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Coleridge's dilemma and the method of "sacred sympathy": atonement as problem and solution in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Extremes meet. When shall I exhaust the exemplification of this my favorite Proverb? (Notebooks 5: 6777)

However irregular and desultory his talk, there is method in the fragments. (Friend 1: 449)

Anyone considering the critical reception history of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be tempted to share Coleridge's own exasperation at "So many men, so many minds!" (Shorter Works 2: 1167). Despite such diversity of opinion, many critics are united in regarding the ballad as a conflicted work that is curiously resistant to interpretive resolution. Seamus Perry sees it as "a work poised between a blessed vision of unity and the catastrophe of chaos [...], between a cribbed nightmare of centripetal monomania and a redemptive resort to the free existence of other things" (281). Richard Haven discerns two antithetical universes, the one expressing "communion" and "harmony or oneness," the other "a universe without pity" (24-25). Even Coleridge's most constructive readers, those who attempt to impose upon the poem a coherent pattern animated by a sacramental principle of the One Life, ultimately admit certain hermeneutic difficulties. While Robert Penn Warren, who propounds an overarching mythos of Fall followed by reconciliation, acknowledges the narrative's "peculiar and paradoxical situation," he also grants that the Mariner's "wandering condition is not only a function of his blessed vision, it is also a curse," so that the supernatural forces at work are "sometimes saving" and "sometimes inimical" (423-24). John Robert Barth describes the Mariner's voyage as a divided experience "of both the fear and the love of the transcendent," and he portrays the Mariner's penance, sentenced to wander the Earth and recount his tale, as an ordeal "made up of pain and happiness" (Power 70). Elsewhere, Barth tries to resolve these antitheses through a corresponding Ignatian framework of alternating "consolation" and "desolation" ("Prayer" 75-80). Finally, James Engell remarks upon the poem's "discordant qualities" and writes of the Mariner's attainment of "a curious salvation," a medley of agony and grace, which fails to deliver any "moral or spiritual resolution" (145).

The poem's "doubtful doubleness" (Warren 424) can be at least partially resolved in light of Leslie Stephens's memorable conjecture that most of Coleridge's seminal thinking is emergent in The Rime (Perry 281 fn. 2). That Coleridge kept returning to The Rime, modernizing, revising, and expanding the poem over a period of thirty-six years, testifies to its momentousness for him. During the mid- to late 1790s, Coleridge's conscience seems to have been wrestling with a dilemma concerning the Christian idea of redemption. Throughout this period his uncertainty and skepticism about, if not his moral qualms over, the doctrine of the atonement manifests itself in the sometimes horrific or nightmarish qualities of The Rime's supernatural scheme. The Rime treats the Albatross and the Mariner as Jesus figures in what amounts to an argument about the potentially negative or positive efficacy of the redemption. Admittedly, Coleridge's subversion of the Christian economy of grace in The Rime may not offer a strict replication of his theological position at the time of the ballad's composition. As Thomas Dilworth has recently argued, in the course of his multiple revisions of The Rime Coleridge shifted his position of faith from that of a Unitarian to a Broad Church Anglican, and, in the Catholic worldview of the ballad itself, "[w]ith impressive tolerance, he saw through what he considered false doctrines to Catholic devotion to God as Love" (529). The poet, then, seems to have been capable of "an imaginative suspension of theological disbelief" (517). In any case, Coleridge would certainly not have been the first Christian poet to question, through the medium of verse, the morally disturbing implications of a divine Father who offers up His only Son as a blood-sacrifice to slake the divine wrath, satisfy divine justice, and broker a peace between divine-human relations. As we will see, Coleridge's uncertainties would be explicable as the understandable consequence of a rigorously Unitarian or subordinationist perspective in regards to Christology, a perspective that Coleridge is thought to have held at the time of the original composition of The Rime, which emphasized the single personality of God, rejected any Trinitarian model as licit, and dispensed with Jesus's divine humanity by esteeming him as an exemplary, albeit wholly human, prophet and teacher.

Coleridge's questioning of the moral validity of the atonement in The Rime is a feature of the ballad that has not hitherto been fully appreciated. Thomas Dilworth has compellingly illustrated how Coleridge's ballad displays what he terms a "spatial form" (529) where two sets of "parenthetically paired images" (529) or events, one consisting of three concentric pairings, the other of nine, focus upon two signal narrative moments, the minor pattern converging upon the killing of the Albatross and the major pattern upon the Mariner's blessing of the sea snakes. For Dilworth, this spatial arrangement indicates that the killing of the Albatross "is off-centre and excluded from ultimate importance" and possesses a "lesser, local, negative focus" when compared with the blessing, "the most important act in the poem" (516). Dilworth's reappraisal of the centrality of the Mariner's blessing restores to the heart of the poem's message both "animist natural community and the Christian valuation of love" (529), and, he reaffirms, "Spatially, the structure of this poem implies that the predominant centre, blessing or love, is deeply everywhere and always accessible" (530). In a related way, I wish to show how the killing of the Albatross and the Mariner's blessing are crucial and opposing acts in The Rime, and that the Albatross and the Mariner, interpreted as Christ figures, suggest very different ideas of the atonement and work together to articulate Coleridge's concerns about and argument regarding Christian redemption. The first section of the article will maintain that the Albatross's slaughter implies dissent from the notion of redemptive sacrifice. I will next begin to examine how the Mariner epitomizes the redemptive effect of sympathy. Where the Albatross is a passive symbol of the negative, problematic implications of atonement theory, as proceeding from Coleridge's Unitarian leanings and his subsequent moral objections, the Mariner, once construed as a Jesus figure, embodies the positive, constructive resolution to the problem of the atonement in his newfound ability to engage and sympathize creatively and meaningfully with the world of which he is an inalienable part.

Notwithstanding the regular attribution of a rambling, corkscrewing, and unsystematic nature to Coleridge's thought, Jerome McGann has recommended that critics recognize the "continuities which exist between the 'radical' Coleridge of the 1790s and the Sage of Highgate" (42), and Stephen Prickett has urged readers to re-evaluate the "rigorous unity of Coleridge's thought[,] linking his poetry to his theology in a surprisingly consistent progression of personal development" (204). In accordance with this view, the article's second section will reassess that well-known instance of recovery and reconciliation in The Rime, namely the Mariner's blessing, in conjunction with the development of Coleridge's religious philosophy. The Mariner's encounter offers the germ or intimation of a solution to the problem of the atonement that the selfsame ballad poses.

Far from being the "bottled moonshine" (80) to which Thomas Carlyle witheringly reduced the complexity of Coleridge's thought, Coleridge's philosophy, if not his poetry, becomes richer across his corpus of writings, from his early notebooks to "The Essays on the Principles of Method," from the Lay Sermons to the Aids to Reflection, evolving and deepening as Coleridge reinterrogates and refines recurrent themes. These master-themes--subject-object relations, the function of the will, the role of intuition, self-knowledge and reflection, and the unific power of sympathy--resurface time and again in Coleridge's prose. They are embodied, in embryo, in the Mariner's luminous encounter with the sea snakes, whether Coleridge was fully conscious of it or not (and Coleridge, we should remember, was a pioneering thinker in regards to the workings of the unconscious). The Mariner's blessing of the water snakes, which many have interpreted as an isolated moment of relief amid the poetic narrative's phantasmagoric turmoil, is a symbolic event, in that intimately Coleridgean sense, and is representative of the irreducible core of his thought, constituting "a translucence of the Special in the Individual" or "of the Eternal through and in the Temporal" (Lay Sermons 30). It is out of this symbolic encounter that the nascent principles emerge upon which Coleridge's later thinking would come to reaffirm and vindicate, within Coleridge's own singular idiom, the significance of the redemption. They are the identical principles upon which he implicitly revokes his perverse portrayal of the atonement in The Rime. His most famous poem at once diagnoses the problem of the redemption and dramatizes its remedy in that openly obtrusive moral Coleridge insisted upon to Mrs Barbauld concerning the atoning character of the Mariner's sympathetic engagement (Table Talk 1: 272-73).


At signal moments in Coleridge's Rime the Albatross and the Mariner can be read as very different symbolic dramatizations of the atoning figure of Jesus. The hanging of the Albatross's cadaver around the Mariner's neck is a powerful speaking emblem of these two very distinct figurations, since the formation not only renders the Mariner as a cross on which the corpus hangs but also imagines the Albatross's corpse as the corpus, suspended from the frame of the cross. In this emblematic arrangement both the cross and Christ are symbolically interchangeable. The association of the Albatross and the Mariner with Jesus crucified was memorably (and certainly most beautifully) made in 1929 in David Jones's copper engraved illustrations to The Rime. (1) But Coleridge's Albatross-Mariner crucifix formation also offers an exposition of two very different attitudes to the atonement--the Albatross as a passive, lifeless victim, an object of sacrifice upon whom violence is visited, the Mariner as an active, sympathetic sufferer engaging with guilt, sin, and the momentousness of the universe, seen and unseen, with which he is involved. Of course, the Albatross and the Mariner, however symbolic, are not divinity incarnate or sacrificed. No such direct correlation exists. Nevertheless, this section of the paper will explore the ways in which Coleridge's most celebrated poem dissents from, interrogates, and begins to attach itself to the idea of the atonement, to negative effect with the Albatross, and to positive effect in the case of the Mariner. To contextualize this engagement with the atonement, it will be necessary to provide a sketch of Coleridge's doubts and fears regarding the atonement throughout his life, and especially in the context of his early Unitarian leanings during the period in which he composed The Rime.

As a young man during the 1790s Coleridge expressed misgivings concerning the moral tenability of the orthodox doctrine of the atonement. During this period Coleridge entertained Unitarian tenets and was sketching the outline of a projected work that would eventually become The Rime. Later in his life Coleridge reflected upon his former "doubts concerning the incarnation and the redemption by the cross; which I could neither reconcile in reason with the impassiveness of the Divine Being, nor in my moral feelings with the sacred distinction between things and persons, the vicarious payment of a debt and the vicarious expiation of guilt" (Biographia Literaria 1: 205). His nephew Henry Nelson Coleridge records that Coleridge remembered how "at that time I had a strong sense of the repugnancy of the doctrine of vicarious atonement to the moral being, and I thought nothing could counterbalance that. 'What care I,' I said, 'for the Platonisms of John or the Rabbinisms of Paul? My conscience revolts'" (Table Talk 1: 489). Coleridge principally objected to the inadequacy of the metaphoric, forensic-legal discourse within which Scripture and the Christian tradition couched its understanding of redemption. Coleridge deemed "theories of original sin and redemption borrowed analogically from the imperfection of human law-courts and the coarse contrivances of state expedience" a grievous misprision, through over-rationalization, of "the mysteries of faith" (Friend 1: 433). Christianity's scrupulous adherence to these atonement theories mistook the "metaphorical Naming of the transcendent Causative Act [...] for an intended designation of the essential character of the Causative Act itself" (Aids 333). Provisional and misleading explanations for the atonement as a ransom, justification, or the payment of a debt had gained hegemony, obscuring the event's mystery and inscrutability and "magnif[ying] a partial equation into a total identity" (333).

Coleridge's early suspicion of any tidy received interpretation of the crucifixion was in part a symptom of his fascination with the psilanthropic implications of Unitarian or Socinian dogmatics, that is, that Jesus was a "mere man" and that God admitted "arbitrary caprice" into His plan of salvation through Christ: "how could a man be mediator between God and man? How could a man with sins himself offer any compensation for or expiation of sin?" (Table Talk 1: 488). From as early as 1794 Coleridge unambiguously perceived the adoption of the Unitarian position as tantamount to apostasy from the Christian faith, and he accordingly wrote of the "Unitarian / travelling from Orthodoxy to Atheism" (Notebooks 1: 80). Coleridge the aspiring poet was to transfer these nagging metaphysical doubts to his Rime so that, as George Whalley maintains (160-83), as well as being preoccupied with issues of guilt, crime, and transgression, the poem reads as a personal allegory or, more exactly, as a personal meditation upon the defensibility of that ostensibly chief Christian verity, the atonement.

Edward Bostetter's recognition that Coleridge's Rime depicts "the Christian universe gone mad" (194) supports my thesis that the poem presents, in part, a warped version of the Christian economy of grace. In orthodox terms, the economy of grace is pictured along the following lines. Jesus, God's incarnate Son, was crucified by an act of human folly and gratuitous violence. Through the cross, the burden of human sin was imputed to Christ and, in turn, righteousness was imputed, through Christ's sacrifice, to humanity. According to gospel and Pauline teaching, Christ conquered sin and death, voluntarily took upon himself human guilt, became a ransom for many, and redeemed humanity from the pernicious effects of the Fall begun by the first Adam. The fruits of Christ's death and resurrection include the provision of grace for justified Christian believers, the sealing of grace through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life at the eschaton. At certain instances in The Rime, and particularly in his treatment of the Albatross, Coleridge, quite systematically, distorts this scheme of salvation.

The Mariner's killing of the Albatross is the obvious starting-point for our reading since this violent deed catalyzes the poem's action and is the motive force propelling the narrative's fantastic, supernatural events. The Mariner's unthinking, unfeeling destructiveness, a senseless act of unwarranted and unprovoked aggression against a pacific creature that shows humans nothing but affection, resonates with the conditions surrounding the persecution and crucifixion of Jesus. The Albatross appears to represent much more than a bird, as critics have often pointed out (Warren 397-99), and may at times be said to adumbrate a Christ figure. Like the incarnate Son lowering himself into the world, the Albatross condescends to join the ship's community, and not the other way around, and, like the Christian God who assumed flesh and lived among mortals, eating human food and observing human customs, the sea bird abides among the ship's community where "It ate the food it ne'er had eat" (67). (2) This otherworldly creature is even possessed of a strange and prayerful piety for, come rain or shine, "In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud, / It perched for vespers nine" (75-76). The Albatross's reception by the crew and its devout behavior impart a sanctity to the bird that makes the Mariner's unjustified crime seem like an act of hubris.

Geoffrey Yarlott describes the wanton slaughter of this preternatural bird as the violation of a "symbol of Christian redemption," and he argues that the Mariner has to wear the Albatross about his neck, in place of a crucifix, as an "emblem of his crime against self-sacrificing love" (161). Warren, too, writes of "a symbolic transference from Christ to the Albatross" (399). This correlation of the Albatross's death with the redemption is illuminating. Coleridge draws together, in a crude but effective way, the associations of the slain bird and the crucified Christ in his use of an internal rhyme between the words "Albatross" and "cross." The bird makes its first appearance when "At length did cross an Albatross" (63). The Mariner confesses that "With my cross-bow / I shot the Albatross" (81-82), so that the crossbow and the crucifix, the Mediaeval implement of war and the Roman engine of torture, are ingeniously riveted together. The Mariner later makes a similar connection where, "Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung" (141-42), but, on this occasion, even though he draws an implicit correspondence between the crucified Savior and the slaughtered bird, there is a violent dissociation of sensibility. The killing of the Albatross may offer a symbol of the death of Christ, but, again, it is not a depiction of the actual death of Christ. The bird's death might, at some level, evoke the execution of Jesus, suggesting that when we kill a creature for no good reason we somehow participate in that cruelty from which Jesus suffered, namely homicide. A minor version of such motiveless malignity is the Wedding Guest's insulting address to the Mariner as a "grey-beard loon" (11). "Of course the unkindness is weaker in effect than shooting the Albatross," Dilworth comments, "but it is on the same scale of diminishing love" (516). Dilworth goes on to illustrate how, since the Wedding Guest's callous taunt, "loon," also signifies an aquatic bird, the "wedding guest ridiculing the 'loon' has affinity with the Mariner shooting the Albatross" (516).

The slaying of the Albatross does not afford a perfect fit with Christ-like sacrifice, that is, its death incenses rather than placates the poem's supernatural powers. Whereas Christ's sacrifice was deemed to remit sins and remove guilt, satisfying divine justice and justifying repentant sinners in God's eyes, the Mariner's crime only turns his eyes inward into his spotted soul and spreads the guilt among the crew who, according to the prose gloss, "justify" the Mariner's crime "and thus make themselves accomplices in the crime." The Mariner has to bear as his own cross, and upon his own person, the stigma of the Albatross's cadaver, not as a symbol of exoneration and absolution, but as a mark of blame because, as the gloss expounds, the crew "would fain throw the whole guilt on the ancient Mariner: in sign whereof they hang the dead sea-bird round his neck." Pauline theology teaches that "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us" (AV Gal. 3: 13), but the Mariner's butchering of the bird awakens a curse that lives on in the eyes of the persecuting, and eventually supernaturally possessed, crew. The killing of the Albatross, like any other act of gratuitous slaughter, seems bereft of any redemptive efficacy. The Mariner, in slaying the Albatross, does not intend to make a sacrifice of his victim, but then neither did Jesus's persecutors in the gospel accounts. Christian theology wrestled with the meaning of Jesus's execution by assigning a sacerdotal agency to Jesus so that he was seen to embody both the sacrifice and the priest offering the sacrifice, but Coleridge's poem offers no equivalent consolation in the Mariner's senseless butchering of the southern sea bird.

In Coleridge's original 1798 version, the Mariner bewails his abject condition as one where "Christ would take no pity on / My soul in agony" (234-35). Worse still, the Mariner's desolation appears Godless as well as Christless since, "So lonely 'twas, that God himself / Scarce seemed there to be" (599-600). The two ghoulish figures who control this world, the "spectre-woman and her death-mate," resemble John Milton's dogs of Hell, Paradise Lost's slatternly Sin and the hulking goblin Death. Coleridge's "Night-mare Life-in-Death" (193), with her "free" looks, gaudy "red" lips, flaxen locks, and leprous, perhaps even syphilitic, skin (190-92), evokes Milton's portrayal of promiscuous Sin who, with her "fair" feminine countenance that fronts a "foul," "Cerberean" womb, offers her sexual wares to her enamored sire Satan, his damned angelic crew, and her offspring Death (PL 2.650-66, 746-67). (3) What is most disturbing about Coleridge's infernal pair is that they are shown "casting dice" (196) for the souls of the crew, with Life-in-Death whistling victoriously, a feature of the poem that, by introducing an aleatory element, a principle of chance or randomness, quickly transforms any impression a first reader might have of an orderly poetic cosmos into one of crazed chaos. Bostetter faults The Rime for this detail, since Coleridge's inclusion of the fateful dice "knocks out any attempt to impose a systematic philosophical or religious interpretation, be it necessitarian, Christian, or Platonic, upon the poem" (187; see Perry 284). In his "Religious Musings," Coleridge imagines that, with God's "presence lost, / The moral world's cohesion, we become / An Anarchy of Spirits" (144-46), and spiritual anomie seems, at first sight, to be what the poem overwhelmingly presents us with. Once Coleridge has introduced the slimy sea snakes, Death and Life-in-Death hazarding and shooting craps for human souls, a possessed ship's crew of the "living dead," a vessel that can be accelerated to extraordinary speeds, and a "troop of [angelic] spirits blest" (349) with its attendant "seraph-band" (492), readers can be pardoned for any initial confusion they may feel because, inevitably, as Humphry House complains, such a cavalcade of "elaborated supernatural machinery [...] dissipates concentration" (103).

And yet, if The Rime might be said to furnish a positive emblem of redemption or an affirmative Christ figure, the reader needs to look no further than the Mariner himself, whose yearning to atone has previously prompted critics to draw comparisons with Cain or the Wandering Jew. Wordsworth's protest that the Mariner "does not act, but is continually acted upon" (39-40) is woefully inadequate, since the Mariner acts decisively on at least two separate occasions, both when he kills the Albatross and when he blesses the sea serpents. But Wordsworth's comment does unwittingly underscore that the ballad's main virtue consists of the Mariner's patience and that the various ways in which the Mariner patiently endures recall the atonement event. With his characteristic perspicacity William Empson touched briefly upon the idea that, in the Mariner's crime of killing the Albatross, and again in his longsuffering expiation, Coleridge was "deliberately writing a kind of parody of the traditional struggle for the atonement" (316). The Mariner's sufferance of the weird visions, sensations, "swounds," and sounds that beset him is, one might argue, the leitmotif of The Rime: the parching heat and his intolerable thirst, the pitiless judgment delivered upon him by his fellow crew members, the bearing of his guilt, and the "ten thousand" agonies that Coleridge imagined racking the Mariner every time he told his history (see Table Talk 1: 273-74). The Mariner is the martyr of the piece, in that noun's most literal sense, as a "witness" to, as well as a sufferer of, the weird goings-on aboard the cursed ship.

The Albatross's death enacts a grotesque parody of Christ's crucifixion, exacerbating rather than annulling the Mariner's guilt and sharpening his sense of sin and suffering. Accompanying this, and extending throughout the narrative, a version of the Christian economy of grace is discernible that is, in effect, an economy of disgrace. It should be noted, however, that Dilworth has persuasively qualified the seemingly unmitigated nature of the Mariner's fortitude throughout his trials and penance by arguing for the Mariner's wanderings as a purgatorial state, that is, a "suffering 'for amendment'" (525) consistent with the Mediaeval Christian worldview of the poem, that "allows for the paradox of total forgiveness and continuing penance" (525). This positive interpretation of the ballad's dramatic action is additionally supported by evocations of Pentecost, and therefore of the presence of the Holy Spirit, a possible antithesis of the unforgiving Polar Spirit, in the contrast between the Corposant and Aurora Australis. The biblical locus classicus recounting the descent of the Holy Spirit is the gifting of tongues to Jesus's disciples at Pentecost. The apostles, gathered together in one place, are suddenly bathed in tongues of fire, are "all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (AV Acts 2:4). When the apostles go forth into the streets and begin to use this spontaneous, newfound facility for evangelizing in all the languages of the world, some of the passers-by mock them for being "full of new wine" (AV Acts 2:13). In Coleridge's Rime, the Polar Spirit, who manifests himself to the crew to avenge the Albatross's murder, neither favors them with the charisma of multilingual speech nor animates them with intoxicating spirits, but, instead, afflicts them with aphasia, drought, hunger, exhaustion, and dearth.

Countervailing the negative influence of the Polar Spirit's vengeance and the accompanying epiphany of the St Elmo's fire, a dire phenomenon thought to portend disaster, is the lovely Aurora Australis, an exquisite marvel that suggests the beneficent effects of the Holy Spirit. As Dilworth has detected, the Corposant and the Aurora Australis mirror one another as "a pairing of two natural nocturnal lightshows, each verbally fiery and associated with dancing" (505): the St Elmo's fire or Corposant ominously burning with its "death-fires" that "danced at night" (128); and, later, the glory of the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights, "The upper air burst[ing] into life" as "a hundred fire-flags sheen" (313-14). The benison of the Aurora Australis offsets the pernicious influence of the Polar Spirit's retribution and the sinister sign of the St Elmo's fire and further heartens the Mariner after he has blessed the sea snakes, has been relieved of the Albatross's burden, and has been comforted with the gifts of sleep and rain. The Aurora Australis's positive, beautiful, celebratory "lightshow" hints at the underlying and efficacious presence of grace in the poem's universe. Despite this consoling vision, the poem keeps reiterating the depletion and despair of the crew suffering their curse, under which, far from the many-tongued miracle of Pentecostal polyglossolalia, all mouths are parched and muted aboard a ship stilled upon a silent sea. In "The Wanderings of Cain" Coleridge had already described the fratricide's cursed condition in kindred terms, where Cain bewails, "'in silence am I dried up'" (2.38). In The Rime, the crew's human speech, naturally hindered by thirst, presents the antithesis of the Pentecostal miracle:
   And every tongue, through utter drought,
   Was withered at the root;
   We could not speak, no more than if
   We had been choked with soot. (135-38)

Commentators on The Rime tend to offer parallels here between Coleridge's human crew, "choked with soot," and Milton's "Atheist crew" of devils (PL 6.370). Milton's God punishes the devils by transforming them into serpents. They "Chewd bitter Ashes" (PL 10.566) and "writh'd thir jaws / With soot and cinders filld" (PL 10.569-70). Coleridge may be alluding to Milton's epic at this juncture because it, too, works as a kind of anti-Pentecost. Milton's God punishes and silences the devils for jeering at divine providence and for congratulating Satan in his boast that he has conquered Creation "with an Apple" (PL 10.487). Milton's God stops the devils' tongues and tapers their laughter into hisses to cease their blasphemy, a tactic that is antithetical to the boon of Pentecost, where God multiplies the apostles' tongues to spread the good news about Him.

During this "weary time" all human senses are dulled--"Each throat / Was parched, and glazed each eye" (143-45)--and Coleridge inserts a refrain to convey how, "With throats un-slaked, with black lips baked, / We could nor laugh nor wail" (157-58), since "Through utter drought all dumb we stood" (159), while their dry mouths hang hopelessly "Agape" (163). The sole evangelist, or, some might say, dysangelist, to outlive this experience and report the crew's tribulations is the Mariner, who, possessed of a "strange power of speech" (587), is fated to wander and spread his tale for fifty years (see Table Talk 1: 274). In the midst of the crew's seemingly hopeless, and far from inspiring, situation, it is notably the Mariner who strives to redeem the ship's crew from this crisis. Sighting another vessel, the Mariner remembers, "I bit my arm, I sucked the blood, / And cried, A sail! A sail!" (160-61). Empson, who calls the Mariner's endeavor to overcome the crew's adverse circumstances "heroic" (312), is one of the few critics to admire the Mariner's magnanimity here, for only by tearing at his arm with his teeth and by making his mouth supple with his own welling blood can the Mariner declare to his shipmates the presence of the approaching craft. Although the Mariner's self-wounding proves futile, and the ghost-ship harbingers further horrors, the prose gloss nevertheless endows the Mariner with a Christ-like intention. The gloss builds upon this redemptive metaphor: "at a dear ransom [the Mariner] freeth his speech from the bonds of thirst." At this stage in the poem's narrative the reader is given an indication of the shift in the object of Christian symbolism from the Albatross to the Mariner and in a way that stresses not the passive victimization of the sea bird, but the active and magnanimous agency of the Mariner. A well-established biblical metaphor for Christ as Redeemer describes him as one "Who gave himself a ransom for all" (AV 1 Tim. 2:6) and "came [...] to give his life a ransom for many" (AV Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). According to the gloss, the altruistic intention behind the Mariner's act, the shedding and ransoming of his life's blood in striving to secure the safety of the ship's company, mimics, however imperfectly, Christ's salvific self-giving, notwithstanding the Mariner's lack of success.

The Rime later revives this Christic association with the Mariner when, after the departure of the phantom-ship, the Mariner's doubts and fears manifest themselves in a striking figure, as "Fear at my heart, as at a cup, / My life-blood seemed to sip!" (204-05). The Mariner's conceit markedly conjures up images of the suffering Christ and, specifically, of the cup that, during his Agony experience on the eve of the Passion, Christ, sweating blood, besought his Father to take away (AV Luke 22:42). Christian tradition variously identifies the cup as the sign of God's wrath, as the legendary Holy Grail thought to hold Christ's blood, and as a foreshadowing of the Eucharistic chalice. In Coleridge's recasting of this gospel conceit, both the Mariner's dread at the repercussions of the curse and his compunction about his own accountability enervate him to such a degree that he feels as though he were drained of blood. Moreover, the Mariner's sentence of punishment comprises an unrelenting succession of agonies that is protracted indefinitely beyond his survival of his trial at sea. Periodically, a supernatural power wrenches the Mariner's body "With a woful agony," forcing him to repeat his tale, and then, for a time, leaves him free (578-81). Both the verse and the gloss choose the word "agony" to convey the Mariner's interminable patience, his racked body, like that of Coleridge's Cain, "'withered [...] with extreme agony'" ("Wanderings of Cain" 2.138), and his "countenance" telling its own story "in a strange and terrible language of agonies" ("Wanderings" 2.56-57).

Across The Rime Christ symbolism is at work, whether in the strange sanctity and piety of the Albatross, the piercing of its body, the suspension of the burden of the Albatross's corpse-corpus about the Mariner's neck, the Mariner's shows of sympathy to relieve his fellow crew members, or the Mariner's willingness to undergo a series of trials and agonies in this life. Coleridge's distressing depiction of the killing of the Albatross and of the Mariner's seemingly unredeemable condition of Christ-like suffering may appear to be horrific or, more precisely, to form a redemptive grotesque, and to be the exception to George Steiner's incisive rule regarding works of Romanticism. Steiner argues that in romantic works the "mechanism of timely remorse or redemption through love" rescues the reader or audience from the brink of the abyss, and he styles this prevailing characteristic "that evasion of the tragic which is central to the romantic temper" (133). Yet if an "evasion of the tragic" or, in this instance, an intimation of the positive efficacy of the redemption is to be detected in the narrative, it is not to be discovered in the negative effect of the Albatross's death, but rather in the Mariner's patient endurance, his sympathy for others, and, above all, his blessing of the sea snakes. At this juncture in the ballad, in the event of the Mariner's sympathetic blessing, there exists the suggestion of a quite different, and more propitious, face to The Rime, one that strives to resolve the horns of Coleridge's dilemma. It is to this aspect of the poem that we now turn.


Coleridge's understanding of the will is essential to any cogent explication of how the Mariner's encounter with the sea snakes provides the germ of a solution to the problem of redemption as set forth in The Rime. There have been a number of admirable studies on the importance of the human will in Coleridge's imaginative quest for unification. All of them are agreed that Coleridge takes a unique position in his conceptualization of the will (see, for example, Barth, Doctrine 29-31 and 182-85; Perkins 189-204). Far from the human will being "a petty Link" (Aids 86) between the soul and God and Nature, Coleridge holds that "the spiritual in Man is the Will" (273). The human "Will is in an especial and pre-eminent sense the spiritual part of our Humanity" (136) and, as such, the human "Will is the condition of his Personality" (285), "the ground-work of Personal Being" (286), and the "spiritual," "supernatural," and "responsible" basis for either the soul's corruption or its redemption (251). In The Rime, the Mariner's resolution that "With my cross-bow / I shot the Albatross" (81-82) proceeds from the same spiritual provenance as the Mariner's intention, accounted for in the gloss, that "He blesseth [the sea snakes] in his heart."

Coleridge conceives of human volition, correctly used, as a spiritual act that is responsible, creative, and productive of love: "Love itself in its highest earthly Bearing [...] becomes Love by an inward FIAT of the Will" (Aids 63). Coleridge's choice of words most obviously refers to the divine flat and to God's creative decrees in the hexaemeral account of Genesis 1. In the Latin Vulgate the word occurs again at the Annunciation when Mary expresses her own fiat and manifests a willingness to "let it be" as God ordains in response to the archangel Gabriel's good news concerning the incarnation: "'Let it be with me according to your word [fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum]'" (Luke 1:38). Mary's utterance points to a second, new Creation superseding the old Creation in the conception of the Christ-child within her womb and in the promises of salvation, divine sympathy, and spiritual renewal that issue from Christ's incarnation. According to this interpretation, Coleridge's argument for the creation of "Love by an inward FIAT of the Will" may suggest that, by disposing the will to love, it becomes possible to conceive of Christ and allow Christ-likeness to grow forth from within us. If this reading holds, then, at the blessing, Coleridge's Mariner truly becomes Christ-like in the moment in which he wills to sympathize with and express affection for the sea snakes. (4)

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the exercise of the naked, brute will to power manifested itself in the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer and in the nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophical stances that arguably stemmed from the sovereign, "appetitive" will described by Thomas Hobbes (Hobbes 33; ch. 6, sec. 53), Coleridge evolved a unique theory of life that was consciously opposed to what he censured as a poisoning of the will or "a blind tho' plastic Appetence" (Notebooks 4: 5235). Coleridge affirms in his "Theory of Life" that, "in the question of Life, I know no possible answer, but GOD" (Shorter Works 1:503), and he determines that the correct function of the will, when properly coadunated with faith, reason, and love, is as a means to participate in Nature and in God. (5) For humans "to act in harmony of inter-communion" involves their "acting in the Will" (Aids 77). The "pure will," Coleridge asserts, "is ranked among the means to an alien end, instead of being itself the one absolute end, in the participation of which all other things are worthy to be called good" (Friend 1: 444). Any authentic motive of the will proceeds, as Coleridge explains in "The Eolian Harp," "with Faith that inly feels" (60), and, as Mary Anne Perkins has illustrated, it is Coleridge's introduction of "an affective psychological dynamic" (198) into his reason-will-faith unity that distinguishes his philosophy from Kantian thought, as well as from the greater part of post-Kantian philosophy. Coleridge's innovation, Perkins states, is to privilege "the dynamic of Love" (198). According to Coleridge's formulation, though, the addition of an affective dimension to the action of the will is inseparable from the essence of Christianity, whose "especial aim, its characteristic operation, is to moralize the affections" (Aids 96).

Coleridge's affective psychology combines intuition, a word deriving from the Latin in + tueri, "to look within," with the faculty of sympathy, both of which are seminal concepts in the Coleridgean lexicon. A soul so disposed towards an object is capable of a "secret Intuition of a Sympathy" (Notebooks 4: 4730). What, to the subject, in relation to the object that it contemplates, initially appears to be "outness or outwardness" (Shorter Works 2:928), "the feeling of otherness (alterity), rendered intuitive, or alterity visually represented," becomes magnified, so that "the objective becomes synonimous first with external, then with real, and at length it [i]s employed to express universal and permanent validity" (Shorter Works 2: 929). Coleridge associates "the sense of outness" tending from the particular to the universal with "sympathy [and] disclosure of feeling" (Notebooks 1: 1307); and he argues not only that "a pure will [can] generate a feeling of sympathy" but also that "Sympathy itself [is] an Action" (Notebooks 1: 1705). Humans must reach out to God for inspiration as much as God must be willing to inspire them. God would otherwise have been a "Ventriloquist" to King David when David composed the biblical Psalms, and "the Royal [...] Harper [would have been] as mere an instrument as his Harp, an automaton Poet" (Shorter Works 2: 1136). Without "this communion and co-agency of divine Grace" (Shorter Works 2: 11), willed from the human as well as from the divine side, "all is gone! all sympathy, at least, all example!" (Shorter Works 2: 1136). In a similar way, Coleridge's Mariner comprehends the real and the universal from a motive of pure will and sympathy, and he attains a sense of "outness" that touches upon Nature and apprehends the numinous when he blesses the sea snakes. Through the Mariner's blessing of "God's creatures of the great calm," a beneficent utterance or, rather, an "outerance" (Oxford English Dictionary), he comes, to adopt Coleridge's own turn of phrase, to feel the riddle of the world and then unravel it through a sense of loving unity.

Some critics have expressed certain skepticism over the relevance of natural theology or the One Life for Coleridge's later thought. James Boulger has cast doubt upon the later influence of the One Life by emphasizing the perceived rupture between the natural and the supernatural that arose as a result of the mature Coleridge's horror at the corrosive, pervading presence of human sin and evil (see 196-219; ch. 6). Despite Boulger's claims, Coleridge's mature writings continue to uphold the idea of the One Life. Coleridge's classic articulation of human unification with the One Life is laid out in his "Essays on the Principles of Method." Coleridge demands that any proven method first requires some "nerve that oscillates, or a pulse that throbs, in sign of growth or inward sympathy" (Friend 1: 469), which will disclose the universe's "vital interdependence of parts" (Friend 1: 473). By this spiritual method humans strive for a revelation of completeness: "in every act of conscious perception, we at once identify our being with that of the world without us, and yet place ourselves in contra-distinction to that world" (Friend 1: 497). Accompanying this perception is "a belief that productive power, nature as nature, is essentially one" (Friend 1: 497). Encountering Nature, "man [seeks] to find the one principle of permanence and identity, the rock of strength and refuge, to which the soul may cling amid the fleeting surge-like objects of the senses" (Friend 1: 508); and so "man sallies forth into nature--in nature, as in the shadows and reflections of a clear river, to discover the originals of the forms presented to him in his intellect" (Friend 1: 509). Thus humans are able to intuit natura naturans glimmering behind natura naturata, the principle of life sustaining those phenomena that enjoy their life and being within Creation.

Once the Mariner has achieved this intuition of sympathy with all things in his contemplation of the wriggling snakes, he will have undergone a dialectical process of reflection and "outness," of coalescence between the self he reflects upon and the objective truth he considers: "In order therefore to the recognition of himself in nature man must first learn to comprehend nature in himself, and its laws in the ground of his own existence" (Friend 1: 511). Only "inspiring humility and perseverance will lead him to comprehend gradually and progressively the relation of each to the other, of each to all, and of all to each" (Friend 1: 511). Coleridge outlines in detail a pattern of coadunative mysticism that entails the progression of the subject towards oneness. Implementing one of his preferred idioms he grandly concludes, "Then only can he reduce Phaenomena to Principles--then only will he have achieved the METHOD--the self-unravelling clue" (Friend 1: 511).

Coleridge seems to anticipate this paradigmatic spiritual method in the Mariner's nuanced response to the writhing sea snakes. The Mariner eventually makes the identical breakthrough of thinking to himself "IT IS! heedless in that moment, whether it were a man before thee, or a flower, or a grain of sand" (Friend 1: 514). At first revolted, in time the Mariner comes to feel "a sort of sacred horror" before these marine worms, at once sensing in himself and in their presence "a something ineffably greater than their own individual nature" (Friend 1: 514). Yet in blessing the snakes he also experiences "undiminished gratitude, and a deepened sense of dependency" (Friend 1: 513). Having mastered "this intuition of absolute existence" (Friend 1: 514) upon which he is so reliant, Coleridge's Mariner grants that, as "God's creatures of the great calm," the snakes, like his own person, are "dim reflexes" (Friend 1: 516) of a higher order of Being and, consequently, he achieves a kindred "sympathy" and "inter-communion with Nature." (6) The syntax of The Rime communicates to the reader that the Mariner overcomes his original disgust when "He despiseth the creatures of the calm" by differentiating himself from the "beautiful" bodies of the crew, even while he simultaneously identifies his being with the "slimy" snakes:
   The many men, so beautiful!
   And they all dead did lie:
   And a thousand thousand slimy things
   Lived on; and so did I. (236-39; emphasis added)

The Mariner's evolving sympathy for the sea snakes has provided an easy target among critics for some fairly heavy-handed ridicule (as Gibbon quipped, who can refute a sneer?), and yet the episode signals an important leap forward in Coleridge's understanding of the interdependent actions of human will, faith, and sympathy. Coleridge attaches a divine significance to a subject's sympathy for its object when he asserts that "an Object [...] is inconceivable without a Subject" and that the "identity" of both the subject and the object is the divine "I AM" (Notebooks 3: 4265). Elsewhere he names this interpersonal principle in subject-object relations the "harmony of correspondent Opposites" or the "Indifference," the "highest contemplation" possible for revealed religion (Shorter Works 2: 1168; see Aids 182).

The Mariner's ability to sympathize with the serpents and, through this action, to coadunate his will, faith, and imagination with Nature and with God, is but one example in Coleridge's corpus of what Warren terms "the great discipline of sympathy" (423). Elsewhere, in the parable of the unschooled pilgrim and the learned pilgrim's experience of the oasis with which Coleridge concludes the Aids, it is the uneducated pilgrim's "craving for Sympathy" (392) that motivates him, just as it inspires the Mariner, to share his experience with others through reflective narrative. For the parable's second, learned pilgrim, it is conspicuously that typically Coleridgean medium, "Moonshine, the imaginative Poesy of Nature," that "gives to all objects a tender visionary hue and softening" (393). The moral to be drawn from the parable is that anyone scanning the pilgrims' respective worlds by the light of day will discover that both pilgrims enjoy an equally authentic mystical intuition. Both of their visions of the oasis possess a validity that is characteristic of the soul's responsive sympathy to God and Nature. Coleridge's parable evinces that, even in his twilight years, he continued to take a democratic view of the extent to which all people might win access to a sympathetic vision of the world. One might say that, throughout Coleridge's life, he adhered to a Pantisocratic form of mysticism.

Sympathetic encounters between humanity and Nature and between humanity and God recur throughout Coleridge's writings. In addition to the moonlit meeting between the Mariner and the sea serpents in The Rime, such encounters are discoverable in the synergy between the scholar-pilgrim and the oasis in the parable from Aids; in the woodman's reflective imagination in "Constancy to an Ideal Object"; and in the old man's communion with the moon in "Limbo: A Fragment." It was ironically in the doctrine of Christian redemption that Coleridge ultimately discovered the foundation for this human capacity to sympathize with the One Life. In the first section of this discussion I observed that Coleridge had a profound moral distaste for those philosophical endeavors that hoped to explain the atonement through metaphoric crudities deriving from within the discourse of litigation. In his religious philosophy Coleridge reformulates the process of the redemption as the liberation of the human will. In the Aids, for example, Coleridge stresses that the gospel's "great theme is the Redemption of the Will from Slavery; the restoration of the Will to perfect Freedom being the end and consummation of the redemptive Process, and the same with the entrance of the Soul into Glory, i.e. its union with Christ" (160). Once liberated from the bondage of sin, the will is able to reunify or reconnect with God. Sympathy with Nature, with the One Life, and with God is actualized through the event of Christ's Passion. Christ's at-one-ment enables humans, to adopt Coleridge's terminology, to coadunate or to esemplasticize, in other words, to experience that mystical process of "making-into-one" (Latin con + ad + unare; Greek es + hen + plattein).

For Coleridge, later in life, the potential of the individual to reunite with the One Life and transcend the effects of sin, both the spiritual alienation from the divine and the corruption of the will, derives concretely from the gift of Christ's atonement. Owen Barfield summarizes most eloquently Coleridge's model for the participation of the human in the divine and of the divine in the human, a model perfectly realized through redemption and incarnation:
   [R]eproduction of attachment to the original source of life,
   following on the loss of it, is, for a created individuality,
   regeneration by redemption. If there is to be that fresh beginning,
   which the reproduction of attachment alone enables [...], the
   totality of the original source must penetrate the detached (and
   therefore individual) soul and establish a fresh centre within it.
   There must be an "incarnation" of the divine ground of all being
   within the human being. (155)

A fractured world is reintegrated through Christ's incarnation, atonement, and regeneration, and then duplicated through multiple "incarnations" within the redeemed human soul, the manifold sympathies and coadunations between the human, the natural, and the supernatural. The basis of Coleridge's religious philosophy was not, for him, an innovation, but a reemphasis of previously held axioms. In his early verse Coleridge has an intimation of an identical spiritual method for obtaining divine oneness or at-one-ment through Christ. Despite the disclaimer in its full title "Religious Musings. A Desultory Poem," Coleridge's lyric is nonetheless methodical in affirming that Christ's ability to sympathize with the fallen world through his incarnation and redemption, his "sacred sympathy," meant that he could bestow the gift of coadunation upon humans so that they themselves might forge imaginatively ahead towards the prospect of perfect unity with all things:
   No common center Man, no common sire
   Knoweth! A sordid solitary thing,
   Mid countless brethren with a lonely heart
   Thro' courts and cities the smooth Savage roams
   Feeling himself, his own low Self the whole:
   When he by sacred sympathy might make
   The whole ONE SELF! SELF, that no alien knows!
   SELF, far diffus'd as Fancy's wing can travel!
   SELF, spreading still! Oblivious of its own,
   Yet all of all possessing! This is FAITH!
   This the MESSIAH'S destin'd victory! (148-58)

Coleridge dedicated a lifetime, in the Platonist Iris Murdoch's words, to seeing "the world as it is" (89), and the history of the struggle of his thought is enacted and epitomized in the multiple recensions of his Rime. (7) I began this article by referring to the poem's striking quality of doubleness and I have attempted to illustrate how both the problem and the first glimmerings of a solution to Coleridge's dilemma over the meaning of the Christian redemption are present in and fundamental to The Rime. On the one hand, the poem's universe is suffused with horror, an elaborate parody of the Christian redemption and its economy of grace that amounts to a redemptive grotesque voicing Coleridge's grave doubts about this orthodox doctrine. On the other hand, the Mariner's openness to and sympathy for not only the slithering sea serpents but also, by extension, the universe that surrounds him is a seminal and momentous event within Coleridge's poetry and philosophy. The Mariner's encounter, an awakening to a "sacred sympathy," pre-echoes Coleridge's personal resolution to the problem of the redemption. Coleridge's revelation approximates what the poet at one time, while contemplating the sublimity reflected in a Maltese sky, rejoiced in as "the Coadunation of the Individual with the Universe through Love [Coadunatio Individui cum Universo per Amorem]" (Notebooks 2: 3159). For, as John Robert Barth states, "Coleridge's whole life was a quest for unity, within a context of love" (Doctrine 198). His greatest poem dramatized, simultaneously, Coleridge's most urgent spiritual dilemma and his solution to it. Expressed in the simplest terms, in one and the same poem, to quote Coleridge's favorite proverb, extremes meet.


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(1) For a fine edition of Coleridge's ballad that boasts David Jones's illustrations, see Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ed. Thomas Dilworth (London: Enitharmon Press, 2005).

(2) References to Coleridge's poetry derive from J.C.C. Mays's edition of Coleridge's Poetical Works. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from The Rime derive from the final 1834 version. Biblical citations refer to The King James Authorized Version of 1611 (AV).

(3) Quotations from Milton's diffuse epic derive from Helen Darbishire's edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton.

(4) I am grateful to the anonymous reader of this article for drawing my attention to these subtle scriptural echoes.

(5) For example: "Faith subsists in the Synthesis of the Reason and the Individual Will [...] it must be an energy [...] it relates to the Whole Moral Man" (Shorter Works 2: 844).

(6) Michael Raiger's perceptive Augustinian interpretation of The Rime complements my reading, since Raiger expounds the Mariner's blessing of the sea snakes in light of Augustine's understanding of the will (Raiger 72-73).

(7) Coleridge's and Murdoch's moral philosophy and their affective psychology coincide conceptually and lexically in ways that recommend much more than their mutual regard for the Platonic tradition, but rather, I would argue, Murdoch's direct reception of Coleridge's ideas. I am thinking primarily of Murdoch's quasi-mysticism of "grow[ing] by looking" (30, 33), and of her conception of prayer as loving attention (53-54); her sense that the quest for unity "preserves from despair" (55) and "that reflection rightly tends to unify the moral world" (56); her formulations of the qualities of attachment (100), detachment (64), and "'unselfing'" (82); her distrust of a post-Kantian "inflated and empty use of the will" (74); and, most resoundingly, her insistence upon the Romantic movement's breakthrough in conveying how love positively inspires the will's moral capacities (78-82).

The generosity of The Friends of Coleridge made it possible for me to deliver a condensed version of this paper at the 2008 Biennial Coleridge Conference in Somerset, England. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for Papers on Language and Literature for his encouraging words, meticulous comments, and insightful suggestions, and also to Douglas Hedley for his enthusiasm for all things Coleridgean and for his heartfelt support of my scholarship. I am especially indebted to my father, Brian Hillier, a native of England's mystical West Country, who, together with Coleridge, taught me to appreciate "The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language."

RUSSELL M. HILLIER is currently finishing his doctorate in the works of John Milton at Cambridge University. His previous and forthcoming articles may be found in journals that include Modern Language Review, Milton Studies, Milton Quarterly, and Studies in English Literature. He has also had articles published concerning other literary figures such as John Bunyan and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
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Title Annotation:Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Author:Hillier, Russell M.
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
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Date:Jan 1, 2009
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