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Conversion Confusion : Coleridge's Faith In Writing "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner"



Some critics have argued that the moral truths of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are not only unintelligible but also irrational. But for other critics, this irrationality is what gives the poem its greatest quality. When examining the irrational and unintelligible sections of Coleridge's poem, a hermeneutic must be applied where the sections in question are not Coleridge's failure to explain the supernatural but actually an evidence of Coleridge's inner conflict with his conversion from Unitarianism to the Anglicanism religion.
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ABSTRACT: Some crics have argued that the moral truths of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are not only unintelligible but also irraonal. But for other crics,
this irraonality is what gives the poem its greatest quality. When examining the irraonal and
unintelligible secons of Coleridge's poem, a hermeneuc must be applied where the secons
in queson are not Coleridge’s failure to explain the supernatural but actually an evidence of
Coleridge's inner conict 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 aempt
to bring supernatural terrors to a naturalisc seng. Some crics have argued that the
moral truths of the poem are not only unintelligible but also irraonal. But for other crics,
this irraonality is what gives the poem its greatest quality. When analyzing and criquing
Coleridge’s poem, an in depth analysis of the irraonal is necessary. This irraonality is not
Coleridge’s failure to explain the supernatural but actually an evidence of its Chrisan moral
code and that the poem’s irraonality emerges because of Coleridge's inner conict with his
conversion from Unitarianism to the Anglicanism religion. This hermeneuc must be in mind
when aempng to interpret Coleridge’s poem.
Before we can look at modern crics such as Christopher Stokes, J Robert Barth, John T
Netland, and even Jerome J. McGann, we must rst look at how earlier crics have looked at
Coleridge’s work through a Chrisan eyes. The arcle “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 Chrisan perspecve only because Gose believes “the poem
is lled with Chrisan trappings” (239). Gose shows how symbols carry a Chrisan 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 “Romanc urge to explore the eternal soul and the temporal
emoons” (244). But throughout the arcle, 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 stang how “she is obviously outside the Chrisan
hierarchy and is connected with a whole strand of non-Chrisan gures, incidents, and images
in the poem” (242). He interprets this from the obscure explanaon given from the gloss and
connues with the rest of the poem sll in his Chrisan ideological framework. More modern
crics will point out how though much of the poem seems to use Chrisan terms, the more
stranger elements and the ambiguous details create distance between familiar and unfamiliar
which gave trouble to many earlier Chrisan crical readings of Coleridge's text.
Gose’s confusion with the gloss and its obscure Chrisan emphasis can be explained in
“Reading and Resistance: The Hermeneuc Subtext of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by
John T Netland. He suggests that the poem displays an “incongruous mixture of pagan and
Chrisan symbols” (38) and examines the use of the gloss as a hermeneuc. Although the
“gloss-wring 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 Chrisan
overtones of the poem. Netland states the gloss and the poem itself create a unique tension
“between contrasng religious imaginaons” (41). One is a world of categorized and raonal
set of religious experiences (inferred from gloss) while the other a spiritual, myscal, irraonal
religious sublimity (from the poem). Netland states that Coleridge may have goen his idea
from Bibles at that me with their gloss notes that gave a clearer interpretaon of the biblical
text. This is very similar to Jerome J. McGann’s examinaons in his brilliant arcle, “The
Meaning of the Ancient Mariner”, where McGann briey details the poem’s history from its
inial cricism to Coleridge’s embracing of Chrisan ideology to his Higher Crical analycs of
the re-interpretave process of the Bible to Coleridge’s aempt in mimicking this layered
Varghese, Conversion Confusion - 2
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hermeneuc 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 edion, and with Wordworth’s concerns, Coleridge made
alteraons 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 narraves. Coleridge
had argued in length on issues of Higher Cricism that Scriptures were “not an unmediated
and xed biblical text but an evolved and connuously evolving set of records which include
the Church's later glosses on and interpretaons 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 narrave 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 interpretaon. McGann believes that “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner” is Coleridge’s imitaon of “a culturally redacted literary work” (51).
But coming back to Netland’s arcle, the gloss, he believes, becomes an inadequate
hermeneuc for analyzing the poem. Netland suggests that the gloss is inadequate as a
hermeneuc since the editor reduces the Mariner’s spiritual journey, acons, and suerings
into a straight-forward neat plot to emphasize Chrisan redempon. 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 hermeneucs when analyzing the
journey of the Mariner.
But can the gloss be ignored? McGann disagrees and states that the changes (as well as
the addion 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
reaconary movement in which a daring and radical poem is transformed into a relavely
tame work of Chrisan symbolism” (42) when Coleridge retreated from his radical views to his
later Chrisan ideology. McGann, in his arcle, dives deeply into Coleridge’s understanding of
the Higher Crical analysis of the Chrisan Bible to show Coleridge’s Hermeneuc Model of his
poem originang from his ideas of the process of the Bible's creaon. Coleridge saw how
God’s Word was “expressed and later reexpressed through commentary, gloss, and
interpretaon by parcular people at dierent mes according to their diering lights” (43).
Coleridge’s poem is presented as just this type of reinterpreted text retaining its own
ideological coherence even through the fragmentaon from reinterpretaon. McGann states
that the poem shows Coleridge’s process of “textual evoluon” and the symbolic meaning of
that process is a Chrisan redempve one.
We can see how the very nature of religion aected 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, Romancism and Transcendence: Wordsworth,
Coleridge, and the Religious Imaginaon, 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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pracces Coleridge’s theories of imaginaon, he examines closely the nature of religion in
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in chapter 6. Although Coleridge had theological
speculaons, he was a “praccal Chrisan” (89). Coleridge believed in living out the praccal
aspects of his faith. Barth does not give a complete examinaon of Coleridge’s poem, but
hones in to what he believes gives strength and beauty to Coleridge’s poetry. The noon of
“polarity” (a “balance or reconciliaon of opposites” (6)) is central to Coleridge's theories of
imaginaon. Opposite objects, qualies, 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 “uning
the creature with the Creator” (90). Coleridge's guilt and need for redempon is bound to his
longing for forgiveness and friendship with God. Coleridge calls prayer the “the eort to
connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God” (90). It is a means of connecng 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 Chrisan ideology, a shi that can be seen in the poem and its revision, this
idea of prayer is sll 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 hermeneuc in interpreng Coleridge’s poem.
Christopher Stokes’ arcle “'My Soul In Agony': Irraonality And Chrisanity 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
irraonal. 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 Chrisan terms, there is sll 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 dicult transion from Unitarianism to
Anglican Chrisanity. Coleridge struggled with Chrisanity’s concept of “original sin” and a
closer examinaon 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
(specically 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 acons of Adam and
Eve, “sin” (a propensity to disobey God) originated in the Garden and connued to all future
generaons. Paul teaches a reinterpretaon 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 Mahew may
have been circulang prior to Romans being wrien). The audiences would understand that
Jesus died as a sacricial lamb for the sins (actual personal commied 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 generaons.
Later under the Roman church, Saint Augusne 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 generaon (Kelley, 34-
38). This was the concept of “Original Sin.” This is a belief that is sll held today by Catholics
and Protestants (although, it may vary based on demonizaon).
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 sll carry their guilt. They state
“it would contradict the love and jusce of God to aribute to us the sin of others, because sin
is one's own personal acon” (Jzsef, 107). This was a key to why Coleridge struggled in his
conversion to Chrisanity and is evident in his poem. Stokes, in his arcle, explains the
struggle readers have with the strange and irraonal elements in the poem are reecve 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 crics 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 moon (a “determinave eects of moves”
based on Unitarian moral theory (5)). The albatross' death is a “powerful but inially
unintelligible event” but has “no obvious moral or religious signicance” (6).
Coleridge, aer his conversion and rming in Chrisan ideology, comes to term with
original sin and revises his work (through addions, subtracons, and including a gloss for the
poem) giving it a more Anglican tone. The gloss becomes an Anglican hermeneuc bringing
the poem under a Chrisan ideology and moral order. The poem under the gloss gives it
a Chrisan “salvaonal 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 crical belief that “the Mariner conspicuously
relies on Chrisan rituals and beliefs . . . the Chrisan doctrine fails to explain his world of
excessive suering and irraonal events” (11). But he states that before we dismiss these
strange elements as irraonal, we must explore Coleridge's religious thinking at the me of
wring the poem and both its revisions. It is only through the examinaon of his personal faith
and conversion that we can develop a proper hermeneuc to interpret Coleridge’s poem.
It would be erroneous to assume irraonality as a failure of the poem's Chrisan moral
code. One must look at Coleridge's conversion as well as his struggle with the Chrisan
doctrine of original sin that creates the irraonal or at least creates ambiguous language. It is
only through this hermeneuc that we can fully understand and appreciate Coleridge’s poem
where he aempts to understand and present to us the concepts that are beyond
Varghese, Conversion Confusion - 5
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Works Cited
Netland, John T. “Reading And Resistance: The Hermeneuc Subtext Of The Rime Of The
Ancient Mariner.Chrisanity And Literature 43.1 (1993): 37-58.
Stokes, Christopher. “'My Soul In Agony': Irraonality And Chrisanity In The Rime Of The
Ancient Mariner.Studies In Romancism 50.1 (2011): 3-28.
McGann, Jerome J. “The Meaning Of The Ancient Mariner.Crical 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: Publicaons Of The Modern
Language Associaon Of America 75.3 (1960): 238-244.
Barth, J Robert. Romancism and Transcendence: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious
Imaginaon. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. eBook Collecon
(EBSCOhost). Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Jzsef, Ferencz. Erd, Jnos. Lrinczi, Lszl. Andrshi, Gyrgy. Miller, Byron C. “The Catechism
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 Augusne. Saint Augusne of Hippo: Selecons from Confessions and
Other Essenal Wrings, Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths
Pub., 2010. Print.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Speaking of the “plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’” in Chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria , Coleridge pointed out that while Wordsworth was to deal with “the wonders of the world before us,” he himself was to try to connect the human truth of “our inward nature” with the “shadows of imagination.” The fruitfulness of this connection is evidenced by “The Ancient Mariner”; its aesthetic basis was analyzed by Coleridge at a later date: “The romantic poetry,” he decided, appeals “to the imagination rather than to the senses and to the reason as contemplating our inward nature, the working of the passions in their most retired recesses.” By “exciting our internal emotions,” the poet “acquires the right and privilege of using time and space as they exist in the imagination, obedient only to the laws which the imagination acts by.” Philosophically, Coleridge's transcendentalism is obviously responsible for this assertion of the superiority of the mind over nature; he had remarked its psychological basis as early as 1805: In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for, a symbolical language, for something within me that already and for ever exists, than observing anything new. Even when that latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phenomenon were the dim awakening of a forgotten or hidden truth of my inner nature. ( Anima Poetae , p. 136).
Romanticism and Transcendence: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web
  • J Barth
  • Robert
Barth, J Robert. Romanticism and Transcendence: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Saint Augustine of Hippo: Selections from Confessions and Other Essential Writings, Annotated and Explained
  • Joseph T Kelley
Kelley, Joseph T., and Augustine. Saint Augustine of Hippo: Selections from Confessions and Other Essential Writings, Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Pub., 2010. Print.