Mariner: Coleridge's relation to his parents

Other commentators who have looked at Coleridge's childhood for a clue to the motiveless crime of the Mariner have claimed to find the cause in Coleridge's relationship with his mother. The psychoanalyst David Beres pointed to Mrs. Coleridge's coldness of character and attributed to Coleridge an unconscious complex of love and hate towards her, with resultant guilt (Beres). This reading was accepted by Norman Fruman, and versions of the same theory have been offered by Douglas Angus and, most recently, Thomas McFarland. In this view, the Albatross, the figure of Life-in-Death, and the Moon, all do duty as symbols of the ambivalent mother image (cf. Sitterson). The theory is suggestive, but suffers from a degree of generality which reduces its explanatory power for an incident as powerfully disturbing as shooting the Albatross. In any case, such critics of Coleridge's upbringing have been looking in the wrong place for a cause. The missing motive lies in the death of his father when Coleridge was eight years old.

By his own account, Coleridge's relationship to his father was a much closer and warmer one than that with his mother. It is a remarkable fact, therefore, that his letter of reminiscence to Poole, describing his father's death three weeks before his ninth birthday, has nothing to say of his grief at such a disturbing event (CL.i.352-55; cf. Waldoff). If he remembered his grief (as he was able to recall other disturbing events of his early childhood), he would surely have mentioned it. The implication arises that Coleridge's memory of his grief was repressed. There are two further reasons for believing this: first, the death was directly responsible for the removal of Coleridge a few months later to Christ's Hospital School in London, a fate which profoundly disturbed him, as a series of later poems up to "Frost at Midnight" bore witness. Such an exile must have seemed to the young Coleridge a judgment on him for the loss of his father, but this is not what the poems lament; rather they address the misery, loneliness, and confusion of finding himself transplanted from his home village. Second, psychiatric studies of childhood bereavement suggest that at eight years old Coleridge would have been most vulnerable to such a loss, and most likely to repress his response to it.

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