Mariner: backward projection

That the poem contains two centers of disturbance, the Polar Spirit and Life-in-Death, helps to explain how certain of the moral readings of the poem that I have referred to came to be conceived. Given the lack of motivation for the shooting, and the relative triviality of the act, there is a tendency to transfer back on to it the weight and moral power of the later part of the poem. Several subsequent references to the shooting in the poem encourage this transfer. As a result, a weight of moral significance is bestowed on the shooting which the episode, considered on its own terms, cannot justify. Casting around for the source of such felt significance, the critic is forced to impose a pattern of Christian allegory on the shooting, or to see its resistance to explanation as a sign of original Sin.

Frances Ferguson has noted that "the difficulty of the poem is that the possibility of learning from the Mariner's experience depends upon sorting that experience into a more linear and complete pattern than the poem ever agrees to do. For the poem seems almost as thorough a work of backwardness -- or hysteron proteron -- as we have" (Ferguson). Ferguson cites the archaic diction and ballad meter in support of this claim (backwardness of another kind, which helps to bring the poem nearer to the arbitrary and irrational level at which the more primitive thought processes operate). But the more important backwardness is the transfer of guilt at watching the death of two hundred shipmates on to the shooting. The lines about the deaths help to make the association: "every soul, it passed me by, / Like the whizz of my cross-bow!" (222-3) But the nature of that guilt raises a different set of issues, which must be considered in their own right. These involve the Mariner's experience of death.

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