knew that any work of creation must itself be an extension and enhancement of life.

In creating "The Ancient Mariner" in this way Coleridge obeyed the peculiar and paradoxical nature of his genius. In him the poet and the metaphysician were uneasily blended, and the creative spirit worked most freely when it was free from metaphysical speculations. His three great poems owe nothing to his study of philosophy or his own conscious theories about the universe. Only when he was free from the topic which engaged his philosophic curiosity was he able to release all his imaginative powers. 

In the Ancient Mariner he does indeed treat a subject of universal interest, about which philosophers have had something to say, but he succeeds in making it poetry just because he keeps at some distance from his habits of abstract thought. Coleridge felt the attraction of the supernatural. What touched his genius was his sense of mystery at unknown forces at work in life, and to keep this mystery intact he needed some subject which was in itself mysterious. He saw strange powers behind the visible world, and he believed that men were moved and directed by them. To show this he needed characters and circumstances in themselves strange and arresting. Once he found a subject of this kind, his creative imagination set freely to work and built its own system. There is nothing to hamper the free play of his gifts, and he felt at home in the incredible and the unknown. What Wordsworth found in the world of vision, Coleridge found in the supernatural. He was both fascinated by the unknown and in some sense afraid of it. It gave him the thrill of excitement which he needed before he could concentrate his mind on a subject, and through it he sharpened his vision and purified his mind of many disturbing and distracting elements. 

Like all great poetry, "The Ancient Mariner" suggests prospects and possibilities beyond its immediate subject. Indeed, it is a great poem largely because it does this. In creating this imaginary world Coleridge offers an alternative to familiar existence which is at the same time an illuminating commentary on it. Both in the main plan of the Mariner's crime and in the spiritual forces who battle over him, Coleridge emphasizes the state of man between persecuting horrors and enchanting beauties. "The Ancient Mariner" is his greatest poem because he put most of himself into it and in it spoke most-fully from his inner being. The brilliant reality which he gives to this invention of his imagination comes from his prophetic insight into himself. His poem creates not a negative but a positive condition, a state of faith which is complete and satisfying because it is founded on realities in the living world and in the human heart.

*The supernatural element appealed to him with a special power and was responsible for his finest work. He had a remarkable sensibility for the physical world.