COLERIDGE'S FAITH IN WRITING "THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER"
B. A. VARGHESE
COPYRIGHT 2015. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
AUGUST 28, 2015
ABSTRACT: Some crics have argued that the moral truths of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are not only unintelligible but also irraonal. But for other crics,
this irraonality is what gives the poem its greatest quality. When examining the irraonal and
unintelligible secons of Coleridge's poem, a hermeneuc must be applied where the secons
in queson are not Coleridge’s failure to explain the supernatural but actually an evidence of
Coleridge's inner conict with his conversion from Unitarianism to the Anglicanism religion.
Varghese, Conversion Confusion - 1
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Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is said to be his aempt
to bring supernatural terrors to a naturalisc seng. Some crics have argued that the
moral truths of the poem are not only unintelligible but also irraonal. But for other crics,
this irraonality is what gives the poem its greatest quality. When analyzing and criquing
Coleridge’s poem, an in depth analysis of the irraonal is necessary. This irraonality is not
Coleridge’s failure to explain the supernatural but actually an evidence of its Chrisan moral
code and that the poem’s irraonality emerges because of Coleridge's inner conict with his
conversion from Unitarianism to the Anglicanism religion. This hermeneuc must be in mind
when aempng to interpret Coleridge’s poem.
Before we can look at modern crics such as Christopher Stokes, J Robert Barth, John T
Netland, and even Jerome J. McGann, we must rst look at how earlier crics have looked at
Coleridge’s work through a Chrisan eyes. The arcle “Coleridge And The Luminous Gloom: An
Analysis Of The 'Symbolical Language' In 'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner'” by Ellio B. Gose,
Jr. examines the poem through a Chrisan perspecve only because Gose believes “the poem
is lled with Chrisan trappings” (239). Gose shows how symbols carry a Chrisan ideology
and spends considerable me on examining how the sun (whether glorious or red) represents
God while the other forces in the poem represent the forces of nature. In the end, Gose claims
that nature is subordinate to God and that the Mariner's voyage does not deal with a physical
voyage but it represents a “Romanc urge to explore the eternal soul and the temporal
emoons” (244). But throughout the arcle, Gose fails to fully explain the other stranger
elements in Coleridge's poem. For instance, he brings up life-in-death, who wins the Mariner
in a gamble, but then dismisses her by stang how “she is obviously outside the Chrisan
hierarchy and is connected with a whole strand of non-Chrisan gures, incidents, and images
in the poem” (242). He interprets this from the obscure explanaon given from the gloss and
connues with the rest of the poem sll in his Chrisan ideological framework. More modern
crics will point out how though much of the poem seems to use Chrisan terms, the more
stranger elements and the ambiguous details create distance between familiar and unfamiliar
which gave trouble to many earlier Chrisan crical readings of Coleridge's text.
Gose’s confusion with the gloss and its obscure Chrisan emphasis can be explained in
“Reading and Resistance: The Hermeneuc Subtext of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by
John T Netland. He suggests that the poem displays an “incongruous mixture of pagan and
Chrisan symbols” (38) and examines the use of the gloss as a hermeneuc. Although the
“gloss-wring editor” is responding to the original poem and seeks to interpret it for a modern
audience, the editor marginalizes the Mariner’s experiences and emphasizes the Chrisan
overtones of the poem. Netland states the gloss and the poem itself create a unique tension
“between contrasng religious imaginaons” (41). One is a world of categorized and raonal
set of religious experiences (inferred from gloss) while the other a spiritual, myscal, irraonal
religious sublimity (from the poem). Netland states that Coleridge may have goen his idea
from Bibles at that me with their gloss notes that gave a clearer interpretaon of the biblical
text. This is very similar to Jerome J. McGann’s examinaons in his brilliant arcle, “The
Meaning of the Ancient Mariner”, where McGann briey details the poem’s history from its
inial cricism to Coleridge’s embracing of Chrisan ideology to his Higher Crical analycs of
the re-interpretave process of the Bible to Coleridge’s aempt in mimicking this layered
Varghese, Conversion Confusion - 2
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hermeneuc upon his own work. McGann points to the fact that Coleridge’s poem was
originally a literary ballad among all the other lyrical ballads found Wordsworth’s printed work,
Lyrical Ballads. With the second edion, and with Wordworth’s concerns, Coleridge made
alteraons to make the poem less a literary ballad and more a lyrical ballad. Coleridge may
have realized what he was doing was similar to what occurred in Biblical narraves. Coleridge
had argued in length on issues of Higher Cricism that Scriptures were “not an unmediated
and xed biblical text but an evolved and connuously evolving set of records which include
the Church's later glosses on and interpretaons of the earlier documents” (47). McGann
remarkably suggests that Coleridge’s revised version of his poem shows four clear layers of
development: “(a) an original mariner's tale; (b) the ballad narrave of that story; (c) the
editorial gloss added when the ballad was, we are to suppose, rst printed; and (d) Coleridge's
own point of view on his invented materials” (50). The last shows Coleridge’s own theory of
religious and symbolic interpretaon. McGann believes that “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner” is Coleridge’s imitaon of “a culturally redacted literary work” (51).
But coming back to Netland’s arcle, the gloss, he believes, becomes an inadequate
hermeneuc for analyzing the poem. Netland suggests that the gloss is inadequate as a
hermeneuc since the editor reduces the Mariner’s spiritual journey, acons, and suerings
into a straight-forward neat plot to emphasize Chrisan redempon. Netland states that “the
Mariner…has experienced something of the religious sublime (whether real or delusive), and
his compulsive retellings of his story point to the inexplicable profundity of his experience”
(51). The writer of the gloss fails to understand this and the gloss represses the Mariner’s
heightened religious experience. Netland suggests that we instead respond like the stunned
Wedding Guest which is far more consistent to Coleridgean hermeneucs when analyzing the
journey of the Mariner.
But can the gloss be ignored? McGann disagrees and states that the changes (as well as
the addion of the gloss) from 1798 to 1817 show an important story in Coleridge’s
development of the purposes of his poem. Many believed that these changes were “a
reaconary movement in which a daring and radical poem is transformed into a relavely
tame work of Chrisan symbolism” (42) when Coleridge retreated from his radical views to his
later Chrisan ideology. McGann, in his arcle, dives deeply into Coleridge’s understanding of
the Higher Crical analysis of the Chrisan Bible to show Coleridge’s Hermeneuc Model of his
poem originang from his ideas of the process of the Bible's creaon. Coleridge saw how
God’s Word was “expressed and later reexpressed through commentary, gloss, and
interpretaon by parcular people at dierent mes according to their diering lights” (43).
Coleridge’s poem is presented as just this type of reinterpreted text retaining its own
ideological coherence even through the fragmentaon from reinterpretaon. McGann states
that the poem shows Coleridge’s process of “textual evoluon” and the symbolic meaning of
that process is a Chrisan redempve one.
We can see how the very nature of religion aected Coleridge in his earlier 1798
version and his later 1817 version (with gloss) and can conclude that the poet himself and his
faith must be examined. J. Robert Barth’s book, Romancism and Transcendence: Wordsworth,
Coleridge, and the Religious Imaginaon, delves deeply into Coleridge’s theories, struggles,
and faith. Although, he spends the rst four chapter exploring Wordsworth’s works and how it
Varghese, Conversion Confusion - 3
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pracces Coleridge’s theories of imaginaon, he examines closely the nature of religion in
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in chapter 6. Although Coleridge had theological
speculaons, he was a “praccal Chrisan” (89). Coleridge believed in living out the praccal
aspects of his faith. Barth does not give a complete examinaon of Coleridge’s poem, but
hones in to what he believes gives strength and beauty to Coleridge’s poetry. The noon of
“polarity” (a “balance or reconciliaon of opposites” (6)) is central to Coleridge's theories of
imaginaon. Opposite objects, qualies, or “tensions exist within the same ‘eld of force’” (6).
Barth also looks at prayer as a means of bringing these two forces into harmony (natural and
supernatural). Coleridge is concerned with prayer but at a deeper level as a means of “uning
the creature with the Creator” (90). Coleridge's guilt and need for redempon is bound to his
longing for forgiveness and friendship with God. Coleridge calls prayer the “the eort to
connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God” (90). It is a means of connecng the
natural to the supernatural, the temporal to the eternal, and the immanent to
the transcendent. Barth states that even though Coleridge does move from his Unitarian
ideology to his Chrisan ideology, a shi that can be seen in the poem and its revision, this
idea of prayer is sll deep within Coleridge’s soul. Although, Barth explores prayer within the
poem during Coleridge’s conversion, this shi of faith can be explored further as means for a
proper hermeneuc in interpreng Coleridge’s poem.
Christopher Stokes’ arcle “'My Soul In Agony': Irraonality And Chrisanity In The
Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” explores the struggle between the physical and the spiritual
world in Coleridge’s poem. His poem contains strange elements that seem unintelligible and
irraonal. Stokes states that these elements stem from Coleridge's Unitarian moral theory that
he subscribed to at the me. Because these strange elements are unintelligible, there is an
ambiguity between the supernatural events and orthodox religion. Though much of the poem
seems to use Chrisan terms, there is sll details that are ambiguous and this creates distance
between familiar and unfamiliar. Stokes states that these ambiguous moments create a
divided tone and he claims this is from Coleridge's dicult transion from Unitarianism to
Anglican Chrisanity. Coleridge struggled with Chrisanity’s concept of “original sin” and a
closer examinaon must be conducted to understand why he possibly struggled with the
The concept and doctrine of "Original Sin" was developed by the early Roman church
and was based on Paul’s teachings found in the Book of Romans. In the Old Testament
(specically from Genesis), Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden and the result was
that they were cursed and banished out of the Garden. Because of the acons of Adam and
Eve, “sin” (a propensity to disobey God) originated in the Garden and connued to all future
generaons. Paul teaches a reinterpretaon of this Genesis story. In Romans 5.12, Paul states
that “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way
death came to all people, because all sinned.” At the me of Paul’s teaching, audiences of the
early Gospels will be familiar with the story of Jesus (especially since Mark and Mahew may
have been circulang prior to Romans being wrien). The audiences would understand that
Jesus died as a sacricial lamb for the sins (actual personal commied sins; a personal
disobedience) of all man. But Paul goes to reinterpret Christ’s death to add that Jesus died to
not only remove our personal sins but also to remove the hold of original sin on humanity
Varghese, Conversion Confusion - 4
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which results in death. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were
made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made
righteous” (Romans 5.19). This meant that all humanity was guilty for their personal sins and
guilty for the sin of Adam and Eve that was passed to generaons.
Later under the Roman church, Saint Augusne of Hippo taught that all of humanity
was in a state of sin that came from Adam. Man is born with sin and a weakened free-will that
gravitates toward sin. Adam and Eve's sin and guilt is carried onto each generaon (Kelley, 34-
38). This was the concept of “Original Sin.” This is a belief that is sll held today by Catholics
and Protestants (although, it may vary based on demonizaon).
But Unitarians do not believe in the concept of “Original Sin.” They do not believe that
the sin of Adam and Eve corrupted all of humanity and that we sll carry their guilt. They state
“it would contradict the love and jusce of God to aribute to us the sin of others, because sin
is one's own personal acon” (Jzsef, 107). This was a key to why Coleridge struggled in his
conversion to Chrisanity and is evident in his poem. Stokes, in his arcle, explains the
struggle readers have with the strange and irraonal elements in the poem are reecve and
evidence of Coleridge's struggle in his departure from Unitarian ideology to Anglican
ideology. An example can be seen with the killing of the Albatross which many crics agree is a
strange element to the poem. The Mariner simply kills the bird with no thought prior and the
only shock is from the Wedding Guest. The crew at rst thought it wrong, but then agreed that
the bird was bad luck. Without the gloss notes (and in the original 1798 version), it seems that
even nature is unmoved by something that seemed like a crime and the reader isn't given any
reason that the killing set any clear event in moon (a “determinave eects of moves”
based on Unitarian moral theory (5)). The albatross' death is a “powerful but inially
unintelligible event” but has “no obvious moral or religious signicance” (6).
Coleridge, aer his conversion and rming in Chrisan ideology, comes to term with
original sin and revises his work (through addions, subtracons, and including a gloss for the
poem) giving it a more Anglican tone. The gloss becomes an Anglican hermeneuc bringing
the poem under a Chrisan ideology and moral order. The poem under the gloss gives it
a Chrisan “salvaonal trajectory” (20). It is only through the gloss (and Coleridge's later
revision in 1817) that we learn that “the ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of
good omen.” Stokes understands the common crical belief that “the Mariner conspicuously
relies on Chrisan rituals and beliefs . . . the Chrisan doctrine fails to explain his world of
excessive suering and irraonal events” (11). But he states that before we dismiss these
strange elements as irraonal, we must explore Coleridge's religious thinking at the me of
wring the poem and both its revisions. It is only through the examinaon of his personal faith
and conversion that we can develop a proper hermeneuc to interpret Coleridge’s poem.
It would be erroneous to assume irraonality as a failure of the poem's Chrisan moral
code. One must look at Coleridge's conversion as well as his struggle with the Chrisan
doctrine of original sin that creates the irraonal or at least creates ambiguous language. It is
only through this hermeneuc that we can fully understand and appreciate Coleridge’s poem
where he aempts to understand and present to us the concepts that are beyond
Varghese, Conversion Confusion - 5
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Netland, John T. “Reading And Resistance: The Hermeneuc Subtext Of The Rime Of The
Ancient Mariner.” Chrisanity And Literature 43.1 (1993): 37-58.
Stokes, Christopher. “'My Soul In Agony': Irraonality And Chrisanity In The Rime Of The
Ancient Mariner.” Studies In Romancism 50.1 (2011): 3-28.
McGann, Jerome J. “The Meaning Of The Ancient Mariner.” Crical Inquiry 8.1 (1981): 35-67.
Gose, Ellio B., Jr. “Coleridge And The Luminous Gloom: An Analysis Of The 'Symbolical
Language' In 'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner'.” PMLA: Publicaons Of The Modern
Language Associaon Of America 75.3 (1960): 238-244.
Barth, J Robert. Romancism and Transcendence: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious
Imaginaon. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. eBook Collecon
(EBSCOhost). Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
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of the Hungarian Unitarian Church in Transylvanian Romania.” Hungarian Unitarian
Catechism. 49 (1994): Nos.3-4; VII:107.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocrypha. 4th ed.
Edited by Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Kelley, Joseph T., and Augusne. Saint Augusne of Hippo: Selecons from Confessions and
Other Essenal Wrings, Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths
Pub., 2010. Print.