WHAT IS THE LASTING APPEAL OF THE ANCIENT MARINER ?
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 6, pp 2-19)
When in the society of entirely unliterary persons, of whom there seem to be increasing numbers, I generally try to keep my guilty secret to myself. But, if pressed hard, I do admit to an interest in Wordsworth, only to be met by blank faces until someone, with the pride in achievement of a conjuror pulling a rabbit from a hat, says,’Daffodils!’. If, for a change, I murmur ‘Coleridge’, a delighted voice is sure to pipe up with The Ancient Mariner. The chances are that some of the company have even read it, probably at school, and remember it with pleasure. What is it in this poem that fires the hearts of nuts-and-bolts merchants who have long forgotten that such a commodity as imagination exists? What is the appeal that has lasted two hundred years and still does?
Once upon a time I determined to master the recalcitrant poem. What hubris! I read everything I could lay my hands upon concerning it. I
heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by that same door as in I went.
So back I staggered, in my simplistic way, to square one, to
think it out for myself. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the first
lesson was not to attempt to make The
Ancient Mariner tidy, as critics like Robert Penn Warren do. It just isn’t.
It has the irrationality of that Arabian
Nights story to which Coleridge compared it when he answered Mrs. Barbauld’s
criticism that the poem had no moral by saying that it had too much ‘in a work
of such pure imagination’. 
kill the merchant. Naturally he would! just so are we carried forward by the magic world of The Ancient Mariner. How often have we taken for granted in folk-tales the extraordinary coincidence of an accidental meeting with an old crone -say- which alters the hero’s whole destiny! Here, it is a meeting with an ‘old navigator’. We are in a world whose ways we understand from tales told to us in childhood. This is not to say that there is no profound content in The Ancient Mariner, or in the Arabian Nights story for that matter, but we must beware of schematization.
In the much-quoted Notebook entry, on his voyage to
So that, surely, is the first reason for the continued popularity of The Ancient Mariner, its compulsive irrationality. After all, however set we are on making money
or getting a machine to work, there is another side to us which we cannot entirely pretend is not there, and it is on that that this poem takes hold. As Lamb said,’ For me, I was never so affected with any human Tale. After first reading it I was totally possessed with it for many days.’  Like the wedding-guest, we have to listen to the mariner and go through his experiences with him, never asking at the time whether he is a reliable narrator or whether we are sharing in real-life or a dream. Whatever it is, it takes possession of us and we do not resist. How is this achieved?
Though I admire Wordsworth only this side of idolatry, I find it hard to forgive him for his infamous note to The Ancient Mariner in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads. Yet I believe that if we accept his favourable criticisms, grudging though they seem, and turn his adverse ones on their heads we may be well on the way to answering our question. Incidentally, one cannot improve on Lamb’s reaction to that note, starting with Wordsworth’s persuading Coleridge to attempt an explanation in the title.
I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his Ancient Marinere ‘a poet’s Reverie’ - it is as bad as Bottom the Weaver’s declaration that he is not a Lion but only the scenical representation of a Lion. What new idea is gained by this title but one subversive of all credit, which the tale should force upon us, of its truth.
As I have suggested, the tale does completely force upon us ‘that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith’.  Coleridge has created a compelling ‘work of pure imagination’, Yet, with astonishing lack of understanding, Wordsworth fails to see how the reader’s total involvement is secured.
The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects; first that the principal person has no distinct character,
either in his profession as Mariner, or as a human being, who having been long under the control of supernatural impressions might be supposed himself to partake of something supernatural....
Lamb gives short shrift to this nonsense.
I totally differ from your idea that the Marinere should have a character and profession. This is a beauty in Gulliver’s Travels, where the mind is kept in a placid state of little wonderments; but The Ancient Marinere undergoes such trials as overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was - like the state of a man in a bad dream, one terrible peculiarity of which is that all consciousness of personality is gone...
It is surely in some degree the mariner’s lack of individuation that makes it possible for us all to identify with him and to see him as universal. How acute Lamb’s comments are! Of course, the poem partly originated in a real dream of Cruikshank’s but we have all experienced nightmare and have even, as the mariner does, known the state to invade at times our waking lives, when we are faced with a terrifying nullity into which disappear all those placid ‘little wonderments’ that keep us living and sane. These are represented in the poem, of course, by the accoutrements of the wedding, which by contrast enhance the horror of a world in which nothing that we have assumed to be secure is so any longer, including our own personality. Though we may be afraid to acknowledge it, we have all caught a glimpse of the abyss in which the frameworks of logic and purpose cease to exist and everything seems to happen arbitrarily. A good training for this was an old-fashioned boarding-school, in which the young child could not see any rhyme or reason in the curious dictates and punishments dealt out by the grown-ups and soon learnt not to question them. As there was no understanding
events, such children read the signs and developed their own superstitions, as The Ancient Mariner did. Bowyer’s wigs, daemons and angels, all are one to him who cannot make sense of things. Perhpas this was partly why Lamb entered into the mariner’s experience and understood why Coleridge had not given him a ‘character’ or ‘profession’, whereas Wordsworth, whose schooldays had been very different, could not.
Lamb goes on:
Your other observation is, I think as well, a little unfounded: the Marinere, from being conversant in supernatural events has acquired a supernatural and strange cast of phrase, eye, appearance, etc., which frightens the wedding guest. You will excuse my remarks, because I am hurt and vexed that you should think it necessary, with a prose apology, to open the eyes of dead men who cannot see.
Here again, surely, it is exactly that fear of the marinere and his experiences which we share with the wedding-guest, which has always given readers the frisson of excitement which is one of the strongest compulsions to go on reading— a touch of Burke’s ‘sublime’ perhaps. The absurdity which modifies our enjoyment of Barger or of the Gothic novel and which was so delightfully demonstrated by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey does not mar Coleridge’s poem. Like Lamb, we are ‘totally possessed with it’ because Coleridge has achieved ‘the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real’.
It seems extraordinary that such close comrades as Wordsworth and Coleridge could so misunderstand one another - for Coleridge got his own back later in Biographia. One is reminded of Charlotte Brontë’s comments on Emily’s Heathcliff. Wordsworth goes on to complain that the Mariner ‘does not act, but is continually acted upon’. To allow oneself
to fall into the habit of ‘non-feeling from non-thinking’, though a seemingly negative failing, does,in the poem as in real life, lead to possibly disastrous action. Perhaps it is an aspect of original sin and helps to explain why people never seem to learn and the lessons of history remain unrecognized. It is true that the Mariner does not see himself as having any power to act to alter things. Even in blessing the water-snakes he is ‘unaware’ and assumes that someone else was responsible. ‘Sure my kind saint took pity on me’. As Humphrey House said years ago,’That is to say, he did not really know what he was doing’.  When he does try to do something constructive, in sucking the blood from his arm in order to cry ‘A sail! a sail!’, as House goes on to say,’his action leads ironically to the climax of the disaster’. So, surely, whether he acts or not is an irrelevance and no valid ground for criticism. In the incomprehensible world he is in, like a young child at boarding school, it is impossible to do right, for one does not understand the principles on which the system operates, and this also is a reason for the poem’s continuing appeal. For we, too,. often feel ourselves helplessly at the mercy of crazy and oppressive powers. Wordsworth is quite correct, in his third objection,’ that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other’,but he does not see that this is the whole point, whereas Lamb, who had stood on the brink of that abyss of irrationality, perfectly understood it.
In asserting,’lastly, that the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated’, Wordsworth completes his hat-trick of seeing as defects those very virtues that help to give the poem its lasting appeal. For what is it that we can all repeat by heart without ever having consciously learnt it? Surely it is the high-spots of the natural descriptions and images which illustrate and embody the mysterious journey and which gain their final power by the build-up of one upon another. These images are always more than their overt selves, containing the inner spiritual depths which are the core of the poem but
which cannot be read like a mathematical text-book. I will leave the relevant but deep waters of allegory and symbol to wiser heads. John Beer speaks of ‘the apparent determination on Coleridge’s part to make his poem consist of images rather than stated thoughts wherever possible. It is this quality which has delighted many generations who may never have given a thought to the meaning of the poem’. 
When he is creating the mood of an illusion of normality and
peace, or even of spiritual blessing, though not exclusively then, Coleridge’s
images often come from the familiar sights and sounds of home, in this part of
The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
The men are happy and excited at the start of a new adventure and not yet daunted. They delight to see the well-known high-points of the landscape disappear. Later, for a time, it looks as though their voyage is indeed going to be one of joyous discovery. Though they are far from home the natural world is behaving in a way that is both accustomed and exciting.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
When the angelic spirits sing they are compared to a skylark or ‘all little birds that are’ and when their song ends,
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
Wordsworth admits that ‘ a great number of stanzas present beautiful images... expressed with unusual felicity of language’ and, though he cannot resist the reservation that’ the metre is itself unfit for long poems’, praises the skilful versification as ‘ harmonious and artfully varied, exhibiting the utmost powers of that metre, and every variety of which it is capable’. Buddy, you can say that again!
In the three stanzas I have quoted the changing rhythms, with end-stopped, broken and run-on lines, the internal rhymes, alliteration and, in the last case,the variation of the stanza-form, play a major part in the success and memorability of the poetry. It is interesting that, when Coleridge had actually been on board ship and discovered that ‘The furrow followed free’ was not the view seen from the ship but was ‘the image as seen by a spectator from the shore, or from another vessel’, though he changed it in 1817 to ‘The furrow streamed off free’, in the next edition of Sibylline Leaves he altered it back again. Both the alliteration and the running rhythm of the original version are essential to the vivid picture and more important than strict accuracy.
By contrast with the peaceful
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
Having shown that ‘The very words of the stanza are the words of Martens and Harris and James’, Lowes asks, ‘Has
our confidence in the supreme originality of a work of genius been after all misplaced?’ He then answers himself irrefutably.
Well, there is the stanza! Hunt till doomsday through Martens and Harris and Captain James, and you will not find it. The words are severally the words of the voyagers; the shining constellation of images - simple as kirk or hill and clear as air — which rose out of their confluence, was the birth of a shaping brain that was not the travellers’. And the stanza bears Coleridge’s image and superscription stamped on every line... Coleridge’s memory has struck straight as a homing pigeon through its chaos of hovering impressions of the polar ice to the exact, concretely visualizing phrase. 
Equally, the ballad form, which Wordsworth considers unsuitable and which could easily degenerate into doggerel, is used with such virtuosity and variety that it becomes unforgettable. At the same time, its hurrying pace and inexorability reflect the mariner’s helplessness, as he is carried willy nilly on his disastrous voyage. So, both the imagery, of which Wordsworth complains, and the versification, which he praises, are strong reasons for our submission to the poem.
Wordsworth speaks, rightly, of the poem’s ‘many delicate touches of passion, and indeed the passion is everywhere true to nature’. Consider the poignant stanzas that stick in our memory from the moments of most acute suffering.
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody sun at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the moon.
The assonance in the first line gives it its force and the
combination of the adjective ‘bloody’ for the sun’s colour and comparison with the smaller moon for its size produce in the reader a fevered concentration of painful pressure like a boil.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion,
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
The static paralysis, both factual and spiritual, suggested by this image has so impressed readers that the lines have become as familiar as a proverb, as has the next stanza.
Water, water everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
The realistic touch, recognizable from ordinary life, that wood swells in the wet and shrinks in drought, reinforces the ironic situation of being surrounded by water which is salt and so undrinkable, when one is dying of thirst. Perhaps the water of life is all around us but our spiritual metabolisms are unadapted to make use of it.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
The use of repetition in these stanzas, as often in the poem as a whole, adds to the sense of intensity and desperation. Lowes, after describing the travel books’ ‘amazing carnival of miniature monsters’, writes, ‘Coleridge, with an artistic restraint which must none the less have cast a longing look behind, seized upon the one touch which for sheer uncanny
realism is unsurpassed:"Yea slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea".’  Surely, this combination of realism and the uncanny is a major weapon whereby Coleridge persuades us into ‘suspension of disbelief’. Yes, I think to myself about the shrinking boards, woods does that: it happens to my garden gate all the time. So, by its everydayness, I am softened up to accept the rotting sea and the slimy things with legs and even to sense within the image a deeper message of self-loathing and disgust.
Surprisingly, in view of his own concern at this time with the use of the narrator, Wordsworth does not mention another important weapon in Coleridge’s armoury, the dramatic method. Throughout, this has an enormous effect on the reader. We are hooked from the moment we read,
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?’
The contrast between the ‘merry din’ of the wedding feast and the hypnotic menace of the mariner is intensely dramatic.
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
Considering Wordsworth contributed the last two lines here, how could he say that the mariner does not ‘ partake of
something supernatural’? Of course he does. Like a snake fascinating a rabbit, he exercises a mesmeric spell.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear...
The dramatic method is brilliantly used at the first and fatal climax of the story. I shall never forget Richard Wordsworth’s reading of this. With his actor’s sense of timing, he paused just long enough to send icy shivers down one’s spine.
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why Iook’st thou so ?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
The story is punctuated with the sense of ‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner’, as the interplay between narrator and listener adds repeatedly to the tension.
Similarly, the strange beings that the mariner hears and
sees act like participants in a play. The terrible occupants of the phantom
ship are straight out of a medieval morality pageant, though the woman recalls
Coleridge’s nightmares, ‘Desire with loathing strangely mix’d’. Like
Cain, the subject of the ill-fated collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge, ‘which broke up in a laugh: and The Ancient Mariner was written instead’.
When we look round the world at the so-called acts of God, volcanos, earthquakes, epidemics and so on, which cannot be regarded as consequences of human action and whose victims are selected quite randomly by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or when we consider inherited mental or physical illness, often affecting young children, we find ourselves facing the old, insuperable problem. How can we reconcile the idea of a God who is both all-powerful and all-good with the seemingly chance-ridden universe, symbolized by the game of dice, and with the consequent merciless and often unmerited suffering imposed on human beings?
‘I have a dim recollection,’ wrote Lamb in February 1797, ‘that,
when in town, you were talking of the Origin of Evil as a most prolific subject
for a long poem. Why not adopt it, Coleridge? there would be room for
imagination’.  Surely this is what Coleridge has done
and this is one of the strongest reasons, whether readers are conscious of this
or not, for the lasting fascination of The
Ancient Mariner. When, as a child, I read Pilgrim’s Progress, I felt with all my being the wonderful moment
when the burden of his sins falls from the pilgrim’s back. Returning to the
book as an adult I was astonished to find that this happens quite early in the
story, though I had remembered it as the final resolution. Christian has two
thirds more of the book to go before he enters the
hath penance done,/ And penance more will do’, and there is no mention of any end to it. Death would indeed be ‘a consummation/Devoutly to be wished’. In the same way, one feels a surge of hope when the Mariner comes home.
Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The lighthouse top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
Yet all is changed from the time at the beginning of the poem when the crew merrily started out and watched with delight as these landmarks disappeared. The mariner does now ‘partake of something supernatural’ to such a degree that the effect he has on others precludes his ever being received back into the warmth of his native society. How could Wordsworth have supposed that he did not? Even the Hermit is daunted. When the mariner does act decisively, begging,’O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!’ he does not get satisfaction, for the Hermit becomes the first recipient of the mariner’s painful penance.
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.
The mariner’s idealized portrait of going to Church ‘with a goodly company’ is a memory of security from his past and I doubt if, in his present state, he would be warmly welcomed by the congregation! One can well understand his preference for it as ‘ sweeter than the marriage feast’, however. I am afraid I cannot agree with Warren Stevenson in finding that the frame of the wedding celebration provides ‘ an ideal society as a paradigm of order’ to set against the chaos of the voyage.  Normality, yes, ‘a placid state of little wonderments’, yes, but ideal order, no. Compared with what
the mariner has been through, the wedding party seems noisy, superficial and, above all, trivial. Nor can I feel satisfied that, within any framework of Christian theology, as John Beer puts it, ‘in the killing of the albatross and its result, Coleridge has given us an image of the fall of mankind’.  It seemed so, until the game of dice, but not after it. Nor do I find Coleridge’s ‘abstruser musings’ in neo-Platonism et al provide any solution here to the problem of ultimate redemption. Maybe The Ancient Mariner appeals to us on a deep level just because, whatever Coleridge’s intentions, it does not present a clear cut-and-dried philosophical theory that we can accept or reject but instead reactivates our own profoundest doubts and fears. A mystical sense of the existence of God does seem to permeate the poem, if only by awareness of His absence.
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide, wide sea;
So lonely ‘twas that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
Though Coleridge was perhaps particularly prone to them, the feelings of guilt and isolation which are the poem’s prevailing themes are common to us all. Explanations are more difficult.
So far, I have been hard on Wordsworth by contrast with Lamb, but I am afraid I have a small bone to pick with him too. What does he mean when he says ‘I dislike all the miraculous part of it’? Where’would the poem be without it? Perhaps Lamb had in mind the Polar Spirit, of whom Patricia Adair says,’One feels that Coleridge was rather glad to see the back of him’.  But ‘all the miraculous part of it’? The Gothic machinery seems to have been alien to Lamb as a mere adjunct to ‘ the feelings of the man under the operation of such scenery’, which ‘ dragged me along like Tom Piper’s magic whistle’. Yet he acknowledges that the. Mariner is
‘conversant in supernatural events’. Let us avoid getting bogged down in distinctions between supernatural and preternatural and ask ourselves what Lamb might have looked for and hoped for and found which came under the category of ‘supernatural’ but not ‘miraculous’ in the sense he deplored.
After the ‘day of horrors’, Lamb asked Coleridge to ‘Write - as religious a letter as possible’ and Coleridge answered, ‘I am not the man who would attempt to insult the greatness of your anguish by any other consolation’.  The Mariner cries out
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
I do not think Lamb would have expected, and certainly he would not have found in this poem a neat answer to the problem of evil, if only because there isn’t one! Perhaps we may find a clue in the letter to Southey protesting at his review of Lyrical Ballads, in which he called The Ancient Mariner ‘a Dutch attempt at German sublimity’. ‘I call it’, says Lamb,’ a right English attempt and a successful one, to dethrone German sublimity. You have selected a passage fertile in unmeaning miracles, but have passed by fifty passages as miraculous as the miracles they celebrate. I never so deeply felt the pathetic as in that part
A spring of love gush’d from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
It stung me into high pleasure through sufferings’. 
Perhaps The Ancient Mariner showed such understanding of an earthly hell that the Gothic machinery seemed to Lamb unworthy of it, occasionally too close to ‘German sublimity’,
whereas when the Mariner emerged from his damned state, if even only momentarily, and felt goodness and love springing up within him, Lamb detected an earnest, at least, of hell’s counterpart, the gift of God’s grace in religious consolation.
For, lying behind the mystic journey are cosmic problems, of God immanent and God transcendent, or
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate —
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute 
Though perhaps these things occupy people’s minds less than they once did, some of us still puzzle over them and others are concerned with allied philosophical questions. Since even angels, albeit fallen,’found no end, in wandering mazes lost’ and Coleridge with his immense reading and brilliant mind could not fully solve them, it is unlikely that we shall. Nevertheless, our awareness of these depths beneath the poem is another strong reason for our preoccupation with it.
So, if you ask me do I share what Lamb calls his ‘dotage’ about The Ancient Mariner, yes I do. But do I understand it? No, I don’t. Perhaps that is partly why it is so infinitely fascinating.
 Table Talk 31 May.1830.
 Griggs I, p.347.
 NB. II 2090 15.56
The Pixies Revenge, Printed by
E.J.Manley, Ottery St. Mary,
 Marrs I, p.266.
 Biographia Literaria, chapter XIV.
 Humphry House, Coleridge, Clark Lectures 1951/2, p.95.
Beer, Coleridge the Visionary,
The Road to Xanadu, (first published
 Lowes p. 82.
 E.E.Bostetter, ‘The Nightmare World of ‘The Ancient Mariner’. Studies in Romanticism, I,(1962)pp.351-98.
 Marrs I, p.97.
Stevenson, ‘The Case of the Missing Captain: Power Politics in The Ancient Mariner’. Coleridge Summer
 C. the Visionary, p.158.
M. Adair, The Waking Dream,
 Marrs, I, .44 & 46.
 Marrs I, 142
 Paradise Lost II, lines 559-61.