In 1798 when William Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on the collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads that has been called “The Romantic Manifesto”, Wordsworth chose to write poems that made the ordinary extraordinary, whilst Coleridge decided “my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural” (from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV) using the supernatural to examine human nature. The first poem in the collection was “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and the poem clearly demonstrates what Coleridge intended.
It is worth noting that Coleridge published three different versions of the poem. In fact, scholars have identified at least 18 different texts (Stillinger, J. (1992) “The Multiple Versions of Coleridge's Poems: How Many "Mariners" Did Coleridge Write?” from Studies in Romanticism Vol. 31, No. 2. Boston, Boston University) but these three are the most significant. The first (1798) contains a large number of archaic spellings (for example, the title given in “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”, and differs in places substantially from the more familiar text.
In 1800 Wordsworth modernised the spellings for the second edition of the collection; and in 1817 Coleridge produced another version restored some of the archaic spelling, and added a Latin preface and marginal notes. This is the version used by AQA for LITB2.
As with Rossetti's “Goblin Market”, it is arguable that the poem has a simplicity that explains why it so often features in children's anthologies. The story is appealing and approachable; and the language is simple and direct. This latter point is important: as Wordsworth explained in his Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads their purpose was to write “in a selection of language really used by men “: for the subjects of the poems, “Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language “.
This language use is the first “aspect of narrative” we should consider. The simplicity of the language is always evident:
This, however, raises a question. Given this simplicity of language and narrative, why did Coleridge choose to add marginal annotation to the 1817 version? The purpose of a gloss is to simplify the complex, but as we have argued, the poem is already driven by simplicity in both plot and language. Furthermore, a quick comparison of the base text and marginal gloss suggests that the annotations serve only to obfuscate. For example, the first lines “It is an ancient mariner / And he stoppeth one of three” is glossed “An ancient Mariner meeteth three gallants bidden to a wedding feast, and detaineth one."
For the student, this dichotomy gives good opportunities to play with critical ideas. Is Coleridge making fun of academics here? The “scholarly notes” are clearly overly complex, often amusingly so: “The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen. “ They are also couched in a formal, archaic and artificial diction which contrast with the aim to employ “the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation .” (Wordsworth's Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads.) So is Coleridge suggesting that the story should be regarded as a simple ballad-like tale, rather than be subject to academic criticism?
Alternatively, as the “scholarly notes” simply “translate” the poem, do they act ironically as an invitation to true academic criticism: allowing alternative readings to unfold (as we do here)?
Thirdly, it is noted that the notes are in prose: and as Robert Frost (allegedly) said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Do the notes serve as a backdrop against which we can more clearly see the beauty of the poetry? Contrast “The Wedding-Guest is spell-bound by the eye of the old seafaring man, and constrained to hear his tale” with
“He holds him with his glittering eye -
Another possible argument arises from the contrast between the complexity of the marginal notes and the simplicity of the language of the poem: is the reader having this simplicity highlighted: the complexity underlining the beauty of the involving, direct language of this poem?
So, is this poem more than a simple tale? The ending might suggest not: indeed, as with much children's literature, the poem ends with a moral:
“He prayeth best, who lovest best
And yet such an ending might seem fitting. The poem is littered with references from religion: “To Mary Queen the praise be given”; “The man hath penance done / And penance more will do”; “As it had been a Christian soul / We hailed it in God's name”. There is arguably a clear religious context behind this poem that might suggest it works as a parable. However, despite this, and despite the presence of “The Hermit good”, this is not a conventionally Christian universe that Coleridge creates. The “tutelary spirits”, the presence of the “Nightmare Life -in-Death” and Death, her skeletal companion and even Coleridge's decision to use the word “kirk” rather than “church” and “hermit” rather than “priest” show this clearly. We know that Coleridge saw himself (certainly in 1798) as a “Platonic Trinitarian, one for whom a philosophical marrying of the physical and the spiritual was key. His religious views were as radical as his political philosophy.
So we could argue that the poem posits a moral universe, one in which action has both physical and spiritual consequences. The action of killing the albatross is unpremeditated, motiveless and physical: the consequences are both physical (“And every tongue, from utter drought / Was withered at the root”) and spiritual (“And never a saint took pity on / My soul in agony.” Similarly, once the Mariner finds redemption (by an act that mirrors his sin, both spontaneous and unpremeditated, blessing the water-snakes “unaware”) his condition is relieved both physically (“when I awoke it rained”) and spiritually (“That selfsame moment I could pray”.) This is highlighted in Coleridge's use of a physical religious symbol: “Instead of a cross the albatross / About my neck was hung”; “The albatross / Fell off into the sea.”
Arguably, this links in both to the simplicity of the language and of the moral. We live in a complex world where the links between action and consequence are often hidden. Is Coleridge arguing that, despite this, we too live in a moral universe, and that if we could see as God does, then we should also see clearly the moral links between sin, punishment, penance and redemption?
Taking this further, we could also look at Coleridge's use of setting. Despite writing from a context becoming more industrialised (Blake's line, “These dark Satanic Mills” was penned
Coleridge places his narrative in an idealised rural setting (The Hermit good / Lives in the wood”) in an age before the age of discovery (“We were the first that ever burst / Into that silent sea”), and the simplicity of time and place allows the reader to see what is really true in this universe untrammeled by modern complexity.
Furthermore, much of the narrative takes place in the isolated setting of a ship. This not only links to the idea of isolated simplicity, a ship is a clear symbol of inexorable fate: especially a ship that is driven by the storm-blast, “tyrannous and strong”, becalmed by the Polar Spirit, and then propelled forcibly back to the “own countree” of the mariner.
The tale is of a voyage – and again, the voyage is not simply physical, but also spiritual – and it is one shared by the Wedding Guest, who “cannot choose but hear”: “”A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn.”
Similarly, perhaps therefore we as reader are invited to share this journey. We are arguably like the wedding guest, focused on the physical joys of the world – the wedding feast, the “merry minstrelsy”, and in danger of missing the moral truths of our world. We, like the Wedding guest, are held by the “glittering eye” of Coleridge's narrator: and we too have the opportunity through the narrative to consider our place in the universe.