Mariner: omnipotence of thought

While the consequences of the Mariner's shooting remain to be worked out, the type of consequence can already be anticipated by reference to the act's hidden motive. It will constitute a version of that omnipotence of thought with which Coleridge would have responded to the experience of his father's death, a view of the vengeful powers that exact punishment for such transgressions as losing a father. And here the poem speaks to the superstitious fear in all of us that Mind is not merely unfitted to the external world, but able to call up willy nilly all its nightmare, alien powers.

Just as the child is totally dependent on the parent, so the sailor of Coleridge's day was totally dependent on the powers about him; both are likely to respond to challenge in a similar way. An interesting note of Coleridge's on superstition, written on the voyage to Malta in 1804, shows what lies behind the Mariner's predicament: he refers to "that mood of Thought & Feeling which arises out of the having placed our summum bonum (what we think so, I mean) in an absolute Dependence on Powers & Events, over which we have no Controll" (NB.ii.2060). Coleridge himself was not as rational about the existence of such external powers as his note would imply. Did he subscribe to the animism of the Burnet epigraph or not? There is evidence in Coleridge's accounts of his dreams that he suspected his nightmares of originating in some alien power that impressed itself on him against his will (NB.ii.2468; cf. Miall).

The phrase "omnipotence of thoughts" was coined by Freud. He was able to show how superstitions and fears of the uncanny are to be ascribed to the survival in us of this stage of thought: "none of us has passed through it without preserving certain residues and traces of it which are still capable of manifesting themselves" (Freud, "The Uncanny"). Parental discipline may reinforce our natural childhood animism by suggesting the existence of a higher power, against which the parent is seen to act as a kind of buffer. As Sylvia Anthony has shown in her case history of Bernard (aged eight when his father died), the sense of guilt at the parent's death "is therefore made more alarming by the sense of exposure to the direct action of a remote and severe authority from which the parent had sought to protect him" (Anthony). So with the removal of the Albatross by the Mariner: all the forces of the universe seem to be invoked in the sequel to punish his act; sea and air are full of inimical spirits. Having projected his (unconscious) death wish onto the Albatross in his apparently arbitrary act, the environment of the Mariner becomes deadly; all that emerges from it in the sequel is hostile.

In keeping with the profound ambivalence of the poem, there are two principal agents of vengeance. First is the Polar Spirit, who is said to seek revenge for the death of the bird he loved; second is the figure of Life-in-Death, and she is much more deadly. If the guilt over the shooting speaks to the remnants in us of what is primitive and animistic, a regressive childhood fear, this second threat posed by Coleridge's poem assaults us in the center of our adult sense of ourselves. The Mariner's response to the death of his shipmates, his resultant isolation and becalming, together with his eventual fate as a wanderer, all effectively symbolize a predicament that potentially awaits us too.

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