Mariner: beyond the irrational

The history of Coleridge's treatment of the poem, adding Argument, Gloss, and Epigraph, suggests that he increasingly found himself in the position of the Wedding Guest in relation to the Mariner's tale; that he too, in Modiano's words, was obliged "to make sense of chance and irrationality in terms of accepted myths in order to maintain control over an experience that borders on madness" (Modiano). The experience makes the moral framework inadequate, then; but the experience cannot be wholly the product of chance and irrationality either, or it would lack its inherent power to disturb us. Even madness has its rationale, although one that subverts the accepted categories of response to the world. Perhaps the Mariner's narrative borders on madness in this respect: that the experience shows what subversion of the human state is possible at the limits of sanity. Such a fate is potentially open to all of us, hence the compound of fascination and disturbance which is aroused in readers of the poem.

That fate has a cause. While it is not explicable by means of the overt moral terms available in the poem, those terms offer a clue to the hidden rationale of the poem. The nature of the Mariner's subversion, the motives behind it, and something of Coleridge's motives for writing the poem can all be glimpsed behind the manifest content of the poem's moral structure. Here a deeper ambivalence involving the conjunction of guilt and death comes into view. Knowledge about Coleridge's life and modern psychiatric studies of trauma are both helpful in illuminating these two aspects of the poem.

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

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