Mariner: The Poem's Moral

The Mariner's final words to the Wedding Guest, "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small" (614-5) are manifestly inadequate as a summing up of what the voyage has taught him; the weight of the rest of the poem undermines it. Perhaps that was what Coleridge intended. If this is accepted, The Ancient Mariner answers to our new reluctance to admire literary works that seek to inculcate a moral. In this respect, as in so many others, we can say that Coleridge is merely ahead of his time in replying to Mrs. Barbauld's criticism of the poem for having no moral, that, on the contrary, the moral sentiment was an "obtrusion," and that it "ought to have had no more moral" than the tale of the Merchant and the Genie in the Arabian Nights (in Table Talk; cf. Arnold Davidson).

Yet the poem appears to be structured by the notions of wrongdoing, punishment, and penance. How are we to understand them? If a literary work contains moral concepts and yet offers no consistent moral meaning -- and this seems to be the direction of Coleridge's remark in the Table Talk -- that in itself is to make a moral statement about the nature of the universe. It is to declare that human experience has no identifiable meaning, that the world as stage and the players upon it merely constitute a drama of the absurd. It is difficult to believe that Coleridge meant Mrs. Barbauld to understand him in such a radical sense. In fact, there is reason to think that Coleridge himself was at one time much more perplexed by the moral meaning of his poem than this remark suggests.

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

Return to Miall Home Page