Mariner: Coleridge's anxiety over the poem

Coleridge himself seems to have felt unhappy about the arbitrariness of the poem, since he sought to leach some of the strangeness out of subsequent editions. The "Argument" prefixed to the poem was purely descriptive on its first appearance in 1798. In 1800 it became a moral argument about crime and judgment. In 1817 the marginal gloss was added, which tells the moral story of the Mariner in much more straightforward fashion than the poem itself (cf. Ferguson; Wheeler). At the same time Coleridge added the epigraph from Thomas Burnet about a world of invisible spirits. While this augments the mystery of the poem's environment on the one hand, its positive central phrase suggests on the other hand that the spirits, too, are part of a morally ordered universe: "it is sometimes good to contemplate in the mind, as in a picture, the image of a greater and better world" (trans. Perkins). Thus, while Coleridge could not moderate the strangeness of the poem itself, he tried to show that it was ultimately comprehensible by surrounding the poem with an apparatus of moral statement and suggestion. Similarly, the 1800 version of the poem was entitled "A Poet's Reverie," as if to suggest that its arbitrariness lies in the poet's mind rather than in the world he alludes to. This maneuver may be compared to Coleridge's treatment of "Kubla Khan," prefaced by the long account of its genesis in an opium dream; here again Coleridge appears to have been attempting to ward off criticism of a poem's strangeness. Perhaps Coleridge's much discussed remark of 1830, recorded in the Table Talk, should be interpreted in this light: to say that it should have no moral, being a work of "pure imagination," seems to return it to the status of "A Poet's Reverie."

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