Coleridge’s Poetry


“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Parts I-IV

Summary “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Parts I-IV

But the explanatory notes complicate, rather than clarify, the poem as a whole; while there are times that they explain some unarticulated action, there are also times that they interpret the material of the poem in a way that seems at odds with, or irrelevant to, the poem itself. For instance, in Part II, we find a note regarding the spirit that followed the ship nine fathoms deep: “one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted.” What might Coleridge mean by introducing such figures as “the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus,” into the poem, as marginalia, and by implying that the verse itself should be interpreted through him?

This is a question that has puzzled scholars since the first publication of the poem in this form. (Interestingly, the original version of the “Rime,” in the 1797 edition of Lyrical Ballads, did not include the side notes.) There is certainly an element of humor in Coleridge’s scholarly glosses—a bit of parody aimed at the writers of serious glosses of this type; such phrases as “Platonic Constantinopolitan” seem consciously silly. It can be argued that the glosses are simply an amusing irrelevancy designed to make the poem seem archaic and that the truly important text is the poem itself—in its complicated, often Christian symbolism, in its moral lesson (that “all creatures great and small” were created by God and should be loved, from the Albatross to the slimy snakes in the rotting ocean) and in its characters.

If one accepts this argument, one is faced with the task of discovering the key to Coleridge’s symbolism: what does the Albatross represent, what do the spirits represent, and so forth. Critics have made many ingenious attempts to do just that and have found in the “Rime” a number of interesting readings, ranging from Christian parable to political allegory. But these interpretations are dampened by the fact that none of them (with the possible exception of the Christian reading, much of which is certainly intended by the poem) seems essential to the story itself. One can accept these interpretations of the poem only if one disregards the glosses almost completely.

A more interesting, though still questionable, reading of the poem maintains that Coleridge intended it as a commentary on the ways in which people interpret the lessons of the past and the ways in which the past is, to a large extent, simply unknowable. By filling his archaic ballad with elaborate symbolism that cannot be deciphered in any single, definitive way and then framing that symbolism with side notes that pick at it and offer a highly theoretical spiritual-scientific interpretation of its classifications, Coleridge creates tension between the ambiguous poem and the unambiguous-but-ridiculous notes, exposing a gulf between the “old” poem and the “new” attempt to understand it. The message would be that, though certain moral lessons from the past are still comprehensible—”he liveth best who loveth best” is not hard to understand— other aspects of its narratives are less easily grasped.

In any event, this first segment of the poem takes the Mariner through the worst of his trials and shows, in action, the lesson that will be explicitly articulated in the second segment. The Mariner kills the Albatross in bad faith, subjecting himself to the hostility of the forces that govern the universe (the very un-Christian-seeming spirit beneath the sea and the horrible Life-in-Death). It is unclear how these forces are meant to relate to one another—whether the Life-in-Death is in league with the submerged spirit or whether their simultaneous appearance is simply a coincidence.

After earning his curse, the Mariner is able to gain access to the favor of God—able to regain his ability to pray—only by realizing that the monsters around him are beautiful in God’s eyes and that he should love them as he should have loved the Albatross. In the final three books of the poem, the Mariner’s encounter with a Hermit will spell out this message explicitly, and the reader will learn why the Mariner has stopped the Wedding-Guest to tell him this story.

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