Mariner: Overview of Argument

Faced with an experience as profoundly strange as that offered in The Ancient Mariner, we become anxious to locate it in some existing system of knowledge. What the poem means may be assimilated to our understanding of Christian redemptive processes (e.g. Wilson Knight), or to that vision of the one Life which Coleridge celebrated elsewhere (e.g., Newton P. Stallknecht), or to the trials of the poetic imagination itself (e.g., Robert Penn Warren). It has also been clear to many readers, beginning with Coleridge himself (according to certain hints in his notebooks), that the poem clairvoyantly rehearses predicaments central to Coleridge's subsequent life (e.g., George Whalley; Molly Lefebure; Rosemary Ashton) -- his guilt, his isolation, the loss of love, the experience of opium addiction. Since Coleridge was preoccupied at various times with Christian redemption, the One Life, or the Imagination, the poem thus becomes readable both as a biographical and as a metaphysical document. The questions arising from the poem's strangeness are transferred elsewhere, away from the experience of the poem itself.

Discontent with such readings has been felt in the last two decades (e.g., John Beer; Edward E. Bostetter; Frances Ferguson; Raimonda Modiano; Jerome J. McGann). That the strangeness of The Ancient Mariner cannot, after all, be entirely resolved by such critical procedures, points to the existence of some resistant ambivalence central to the poem. I suggest that the poem's motivation is a largely unacknowledged and apparently motiveless guilt. The Mariner's subsequent encounter with death is so terrible that it imposes a psychic wound from which recovery can only ever be partial. It is from the conjunction of these two causes, guilt and the encounter with death, that the poem derives much of its power. The fact that neither is to be explained in terms of the other is a major cause of its profound and disturbing ambivalence. The ambivalence can be seen even in the much discussed moral of the poem.

Coleridge timeline | Key passages in The Mariner | Argument threads | Authors cited

Return to Miall Home Page