Coleridge, the French Revolution and the
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 7, pp 30-48)
In his famous anecdote of 31 May 1830, Coleridge described his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as ‘a work of such pure imagination’ which ought to have no more moral than a tale from the Arabian Nights.  It might thus seem perverse to try to relate the poem to a historical event such as the French Revolution. As Carl Woodring points out ‘If some of the poet’s own dangerous voyaging was political, his Mariner’s was not explicitly so’.  Yet for the young radical Coleridge of the 1790s, ‘Imagination’ was itself a very political power and while he was composing The Ancient Mariner Coleridge was preaching political sermons against the war with revolutionary France, writing political journalism criticising the government of the day under the Prime Minister William Pitt (whom Coleridge detested), as well as writing explicitly political poetry about events in France and at home. Thus I think it is not inappropriate to enquire of the poem if any of these contemporary concerns resurface from their concealed depths ‘through nether seas up—thundering’, rather as the Avenging spirit rises to torment the mariner.
When asked to write on this subject I thought that it was a relatively straightforward brief. I had to describe Coleridge’s political and religious opinions in the 1790s and his response to the French Revolution and to indicate how such beliefs might be reflected, evaded or simply shown to be redundant in discussing his most famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner composed in 1797 and 1798. However, as we know, nothing is ever straightforward or simplistic when we come to analyse the work of the notoriously serpentine and dialectical thinker, S.T.Coleridge. Indeed all three terms in my title need some exegesis. Firstly,’ Coleridge’. Leaving aside the poststructuralist notion that all ‘authors’ are an effect of language and thus exist in
multiple and inconsistent forms (a notion that is anticipated in Coleridge’s own attempt to write his literary life, the Biographia Literaria) we are still left with a remarkably protean personality, which is difficult to pin down to any set of easily-ascertainable beliefs. Although Coleridge himself liked to claim a continuity between his earlier radical dissenting self and the later conservative Sage of Highgate, there certainly exist what Max Schulz has called the ‘many’ or ‘multivisaged’ Coleridges: poet, journalist, lecturer, preacher, addict, damaged archangel, religious prophet, philosopher, sage.  All Coleridges which critics have identified. So too we have the crude dichotomy of the chestnut-haired radical Unitarian political activist and the silver-haired conservative Trinitarian which Coleridge denied was a dichotomy at all in his famous punning reference to his own initials STC: ‘He Hath Stood’. Yet despite the many continuities that we can find between the early and the later Coleridge, his philosophical, political and religious beliefs did undergo substantial change from his youth to his maturity. To complicate things it is, in my opinion, at a crucial watershed in his intellectual career that Coleridge actually composes his ballad The Rime of The Ancient Mariner. This makes it an even more complex task to find how the poem may or may not reflect changing, and possibly inconsistent, ideas.
To turn to the third term in my title, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The ballad was probably begun on
the ‘dark and cloudy evening’ of 13 November 1797 and finished on 23 March 1798
and subsequently published in September of that year in the collaborative
volume Lyrical Ballads.  During
this period Coleridge’s political hopes fluctuated in accordance with the very
dramatic political events concurrently occurring in
Ancient Mariners and the poem that Coleridge published in 1798 is not the poem that most of us are familiar with. Jack Stillinger in his recent book Coleridge & Textual Instability has identified at least eighteen distinct versions of the poem, although he adds that a dozen of these versions contain only minor differences. The differences in these texts are well-known. Coleridge removed most of the archaic spellings that were a very distinctive feature of the first published text in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, dropped a ‘Prose Argument’ printed with the first two editions of Lyrical Ballads, made changes in the title (adding and later removing the defensive subtitle ‘A Poet’s Reverie’), and later in 1817 he added a lengthy Latin epigraph from Thomas Burnet and the fifty-five explanatory and interpretative marginal glosses to the poem, which most readers and critics first assumed were Coleridge’s attempts to explain the poem but which many now regard as a commentary, ostensibly written in the persona of an eighteenth-century editor or interpreter of the poem. Stillinger concludes that it makes no real sense to talk of the poem as if it were a straightforward text:
The poem in its last revision is thus radically different from the earliest version that we know of. That first version is a relatively simple story of crime, punishment, and partial redemption; the latest version is an elaborate, multi-layered narrative (or set of narratives) saturated with historical,social, moral, and theological significance, involving themes like the unity and sanctity of nature, original sin, social alienation and communion, fatalism, and the creative imagination, for which it sets out a developed theory.
I mention this textual detail because it clearly has an impact on the ways in which the poem might be seen to reflect on Coleridge’s ideas at the time of composition. When William Empson and David Pirie published their selection of
Coleridge’s poetry for Faber in 1972 they chose to print an eclectic text made up of different versions but excluding the marginal glosses. Empson believed that Coleridge had written a radical pantheistic poem in his youth which illustrated his then belief in revolutionary political and religious ideas, but that he was in a ‘thorough revulsion against the whole doctrine of Nature, as well as an extremely bad nervous condition when he added the marginal glosses to the poem for Sibylline Leaves (1817)’. Empson argues that the glosses christianise the poem, turning the pantheist spirits of nature into orthodox angels. Empson has in turn been criticised for assuming that the glosses are the voice of the later Coleridge and numerous critics have commented on their dramatic and ironic effects, seeing them as the voice of an eighteenth-century reader of the poem, who has his own interpretation of the poem. Thus the gloss tells us that by their justification of the mariner’s shooting of the albatross the crew ‘make themselves accomplices in the crime’. 
It should be noted that as well as deleting the archaic diction of the poem’s first version, Coleridge also heavily toned down the strong Gothic elements in the original text. For example the stanza describing Death which appears to have been inspired by the Gothic excess of ‘Monk’ Lewis is removed:
His bones were black with many a crack,
All black and bare I ween,
Jet-black and bare, save where with rust
Of mouldy damps and charnel crust
They’re patch’d with purple and green 
To be replaced in the 1817 version by the question ‘Is DEATH that woman’s mate?’ Death’s wanton and leprous mate whose ‘flesh makes the still air cold’ of 1798 also undergoes a transformation. In 1798 she resembles Matthew Lewis’s depiction of the apparition of the ‘Bleeding Nun’ from his Gothic novel The Monk. In 1817 she becomes the symbolic
femme fatale the ‘Night-Mair LIFE-IN-DEATH’ who now renders men impotent as she ‘thicks man’s blood with cold’ (pp.226-7) . Although this expunging of the Gothic might seem very much removed from the realm of the political, it is important to point out how subversive and transgressive a genre the Gothic novel was perceived to be in the 1790s, being connected with the excess of Schiller and the Sturm und Drang, identified by conservative critics as a left-wing Jacobin style, and parodied in the pro-government satirical Anti-Jacobin as such. One reviewer described the Lyrical Ballads showing the ‘extravagance of a mad German poet’.  This sense of the poem’s style as signalling its possible radicalism is re-inforced by Coleridge’s use of the ballad form, arguably the most democratic of all literary modes. Thus it can be seen that if the style or the content of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner may reflect his revolutionary ardour the later revisions and additions could be seen to demonstrate a wish to tone down its more obviously radical elements.
Finally, before turning to look at the poem, I need to say
something about the other term of my title, ‘the French Revolution’ and the way
that Coleridge responded to it. The French Revolution itself was not a
monolithic and unified movement, but a series of political events and Coleridge’s
response to it fluctuated accordingly. Throughout the 1790s Coleridge in his Bristol Lectures, his journal The Watchman and his political
journalism for The Morning Post commented
in detail upon the phases and progress of the Revolution. Coleridge appears to
have become a supporter of the revolution and an upholder of dissenting views
of society and religion while at
with the moderate republicanism of the Girondin faction, a group of delegates to the National Convention who clustered around the figure of Jacque-Pierre Brissot whom Coleridge particularly identified with. The Girondist party stood firm by the principles of 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and were strong opponents of slavery. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge had become depressed when this party were purged from the convention and its leaders executed to be followed by the excesses of the French Terror. Both were subsequently relieved by the fall of Robespierre. With the new revolutionary government of the Directory it seemed as Wordsworth put it in Book Ten of The Prelude that ‘authority put on a milder face’ and Coleridge in The Watchman praised the new government for effecting a balance of progress and stability, although he became increasingly suspicious of its expansionist tendencies.
Coleridge believed that the Revolution illustrated certain political truths. Although he was critical of Robespierre and the Terror, he blamed this not on the Revolution itself but on the European powers who combined to strangle the infant Revolution in its cradle in 1792, thus compelling the French to become the slaves of bloody fanatics. Coleridge believed that this process illustrated what was to become the central tenet of his later political philosophy, as he put it in his A Moral and Political Lecture of 1795: ‘The annals of the French Revolution have recorded in Letters of Blood, that the Knowledge of the Few, when it is confined to a small Minority, points out the Possessors as the Victims, rather than the Illuminators of the Multitude’. Coleridge is thus arguing that some kind of prior enlightenment or moral revolution, must precede political change. The French revolutionaries, he argues, had perforce to proceed with political change without first enlightening the people. Encountering the ignorance of the masses they had either like the Girondist group resisted the mob’s extremism and fallen victim to it or, as the Jacobins, committed the ‘gigantic error’ of making ‘certain Evil the means of contingent ill’.
Coleridge, interestingly, accepts that Robespierre’s final
aims might have been good, but the means he used to achieve them discredited
them and rendered them unachievable. For the Unitarian dissenter there was only
one efficient way that the Friends of Freedom could prepare the masses for the
process of political change. In the Bristol
Lectures he argues that religion should be used to motivate action and
mitigate revenge. It is the ‘only means universally efficient whereby ‘the
Tyranny of the Present can be overpowered by the tenfold mightiness of the Future.
Religion will cheer... gloom with her promises, and by habituating [the] mind
to anticipate an infinitely great Revolution hereafter, may prepare it even for
the sudden reception of a less degree of amelioration in this World’.  Thus the excesses of the French
Revolution could be avoided if the sudden reception of political change could be
prepared for by the preaching of the gospel, and for the Unitarian Coleridge in
1795, as the Bristol Lectures make
clear, the preaching of the Gospel was a political, indeed, a radical act.
Coleridge described the preaching of his own sermons as ‘ peppered with
He was still preaching in this
manner in 1798 if Hazlitt’s account of his sermon to the Unitarian congregation
To conclude this. survey of Coleridge’s views on the
Revolution one must move to what I
believe is the crucial event in Coleridge’s relationship with the Revolution:
Amazonian warrior: ‘
The sensual and the Dark rebel in vain,
Slaves by their own compulsion! In mad game
They burst their manacles and wear the name
Of Freedom, graven on a heavier chain!
Coleridge here is arguing that true Freedom is an inward state of a virtuous mind, as he later glossed these lines ‘true political Freedom can only arise out of moral Freedom’.  Now liberty exists not in the forms of constitutional arrangements societies make for themselves but in the powers of nature. It is experienced as ‘the guide of homeless winds’:
And there I felt thee!- on that sea-cliff’s verge,
Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,
Had made one murmur with the distant surge!
Yes while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,
And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,
Possessing all things with intensest love,
When Coleridge republished his poem in 1802 he added a prose argument which explicitly denied that the ‘grand ideal of Freedom’ can be realised ‘under any form of human government’ and added that it belongs to ‘the individual man, so far as he is pure, and inflamed with the love and adoration of God in Nature’. Now I would like to suggest that this particular representation of freedom as perceived through an awareness of the One Life and of the spirit of love realised through an interfusion of self with earth, sea and air analogous to what most critics have determined to be the
climactic moment of The Ancient Mariner (though the poem
continues for over three hundred lines more), the Mariner’s blessing of the
watersnakes in the seascape of Part IV of the ballad. The poet in
It would seem that I am moving towards a political interpretation of The Ancient Mariner as one of the several poems Coleridge wrote in 1797-1798 ( Ode to the Departing Year, France: An Ode, Recantation, and Fears in Solitude) which signal the poet’s disillusionment with the French Revolution and anticipate his movement towards political conservatism. In this interpretation the French Revolution is represented in certain symbolic clusters which I will go on to discuss.
Several critics have also identified the poem with the politics of Coleridge’s time. A number have seen in the poem
allusions to the slave trade which
so horrified Coleridge and which was carried on through the
The Rime of The Ancient Mariner is very much about isolation, alienation, crime and subsequent guilt. The Mariner leaves the safe harbour of his home, family, friends and the familiar scenes of his childhood to encounter a strange, unfamiliar and menacing world. This could image the movement, in Blake’s terms, from childish innocence to adult experience. The Mariner’s language is at first childlike (‘merrily did we drop/Below the kirk, below the hill,/ Below the lighthouse top’ (p.217) .The Mariner now enters a strange and menacing world which could represent adolescence, adulthood, selfishness etc, all those things that
Blake described as relating to a state of experience. He is subject to extremes of feeling: the heat of the equator and the cold of the South Pole and is cut off and alienated from the normal ties which exist between people:
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
It is here that the Albatross enters the poem, hailed by the crew as ‘if it had been a Christian soul’. The Mariner shoots the bird for no reason, a point emphasised by the dramatic telling of the incident. ‘Why lookst thou so?’ — ‘With my crossbow/ I shot the ALBATROSS’ (P.221). The dramatic nature of this deprives us of any explanation for the act. As if in vengeful reciprocity the elements persecute the Mariner. Nature is no longer benign: ‘Nor dim nor red like God’s own head,/The glorious Sun uprist,’ (p.221) and as the ship moves to the equator it is becalmed under an intense heat-’a hot and copper sky’ and ‘bloody sun’. The Ocean itself appears rotting and putrescent.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
About about in reel and rout
The Death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witches oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white.
The diseased and alienated vision of the Mariner sees only the rotting seas and the creatures therein are repellent and repulsive. Part II of the poem which describes very vividly this extreme state of physical and’ spiritual isolation is the most Gothic and sensationalist section of the poem. It is presented through a filter of red with images of low burning sunset, blood being sucked from the vein or dripping from the heart. It is under this light that the Spectre Bark appears with its crew of Death and Nightmare Life-in-Death who gamble for the soul of the mariner and the crew. The symbolic scene of the throwing of the dice seems to indicate that this is a nightmare universe where the normal moral certainties do not apply. In E.E.Bostetter’s terms this is an arbitrary universe ruled by the throw of the dice and an avenging Jehovah, where men die in a prolonged torture of thirst for sympathising with a man who shoots a bird and where the man who shoots the bird lives on to be further persecuted. 
The state of the mariner’s universe where the normal ties of
human communication have broken down could be seen as a symbolic representation
of the state of
The depravation of our private morals is a more serious and less transient evil. All our happiness and the greater part of our virtues depend on social confidence. This beautiful fabric of Love the system of Spies and Informers has shaken to the very foundation. There have been multiplied among us ‘Men who carry tales to shed blood!’ Men who resemble the familiar Spirits described by Isaiah, as ‘dark ones, that peep and that mutter! Men,
seem to have been typically shadowed out in the frogs that formed the second
This political vision of the collapse of ‘the beautiful fabric of love’ and its usurpation by daemonic forces seems to me to be close to the nightmare world of the persecuted mariner where the mariner can stand next to the body of his brother’s son, pulling the same rope but ‘saying nought’ to him (p.237).
For Coleridge the sense of persecution was not imaginary,
Nicholas Roe has provided us with a detailed account of the spy sent to
But the mariner does not appear to be an innocent party and many commentators have noticed the extreme sense of guilt he appears to feel as a result of his actions:
Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint ‘took pity on
My soul in agony.
The many men so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
This self-loathing and guilt at being alive when all around were dead can be explained in existential terms. Yet Coleridge was making similar statements in his other poetry. The sea of blood the mariner’s boat languishes on is not unlike the ‘sea of blood bestrewed with wrecks, where mad/ Embattling Interests on each other rush/ With unhelmed rage!’ which some young Angel looks down upon in Coleridge’s apocalyptic poem of 1796 ‘Religious Musings’, a poem which explicitly predicts the overthrow of the European Kings by the French Revolution, the earthquake prophesied in Revelation 13:
And lo! the Great, the Rich, the Mighty men, The Kings and the Chief captains of the World, With all that fixed on high like stars in Heaven Shot baleful influence, shall be cast to earth, Vile and down-trodden, as the untimely fruit Shook from the fig-tree by a sudden storm. Even now the storm begins.
So too is Coleridge’s ‘Ode to the Departing Year’ of 1796
concerned with guilt which is explicitly political. In this poem the name of ‘liberty’
is dreaded because it has become the pretext for crimes and horrors. The
millenarian optimism of ‘Religious Musings’ has been replaced by a
consciousness of guilty feeling and a preoccupation with revenge, close to
those portrayed in The Ancient Mariner.
In this poem Coleridge envisages a vengeful nature punishing his nation for
crimes that it has committed against revolutionary
The nations curse thee! They with eager wondering
Shall hear Destruction, like a vulture scream!
Strange-eyed Destruction! who with many a dream
Of central fires through nether seas up—thundering
Soothes her fierce solitude. (p.130)
In this poem Coleridge seems
obsessed with the collective guilt of his nation which he prophesies is to be
punished by a vengeful nature. ‘Strange-eyed Destruction’ which apparently dreams
fitfully under the ocean soothed by marine volcanic disturbance is very close
to the depiction of the Avenging Polar Spirit and the Nightmare Life-in-Death
of the Ancient Mariner. Thus I would claim that the guilt experienced by
the mariner and his sense of self-loathing is to some extent explained by
Coleridge’s own sense of national guilt at his country’s participation in the
barbaric slave trade and its involvement with the counter-revolution in
Finally to return to the watersnakes. Coleridge in 1798 was having grave doubts about the possibility of improving humanity through actual political action, although he continued to write about political matters for the rest of his life, but I think it is fair to say that his revolutionary enthusiasm never re-surfaced, certainly never up-thundered as it had in 1795-7. Instead Coleridge came to think that the general illumination he had hoped for in 1795 might possibly occur but only through an aggregate of individual cases and that one of the best ways of achieving this conversion would be through the agency of poetry. Writing to his brother George Coleridge in March 1798, in a somewhat melodramatic manner shrewdly tailored to impress this stuffy clergyman with his semi-prodigal return to the orthodox fold, Coleridge announces his retirement from politics and his disgust with the
Revolution and the British Friends of Freedom, as well as his continued despair with the government, The letter is interesting for a statement which has great relevance to his and Wordsworth’s forthcoming collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge announces that he has withdrawn from politics to contemplate ‘fundamental & general causes’. He elaborates on ideas contained in France: An Ode
I love fields & woods. & mounta[ins] with almost a visionary fondness—and because I have found benevolence & quietness growing within me as that fondness [has] increased, therefore I should wish to be the means of implanting it in others—& to destroy the bad passions not by combating them, but by keeping them in inaction. (I 397)
Coleridge claims that this benevolence has developed in him through his contemplation of ‘the beauty of the inanimate impregnated, as with a living soul, by the presence of Life’.  This is analogous to what happens to the mariner when he blesses the watersnakes:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure some kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The mariner’s sense of the snakes’ beauty, achieved through his imaginative response to their movement and colour, leads him to unconsciously love the creatures and to reintegrate himself with the One Life. Following this the mariner is refreshed spiritually and physically by the fall of rain. The mariner’s penance is not yet over and many strange, disturbing, inexplicable and unpleasant things are still to happen to him, yet I think there is a sense here that in some way his burden has been eased.
Thus this most apolitical of poems seems to have a political element. In maintaining that the rotting ocean of The Rime of The Ancient Mariner is in one sense a metaphor for Pitt’s Britain, corrupted by persecution, spies and informers and that the mariner’s conversion is akin to Coleridge’s recantation of his support for the French Revolution and his projected turning away from democratic politics to democratic poetry, I do not mean to suggest that I have in any way answered the riddle of this sphinx of modern literature, but merely, I hope, to demonstrate that the political activities and events of Coleridge’s career should be taken into account when assessing the impact of this most powerful of poems.
© Contributor 1996 – 2005
 S.T.Coleridge, Table Talk, 31 May, 1830
 Carl Woodring, Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge (Cambridge, Mass. & London, 1970), p.65.
 Max F. Schulz, ‘Coleridge Agonistes’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 61 (1962) : 268—77
 Lawrence Hanson, The Life of S.T.Coleridge: The Early Years (New York, 1938), p.253
 Jack Stillinger, Coleridge and Textual Instability; the Multiple versions of the Major Poems (1994), p.60
Empson and David Pirie, eds. Coleridge’s
Verse: A Selection (
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems, ed.
John Beer (
 Analytical Review 28 (1978): 583-7.
Donald H. Reiman, ed. The Romantics
Reviewed: Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers. Part A The
 S.T.Coleridge, Lectures 1795: On Politics and Religion Ed. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann (Princeton: N.J.,1971), pp.6, 34-5, 44.
 The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Edited
by E.L.Griggs. 6 vols. (Oxford, 1956-71), I 176.
 Cited in Peter Kitson, ‘Coleridge, the French Revolution and The Ancient Mariner : Collective Guilt and Individual Salvation’, The Yearbook of English Studies The French Revolution in Literature and Art Special Number, 19 (1989): 197-207.
 See for example, William Empson, ‘The Ancient Mariner’, Critical Quarterly 6 (1964) : 298-319; J.B.Ebbatson, ‘Coleridge’s Mariner and the Rights of Man’ Studies in Romanticism 11(1972): 171—206; Peter Kitson, ‘Coleridge, the French Revolution and The Ancient Mariner’ op. cit.; Jerome J. McGann, ‘The Meaning of “The Ancient Mariner”’ Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 35-66.
 Chris Rubenstein, ‘A New Identity for the Mariner’ Coleridge Bulletin 3 (Winter 1990) pp.16-29; Patrick J. Keane, Coleridge’s Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner (Columbia and London, 1994 )
 Empson, ‘The Ancient Mariner’, op. cit.; Malcolm Ware, ‘Coleridge’s “Spectre Bark”: a Slave Ship?’ Philological Quarterly 40 (1961): 589-93.
 Empson, ‘The Ancient Mariner’, op. cit.
The Romantic Ventriloquists (
 Coleridge, Lectures 1795, p.60.
Roe. ‘Who Was Spy Nozy?’ The Wordsworth Circle
15 (1984):46-50, and see also his Wordsworth
and Coleridge: The Radical Years (
 Keane, op.cit., pp.278-319; see also Nicholas Roe, ‘Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the French Invasion Scare’, The Wordsworth Circle 17 (1986): 142-8.
 Coleridge, Letters 1, 396-7.