Where There’s a Rime, Is There a Reason?

Defining the Personae in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner [1]

Leah Richards-Fisher

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp63-68)




WHEN FIRST PUBLISHED in 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere met with criticism on the basis of its incomprehensibility, both of language and of meaning.  In response to the first complaint, he published The Ancient Mariner: A Poet’s Reverie in 1800, a version of the poem without the archaic spelling and syntax of the original; in 1817, he published an essentially final version, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, complete with a marginal gloss, perhaps in response to the second objection.  Within this edition of the poem, there are three distinct and active personae, and each performs a different function within the text, representing multiple levels of understanding and interpretive ability; they are the Ancient Mariner, a man who, through a careless action, is doomed to walk the earth, the Wedding-Guest, the Mariner’s audience for this version of the tale, and the Scribe, a scholar making marginal notes and judgments on the text. There is another persona, that of the poet/ narrator, whose participation, unlike that of the other three, is obscured; a final participant is the reader.  The relationships of the personae, particularly the first three, to the text can ultimately be defined by the relationship each has to the purported moral of the poem.

       The story of the poem is one of loss, agonizing loneliness and despair, and suggests the lack of reason in the universe and the capriciousness of providence.  A series of events, largely irrational and set in motion by a motiveless act, lead to the Mariner’s encounter with the supernatural, and a game of chance decides his fate.  The Mariner’s account of these events is framed by a wedding; he stops a guest and captivates him with his tale.  A ship on which he sailed became surrounded by ice at the South Pole after a storm, and was approached by an albatross.  The apparent cause of later events is that the Mariner, without provocation, kills the albatross, after which his ship becomes stranded in an uncharted and terrifying ocean.  The ship is approached by another, spectral, ship; the two passengers, Death and Life-in-Death, are shooting dice for the lives of the crew.  As a result of the game, the rest of the crew die, silently cursing the Mariner as their souls leave their bodies, but he lives on in despair.  Haunted by the corpses, both of the crew and of the albatross, which is hung about his neck, the Mariner tries to pray




but cannot.  After a week, he suddenly sees beauty in the ocean creatures around him, is able to pray, and the corpse of the albatross falls from his neck.  A supernatural force drives his ship, piloted by reanimated corpses, home; he lands, and is compelled, for the first time, to tell his tale.  Since that time, in the unnamed past, he has roamed the earth and repeated this act of telling.

       The arbitrary nature of both the Mariner’s crime and his punishment led Anna Laetitia Barbauld to complain to Coleridge that the poem, besides being ‘improbable… had no moral.’[2]  Coleridge disagreed, claiming the poem’s ‘only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader.’[3]  Barbauld identified the frustration that many readers feel, the discrepancy between the articulated moral and the story as a whole.  Because the albatross dies, two hundred men suffer long and miserable deaths, and the perpetrator of the (admittedly senseless) crime suffers for an additional week before spirits occupy the corpses of his dead crewmates and sail the ship home.  He manages to pray only once, is at best only partly shriven, and roams the earth, telling strangers his tale.  There is no suggestion that this is a period of penance that will end or that he will ever be absolved of his sin.  This incommensurability between cause and effect is visible in the moral of the poem as well—as the punishment is inappropriate to the crime, the moral derived by the Mariner is incompatible with his experiences. Just as the Mariner takes his leave of the Wedding-Guest, he says


He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast.


He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things both great and small;

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.               (1817, l. 612-617)


However, it seems that, if this world were one of a God of love for all things, an entire crew of men guilty only of condoning the killing of the albatross would not suffer such a fate.  An irrational act is not remedied nor are amends made by greater irrationality.

       The varying levels of comprehension and the responses of each active persona to the events help to define the role of each in the poem.  The Mariner is a man who has undergone a terrible experience, from which he has gained a life of wandering the earth, visions such as his ship piloted by reanimated corpses, and a compulsion to tell a story that, even simplified or weakened, will likely terrify or repel any audience, but he has gained no greater understanding.  The Mariner can no longer exercise free will: he is unable to choose either his audience or his time to speak.  Having realized this freedom once, in killing the




albatross, his penance includes an inability to exercise this basic right.  Seeking a reason for his suffering, the Mariner reduces his experience of the irrational to crime and punishment; he hears a voice ask if he is the man who killed the bird that the polar spirit loved, and from this, he derives the explanation for his suffering: that he did not love God’s creature.  The moral is removed from the actual events, both spatially and temporally, suggesting that the Mariner perhaps derived his moral from one of his retellings of his story.  Reliving the experience does not enlighten him; in fact, he is distanced with each retelling, if his moral is the conclusion at which he arrives.  The Mariner seems to see his penance as fitting the crime, since to admit to the irrationality of his punishment (and that of the crew) would be to admit that the universe is brutally unfair and that live is a game of chance.  This horror would, it seems, be greater than what he has experienced already. 

       Thus, the Mariner’s moral is not that of the poem; it is the Mariner’s attempt to find meaning in his experiences.  He reports the events that take place, and projects his own value system onto the outcome.  The Mariner, by concluding his tale in such a way, shows that he has not gained understanding from his experience.  The man who shot an albatross for no reason simply regrets the action because it led to his present state.  He remembers his agony and despair, just before delivering the moral—’O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been/ Alone on a wide wide sea’ (l. 597-598)—but still reduces his experience to a lesson on Christian kindness.

       A similar value system seems inherent to the persona writing the marginal gloss, that of a scholar or scribe scribbling comments at the edges of the text.  The marginal gloss, added in 1817, has been called a ‘parasitic growth.’[4]  However, Coleridge must have carefully considered such a major change to the poem after nearly 20 years, and it would be a mistake to devalue the gloss as a poetic device, no matter how intrusive, pious and naive the persona might seem.  This Scribe is a developed character, and his responses are consistent with that character.  Like the Mariner, the Scribe is trying to find meaning and reason to which he can relate in the tale. He adds meaning to the text rather than deriving meaning from it, saying alongside the lines where the Mariner kills the albatross, ‘The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen’ (l. 79)—giving the albatross moral qualities and thus compounding the crime—and continuing by incriminating the crew in the Mariner’s act: ‘[T]hey justify the same, and thus make themselves accomplices in the crime.’(l.97)  The moral stance taken by the gloss is stronger than that of the excised Argument from the 1800 version of the poem, which provided moral guidance in addition to the geographical points made by the 1798 Argument.  The 1800 Argument says that the ‘Ancient Mariner cruelly, and in contempt of the laws of hospitality, killed a Sea-bird.’  Without the Argument, one might not know that laws were violated, but the gloss goes further in making the bird




pious and significant.  The gloss also trivializes events by reducing them to actions only: ‘The ship driven by a storm’ accompanies the lines ‘And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he/ Was tyrannous and strong.’ (l. 41-2)

       The gloss could be a mockery of the obtuse reader, an extreme response to readers’ demand for clarity.  The Scribe persona is, as a commentator on an already-existing text, closer in thought to the modern reader than the other personae in the text; unfortunately, however, he may be like the Mariner or an inadequate reader in that he lacks understanding.  The Scribe tries, like the Mariner, to find reason in the irrational events that take place, and thus, like the Mariner, he falls short of understanding.  The Scribe further emphasizes the Mariner’s moral by ending his explanation of events as follows: ‘And to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.’(l. 610) Both the Mariner and the Scribe terminate their understanding—and quit the poem—upon reaching the moral.  However, the final participant remains active through the remaining lines of the poem.

       The final active persona is that of the Wedding-Guest, ‘one of three’ arbitrarily selected by the Mariner.  He resists the Mariner at first, but is eventually compelled to listen, just as the Mariner is compelled to speak.  The Wedding-Guest exhibits buffoonish behavior at the onset of the encounter, particularly in the first two versions of the poem, when he responds to the Mariner by saying ‘Nay, if thou’st got a laughsome tale,/ Marinere! come with me;’ (1798, l. 12) this response to a person in need is in itself awkward and ill-bred, as is his threat in these versions that ‘my Staff shall make thee skip.’ (1798, l. 16)  In the later version of the poem, the Wedding-Guest’s invective is directed only toward getting the Mariner to ‘unhand him,’ (1817, l. 11) but he consistently refers to the Mariner as a ‘grey-beard Loon.’ (l. 11)

       The originally reluctant auditor eventually responds with Romantic sympathy, a refined emotional response based on imagination and an ability to feel sensations, whether physical or mental, very like those of another.  Adam Smith defined the process in 1759:


By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.  His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.[5]


       Both Coleridge and Wordsworth develop similar notions of ‘sympathy’ and its place in poetry.  Adam Smith acknowledges that ‘[t]he greatest ruffian,




the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without’[6] the capacity to feel sympathy, and the Wedding-Guest’s responses suggest that he is a most receptive audience.  His first spoken interruption to the tale is one of concern for the Mariner, not himself, as he says, ‘God save thee, ancient mariner!/ From the fiends that plague thee thus!’ (l.79-80) and his next interruption is one of fear, as he interrupts the Mariner’s description of the crew’s deaths, fearing, reasonably, that the Mariner is also dead:  ‘‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner! I fear thy skinny hand!’ (l. 224-225)  His reaction seems natural; not only are the Mariner’s appearance and hypnotic eyes frightening, but it is not until after this interruption that the Mariner says outright that he is not a ghost:  ‘Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!/ This body dropt not down.’ (l. 230-231) An expression of fear would not have been out of place well before this point.  The Wedding-Guest repeats ‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!’ when the Mariner speaks of the reanimated corpses. (l.345) This shows that he is not only hearing the story, but is responding emotionally. 

       At the poem’s end, the Wedding-Guest doesn’t speak, but leaves the wedding altogether.  He has been affected by the story to a greater extent than the Mariner, having comprehended more than the Mariner perhaps meant to tell.  The poem’s final stanza says


He went like one that hath been stunned,

And is of sense forlorn:

A sadder and a wiser man,

He rose the morrow morn.  (l. 622-625)


The Mariner’s tale ends with his statement of the moral, but the Wedding-Guest’s response is not that of a man uplifted.  Instead, he is man with greater knowledge, and with that knowledge comes pain.

       Without the Wedding-Guest, there would be no poem; he is the audience for this version of the Mariner’s tale, and furthermore, he also assumes the role of interpreter.  However, he is frequently undervalued, as the lout of the opening lines or in terms only of what he initially symbolizes: the wedding, the feasting, the ‘merry din’ (l. 8) of which he and the Mariner are not a part.  However, the Wedding-Guest seems to be the only active persona to realize that the message of the tale is much more than a call to love all creatures.  If the purpose of the Mariner’s tale were simply to encourage love and brotherhood, an auditor for his tale might awaken wiser the next day, but the Wedding-Guest’s sorrow shows that he also sees what the Mariner experienced but doesn’t comprehend—evidence as to the arbitrary nature of judgment, a sense of inequity in crime and divine punishment, an overwhelming sense of what it means to be truly alone, and an accompanying loss of hope. Like the Mariner, who ‘[i]s gone’ at the poem’s end, ‘the Wedding-Guest/ Turned from the bridegroom’s door;’ (l. 620-621) he too is now in a way an exile, but one




who committed no crime to earn, justifiably or not, such a punishment.  The poem, which opened with the Mariner, concludes with the Wedding-Guest; this image of a shattered young man positions itself next to that of the ‘grey-beard’ with which the poem began.  As the Wedding-Guest’s youth is in contrast to the age of the Mariner, so too is his silence in opposition to the old man’s conversation.

       Coleridge, discussing Lyrical Ballads many years later, asserted that he and Wordsworth wrote the poems with the goal of ‘interesting… the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real.[7]   It is not necessary that the reader of such poems actually experience something; a reader able to experience sympathy is able to react emotionally as though he had.  The Wedding-Guest, the only one of the three personae who is affected more deeply by the tale itself than by the moral of love, represents the empathy that Coleridge hoped his readers would feel. 

       When reading any piece of literature that includes a frame, one must consider why the writer included it; The Rime actually has more than one frame.  Both the encounter between the Mariner and the Wedding-Guest and the marginal space in which the Scribe provides his explanations are frames to a poem of terror, loneliness and loss.  Perhaps the frames are to distance the tale from the audience, to control its emotional potential; then again, perhaps Coleridge included the frames to offer models of good and bad readers to his audience.  There are three distinct personae in the poem itself, and each provides a distinct model.  The Mariner, compelled to tell his story, is very like a poet; however, his limited understanding demonstrates that he is unable to interpret events, and that he is not, after all, more than a storyteller.  The Scribe represents a reader, applying his own experiences and knowledge to a text he cannot comprehend.  An ideal reader would not be troubled by a lack of experience, but the Scribe seems to lack the imagination needed to execute a sympathetic reading, forcing the unknown into his moral framework.  What seems to be missing is reader who will grasp at the meaning of events, experienced or reported, and through the filter of his own emotions, provide a way of indulging in incidents and feelings he or she might not wish to experience first-hand; this role could be filled by the active, sympathetic auditor, the Wedding-Guest.  The Wedding-Guest, as a captive listener and an able interpreter, is a model for all readers of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

[1]       This paper, delivered in the present form at the 2002 Coleridge Summer Conference, is very much a work in progress.  Many thanks to the conference participants, particularly Professor Paul Magnuson, for suggesting directions The relationships of the personae, particularly the first three, to the text can ultimately be defined by the relationship each has to the purported moral of the poem.

[2]       Table Talk, in The Oxford Authors: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. H. J. Jackson. (New York: Oxford UP, 1985), 593.

[3]       Table Talk, 593; Coleridge recorded this exchange in 1830; it is worth considering that his response could be in reference to the moralizing nature of the Gloss, added in 1817.

[4]       David Pirie, qtd. in Raimonda Modiano, ‘Words and ‘Languageless’ Meanings: Limits of Expression in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’  Modern Language Quarterly, 38 (1977), 44.

[5]        Smith, Adam.  The Theory of Moral Sentiments, (London: n.p., 1759),. I.i.

[6]       Ibid I.i

[7]       S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, in The Oxford Authors: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 314.