395. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” though it would seem to belie, superbly confirms Coleridge’s critical principle: “nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise.” The poem does not in itself contain the reason why it is so, and not otherwise, in so far as it is a narrative whose two crucial actions—the shooting of the albatross and the loving blessing of the creatures of the deep—are without reason. They are acts seemingly untethered from intent or practical deliberation. The representation of the former, the shooting of the bird, is made to feel arbitrary in both the poem’s design and the mariner’s narrative:

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.’


‘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.

The wedding-guest interjects, presumably because the mariner looks suddenly stricken, or perhaps because the mariner has fallen silent; one of several items on the tally of what we do not know. But the interruption or intercession, whichever it is, either (if intercession) hastens the narration to its decisive action, skidding over the depths of intent and judgment, or else (if interruption) reroutes the narration away from the explanation of intent and judgment that would have fit into the form at this moment. It might be, of course, that the mariner would never have said why; could not have faced the retelling of what led to the fateful act; but this too remains unknown. It is the Rime of (belonging to) the Ancient Mariner, but here at least, the ballad form owes to the poet, who has accommodated the wedding-guest’s question and mariner’s response to the same question. It’s in the nature of ballads that they not be told the same way, exactly, on each telling. If this is the mariner’s ballad, though, we know something at this moment would have been different without the contingency of the interruption. The sources of dissatisfaction are poet and characters alike: that it was recorded in this form, or shaped into this form, or that the wedding-guest asked this question, at this moment, and that the mariner answered as he did. Adding to the frustration is the thought that this is the wrong question to ask, and that the wedding-guest does not ask another: “why did you do it?” is what we would have asked. I’m not sure it matters whether the mariner in fact answers the question he is asked, but it may be that he does: he looks that way because he shot the bird. And that answer itself draws attention to something peculiar in the nature of reasons in this poem: that the reason for everything that makes up the story from this point on—the shooting of the bird—depends on the shooting that is itself a caprice. William Empson famously and perversely decried the 1834 revision for the inclusion of marginal glosses, that stressed the Christian moral excessively, but around that time Coleridge was regretting that the poem had too much of a moral and others have responded to Empson by suggesting that the glosses were intended as fabrications of an 18th century editor. (In my eyes, the loss of Gothic elements from 1798 are worth the poem’s becoming, surprisingly since it was at a greater remove from his direct influence, more Wordsworthian in its language, fulfilling the dictums of Wordsworth’s preface better than anything Coleridge wrote, and showing up the limitations of Coleridge’s allegiance to a decorous register that lingers in most of the poetry, like an eighteenth-century hangover). To appease all parties in the dispute over versions, suffice it to say that ballads live by revision. But that returns me to the point, which is that the marginal glosses serve to insist on the printed form of the poem that Coleridge offers, which itself reminds us that the printed ballad is just one version of others, alive in speech, first in the retellings of the mariner, and then of songsters—and that this one moment of elision, like any other moments, might have been told otherwise. The temptation is to crane our necks, to try to see around the corners of the text to a version that does not exist, except in the fiction of the poem’s world, and to find there a mariner who does say why he shot the albatross; but that temptation can never be satisfied and matters because it registers the deeper anxiety and truth, that no version of the poem would make sense of the action in proportion adequate to the consequences. We are offered two possibilities, at this moment: that the mariner had a reason but that his reason for killing the albatross could not possibly understand what the bird was or meant, and so his reasoning and practical judgment could not matter; or that the mariner had no good reason, but acted without thought, but acted nonetheless and was punished accordingly.

The reasons amount to the same thing for the narrative, since it is the act itself that dooms him. A Christian reading might point to original sin, to the guilt of human actions, and the rot of the human will; it’s possible to read it without Christian doctrine, too, but the supernatural is obviously the poem’s substance, and a wholesale naturalist reading would mean interpreting everything as a psychological phenomenon, easy enough as far as it goes, but destructive in its reductionism. Empson’s brilliant move, to suggest that the source of guilt that pervades the poem cannot lie within it, but must pertain to the facts about global shipping and the slave trade, which Coleridge vehemently opposed (the word “slave” is conspicuous in the poem), is also an acknowledgement of the disproportion of action and feeling, action and consequence in the poem.

Perhaps no explanation of why the mariner acted as he did would bridge the chasm of act and consequence in the poem; but that chasm places greater stress on wanting to know explicitly why, even if the reason must remain cursory and unsatisfactory. When action can go so horribly wrong, the sources of action seem worth knowing more about; why this way, rather than another. And this brings us to another response to the temptation to imagine elsewhere, in another version of the poem, an explanation of why the mariner did what he did (in the ballad form, incidentally, the word “did” is asked to do heavy lifting for rhythm, and that is given semantic significance in this poem where doing, what issues from doing, and what issues forth in doing are all at issue): that the explanation is no longer available to the mariner, that the sources of action are in the action, being done consciously, and can be reconstructed after the fact only as a fiction that serves the moment. The springs of action are often forgotten, and if it is a prerogative of literature to let us in on them as we not in real life, then it is also a prerogative of literature to deny us that access.

By the poem’s own lights, the dissatisfaction of the chasm between action and consequence is intimately related to the dissatisfaction we might feel between the apparent chasm of action and intention—or action and consciousness. For when the mariner finally frees himself from the albatross around his neck, it is because he has learned to accept the beauty of the natural world and to love it. The murder of the bird brings with it the risen horrors of the deep, as well as the death of the men around him; he feels guilt for the latter, as they stare at him with ghastly eyes:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony.


The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I.


I looked upon the rotting sea,

And drew my eyes away;

I looked upon the rotting deck,

And there the dead men lay.


I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;

But or ever a prayer had gusht,

A wicked whisper came, and made

My heart as dry as dust.


These are among my favorite stanzas in the poem; the word “gusht” is itself grotesque, as grotesque as the slimy things that live on along with the mariner, and it relates the life-giving water of prayer to the deathly water of the sea, the latter of condition of death-in-life, the former life-in-death. In these stanzas, the death-in-life and life-in-death formulas are themselves scuttled, as the mariner is physically living, spiritually dead, among dead sailors who remain beautiful, and hideous living creatures, implying also beautiful-in-death and grotesque-in-life. This is also the moment of stifled intent, where the mariner tried to pray, and finds himself only able to utter “a wicked whisper.” Tellingly, even here, after the active verbs “looked to heaven” and “tried to pray,” the subjects shift from the mariner to the prayer and whisper, the latter “came,” unbidden, action again detaching itself from intent. The real crux of these lines though comes in the word “beautiful,” so nonchalantly offered; they are beautiful because they are dead, and in death, as they were not, to the mariner’s eyes, in life, and as the albatross was not. It is surprising because the word seems to be a judgment on their moral state as well as their physical, and because the poem becomes offered as an aesthetic as well as moral testimony.

The word returns again when we are given an explanation of how it is that the chasm of intent and action and the chasm of action and consequence might themselves be united, shown to be one chasm, and also closed:

The moving Moon went up the sky,

And no where did abide:

Softly she was going up,

And a star or two beside—


Her beams bemocked the sultry main,

Like April hoar-frost spread;

But where the ship’s huge shadow lay,

The charmèd water burnt alway

A still and awful red.


Beyond the shadow of the ship,

I watched the water-snakes:

They moved in tracks of shining white,

And when they reared, the elfish light

Fell off in hoary flakes.


Within the shadow of the ship

I watched their rich attire:

Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,

They coiled and swam; and every track

Was a flash of golden fire.


O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.


The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea.


It’s irrelevant that he “could pray” at the self-same moment since the word of blessing has already happened. But it is relevant that it happens at the “self-same moment,” since the capacity to intend and act, the closing of that chasm, is coincident with, and would seem to depend upon the coexistence of, another action: the blessing, which happens “unaware” and which springs, gushing, from his heart, as the earlier attempted prayer could not. From a Christian perspective, Coleridge is asserting the identity of prayer with love, and the act of grace that cannot depend on human will; from a non-Christian perspective, love happens mysteriously, and it is love, and not prayer, that allows for us to bless the world and be reconciled to it. I prefer the latter but what matters for my purpose here is that the love itself happens of its own accord, generated by the heart, or passing through the heart—and that the love itself is at once moral and aesthetic, that he learns not only to love the natural world, but to see, in its most grotesque forms, its beauty; and these also are coincident. The perception of beauty and feeling of love are themselves the blessing of which the mariner is “unaware.” “Sure my kind saint took pity on me” feels like a flimsy folk-spiritual account: something happened, and I was pitied, and I felt again. But the saint is a mariner’s superstition, a stand-in for the unknown source of action. Now also, at the same time as the chasm of intent and action, the chasm of action and consequence is closed: love preserves the harmony of the world, and the mariner’s action, shooting the bid, whatever its cause might have been, was not rooted in love, and so created the imbalance that it did. The guilt he feels is a guilt at not loving sufficiently; there remain questions—why the other sailors were stricken dead—but the burden on feeling love and seeing beauty is such that they are taken to unify intent, act, and consequence in a redemptive whole.  

It opens for him also a vision of something that reconciles and redeems those who have died, one that I’d include with Blake’s lark passage in Milton in my fictitious anthology of Romantic larks:

The body of my brother’s son

Stood by me, knee to knee:

The body and I pulled at one rope,

But he said nought to me.


‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!’

Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest!

‘Twas not those souls that fled in pain,

Which to their corses came again,

.But a troop of spirits blest:


For when it dawned—they dropped their arms,

And clustered round the mast;

Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,

.And from their bodies passed.


Around, around, flew each sweet sound,

Then darted to the Sun;

Slowly the sounds came back again,

.Now mixed, now one by one.


Sometimes a-dropping from the sky

I heard the sky-lark sing;

Sometimes all little birds that are,

How they seemed to fill the sea and air

With their sweet jargoning!


And now ’twas like all instruments,

Now like a lonely flute;

And now it is an angel’s song,

That makes the heavens be mute.


If I could choose one passage that testified to the visionary power that Coleridge bemoans elsewhere, I would choose this, even over “Kubla Khan.” “The body and I pulled at one rope,” unified in action; “but he said nought to me” because they are otherwise and their voices, rather than enlisted in the movements of the world, moving now of their own accord, the presence of supernatural beings (later, when they appear as flames on each dead body, they are called seraphs), and their actions are the freest of any in the poem, their songs unhindered and variously filigreed in the air, until the final line, “that makes the heavens be mute,” where “makes” commands as nothing else in the poem commands. The intensity and richness of this vision is testimony, if not equivalent, to the source of liberating love that the mariner suddenly feels; it is also a measure of the distance between what his voice can and must do, in retelling his tale. The mariner, crucially, is left with an agonizing reside of guilt, which can only be purged from his heart by the narration.

And this points up the problem with the moral of the poem that the poet himself offers near its end:


Farewell, farewell! but this I tell

To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!

He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast.


He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things both great and small;

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.


The Mariner, whose eye is bright,

Whose beard with age is hoar,

Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest

Turned from the bridegroom’s door.


He went like one that hath been stunned,

And is of sense forlorn:

A sadder and a wiser man,

He rose the morrow morn.


The glosses pick up on this tone of plump satisfaction, a complacency in a gesture of resolution that does not resolve. For though the prayer does bring about liberation from the albatross around his neck, it does not itself relieve the guilt any more than the confession to the hermit does. Most importantly, it makes too simple the matter of loving well, reducing it to a choice rather than a sudden alteration in how one sees as well as what one feels. It may be this helplessness before what the world gives that makes the wedding guest sadder; that our actions are not our own. But it may also be that he is sadder because the prayer was not enough; that the one thing the mariner cannot be given to do is forgive himself, his guilt returning and the confession only temporarily setting it at ease. Forgiveness is the remainder at the end of the poem, unaccounted for, and apparently unsought by the mariner, who knows that he cannot ask the wedding-guest to forgive—even as, implicitly, that is perhaps what is happening. The poem leaves us with a final gap between intention and action: the intent of retelling the story and the retelling itself. Forgiveness would seem to fill that gap, but it is not asked, and the word is itself conspicuously absent in the poem. It is not just a Gothic archaism when the mariner thrills at the thought that the Hermit can “shrieve” him, or when he begs the Hermit to do just that: this is an obsolete formalist gesture of absolution that the retelling of the poem suggests is inadequate. Forgiveness needs to be sought elsewhere—perhaps given from above—but the mariner cannot say where; each asking is a request for what must be given, but cannot be asked.


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