The Rime of the Plaintive, Married Man

Andrew Keanie

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp 48-61)



With Jack Stillinger’s view in mind—that all versions of The Rime are unique and should be studied as separate poems[1]—I will focus on the 1798 version.  I will not so much offer the view that the poem is an allegorical reworking of Coleridge’s marriage to Sarah Fricker as I will argue that the poem is energised ultimately by Coleridge’s marital discontent.

       By 1798, Coleridge, married since October 1795, was not happy, calm, and balanced; he was not confident and secure.  On the contrary, he was plagued by uncertainty, doubts, and guilts.[2] His marriage was not unhappy and mistaken in any crude sense, but still it was full of tensions, complications and resistances.[3]  It did not give him that tranquillity, that happiness, that innocence and good conscience he so badly missed.  It required a great deal of circumspection and self-control.  It cost him much effort. 

       Martin Seymour-Smith has investigated the ‘tragic process of self-delusion’[4] revealed by the ‘suspiciously ecstatic’ Coleridge, shortly after his marriage:


The thought gave me a tinge of melancholy to the solemn Joy, which I felt—united to the woman, whom I love best of all created Beings.—We are settled—nay—quite domesticated at Clevedon—Our comfortable Cot!—!— [5]


If the above does not immediately strike the reader as forced bliss, it is difficult not to read it as such in the light of a letter Coleridge had written, to Southey, just before getting married:


…to marry a woman whom I do not love—to degrade her, whom I call my Wife, by making her the Instrument of low Desire—and on the removal of a desultory Appetite, to be perhaps not displeased with her Absence!—Enough! These Refinements are the wildering




Fires, that lead me to Vice.[6]


‘Refinements’ indicates a man tracing the subtle phases of his own embitterment, observing his own ingenuity at self-deception and his tendency to force his thoughts to cheat each other.  Coleridge could see how all this rendered his suffering more acute, spoiling in advance, thanks to his powers of analysis and observation, all possibility of happiness.

       Even if one does not agree, with Seymour-Smith, that Coleridge married Sara Fricker on the rebound from Mary Evans, it looks likely that ‘These Refinements’ formed a most inconvenient and indigestible component in Coleridge’s mind.[7]  Of course, Coleridge is not the only writer to have complained that ‘My wife’s every day self and her minor interests, alas, do not at all harmonize with my occupations, my temperament, or my weaknesses’.[8] Having just published Rosshalde (1914)—a novel about the intense desolation of an unhappy marriage—Hermann Hesse wrote to his father that the book ‘raises the question whether an artist or thinker—that is, a man who not only wants to live life instinctively but also wants to represent it as objectively as possible—whether such a person is even capable of marriage.[9]

       And Kathleen Raine has recalled how she, like so many others, had set about upholstering her soul with indifference, having walked, with open eyes, into a sterile marriage. [10]  Coleridge, married to a woman he did not love, presumably enjoyed mechanically sensual sex with her.  He was unable to absorb or obliterate the sense of unease this proclivity brought about in him.  But this very unease was to become malleable matter for his poetry.  The Mariner, with his ‘glittering eye’ (I, 3), was forged in Coleridge’s ‘wildering Fires’, and emerged from there, fully formed and sentient in his ‘gnarled antiquity’,[11] ready to buttonhole the ‘man that must hear me’ (VII, 622).  And the next…

       The Mariner initially repels, but very soon compels, the wedding-guest.  Leah Richards-Fisher has elucidated the subsequent change in the wedding-guest, from his outright fear of the Mariner, to his ‘responding emotionally’ to the story and comprehending ‘more than the Mariner meant to tell.’[12]  Often, people separated from unhappy marriages, and brimful of recollected miseries,




are skilfully avoided by those of us who would prefer to remain preoccupied with our own everyday difficulties.  But once we are compelled to listen, even if, like the wedding-guest, we are being kept back from an important appointment, we often recognise, with growing interest, the similarities with the ‘Refinements’ of our own hidden lives.  Coleridge’s Mariner parades these before us with a peculiarly alienated majesty.  The Mariner vividly recalls his memory of his ship leaving the harbour (I, 25-28), but then the present scene—the celebration and send-off of the newly-wed couple (I, 35-40)—buoys itself momentarily above the surface of the flashback.  The Mariner then delivers the sequence of dazzlingly recollected events at sea, punctuated occasionally by the wedding-guest’s exclamations of fear and wonder (‘ “God save thee, ancient Marinere!/ From the fiends that plague thee thus–/ Why look’st thou so?” ’ [I, 77-79]; ‘ “I fear thee and thy glittering eye…” ’ [IV, 220]).  As is often the case with the most powerful Romantic lyrics, The Rime contains a multiplicity of meanings.[13]

       By the end of the poem, the Mariner has not just succeeded in detaining the wedding-guest for the best part of half an hour: he has changed his life.  The wedding-guest’s question, ‘What manner man art thou?’ (VII, 610), draws the following direct utterance from the Mariner, his language still electrified by the nervous energy brought into being by his ordeal:


Forthwith this frame of mine was wrench’d

     With a woeful agony,

Which forc’d me to begin my tale

     And then it left me free.


Since then at an uncertain hour,

     Now oftimes and now fewer,

That anguish comes and makes me tell

     My ghastly aventure. 

(VII, 611-618)


The attack of the language, bouncing rhythmically, is offset by the mesmerising, yet succinct, metaphors that suffuse the piece with an unimpeachable aura of serenity, and sublimity:





I pass like night, from land to land;

     I have strange power of speech;

The moment that his face I see

I know the man that must hear me;

     To him my tale I teach. 

(VII, 619-623)


The ‘I… night’ comparison is reeled into clear view, wriggling with life, but remaining untranslatable and unparaphraseable.  This is Romanticism at its inchoate, yet unfogged, best.  Coleridge’s great enthusiasm about Spenser is probably connected with this peculiar aspect of the poetic success of The Rime.[14]

       But the question of how Coleridge got that full, oceanic swell, into the troubled personal waters suggested so saliently by The Rime, may not adequately be explained by his relationship with Spenser’s work.  Neither may it be satisfactorily explained by Coleridge’s approach to contemporary politics [15]; nor by his prolonged exposure to the ‘vicious taste of our modern Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, German Romances’.[16]  There is an indeterminate uniqueness about the poem.  David Punter has written that ‘The potential for linearity is clearly demolished in the very first stanza of [The Rime], wherein we become aware of a multiplicity of fictions which subvert the clarity of ballad narrative.’  Punter has also noted the ‘chronic intrusion of the inexplicable’[17] in the poem.  The lines have pullulated from a poet with a personal problem.  George Whalley has said that ‘Fundamentally it is the personal quality of [The Rime] that accounts for its vivid haunting fascination’,[18] though Whalley mentions Coleridge’s difficult marriage without analysing it at all. 

       The poem does flutter seductively on the breezes of contemporary politics and popular literature,[19] but it is hot with the frictions of tightly packed metaphors, and it shows signs of the unconscious instinctual forces of a life




curbed.  The plangent sorrow of unforgettably total isolation is somehow communicated by the doleful tolling of the ghostly vowels in ‘Alone, alone, all all alone/ Alone on the wide wide sea’ (IV, 224-227).  The irregular meter registers the palpitations of the contemplative temperament denied peace.  Coleridge has experienced, and will continue to experience,[20] the ‘chronic[ally]… inexplicable’[21] voyage, about which he writes, on the ‘sea’ of matrimony.  Practically pressed, by Robert Southey, into marrying Sara Fricker[22], the earnest young Coleridge did have his reasons for enjoying the honeymoon period.[23]  Mr and Mrs Coleridge set sail on a tide of untried optimism (Lefebure explains that the couple had known each other for a mere fortnight before Coleridge proposed [24]):


The Ship was cheer’d, the Harbour clear’d—

     Merrily did we drop

Below the Kirk, below the Hill,

     Below the Light-house top.  (I, 25-28)


For a short time after marriage, the sun went ‘Higher and higher every day’ (I, 33), and shone pleasantly on the newlywed Coleridges.  Then, the inevitable tempestuousness buffeted the young couple.  ‘Being a husband and a breadwinner was a rough ride, as S.T.C.  rapidly discovered’[25]:


For days and weeks it play’d us freaks—

     Like Chaff we drove along.  (I, 48)


Anxiety about money engulfed the household.  Sara’s mother was dangerously ill (therefore funeral expenses might be required), and Sara herself, having apparently undergone the trauma of a miscarriage, turned out to be pregnant after all.  They were poorly protected against life’s vicissitudes by Coleridge’s irregular earnings.[26]

       The poet gloomily contemplated taking a job in the Morning Chronicle, but received the fantastic news that Mrs Evans of Darley, near Derby, wanted him to teach her sons, only to be told, having apparently cemented the arrangement




with a pleasant stay at Mrs Evans’s house, that her relatives had insisted that on no account should she employ Coleridge.[27] Ten months into their marriage, they were in serious trouble.  At this time, Coleridge’s insistent, income-free, philosophising, say, about what a wife should be (for example, ‘a compassionate Comforter… innocent and full of love’)[28] was in full swing.  Sara, who as a financially comfortable teenager had suffered the sudden descent into near-destitution as a result of her father’s fecklessness,[29] found herself the victim of another provider-failure.  But the scene viewed from the provider-failure’s perspective had quickly started to become like the guilty Mariner’s vision (‘what evil looks/ Had I from old and young’ [II, 135-136]).  By 1796, some of the rhetoric with which Coleridge experimented in his correspondence was a curious amalgam of his literary[30] and personal preoccupations:


Ghosts indeed! I should be haunted with… the phantasms of a Wife broken-hearted, & a hunger-bitten Baby! O Thomas Poole! Thomas Poole! if you did but know what a Father & Husband must feel, who toils with his brain for uncertain bread! I dare not think of it—The evil Face of Frenzy looks at me![31]


       Straitened circumstances close one in, and when there is financial insecurity in a household for months—even years—there may be the general, nauseating feeling that something is just about to give:


The Ice was here, the Ice was there,

     The Ice was all around:

It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d—

     Like noises of a swound. 

(I, 60)


Coleridge was offered the comfortably salaried post of Unitarian minister at Shrewsbury, with a good family house to live in as well.[32]


At length did cross an Albatross,

     Thorough the Fog it came…

(I, 61-62)




Sara—‘high-strung and ambitious’[33]—must have expected her ‘brilliant… Cambridge scholar’[34] husband to treat this piece of good fortune with the necessary tact, and take the job that would steer the family clear of penury.  The Albatross gives the Coleridge crew/family a little taste of how a regular wage, at long last, would break down so many barriers:


And an it were a Christian  Soul,

     We hail’d it in God’s name.


The Marineres gave it biscuit-worms,

     And round and round it flew:

The Ice did split with a Thunder-fit,

     The Helmsman steer’d us thro’.


And a good south wind sprung up behind,

     The Albatross did follow…(I, 63-70)


Coleridge sees the opportunity of a permanent post.  (‘…we sometimes see the good without wishing to attain it’[35]).  He could hardly fail to see it.  It has ‘flown’ right through the fog and moonshine of his endless—and financially unreliable—reading, scribbling and dreaming, and ‘perch’d’ (I, 74) itself in front of him and his family in no uncertain terms:


In mist or cloud on mast or shroud,

     It perch’d for vespers nine,

Whiles all the night thro’ fog smoke-white,

     Glimmer’d the white moon-shine.  (I, 73-76)


Southey would not have ‘slain’ such a creature (career opportunity) in his wildest dreams.[36] Coleridge would be left with nothing but his wildest dreams if he rejected the offer of security for his family. [37]  He must have known that even gently spoken failure to take his family’s financial matters in hand would have brought him unbearable isolation, and face-to-face dealings with unspeakably awful personal demons.  It is not just that Sara would become irreconcilably bitter with him, but also that he would become guilty about the irrepressible violence of his desire to be ‘Alone’ rather than in the company of Sara and little Hartley. 

       It is well-known that Coleridge is supposed to have ‘abandoned his




prospective career as a minister of religion’ as soon as he received the letter, signed by Josiah Wedgwood on behalf of his brother, offering Coleridge an ‘annuity’ of £150.00 for life.  But, as Christopher Rubinstein has pointed out:


The awful fact, which was first brought to light in R B Litchfield’s Tom Wedgwood (London 1903), and which for whatever reason has for so long since remained unnoticed, is that the ‘annuity’ so wonderfully offered was to consist of a series of donations capable of being discontinued at any time without the donee, Coleridge, having any remedy in law…  The absence of a legally binding arrangement for the annuity must have been a source of fright or panic for Coleridge…[38]


Rubinstein assesses Coleridge’s very uncomfortable situation.  The Wedgwood brothers had decided to finance Coleridge because they had been given to understand that ‘he was a person both of intellectual eminence including poetic talent, and moral probity.’[39]  But the publication of Charles Lloyd’s novel, Edmund Oliver (April 1798), ‘centres on the revelation that the thinly disguised Coleridge is already an opium addict.’[40]  What if the Wedgwood brothers read the novel, and decided to investigate Coleridge’s past more thoroughly, with a view to reassessing the ‘annuity’? There was no shortage of people ‘who could have provided the world with tales of Coleridge’s less-than-perfect past.’[41]  This phase of Coleridge’s life must have felt like a potentially treacherous strait through which to navigate.  If any of his past sins were to be found out by the Wedgwood brothers, it would be Mrs S.T. Coleridge and the children[42] that would suffer undeservedly in the event of the ‘annuity’ being stopped.  No wonder then, that in Section III of The Rime, the ship, initially so gratefully, but mistakenly, recognised by the Mariner and the crew as their salvation (III, 153-156), turns out to be a floating spectacle of sheer horror whose very nearness is enough to kill everyone except the Mariner (III, 208-212). 

       Fighting off these dark forebodings, living in dread of decisions taken against him or even of clear ideas, the author of The Rime summoned up all his energies as though for a last great exertion, much as a pursued animal musters every ounce of strength for the leap that will save it:


Like one, that on a lonely road

     Doth walk in fear and dread,

And having once turn’d round, walks on

     And turns no more his head:




Because he knows, a frightful fiend

     Doth close behind him tread.  (VI, 451-456.)


I think that in these days of his inner anguish about the Wedgwood issue, Coleridge, by a desperate effort, created one of his greatest and most beautiful works.  Into The Rime the poet breathed all the anguish of his soul, though intending nothing more than a piece of perfect craftsmanship for which the Monthly Magazine might pay £5.00.[43]

       The Mariner’s, or Coleridge’s, rejection of comforts from heaven had been instinctive and violent.  Without a shudder, he took aim and fired: ‘I shot the Albatross.’ (I, 80.)  So, the career opportunity was obliterated, and Coleridge found himself relying on the continued financial support of the Wedgwood brothers as guiltily as the killer of the albatross found himself relying on the continued benevolence of the elements.  Presumably, if the Wedgwood brothers were to find out about, and feel outraged by, any reports concerning Coleridge’s opium addiction, the ‘annuity’ could have been quietly discontinued without even a letter of explanation.  Coleridge’s anticipation of the possible failure of the next £150.00 to arrive, must surely have troubled him, and found its way into The Rime.  Without the steady wind of regular financial support in their sails, Sara and Hartley could have found themselves having unwittingly crossed a shadowline[44] into worse poverty than ever.  This would be the kind of ‘becalmed’ predicament that Coleridge would not have been able to bring himself to forewarn them about, so the first they would know of the worsened hardship would be as it happened to them, unannounced:


Down dropt the breeze, the Sails dropt down,

     ’Twas sad as sad could be

And we did speak only to break

     The silence of the Sea.

(II, 103-106)


Sara would draw her own conclusion regarding the cause of her latest discomfort, and Coleridge would have to endure the isolation that guilt brings:


Ah wel-a-day! what evil looks

     Had I from old and young;

Instead of the Cross the Albatross

     About my neck was hung.

(II, 135-138)


Condemned by his own earlier choice to shoot the Albatross, the protagonist sees ghastly visions unseen by the rest of the crew or family (IV, 230). 




The dead crew looks at the Mariner with curses for him on their faces (IV, 249-254).  Looking through the door of his undoing, the Mariner sees the sentiments, of those he has let down, from inside his blackened imagination.  Coleridge has found a device to communicate how it feels—in his disastrous marriage—to suffer hostile attention, and yet suffer it in solitary confinement.  Edward E. Bostetter has elucidated how, in The Rime, a horribly stern-faced universe will inflict drawn out punishment on anyone guilty of a ‘compulsive sin’.[45] 

       The Mariner does not explain the shooting of the albatross.  He does say that he ‘had done an hellish thing’ (II, 89), but the reader is left to wonder why.  The crew at first perceives the killing of the bird as a wrong act (‘all averr’d I had kill’d the Bird/ That made the Breeze to blow.’ [II, 91-92]), but then the crew perceives the killing as ‘right’ (II, 97) because birds like this only ‘bring the fog and mist.’ (II, 98.)  This superstitious, self-contradictory grasping at straws by the crew illustrates the insatiable, unrefined thirst for meaning that motivates conventional, fearful people to band together and impose their opinions on subjects about which they know nothing.  Coleridge knew about people like this.  He had married one.  For Mrs Coleridge, it was stupid to the point of meaninglessness for her ‘brilliant… Cambridge scholar’[46] husband to place the writing of poetry above the earning of money on his list of priorities. 

       The Mariner undergoes penance until he reaches the Hermit.  Who else could the serene Hermit be for Coleridge but the Wordsworth we know to have daily emanated the piety of common sense, and composed his more comfortably imagined visions?  The ‘Mariner’ quickly throws himself at the feet[47] of the man he believes (or desperately hopes) will lead him to a promised land (visible even to less imaginative crew-members) of wholesomeness, sobriety and sanity:


I saw a third—I heard his voice:

     It is the Hermit good!    

He singeth loud his godly hymns

                        That he makes in the wood.

He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away

     The Albatross’s blood. 

(VI, 541-546)


The Mariner begs to be shriven (VII, 607).  D.W.  Harding has said that ‘Although [Coleridge] is shriven by the Hermit, the penance of repeatedly reliving the voyage and re-experiencing his guilt and horror is the perpetual penance of a man who can never forgive himself.’[48]




       Having suffered acute, though indeed self-imposed, alienation, Coleridge yearns for friendship:


         this soul hath been

Alone on a wide wide sea:

     So lonely ’twas, that God himself

Scarce seemed there to be.


O sweeter than the Marriage-feast,

     ’Tis sweeter far to me

To walk together to the Kirk

     With a goodly company. 

(VII, 630-637.)


Coleridge yearns for love.[49]  But, in his experience, this yearning became a thirst upon a sea of ill-starred matrimony:[50] ‘Water, water, every where,/ Ne any drop to drink.’ (II, 117-118.)  The prolonged absence of drinking water, with only the salt spray to taste, has driven unlucky seafarers mad.  Coleridge’s prolonged want of love, with Sara Fricker moodily appearing on deck from time to time, may explain the recurrent opening out, and closing in, of the size of the stanzas delivered by the ‘Mariner’—the poem cries.  Later, in ‘The Pains of Sleep’ (1803), Coleridge would state, with childlike simplicity: ‘To be beloved is all I need’ (51).  He felt, or said he felt, that he was not ‘beloved’.  Feeling abandoned like this liberated him to roam the ‘infernal mercury mines’[51]—or sail the seas—of his personal Hell.

       Perhaps it would be unwise to indulge, limitlessly, the feeling of loneliness engendered in Coleridge by the daily presence of a woman unable to tolerate the symptoms of serious poetic contemplation.  Mrs Coleridge must have been baffled and annoyed by what would have appeared to be the unpardonable indolence of her husband.  As frequently invalided by opium reveries, as by the bowel problems opium was first prescribed for, Coleridge must have been a very depressing man for any ‘normal’ woman to live with.  Any wife, provoked by the sights of her thin-faced children, outstanding debts and inert husband, could conceivably be forgiven for screaming ‘and how “most and very delightful” will it be for you when the bailiffs come!’  Coleridge was aware, indeed, that most people (not least, his family), when hungry, would be more likely to be interested in a few slices of second-rate topside than they would be in even the choicest utterances of a mentally disturbed ‘seafarer’.




       At crucial points in Coleridge’s negotiation with the muse, his concentration was, by all accounts, often disturbed by ripples of domestic unhappiness, as the following, from a letter to Joseph Cottle, in 1796, suggests:


     I am forced to write for bread—write the high flights of poetic enthusiasm, when every minute I am hearing a groan of pain from my Wife—groans, and complaints & sickness!—The present hour I am in a quickset hedge of embarrassments, and whichever way I turn, a thorn runs into me –.  The Future is cloud & thick darkness—Poverty perhaps, and the thin faces of them that want bread looking up to me!—Nor is this all… I have been composing in the fields this morning.[52]


Perhaps the danger of a book like Lefebure’s The Bondage of Love, the central thesis of which is sympathy for the more ‘normal’ wife, is that we are compelled to reconsider just how selfish and awful, in everyday terms, Coleridge actually was as a man, while his achievement as a poet may look less impressive if we expect geniuses to be nice people. [53]  More interestingly, Seymour-Smith has quoted Coleridge’s original verse-letter version of ‘Dejection’ (4 April 1802), in which it is clear that Coleridge was prepared to face harder truths about himself than any that feuilletonism has since exhumed:


My little children are a Joy, a Love

     A good Gift from above!

But what is Bliss, that still calls up a Woe,

     And makes it doubly keen

Compelling me to feel, as well as KNOW,

What a most blessed Lot mine might have been.

Those little Angel Children (woe is me!)

There have been hours, when feeling how they bind

And pluck out the Wing-feathers of my Mind,

Turning my Error to Necessity,

I have half-wish’d, they never had been born![54]


For a poet to volunteer such an idea, so long before, say, Dostoevsky’s pioneering confessionalism in Notes From Underground (1864), is breathtaking. This is the recklessness of despair.  Coleridge felt that ‘Christ would take no pity on/ My soul in agony’ (IV, 226-227) for harbouring such thoughts about his family.  The ‘million million slimy things’ (IV, 230), and the dead at the Mariner’s feet (IV, 244) are very sobering to contemplate, in the light of Coleridge’s ‘half-wish’ that his own children had ‘never… been born!’ He is




not likely to have discussed this with his wife. 

       Coleridge lived in his imagination, ‘among the tombs & touch[ed] the pollutants of/ the Dead’,[55] while his wife noticed in him a lack of engagement with the household problems.  The suppressed household tension would, before long, curdle into recriminations, and the inevitable irritations of a shared life would grow poisonous in the hothouse of Mr and Mrs Coleridge’s marital incompatibility.  They made a classic, festering mismatch.  They quarrelled until Coleridge collapsed.[56]  Then Sara suddenly perceived the strong possibility of her husband’s imminent death.  She redoubled her efforts to behave as her husband wanted, but (according to Coleridge) not for her husband’s benefit.  The following, from a letter to Southey, effects a flashlight over the secret exigencies of the termagant:


the fears of widowhood came upon her… these feelings were wholly selfish, yet they made her serious—and that was a great point gained—for Mrs Coleridge’s mind has very little that is bad in it—it is an innocent mind –; but it is light, and unimpressible, warm in anger, cold in sympathy—and in all disputes uniformly projects itself forth to recriminate, instead of turning itself inward with a silent Self-questioning.  Our virtues & our vices are exact antitheses… Mrs Coleridge… shelters herself from painful Self-enquiry by angry Recriminations…[57]   


Coleridge articulated the science of Sara’s cunning no more harshly than he would examine his own sinful half-desires in ‘Dejection’. 

       By 1802, Coleridge would feel—or say he felt—damaged enough by his marriage to evoke its unhappiness for the benefit of Tom Wedgwood:


If any woman wanted an exact and copious Recipe, ‘How to make a Husband completely miserable’, I could furnish her with one—with a Probatum est, tacked to it.—Ill-tempered Speeches sent after me when I went out of the House, ill-tempered Speeches on my return, my friends received with freezing looks, the least opposition or contradiction occasioning screams of passion, & the sentiments, which I held most base, ostentatiously avowed—all this added to the utter negation of all, which a Husband expects from a Wife—especially, living in retirement—& the consciousness, that I was myself growing a worse man / O dear Sir! no one can tell what I have suffered.[58]


Once Coleridge allowed himself to become explicit about the source of his




unhappiness, his ‘voluminous manner of overdoing everything in sentences’[59] took over, and he relaxed out of tightly metaphorical, glittering-eyed Mariner-mode.  The protracted exertion and consuming self-control that enabled Coleridge to write poetry as peculiarly great as The Rime had, he claimed, taken its toll on him.  There is a letter to Tom Poole (January 1801) in which Coleridge explains away his responsibility, as a genius, to operate at full tilt:


As soon as my poor Head can endure the intellectual & mechanical part of composition, I must immediately finish a volume which has been long due—this will cost me a month, for I must not attempt to work hard.[60]


Having repeatedly alluded to his weakness, or dizziness, Coleridge finishes the letter with: ‘—I have scarce strength left to fold up the letter –’.[61] Somewhat theatrically, Coleridge was carefully informing each of his friends and acquaintances not to expect any more works of genius from him.  However, just as the voice, confined in the narrow channel of a trumpet, comes out sharper and stronger, so a thought, compressed in the strict metres of verse, springs out more briskly and strikes the reader with a livelier impact.  Similarly, for Coleridge—the embodiment of the impulse to compose poetry—his uniqueness, confined, at home, by his wife’s narrow conservatism, came out sharper and stronger (‘strange power of speech’ [VII, 620]).  Admirers of The Rime should be thankful for the fact that Mrs Coleridge was not as docile and submissive as the wife whom the more ‘clockwork-like’[62] Southey had picked for himself.[63]  The fact that Sara constituted such a vivid standing reproach to her ‘indolent’ husband meant that he would instinctively retreat from her with increasing regularity.[64]  The above excerpt (from the letter to Joseph Cottle, in 1796), suggests that Coleridge’s decision, to compose ‘in the fields this morning’[65], was not motivated by the desire to self induce Wordsworthian oneness with nature.  It was motivated by his need to escape the ‘freezing looks’ and the dispiriting featurelessness of sub-zero matrimony.  The tactics, deployed by Sara in the private arena of domestic warfare, winkled Coleridge out of a too comfortable writer’s niche.  A ‘more understanding’ wife would, literally (and metaphorically), have spoiled Coleridge, and the Mariner would perhaps never have been breathed into life.


© Contributor 2003-2006


[1]          The Multiple Versions of Coleridge’s Poems: How Many Mariners Did Coleridge Write?’, Jack Stillinger, Studies in Romanticism 31, Summer 1992, pp.  128-144. 

[2]          Christiansen, R., Romantic Affinities (Vintage, 1994), p.  63.  Christiansen says that ‘Sara was an ordinary woman, with ordinary suburban ambitions to see her husband do well.  She had married him on the understanding that he was a genius, and that a genius would rise to worldly consequence.  She expected to be materially comfortable and secure, with Coleridge showing himself to be as “steady” a character as her sister Edith’s husband, Southey.  She was disappointed to find instead someone unstable and pathologically unmethodical, whose hours of reading, scrawling, and messing about issued no visible return.’

[3]          ‘Glossing the Feminine in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Diane Long Hoeveler, European Romantic Review, Spring 1992.  (Hoeveler proposes the Coleridge has been rendered profoundly uneasy by the sexual dichotomy in the poem.)

[4]          ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’, Martin Seymour-Smith, in Poets Through Their Letters (Constable, 1969), p.  373.

[5]          CL I, 160

[6]          Ibid.  145

[7]          Seymour-Smith, p.  373.

[8]          CL 317.

[9]          Translated in Ralph Freedman’s Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis (Jonathan Cape, 1979), p.  165.

[10]        ‘Where there is neither love in the heart nor wisdom in the mind, we seem as though involved in that blind mechanism behaviourists take the world to be.  The sexual instinct is, when awake and living, vital… [but]… when the soul is inert we become like inert matter, driven hither and thither like the legendary atoms, by impulses which seem as if external to ourselves.  Purposeless as the little balls that roll down pin-tables we are deflected on our passive, and always downward, course, by every obstacle; coming to rest in some pocket which may score five, or a hundred, or zero.  The punishment of those who believe the world to be a mechanism is that, for such, this state exists.’ Raine, K., The Land Unknown, (Hamish Hamilton: London, 1975), p.  66.

[11]        Tom Paulin’s phrase, used in conversation with Steven Conner on the B.B.C.  Radio 3 programme, Postscript, October 1998.

[12]        ‘Defining the Personae in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Leah Richards-Fisher, The Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp.  66-67.

[13]        ‘Perspective in “The Ancient Mariner”’, Sara Dyck, Studies in English Literature 13 (1973), pp.  591-604, argues that The Rime admits ‘many levels of reading and constantly defies any one level of interpretation.’ (p.  601.)  ‘Coleridge’s Magical Realism: A Reading of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, Daniel Stemple, Mosaic: A Journal of Comparative Literature 12 (1978), pp.  143-156.  Stemple calls the poem ‘a literary analogue of the aesthetic theories of Friedrich Schiller’ (p.  145). ‘ “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as Vampire Poem’, James B.  Twitchell, College Literature 4 (1977), pp.  21-39.  Twitchell argues that the poem is a vampire story.  ‘A Mystic Peregrination—The Ancient Mariner’, Molly Lefebure, The Charles Lamb Bulletin 65 (1988), pp.  8-25.  Lefebure argues that the poem, ‘while dealing in psychological concepts far in advance of their day, simultaneously is a circumnavigation of the medieval mind and a capturing of the spirit and philosophy of medieval man.’ (p.  10.)  ‘Coleridge, The French Revolution, and “The Ancient Mariner”: Collective Guilt and Individual Salvation’, Peter Kitson, The Yearbook of English Studies 19(1989), pp.  197-207.  Kitson convincingly argues that the French Revolution influenced the poem immensely. 

[14]        ‘Observe also the exceeding vividness of Spenser’s descriptions.  They are not, in the true sense of the word, picturesque; but are composed of a wondrous series of images, as in our dreams…

            You will take especial note of the marvellous independence and true imaginative absence of all particular space or time in the Faerie Queene.  It is in the domains neither of history or geography; it is ignorant of all artificial boundary, all material obstacles; it is truly in land of Faery, that is, of mental space.  The poet has placed you in a dream, a charmed sleep, and you neither wish, nor have the power, to inquire where you are, or how you got there.  It reminds me of some lines of my own…’Coleridge: Poems and Prose Selected by Kathleen Raine (Penguin 1957), pp.  298-299.

[15]        Tom Paulin has suggested that the din generated by the ‘Ice..  all around’ (I, 57-60) is symbolic of Revolution, and, in particular, Coleridge’s split feelings on the subject.  On one hand, Coleridge is a violently committed Jacobinical Republican.  On the other, he believes in the sacral nature of the monarchy.  So, when the Mariner shoots the albatross with his crossbow, he is violently going against the sacral nature of the monarchy.  (Paulin in conversation with Steven Connor on the B.B.C.  Radio 3 programme, Postscript, October 1998.) 

[16]        Notebooks 3, 3449.

[17]        Punter, D., The Romantic Unconscious (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), pp.  147-148.

[18]        ‘The Mariner and the Albatross’, George Whalley, in Coleridge: Critical Essays, edited by K.  Coburn (Prentice Hall, 1967), p.  43.

[19]        Butler, M., Romantics, Rebels & Reactionaries (Oxford 1981), p.  55.  Butler remarks that there was no such thing as an apolitical readership, in England, in the late 1790s.  However, in July 1797, Coleridge wrote to Estlin: ‘I am wearied with politics, even to soreness.—I never knew a passion for politics exist a long time without swallowing up, or absolutely excluding, a passion for Religion.’ (CL 1 338.)

[20]        ‘The Mariner and the Albatross’, George Whalley, p.  49 (Whalley says that The Rime, ‘in addition to its other unique qualities, is both an unconscious projection of Coleridge’s early sufferings and a vivid prophecy of the sufferings that were to follow.’)

[21]        Punter, D., The Romantic Unconscious (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p.  149.

[22]        Lefebure, M., The Bondage of Love (Gollancz, 1986).  See Chapter Three, ‘Ebullience and Duty’.

[23]        ‘… there can be little doubt that there was considerable sexual attraction on both sides.  Coleridge was generally acknowledged as… brilliant… a Cambridge scholar with a possibly dazzling future, which greatly appealed to the high-strung and ambitious Sara, who loved his jokes, his dark hair, and large wild eyes… Coleridge… must easily have fallen for Sara’s bright animated face, her bubbling ringlets of brown hair, her quick teasing wit and generous, carefully laced figure turned out in the latest dress-shop fashions.’ (Holmes, R., Early Visions [Hodder & Stoughton, 1989], p.  70.)

[24]        Lefebure, M., The Bondage of Love (Gollancz, 1986), p.  42.

[25]        Ibid., p.  73.

[26]        In ‘The Ancient Mariner Controversy’ (Charles Lamb Bulletin 92 [1995], pp.  208-223), Seamus Perry argues that one must understand Coleridge’s personal history if one is to understand The Rime.  Perry says that the supernatural, romantic ballad style may be traced to Coleridge’s need for financial security.

[27]        Lefebure, M., The Bondage of Love (Gollancz, 1986), pp.  78..  79.

[28]        CL 667.

[29]        Lefebure, p.  24..  25.

[30]        CL I, p.  318.  ‘…indeed I am almost weary of the Terrible, having been an hireling in the Critical Review for these last six or eight months—I have been lately reviewing the Monk, the Italian, Hubert de Sevrac & &c & &c—in all of which dungeons, and old castles, & solitary houses by the Sea Side, & Caverns, & Woods, & extraordinary characters, & all the tribe of Horror & Mystery, have crowded in on me—even to surfeiting.–‘

[31]        CL I, p.  275

[32]        Ibid., pp.  365-7.

[33]        Holmes, R., Early Visions (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), p.  70.

[34]        Ibid.

[35]        CL I, p.  396.

[36]        Indeed, Southey—‘rigidly busy’, ‘lacking those qualities of grace and indolence’ in his ‘fixed aridity’ (‘Southey’s Organ of Vanity’, in Tom Paulin’s The Day-Star of Liberty [Faber, 1998], p.185)—would never have undertaken any such ‘voyage’ through the imagination. 

[37]        In ‘Coleridge, the Return to Nature, and the New Anti-Romanticism: An Essay in Polemic’ (Romanticism on the Net 4 [November 1996]), Seamus Perry examines Wordsworth’s perception of Coleridge’s ‘removal from the saving solidities of the concrete’, and perceives that ‘Wordsworth diagnoses in this removal a kind of spiritual disaster’ (p.  4).

[38]        ‘Coleridge, the Wedgwood Annuity and Edmund Oliver’, Christopher Rubenstein, The Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, p.  130.

[39]        Ibid., p.  131.

[40]        Ibid., p.  132.

[41]        Ibid., p.  133.

[42]        The ‘annuity’ was offered in January 1798; Hartley Coleridge had been born in September 1796, and Berkeley (who would die during Coleridge’s absence in Germany) would be born in May 1798.

[43]        CL I, p.  387 (and note). 

[44]        Richard Holmes uses a similar phrase, in a slightly different context, in Coleridge: Darker Reflections, p.65.

[45]        ‘The Nightmare World of The Ancient Mariner’, Edward E.Bostetter, in Coleridge: Critical Essays, edited by K.  Coburn (Prentice Hall, 1967), p.68.

[46]        Holmes, R., Early Visions (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), p.70.

[47]        In a letter to Thomas Poole, Coleridge zealously genuflects to Wordsworth’s ‘Future greatness!’ (CL I, p.584). 

[48]        ‘The Theme of “The Ancient Mariner”’, by D.W.  Harding, in Coleridge: Critical Essays, edited by K.  Coburn (Prentice Hall, 1967). 

[49]        In ‘“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: An Agony of Thirst’ (American Image: A Psychoanalytic Journal for Culture, Science and the Arts 27 [Spring 1970], pp.  140-159), Mary Jane Lupton parallels denying the Mariner water to denying him love.  Lupton supports this claim with the use of Freud’s Oedipus Complex, identifying the albatross as the father figure.  So, for Lupton, the Mariner kills the albatross and releases ‘the availability of the Oedipal mother… the reason for the removal of the father.’ (p.  154)

[50]        ‘Disappointed Love not uncommonly produces Misogyny, even as extreme Thirst is supposed to be the cause of the Hydrophobia.’ (Notebooks 1, 72)

[51]        ‘Coleridge, the Return to Nature, and the New Anti-Romanticism: An Essay in Polemic’, Seamus Perry, Romanticism on the Net 4 (November 1996), p.  7.

[52]        CL I, pp.  185-186.

[53]        Lefebure gently exclaims, as she de-demonises Sara: ‘how violently [Coleridge] over-reacted to any kind of agitation or emotional or physical strain; in short, how dangerously vulnerable he was to stresses which those of less common clay barely detected: Coleridge could be damaged, wounded by the world without the world even having noticed that it had wounded him.’ Lefebure, M., The Bondage of Love (Gollancz, 1986), p.  71.

[54]        Quoted in Seymour-Smith’s essay, ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’, p.  416.

[55]        Notebooks 1, 194.

[56]        CL II, p 875.

[57]        Ibid., p.  832. 

[58]        Ibid., p.  876. 

[59]        ‘Coleridge the Aeronaut’, in Tom Paulin’s The Day-Star of Liberty (Faber, 1998), p.  187.

[60]        CL II, p.  661.

[61]        Ibid., p.  662.

[62]        From Julia Sanders’ review of Mark Story’s Robert Southey: A Life (1997), Romanticism on the Net 7 (August 1997). 

[63]        Lefebure, M., The Bondage of Love (Gollancz, 1986), pp.  31-32.  (‘In choosing Edith, [Southey] objectively put his conscious mind to the problem of how to ensure himself a haven of repose in a restless world.’ Lefebure says that Southey perceived that Sara—more ‘beautiful’ than Edith—would have been ‘an uneasy life partner’.) 

[64]        In spite of a private reminder to himself ‘not to adulterize my time by absenting myself from my wife –’ (Notebooks 1, 73).

[65]        CL I, p.  186.