Mariner: the struggle for meaning

I argued that the shooting of the Albatross acted as a focus for Coleridge's hidden childhood guilt, and for his fear of the vengeful, impersonal powers that lie beyond the protecting parent. There is no need to see the Albatross, in psychoanalytic fashion, as a symbol of the father: this would be reductive and, I believe, misleading (cf. Beres). The Albatross offers a clue rather to what Coleridge lost as a child at his father's death, a symbol of his own protected state of innocence. That state is not without dangers -- there is ice and fog -- but the Albatross navigates them successfully and is set to work its way northwards towards fairer and more certain regions ("a good south wind sprung up behind"; 71); it participates moreover in a regular ritual of food and prayer, the meaning of which it can hardly be expected to understand, but by which it is attracted. If this offers a metaphorical description of Coleridge's childhood, then the shooting of the Albatross represents perfectly the arbitrary horror, grief, and guilt which must have assailed Coleridge at the death of his father. It plunged him into a misery of isolation and dread, the origin of which was forever repressed in his memory. But the search for an explanation went on throughout Coleridge's life, and was to take the most productive forms in poetry and prose -- work which for the most part transcended the urgent personal stimulus of its origins.

Similarly in The Ancient Mariner: the powers to which the Mariner is exposed do their worst, and leave him with a psychic wound from which complete recovery is impossible. But it is the arbitrariness of those powers which contains the key to the poem. It unites with our sense of the arbitrariness of the shooting of the Albatross, behind which lies the genuine and shocking arbitrariness of a father's death at the age of eight. In a just and ordered universe such things would not be permitted. In both cases shown in the poem, over both guilt and death, the human psyche is seen struggling to establish causes and to participate in responsibility for events. As Freud put it in regard to the anxiety of traumatic dreams, at least the system is attempting to resolve its problem, even if in such cases it fails to do so (Freud, "New Introductory Lectures"). What we witness throughout the poem is a struggle for meaning. The Mariner's attempt, his agonised convulsions to tell the tale and master the experience is, so far as it goes, a failure; but it is a heroic failure. He has, after all, survived; and his trial stirs us to our roots since we too seek for meaning in an arbitrary world. His struggle is an epic one.

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