Mariner: moral categories inadequate

Perhaps a more productive way to restate the problem faced by readers of the poem is this: the poem raises questions about the adequacy of our moral categories for interpreting our place in the world. The mind of the Mariner struggles to make sense of his experience of the world with the moral concepts available to him: perhaps the significance of the poem lies in his failure to achieve more than a partial formulation of its moral meaning. It might be argued that in Christian terms the Mariner is a sinful soul in need of further penance, and that this need not preclude the Mariner's attainment of complete insight into the causes of his condition. But the Mariner's concluding statement, particularly his lines "the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all" (616-7) seems too far removed from his experience to be persuasive, too abstract to encompass the depth and horror of that experience. Above all, it leaves the moral cause of such experience unilluminated. The Mariner's fate, destined to wander and to suffer the agony of periodic relivings of his experience, also indicates dramatically the incompleteness of this formulation. What God has made of the Mariner turns out to be something quite other than a work of love ( "God himself / Scarce seeméd there to be"; 599-600); and the Mariner has not averted his exile's fate by seeking God's love in the kirk either, where he prays "With a goodly company" (604).

Behind the moral concepts of the poem lies some other, more intractable experience which resists the moral reading, and which continues to exert an obscure but powerful influence on the reader. This experience must be characterized negatively, at this stage at least. It calls into question the optimism of Wordsworth, which Coleridge might be thought to have shared, when he claims "how exquisitely. . . / The external World is fitted to the Mind" ("Prospectus"; cf. Adair). Such faith in the correspondence between man's thought and the world sustains us in many areas, notably our progress in the sciences. As Piaget has put it, for example, there is "steady agreement between physical reality and the mathematical theories employed in its description;" and he refers to the "harmony between mathematics and physical reality" (Structuralism). We seem to require a similar correspondence in the moral sphere, between our equations of moral cause and effect and the experiences of reward and punishment imposed on us by the world. "It sometimes happens," said Coleridge, voicing this common feeling, "that we are punished for our faults by incidents, in the causation of which these faults had no share: and this I have always felt the severest punishment." The resulting pain, of which Coleridge speaks, confutes our sense of the innate justice of the world: "For there is always a consolatory feeling that accompanies the sense of a proportion between antecedents and consequents" (Biographia Literaria). No such consolation is available in The Ancient Mariner. The Mariner's sufferings are greatly out of proportion in comparison with what seems a relatively trivial crime; the death of the rest of the crew is even more so. In the universe envisioned in the poem, as Edward Bostetter concluded, man is "at the mercy of arbitrary and unpredictable forces" (cf. McGann).

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