Table of Contents
2. Coleridge and Religion
2.1. Religious Faith and Natural Reason
2.2. The Symbol
3. Religious Symbolism in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner
3.1. Sea Voyage: The Importance of the Water and the Ship
3.2. Sacred Meaning of Animals: The Albatross and the Watersnakes
5. Works Cited
Even over 220 years after its first publication in Lyrical Ballads, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner1 remains not only one of the most widely analysed poems of the Romantic period. It is also considered as one of Coleridge’s few masterpieces and has found entrance into modern day popular culture despite being subject to severe criticism upon publication. Whereas this narrative is rich in religious imagery and symbolism, most modern criticism does marginalise a theological reading and prefers a psychoanalytical approach to the text. As Christianity was a very important aspect in Coleridge’s life2, which he constantly struggled to bring into coherence with his more rational beliefs, the significant Christian symbolism should be taken more into consideration for a thorough analysis of the Ancient Mariner. Even if the theological imagery and moral at the end of the poem is not to be considered as Coleridge’s actual belief in the divine, it does certainly serve as metaphor for the evident psychoanalytical space. The matter of sin and apparent redemption gains a new significance in light of the attempt to unite the human belief in God and his Creation with the rational empiricism prevailing at the end of the 18th century, as the Christian believer treads between orthodoxy and heresy and might fear to turn into a sinner in case this unity fails. Thus, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner could be understood as a poetic experiment of a spiritual journey hopefully leading into a safe and possibly new port.
This paper aims to show that the Christian symbolism in the poem works as a reflection of Coleridge’s attempt at reconciling his religious faith with his secondary philosophical beliefs and will analyse form and imagery in regard to if he succeeds at doing so through theological symbolism.
An initial point of concern will be Coleridge’s relationship to religion and a general overview on his thoughts concerning religion and reason will be provided to get a further understanding of his viewpoint. J. Robert Barth’s study of Coleridge and Christian Doctrine will provide an analytical basis for this matter. In light of Coleridge’s history with religion and philosophy, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is going to be examined in regard to its theological symbolism. As Coleridge revised the poem quite a few times in language and imagery, I decided to base my analysis solely on the 1718 version of the poem as this gives view to a more refined and thus adapted choice of words, which might find themselves more in coherence with Coleridge’s thinking. Moreover, does this choice also simplify the matter at hand regarding the limited scope of this work. However, the incident of the poem’s revisions themselves will find its place in the conclusion of this paper. Focusing on the symbols used in the poem, only a selection of lines and motifs will be analysed, including imagery revolving around the sea voyage (water, ship), the Albatross and Watersnakes, as well as a brief look on the image of the wedding, which is chosen as frame narrative for this ballad. These have been partly chosen in prospect to their significance on attempting to create a sense of unity.
2. Coleridge and Religion
Being the son of a Church of England clergyman and attending a Christian boarder school in London for most of his youth, it was rather sensible when Coleridge joined an Unitarians movement during his time at Cambridge University as it enabled him to even further distance himself from his family and childhood which he deemed as unloving and miserable.3 Over the years, Coleridge grew to be a professed Unitarian – The “[b]elief in the unipersonality of God and the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity”.4 His quite well-known Conversation poems originated from this time. Shaped inter alia by the Christian philosopher David Hartley’s necessitarian philosophy, his belief combined a necessitarian philosophy with religious optimism.5 He argues in favour of an entirely benevolent God and “that man, though compelled by necessity, is still responsible for his actions and will suffer punishment or enjoy rewards for them in the next life.”6 An idea which is also embraced in the Ancient Mariner: The mariner shoots the Albatross willingly and is chastened for his deed, literally carrying around the burden of his sin. I will come back to that later on.
Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc. 1967, 12.
Human emotions over reason are Coleridge’s focal point, and he is encouraged by what he makes out to be “the essence of the Christian Gospel: it is an appeal to man’s feelings, motivated by the hope of future life as the reward for virtuous actions.”7 However, led by disillusionment with the French Revolution, the beginnings of his drug addiction, the failure of his marriage and the end of his political activity through his writing for the Morning Post, Coleridge abandoned Unitarianism and found his way back to Trinitarian Christianity ultimately by early 1805.8 “[A] growing realization of evil and guilt and his own inadequacy in the face of them”9 convinced him of man’s need for redemption – something, which held no place in Unitarian belief. Despite his return to orthodoxy, it is notable to acknowledge the influence of Coleridge’s involvement in Unitarianism as this incited his belief in a full human social responsibility, as well as the growing understanding of a significant intertwinement of religious belief and political action.10 It is this return to orthodox Christianity inspiring Coleridge to further occupy himself with the attempt to reconcile faith with natural reason, and probably also to revise The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, originally published 1802 during his Unitarian phase.
2.1. Religious Faith and Natural Reason
While Coleridge’s affection for German Idealists, especially Imannuel Kant, is well known of, their influence on his own ideals is more often than less highly misjudged. As Barth suggests: “[…] Coleridge was content to adopt Kant’s terminology, without at the same time becoming a Kantian in morality.”11 This is best demonstrated in how he adapted Kant’s idea of the Practical Reason to serve his point of view, which will be explained shortly. Coleridge does, however, agree to Kant’s clear distinction of understanding and reason, which coexist in a mutual relationship.12 Whereas, understanding enables the human mind to comprehend the sensible world and relationships between its objects within, every kind of knowledge we possess going beyond what we are able to perceive with our senses, is reason. Reason is therefore a faculty allowing a different kind of knowledge, a metaphysical one, concerned with morality, arts, and ultimately religion.13 However, as the substance of ideas derived by reason goes beyond the sensible, these ideas are only able to be made intelligible through symbols. They must be expressed in terms of the sensible knowledge given by the understanding [ …]. Man’s knowledge is limited by the fact that his insight into suprasensible ideas must be expressed in terms of analogy with what he knows on the merely sense level, but he knows at the same time that the sense level is not the whole of his knowledge.14
Although there is definitely more to Coleridge’s whole train of thought, for the focus of this paper it is sufficient to note that he comes to the conclusion that practical reason has become one with faith.15 This is a very important aspect to consider as it is faith that gets established as a faculty to gain knowledge beyond senses. The typically romantic approach of nature being men’s teacher through sensuous experience thus gains a new understanding in light of faith being the knowledge able to explain these sense based experiences: Nature as God’s Creation is attributed a position of symbol only revealing the higher divine through mirroring, and, instead, does not serve as the omnipotent existence which in its entirety is the only divine (the latter would express a pantheistic belief, something, Coleridge opposed strongly).16 It is necessary to note that Coleridge’s thoughts on religion were a never-ending process which he himself observed critically during the different stages of his life: His conflict with faith would last his lifetime long. In the following Coleridge’s conception of symbols and their connection to religion will be illuminated. Hereby, understanding the meaning of the symbols used in the Ancient Mariner will be facilitated to achieve a general insight into the matter at hand.
2.2. The Symbol
“An in the highest sense of that word, cannot be conveyed but by a symbol.” IDEA 17 - Samuel Taylor Coleridge For Coleridge a symbol is a (by nature) particular metaphysical idea embodied in an image of sense. It is a certain conjunction of reason and understanding; both united by or even more so created through the Imagination.18 Symbols are deeply connected to the Imagination, as “[t]he working of the Imagination is […] a symbolising activity. A symbol is only a part of the greater whole it reveals, but it implies the totality.”19 This incorporation of an abstract Eternal20, as Coleridge calls it, into a material Temporal is possible exactly because the faculties of reason and understanding are profoundly interdependent and share a common basis, the same reality.21 As Barth writes: “The reason’s idea cannot be expressed except by symbol, the suprasensible in terms of the sensible.”22
The significance of symbols for Coleridge’s religious thinking becomes evident in his view of the Christian Scriptures: In being specific and tangible the Scriptures suggest “universal truths” and are thus highly symbolic.23 Prickett concludes in his study on the religious language of Coleridge, that Coleridge comes to the result that “the vision of the eternal is not divorced from this world, but embodies itself in a particular and concrete artistic structure. It is symbolic.”24 Therefore, it is quite logical to assume Coleridge, as a confirmed symbolist, has chosen especially the images of the sea voyage and Albatross in The Ancient Mariner carefully.
3. Religious Symbolism in The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner
A studied theologian and poet Coleridge was more than well able to translate his conflict between his more rational philosophy and his Christian belief into symbolic images. In his ballad The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner religious symbolism is the main choice of imaginative substance, signifying a spiritual journey in hope of unifying the seemingly irreconcilable reason and faith. The following chapters will illuminate how most images within the poem are designed to suggest this unity, and, if a solution to the prevailing conflict is achieved. The symbols revolving around the sea voyage offer a clear starting point for this matter.
3.1. Sea Voyage: The importance of the symbols of Water and the Ship
The Ship was cheer ’d, the Harbour clear’d – Merrily did we drop Below the Kirk, below the Hill, Below the Light-house top.25
After introducing the wedding as frame narrative, the reader is immediately met with the beginning of the Mariner’s tale and the start of his journey. “[A]s the ship leaves harbour, the story contains the comfort of return”26, J.C.C. Mays suggests in his study of the Ancient Mariner, because “[t]he presence of the storyteller promises the safety of a rounded narrative.”27 And indeed, the reader is presented with a seemingly joyful departure (as indicated by “cheer’d” and “merrily”) from “home”, leaving behind the church, the hill and the lighthouse – a sense of familiarity and thus comfort is created through the use of the definite article. In the same way “[t]he lighthouse and the church stand together as emblems of physical warning and spiritual rescue, creating an image of departure and return.”28 However, the Mariner describes his departure as “dropping”, and with the repeated use of “below” the image of falling deeper and deeper asleep arises in the reader’s mind. Asleep we are deeply connected to our feelings and thoughts; we are able to access our “inner world”. In my opinion, it is certainly not without intention that the Mariner’s tale begins in such a state suggesting sleep, maybe even foreshadowing the nightmarish events that are to follow. However, it also implies that the tale ensuing is not about a physical journey, but about a spiritual one.
1 Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Ancient Mariner. In: Fiona Stafford (ed.): William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013, 175. Hereafter referred to as Ancient Mariner.
2 Cp. J. Robert Barth: Coleridge And The Christian Doctrine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press 1969, 2.
3 Cp. I. A. Richards: “Coleridge: His Life and Works”. In: Kathleen Coburg (ed.): Coleridge. A Collection Of
4 "Unitarianism, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/214752.
5 Cp. Barth, 4-5.
6 Ibid., 7.
7 Barth 7.
8 Cp. Ibid. 8-10.
9 Ibid. 12.
10 Cp. Ibid. 11.
11 Ibid. 25.
12 Cp. Ibid. 19.
13 Cp. Barth 19.
15 Cp. Ibid. 28.
16 Cp. Ibid. 13.
17 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Shawcross (ed.). Biographia Literaria. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1907, 100.
18 Barth 21.
19 Stephen Prickett. Romanticism and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1967, 19.
20 Ibid. 18.
21 Cp. Barth 22.
22 Ibid. 23.
23 Prickett 18.
24 Ibid. 25.
25 J.C.C. Mays. Coleridge ’ s Ancient Mariner. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2016, 29.
26 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1967, 19.
27 J.C.C. Mays. Coleridge ’ s Ancient Mariner. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2016, 29.
28 New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2016, 29.