Coleridge’s Spiritual Journey
by Meghan Mills

© 2006 Meghan Mills

Originally Submitted for English 474: Romantic Literature
Professor Lucy Morrison

            “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” presents numerous instances of religious imagery and resonances which are used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to add to the brilliancy of the work as a whole and to create another level at which the poem can be read and understood. When Coleridge wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, he was going through a period of hard times in his life and he was beginning to question and challenge his current religious beliefs of Pantheism. In this respect, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can be read as an allegory of the voyage of Coleridge’s search for a Christian God. However, by the end of the poem, it appears as if Coleridge never truly finds a God he is satisfied with and is instead confused and conflicted further by the actions of the God he comes to find.

            In 1794, Coleridge and Robert Southey’s idea of creating a “pantisocracy” failed miserably and Coleridge was stuck marrying a woman he hated. Coleridge then worked as Unitarian minister, until 1797 when the Wedgewoods offered Coleridge an annual salary so he would be able to completely devote himself to his writing. Without a second thought, Coleridge gave up his post as a minister. After the publication of “Lyrical Ballads”, which originally contained “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Coleridge headed off to Germany to study under Kant, Spinoza, and Lessing; very Christian and anti-pantheistic thinkers (Pym 11). However, before going away to Germany, Coleridge had already begun his transition from Pantheism to a single Christian God as he was already studying Kant and others. The work itself is reflective of the breakdown of Coleridge’s old beliefs and the adaptation and questioning of his new beliefs. The initial killing of the albatross by the mariner can be interpreted as a symbolic detachment from or end to Coleridge’s strong pantheistic beliefs about nature and the idea of “one life” (Pym 18). After the mariner kills the albatross, all of the winds die down and the sea becomes silent. There is no longer drinkable water available for the mariner and his shipmates, and nature will not supply them with rain. The lack of these necessary natural elements of wind and water are symbolic of the lack of nature in Coleridge’s new religious belief.

            Coleridge initially finds himself in a transition period after denouncing pantheism and before adopting a new Christian God, when he feels a strong sense of despair and hopelessness. Coleridge’s strong feelings of despair are portrayed in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” when the mariner and his crew are stuck out in the dead silent and still ocean without water. Everything encountered by the mariner is portrayed in a negative and pessimistic light, the way Coleridge himself then viewed life. This is illustrated when in the spring of 1797, Coleridge tells Joseph Cottle that he “felt a depression to dreadful to be described…Wordsworth’s conversation, &c, roused me somewhat; but even now I am not the man I have been- and I think never shall. A sort of calm hopelessness diffuses itself over my heart” (qtd. in Whalley 83).The mariner encounters various seemingly demonic supernatural creatures and events. The mariner reports that “slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea”, emphasizing that whatever the mariner has encountered is clearly unnatural and irrational as they appear to be walking upon the water (Coleridge, lines 125-26). The mariner and his crew are followed by mysterious spirits and at night encounter  dancing “death-fires” on top of the water, which is described as having the appearance of “witch’s oils” (McDonald 548). These supernatural and pagan related creatures and events encountered by the mariner and his crew are representative of other possible pagan and demonic religious options Coleridge was presented with, and perhaps tempted by during a time when he was unable to devote himself to any particular religion.

            When Death and his mate, Life-in-Death play dice, this is symbolic of Coleridge’s attempt to decide between the harsher and colder Christian God presented in the Old Testament or the seemingly more forgiving and just God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God believes in a more strict and remorseless punishment and would punish the mariner with death, whereas the New Testament God believes in a more humane and weighted punishment (Coleridge lines 195-98). The fact that Life-in-Death beats Death in the game of dice is symbolic of the fact that Coleridge decides to believe in the Christian God portrayed in the New Testament. The fact that Death and Life-in-Death play dice in order to win the life of the mariner is representative of how Coleridge is blindly choosing what type of Christian God to believe in, as he really does not know enough about them in order to make an informed decision. Coleridge has reached a point where he is desperate for any type of religion to put his faith in and to give him hope and purpose in life (Dyck 597).

            Once Coleridge decides in a belief based on the New Testament God, he immediately comes to find out that the punishment of Life-in-Death is far worse then the punishment of death that would have been given by the God of the Old Testament. Coleridge’s New Testament God leaves him feeling a sense of isolation and aloneness. The mariner complains, “Alone, alone, all all alone, /Alone on a wide wide sea; /And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony” (Coleridge 232-35). Coleridge finds it problematic that his new God does not directly address individuals, or seem to care about their individual problems. Coleridge is allegorically addressing how he believes his new God is one who is presented as being too transcendent and superior to mankind. This feeling of aloneness was one Coleridge dealt with throughout his life, but especially in his search for a religion to give him purpose in life. A few months before the publication of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, in a letter to his brother, Coleridge writes, “At times my soul is sad, that I have roamed through life/  Still most a stranger, most with naked heart/ At mine own home and birth-place” (Whalley 78). This is significant as it further illustrates how Coleridge was in fact experiencing a strong sense of isolation and aloneness during the time he wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. It was during this time that he was undergoing a spiritual transition, and lacked much needed spiritual and social support and guidance.

            Coleridge begins to question the value of his new God, as not only does Coleridge find his new God leaves him feeling a sense of aloneness, but Coleridge’s new God does not appear to treat everyone equally. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, the mariner addresses the fact that “four times fifty” essentially innocent men are all sentenced to death, and yet “a thousand thousand slimy things, lived on-and so did I” (Coleridge 236-39). The mariner compares himself to “slimy things”, representative of the change and progress from his earlier belief that he was superior to animals and therefore nature demonstrated in the killing of the albatross. However, the mariner continues to refer to the creatures as “slimy things”, an indication that although he compares himself to the “slimy things”, he continues to hold a negative outlook on them, when, unlike him, they have done nothing wrong (Dyck 598). This is representative of Coleridge’s feelings about the new God he is trying to come to accept. In fact, hating oneself and the world is a step in the “perception of spiritual truth”, but Coleridge does not wish to remain in this miserable state, so he attempts to pray (Purser 253). Through the actions of the mariner, Coleridge is addressing the fact that he simply can not understand how such an omniscient God would allow the death of innocent people, while allowing other unmoral and corrupt humans to remain alive. Coleridge is questioning whether his new God can truly be as just and benevolent as he is supposed to be if he allows things like this to happen (251).

            Although Coleridge finds his new God to be faulty and imperfect, he attempts to accept and pray to him. However, Coleridge finds he cannot do this, as he has not yet completely made up his mind, or devoted himself to a Christian God. The “wicked whisper” for Coleridge is perhaps his inability to let go of his pantheistic beliefs (Coleridge line 255). It is also possible that the “wicked whisper” is caused by Coleridge’s reconsideration of pagan religious ideals (Pym 14). In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, the mariner says “I closed my lids and kept them close /And the balls like pulses beat” (Coleridge 248-49). The fact that the mariner closes his eyes, but is unable to stop thinking about what is going on is metaphorically referring to Coleridge trying to close his eyes and ignore his other conflicting religious ideas. It could also be symbolic of Coleridge trying to simply ignore, or be “blinded” to the negative aspects of Christianity which he can not understand (McDonald 552).

             In his search for religion, Coleridge eventually comes to realize that in his new Christian religion, he can not completely detach himself from nature as he originally attempted to do. Although in Christianity, one God is presented as superior to everything else, nature is still created by God and therefore must be considered valuable and respected by humans. The mariner blesses the snakes unaware, representative of how Coleridge is all of a sudden able to better understand his new religion, but he is unaware of how he is able to do it. This is when the mariner discovers he can pray, as Coleridge is now able to accept and pray to a single Christian God. It now begins to rain and the wind returns, symbolic of the return of nature for Coleridge, and his ability to understand and appreciate nature as a creation of God.

            Coleridge’s ironic portrayal of the mariner blessing the snakes is representative of the Fall and Original Sin as it is a serpent which causes the fall of Adam and Eve, whereas the blessing of the snakes by the mariner is what frees the mariner and allows him to pray. However, by portraying the mariner’s blessing of the snakes as a positive thing, Coleridge is illustrating the conflict he has with the Fall and Original Sin presented by his new God. The Fall is a religious resonance portrayed throughout the entire poem. By shooting the albatross in a senseless act of violence, the mariner is comparable to Adam and Eve who eat a seemingly trivial piece of forbidden fruit (Warren 26). In the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, God tells them that they can eat from all of the other trees in the garden of Eden,  “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shall surely die”(King James Genesis- 2:16-2:17). By disobeying God, not only are Adam and Eve condemned, but the entire human race is condemned to be born tainted with Original Sin. Therefore, Adam and Eve and the rest of mankind are essentially damned to live Life-in-Death as is the mariner. The Fall is something Coleridge seems to find problematic with the Christian religion. A common criticism of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is that the mariner and his shipmates face too severe and unjust a punishment for the fact that the only crime committed was the trivial shooting of an albatross. For example, Irving Babbitt said “The fact is that it is impossible to extract any serious ethical purport from The Ancient Mariner…unless, indeed, one hold that it is fitting that, for having sympathized with the man who shot an albatross, ‘four times fifty living men’ should perish in torments unspeakable” ( qtd. in McDonald 548). Coleridge purposely presents such a seemingly cruel and unjust punishment for the mariner as a way of addressing the fact that he believes the Christian God is problematic in the respect that he condemns all mankind simply for the actions of Adam and Eve. Coleridge addresses this problem in the poem with the death of all of the mariner’s shipmates when they have done nothing wrong, except for agreeing with the mariner’s killing of the albatross for a short period of time.

            Another problem Coleridge appears to struggle with about the Fall and which he addresses in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the fact that everyone is originally tainted with sin. Coleridge is conflicted as to why God would introduce evil into the world and allow such evil things to happen, if he is such an omnipotent God. Coleridge ignored the fact that it was possible for evil to occur from forces other than God, and saw them all as God’s doing (Pym 38).  Coleridge believes that “Original Sin is not hereditary sin; it is original with the sinner and is of his will” (Warren 25). Coleridge believed that sin came from a misuse of man’s free will, not from Original Sin (Pym 42). HE had no problem with addressing “the existence of wickedness” by a Christian God. Coleridge addresses that he was conflicted with questions such as: “How can man be said to have a totally free will when he is only capable of evil?” and “Why does the all-powerful and benevolent God allow the situation to develop and continue whereby moral evil is perpetually being created?” (43).

            After Coleridge comes to properly accept God, represented by the mariner’s blessing of the snakes, he then questions God and his actions a second time. This is illustrated in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as the mariner endures further punishment from seemingly supernatural and demonic spirits or forces (Coleridge 539). Coleridge begins to regret his decision of putting his faith in this new Christian God as he is only able to find cruelty and pain. By finding this new God, Coleridge may have only filled himself with a sense of false hope. The fact that the mariner is further punished unnecessarily is representative of how Coleridge questions how the God he is now devoted to allows the prevalence of such evil spirits to harm mankind. Coleridge presents the question of “Are the spirits in this world the agents of a just, benevolent God, or is the Mariner’s universe like his actions, irrational, indifferent, and unjust?” (Purser 604).  When all of this is going on, the mariner attempts to pray to God for help and guidance, but says, “I could not draw my eyes from theirs/ nor turn them up to pray” (Coleridge lines 440-41). This is representative of the fact that Coleridge is perhaps again considering pagan religion, or he simply cannot pray because he is again not satisfied with the God he has come to find.  

            Coleridge’s final acceptance of God is seen in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” when the curse on the mariner has ended and the mariner says, “Oh let me be awake, my God! / Or let me sleep always” (470-471). It appears that now Coleridge has come to accept God, he no longer wants to question him. Coleridge either wants to believe and have complete faith in his new God or to be “asleep” or “blinded’ to the evil side of God. However, this seems problematic as the mariner utters this line out of fear arising from his recent torture by the demonic supernatural forces. This is representative of the fact that Coleridge finds it problematic that God seems to rule by instilling fear into his followers. Coleridge presents a God who uses the constant threat of eternal damnation to ensure his followers act in a moral way, which raises the question of how just and moral a God like that could possibly be.

            When the mariner “beholdeth his native country”, he appears to be unsure whether it is truly his homeland that he sees as he questions “Is this indeed/ The lighthouse top I see? / Is this the hill? Is this the kirk?” which is representative of the spiritual rebirth of Coleridge at the end of his metaphoric religious journey (464-66). The questioning by the mariner of whether it is his homeland is symbolic of the fact that now that Coleridge has experienced this spiritual rebirth, he sees things he once recognized, or thought true in a different light, causing them to appear strange. The hermit encountered by the mariner is a holy man who is representative of the ideal Christian as he is able to incorporate a natural and a devoutly religious side, and this is what Coleridge wants to accomplish, but is not able  to do (Warren 43). With the ending of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Coleridge causes readers to find his spiritual journey towards a Christian God to be a seemingly unsuccessful quest. At the end of the poem, the reader finds out that the mariner has been forced to wander from land to land and tell his tale as a continuation of his punishment. This reminds the reader of the marked Cain and the wandering Jew who were also forced to travel telling their stories and are therefore seen in a very negative light (McDonald 547).

            Like the wedding guest, the mariner is presented with the “sad wisdom” or the truth of God, which he does not want to acknowledge (Buchan 103). In contrast, Coleridge presents the character of a hermit who accepts the truth of God and wanders around telling his tale “voluntarily, finding his peace in it”, as he has never done anything to be punished for (Purser 255). To the wedding guest, the mariner gives the advice of “He prayeth best who loveth best/ All things both great and small” (Coleridge 612-13). Coleridge presents this advice in a way satirically to poke fun at this advice, as it is presented in a very hypocritical manner and comes from the gullible mariner. This advice is presented as nothing more than a stereotypical message preached by Sunday school teachers and it appears to have very little real moral or value (Buchan 103). It appears that after Coleridge's long spiritual journey, portrayed in the mariner’s literal journey in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Coleridge never finds the God he is looking for. Instead Coleridge is presented with the “sad wisdom” or harsh reality of a God that is far from perfect, and whom even appears to have a cruel, unjust, and potentially evil side. It appears as if in Coleridge’s search for an infallible and perfect religion, he only comes to find more questions and confusion.

Works Cited

Buchan, A.M. “The Sad Wisdom of the Mariner.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Ed. James Boulger. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 92-110.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. UK: Blackwell Publishing, 1994: 528-44.

Dyck, Sarah. “Perspective in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.” Studies in English Literature. 13.4 (1973): 591-604. JSTOR. Blackwell Library., Salisbury University. 14 Nov. 2005 <http://www.jstor.org/>

King James Version of the Holy Bible. Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1611.

McDonald, Daniel. “Too Much Reality: A Discussion of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.” Studies in English Literature. 4.4 (1964): 543-554. JSTOR. Blackwell Library., Salisbury University. 14 Nov. 2005 <http://www.jstor.org/>

Purser, J. W. R. “Interpretation of The Ancient Mariner.” The Review of English Studies.  8.31   (1957): 249-256. JSTOR. Blackwell Library., Salisbury University. 14 Nov. 2005 <http://www.jstor.org/>

Pym, David. The Religious Though of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Great Britain: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978.

Whalley, George. “The Mariner and the Albatross.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Ed. James Boulger. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 73-91.

Warren, Robert Penn.  “A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Ed. James Boulger. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 21-47.

 

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