The Mariner and the Albatross

"For me, I was never so affected with any human Tale.  After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days – I dislike all the miraculous part of it, but the feelings of the man under the operation of such scenery dragged me along like Tom Piper’s magic whistle."[1]


In these words, in a letter to Wordsworth dated 30 January 1801, Charles Lamb spoke of Coleridge’s 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.  Some readers continue to echo Mrs Barbauld’s complaints that the poem is improbable and has an inadequate or distasteful moral.  But these are mental reservations: poetry of the order of 'The Ancient Mariner' does not work its magic upon the mind alone; and mental afterthoughts are of little use in explaining, least of all in explaining away, the profound spiritual and emotional effect of this poem.  For every sympathetic reader since Lamb has been similarly possessed and haunted by 'The Ancient Mariner'.

Lamb’s criticism is remarkable in a contemporary.  The incisiveness of his comment, however, lies not so much in his sensitivity to the fascination of the poem as in his immediate recognition of human feeling as being central in it.  Lamb understood and loved Coleridge, and was never to free himself of the fascination of the man: "'the rogue has given me potions to make me love him'";[2] '''tis enough to be within the whiff and wind of his genius, for us not to possess our souls in quiet."[3]  Unfortunately we have not the means of knowing that 'provocative and baffling personality' as Lamb did.  But a close and sympathetic reading of 'The Rime' will bring us much nearer to the essential Coleridge than one would expect in a poem that is professedly "a work of pure imagination".

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is less "a fantasticall imagination and a drowsie dreame" than "a continued allegory, and a darke conceit".  There is an important letter of Coleridge’s which confirms the allegorical interpretation of the poem: "I have often thought, within  the last five or six years, that if ever I should feel once again the genial warmth and stir of the poetic impulse, and referred to my own experiences, I should venture on a yet stranger & wilder Allegory than of yore  ...."  It is difficult to see how the missing factor in the comparative could be anything but 'The Ancient Mariner'; and the opinion is confirmed by the associated idea that follows: "that I would allegorize myself, as a Rock with its summit just raised above the surface of some Bay or Strait in the Arctic Sea...."[4]  Although the early action of the poem and the killing of the albatross take place in the Antarctic Sea, the details derive from the literature of Arctic travel, as Lowes has shown and as Coleridge would certainly remember.

I wish to examine the poem (a) to show how and to what extent Coleridge’s inner life is revealed in 'The Rime'; and (b) to show that the albatross was for Coleridge, whether consciously or unconsciously, a symbol with profound personal significance.


The aesthetic and poetic qualities of 'The Ancient Mariner' are impressive. Other writers have examined in the poem the elements of colour and drama, the moral, the truth and accuracy of the detail, the supple and sensitive versification. But the haunting quality of the poem does not, and cannot, grow from any of these elements, whether taken singly or in any combination. Coleridge's creative imagination has fused all these elements into a completely unified organism to express his fundamental meaning; a meaning of whose full significance he was probably unconscious at the time of composition.

Without in any way detracting from the value of 'The Rime' as a poem, I wish to show that the "haunting quality" grows from our intimate experience in the poem of the most intense personal suffering, perplexity, loneliness, longing, horror, fear.  This experience brings us, with Coleridge, to the fringes of madness and death, and carries us to that nightmare land that Coleridge inhabited, the realm of Life-in-Death.[5]  There is no other single poem in which we come so close to the fullness of his innermost suffering.  The year after the composition of 'The Ancient Mariner' he gave the self-revealing image of

    some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced

With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,

Or slow distemper, or neglected love,

(And so, poor wretch!  filled all things with himself,

And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale

Of his own sorrow)....[6]

Many years later he told how "from my very childhood I have been accustomed to abstract and as it were unrealize whatever of more than common interest my eyes dwelt on; and then by a sort of transference and transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the Object."[7]  Whether or not he recognised this process at the time, Coleridge enshrined in 'The Ancient Mariner' the quintessence of himself, of his suffering and dread, his sense of sin, his remorse, his powerlessness.  And

Never sadder tale was heard

By a man of woman born....[8]

For it is not only a crystallisation of his personal experience up to the time of the composition of the first version, but also an appalling prophecy fulfilled to a great extent in his life and successively endorsed by his own hand as time passed.


Life-in-Death is a recurrent theme in Coleridge’s thought.  In 'The Ancient Mariner' it is luridly personified:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,

Her locks were yellow as gold:

Her skin was as white as leprosy,

The Night-mare Life-In-Death was she,

Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

And when he summarises his life in 1833 in his own epitaph, he beseeches the passer-by to

    lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;

That he, who many a year, with toil of breath

Found Death in Life, may here find Life in Death.[9]

Life-in-Death meant to Coleridge a mixture of remorse and loneliness.  Yet "loneliness" is perhaps too gentle and human a word; let us say "aloneness".  It is precisely this combination of remorse and aloneness with which the Mariner’s experience is steeped.  Remorse is an emotion easy to find in the poem.  It is also broadcast throughout Coleridge’s letters and later poems, and requires no detailed consideration here.

The Mariner’s aloneness is directly stated:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on[10]

My soul in agony.

It is thrown into relief by contrast with multiplicity:

The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I.

And it culminates in the horror of utter solitude:

O Wedding-Guest!  this soul hath been

Alone on a wide wide sea:

So lonely 'twas, that God himself

Scarce seemed there to be.

The same theme recurs in smaller details.  When the spirits leave the shipmates' bodies, it is with the sound of birds and "like a lonely flute" (emphasis added).  The "Spirit from the south pole" is a lonesome spirit; and, even though there is an air of self-sufficiency in the phrase "who bideth by himself", like so many solitary people – like Coleridge, like Dorothy Wordsworth – he loves birds:[11]

He loved the bird that loved the man

Who shot him with his bow.

When the spectre-bark has sailed away and the Mariner has snapped the spell of the dead seamen’s eyes, he looks out over the ocean and feels a sense of foreboding

Like one, that on a lonesome road

Doth walk in fear and dread.

(emphasis added). These details have a cumulative effect in heightening the direct statement of the Mariner’s desolation.

The Mariner’s isolation is not "the wages of sin" so much as the state of sin:

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;

But or ever a prayer had gusht,

A wicked whisper came, and made

My heart as dry as dust.

Or again:

The pang, the curse, with which they died,

Had never passed away:

I could not draw my eyes from theirs,

Nor turn them up to pray.

The same aloneness haunted Coleridge and echoes like doom through his other poems, his letters, the Notebooks.  And, in the passionate eloquence of his morbid remorse, he is constantly and restlessly seeking the sin at the root of the desolation; finding as alternative sins his indolence, "abstruse research", the failure of his marriage, the opium habit.

The "Moon gloss" forges a powerful link between the Mariner and Coleridge.

In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth towards the journeying Moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.[12]

The gloss was written some time between 1806 and 1817, and may have been under revision until the completion of the 1829 collection.[13]  It is Coleridge’s personal and mature comment upon 'The Ancient Mariner'.  The "Moon gloss" itself contains the essence of his loneliness and homelessness, feelings which were acutely present long before the composition of 'The Ancient Mariner'.

In "Frost at Midnight" (1798) Coleridge recalls the sense of isolation he felt as an orphan at Christ’s Hospital:[14]

    if the door half opened, and I snatched

A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,

For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,

Townsman, or aunt, or sister move beloved...

                      For I was reared

In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,

And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.

In January 1796 we find him writing to the Reverend T. Edwards,

I have got among all the first families in Nottingham, and am marvellously caressed, but to tell you the truth I am quite home-sick owing to this long long absence from Bristol.  I was at the Ball, last night – and saw the most numerous collection of handsome men and women, that I ever did in one place; but alas!  the faces of strangers are but moving Portraits... I feel as if I were in the long damp gallery of some Nobleman’s House, amused with the beauty and variety of the Paintings, but shivering from cold, and melancholy from loneliness.[15]

Six months before the composition of 'The Rime,' we find him telling his brother that

                      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....[16]

And in January 1798 he wrote, "The first sunny morning that I walk out, at Shrewsbury, will make my heart die away within me – for I shall be in a land of Strangers!"[17]  With the last important recrudescence of his creative genius, he was to write in 1802 a curious echo of the watersnake passage:

                      All this long eve, so balmy and serene,

Have I been gazing on the western sky,

                      And its peculiar tint of yellow green:

And still I gaze – and with how blank an eye!

And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,

That give away their motion to the stars;

Those stars, that glide behind them or between,

Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:

Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew

In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue,

I see them all so excellently fair,

I see, not feel, how beautiful they are![18]

It is important to notice in the "Moon gloss" the association of the Moon, the blue sky and home.  Elsewhere the same combination of symbols, sometimes with the addition of tree(s), is associated with the thought of home, friendship and love, or their absence.

Practically speaking Coleridge was homeless for the greater part of his life.  Remembering the number of times he must have exhausted the patience of his hosts to the point of serious misunderstanding and even the breach of friendship, the last part of the "Moon gloss" is given pathetic personal significance by comparison with "Youth and Age" (1823-32):

Where no hope is, life’s a warning

That only serves to make us grieve,

                      When we are old:

That only serves to make us grieve

With oft and tedious taking-leave,

Like some poor nigh-related guest,

That may not rudely be dismist;

Yet hath outstayed his welcome while,

And tells the jest without the smile.[19]

In thinking of nature as a healer, he notes (1811) the fate of the desolate man: again his thought turns to home, and the parallel with the "Moon gloss" is again striking.

and even when all men have seemed to desert us & the Friend of our heart has passed on with one glance from his "cold disliking eye", yet even then the blue Heaven spreads it out & bends over us, & the little Tree still shelters us under its plumage as a second Cope, a domestic Firmament, and the low creeping Gale will sigh in the Heath-plant and soothe us by sound of Sympathy till the lulled Grief lose itself in fixed gaze on the purple Heath-blossom, till the present beauty becomes a vision of Memory.[20]

And in October 1803 he is trying to account for his aloneness: 

But yet...the greater & perhaps nobler certainly all the subtler parts of one’s nature, must be solitary -   Man exists herein to himself & to God alone, – yea,  in how much only to God –  how much lies below his own Consciousness![21]

Let us see how this sense of homelessness is imaged in the 'Mariner'.  When the ship finally reaches port he cries,

Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed

The light-house top I see?

Is this the hill? is this the kirk?

Is this mine own countree?

This utterance is charged with deep thankfulness of the seafarer returned.  In many a page of his travel books Coleridge had read of the emotions aroused by sighting the home port after a long voyage; and he is able to reproduce the feeling, mingled joy and pathos and fear, because he has experienced it imaginatively.  In December 1796, he had anticipated in a striking manner the Mariner’s return: "The Sailor, who has borne cheerily a circumnavigation, may be allowed to feel a little like a coward, when within sight of his expected and wished for port."[22]  Although the Mariner is returning to his "own countree", one feels sure that he does not expect anybody to be waiting for him.

The Pilot and the Pilot’s boy,

I heard them coming fast:

Dear Lord in Heaven! it was a joy

The dead men could not blast.

Returned from the dead, Lazarus-fashion, he is overjoyed to see living people, to hear their voices.  But there is a characteristic note of homelessness when he says

O sweeter than the marriage-feast,

'Tis sweeter far to me,

To walk together to the kirk

With a goodly company! –


To walk together to the kirk,

And all together pray,

While each to his great Father bends,

Old men, and babes, and loving friends

And youths and maidens gay!

It is an impersonal picture, pregnant with the sense of isolation.  There are "loving friends" but they do not seem to be his; the "old men" are not his brothers or his father, the "youths and maidens gay" are not his children.  We catch an overtone of words spoken by him on a grimmer occasion:

O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare

– words uttered with the same sense of isolation in which Coleridge wrote some twenty-five years later,

And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,

Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.[23]

Not only are the Mariner’s spiritual and emotional experiences similar to, if not identical with, those we know Coleridge to have suffered, but there is rather more than a hint that the drawing of the Mariner is a self-portrait. The Mariner's two salient characteristics are his glittering mesmeric eye and his passivity.[24]  The Mariner says,

I move like night from land to land,

I have strange power of speech....

The first line is not only a reflection of Coleridge’s isolation, but also a vivid metaphor description of his imaginative wanderings while reading "like a cormorant" before composing 'The Ancient Mariner'.  We have Lamb’s evidence for Coleridge’s "strange power of speech" even at school.  "How have I seen the casual passer through the Cloisters stands still, entranced with admiration (while he weighed the disproportion between the speech and the garb of the young Mirandula), to hear thee unfold, in thy deep and sweet intonations, the mysteries of Jamblichus, or Plotinus..., or reciting Homer in his Greek, or Pindar...."[25]  Even the hostile Hazlitt could write, in 1818: "The spell is broke; that time is gone for ever; that voice is heard no more: but still the recollection comes rushing by with thoughts of long-past years, and rings in my ears with never-dying sound."

The Mariner’s passivity is Coleridge’s too; and the significance of that word (as of "pathos", "patience", "sympathy") is rooted, in more than the etymological sense, in suffering.  In those deeply moving observations of the night sky noted in early November 1803,[26] all written at about two o’clock in the morning, the elements of passivity, suffering, and the moon meet; while finally, in a similar entry made in Malta six months later, all combine with the longing for home and for Asra: "the glorious evening [star] coasted the moon, and at length absolutely crested its upper tip....It was the most singular at the same time beautiful Sight, I ever beheld / O that it could have appeared the same in England / at Grasmere...."[27]  In these entries we see a man who is waiting, capable still of feeling; and he is driving down the intolerable suffering only by the fixedness with which he gazes on the sky.[28]  Sometimes there must have shaped in his mind the blasphemy that he expunged from 'The Rime' after 1798: that "Christ would take no pity on My soul in agony".[29]  And the Mariner’s prayer must often have been repeated in those long nights:

O let me be awake, my God!

Or let me sleep away.

At the height of the Mariner’s suffering and loneliness, sleep and dream become central ideas.  It is noticeable that the Mariner, like Coleridge, does not regard them as necessary concomitants.  The Mariner, it is true, hears the "two voices in the air" while he is asleep; but he recognises them as being merely voices so that the tempo of the verse does not race as it did when he sighted the spectre-bark.  His prayer on entering harbour shows that the whole voyage has been, in a real and horrible sense, a dream; when he hears the Pilot approaching, his pulse quickens because the dream of the voyage is broken by a breath of solid human reality.  Coleridge conceived sleep to be, in its essence, dreamless.  We have his own evidence for the fact that his life (like the Mariner’s voyage) passed in a state of dream;[30] and that there were times, after the composition of 'The Ancient Mariner', when the dream, the thing imagined, was more solid and terrible than "the normal realities of life". 

While I am awake, by patience, employment, effort of mind, and walking I can keep the fiend at Arm’s length; but the Night is my Hell, Sleep my tormenting Angel.  Three nights out of four I fall asleep, struggling to lie awake – and my frequent night-screams have almost made me a nuisance in my own House.  Dreams with me are no Shadows, but the very Substances and foot-thick Calamities of my Life.[31]

It is the dreams which accompany his sleep that are the torment and horror. Remove the dreams from his sleep and he would not "fall asleep, struggling to lie awake".[32]  And the Mariner’s craving and prayer for sleep are paralleled by Coleridge before 1802, and are more insistently repeated after that date.

The first version of 'The Ancient Mariner' was completed for publication in Lyrical Ballads in 1798. In 1801 Coleridge wrote, "The Poet is dead in me."[33] Successive revisions of 'The Rime' were not complete until 1815;[34] the gloss, though first published in 1817, had not achieved its final and complete form until the edition of 1829; and, although no important changes can be assigned to a later date than 1817, the poem was again revised in small points of detail for the collection of 1834. The revisions of the poem resulted in a tightening of the texture, the omission of unnecessary archaisms, the removal of elements of horror which he recognised as gratuitous and ephemeral in their appeal, and the abbreviation of certain passages whose length endangered the balance and emphasis of their setting. But no fundamental change was made in the plan or direction of the poem. Beyond these revisions the gloss, valuable more as profound meditation than as an argument, was added. That the poem was of real personal importance to Coleridge is shown not so much by his careful revision of the text as by the additions to and revisions of the gloss. The final version of 'The Ancient Mariner' is the outcome of at least twenty years of reflection, no matter how sporadic the reflection may have been.  That can only mean that the poem continued to hold for him the personal significance with which it was charged at its creation.[35]

In the course of revision the symbolism has been sharpened, not least of all by the gloss; the personal context has been clarified; and, most important of all, the whole poem has been confirmed in the light of his later life.


It is misleading to think of Coleridge’s life as falling into three distinct phases: one of turbulent preparation, one of cloudless creation, and one of disappointment and broken imagination.  The brief creative period, 1797-9, emerges from a mind more hopeful than in the later period, but it is essentially the same mind – restless, mercurial, morbid, remorseful, fearful.  For a short time he was lifted up (though on no constant wings) by his marriage, by the birth of Hartley, by his intimacy with William and Dorothy Wordsworth.  But even such "fecundating" happiness, a happiness ominously stressed in the letters of the period, was not able to change the thing that was Coleridge.  The early period foreshadows the later.  In 1796 he had written, "There is one Ghost that I am afraid of; with that I should be perpetually haunted in this same cursed Acton, the hideous Ghost of departed Hope."[36]  In the same year he observed that

Such a green mountain, 'twere most sweet to climb,

E'en while the bosom ached with loneliness....[37]

In the spring of 1797 he told Cottle, "On the Saturday, the Sunday, and the ten days after my arrival at Stowey I felt a depression too 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."[38]  Early in 1797 he had anticipated 'The Ancient Mariner' by telling his brother George that "I have roamed through life / Still most a stranger," and that "To me the Eternal Wisdom hath dispensed / A different fortune and more different mind."[39]  As early as 1795 he had referred to the taking of drugs;[40] and in the spring of 1798 "Kubla Khan" was conceived "in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses".  All the elements of the later broken Coleridge are noticeably present by 1797.  Coleridge was too intelligent and introspective a man to fail to notice them and understand, at least dimly, their import.

Before the date of the composition of 'The Ancient Mariner' the sense of personal doom was present to Coleridge, even though at times, and for lengthy periods, he was able to "keep the fiend at Arm’s length".  It has been shown that the acute consciousness of his aloneness and homelessness was already present, foreshadowing the "Moon gloss" and the pitiful threnody "Youth and Age".  'The Rime' is the projection of his own suffering, of his sense of personal danger, his passivity, his perplexity.  At first he projected himself unconsciously into the poem by the intensity with which he imaginatively experienced the Mariner’s situation.  During the voyage from Gibraltar to Malta he had an opportunity not only to verify his "observations" of the sea, but also to know what it was to pass "55 days of literal Horror almost daily expecting and wishing to die".  The time in Malta was a critical, desolate period; and I believe that in Malta Coleridge realised more vividly than ever before that he trembled on the brink of inactivity, of dream, of fatal procrastination, of creative impotence.  It is this realisation that he projects into the 1817 version of 'The Ancient Mariner': the personal allegory is sharpened by the gloss, and the addition of important details relates the Mariner’s experience more intimately with Coleridge’s experience of opium.[41]

Fundamentally it is the personal quality of the poem that accounts for its vivid haunting fascination.  And that effect is much heightened when we recognise the prophetic power of the poem; when we know that Coleridge himself in later life recognised the poem for a personal allegory and endorsed its prophecy by a life of wandering loneliness and suffering.


The central figure of the albatross remains to be considered; for "the albatross...binds inseparably together the three structural principles of the poem: the voyage, and the supernatural machinery, and the unfolding cycle of the deed’s results."[42]  Nothing less than an intensely personal symbolism would be acceptable against the background of such intense suffering.  The albatross must be much more than a stage property chosen at random or a mechanical device introduced as a motive of action in the plot.[43]  The albatross is the symbol of Coleridge’s creative imagination, his eagle.[44]

It was Wordsworth, not Coleridge, who thought of the albatross.[45]  Whether Wordsworth or Coleridge actually stumbled upon the albatross, in Shelvocke or anywhere else, does not matter.  In November 1797 the final element, around which the whole poem would crystallise, was needed.  As Lowes has shown, Coleridge, in all his diverse and obscure reading before 'The Ancient Mariner', read with the falcon’s eye "which habitually pierced to the secret spring of poetry beneath the crust of fact": it is as though he knew intuitively what he needed without knowing exactly what he was looking for.  It would be valuable to have a verbatim record of the dialogue during that momentous walk through the Quantock Hills, rather than the retrospective and somewhat patronizing report made by Wordsworth nearly fifty years after the event.

Coleridge would notice at once that the albatross was mechanically suitable: it would fit naturally into a voyage to Antarctic regions; sailors are superstitious about birds and indeed have special superstitions about the albatross; and he may even have noticed that it was amenable to rhyming in a way that other alternatives may not have been.  But, apart from practical considerations of plot or versification, the albatross was exactly what Coleridge was looking for.  It was a rare species of bird,[46] of exceptional size,[47] solitary, haunting a limited and strange and, for Coleridge, evocative zone, harmless yet by tradition beneficent.  Some or all of these facts would, I suggest, flash through Coleridge’s mind; and he at once seized upon the albatross as the right (or, at the very lowest valuation, an adequate) symbol for his purpose.

Coleridge was a confirmed symbolist.  In 1815 he wrote, "An idea, in the highest sense of that word, can not be conveyed but by a symbol."[48]  Ten years before, he had noted how

In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for, a symbolical language for something within me that already and for ever exists, than observing anything new.  Even when the latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phaenomenon were the dim Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature /  It is still interesting as a Word, a Symbol!  It is Λόγος the Creator! and the Evolver![49]

The process he describes here is not a newly acquired practice, but an innate and habitual attitude of mind.  'The Ancient Mariner' is what it is for the reason that Coleridge has clearly given: because in that poem he found what he was "seeking, as it were asking for", long before the date of the Notebook entry – "a symbolical language for something within me that already and for ever exists".  Furthermore Coleridge was not the man to use words or symbols without consideration or to select them carelessly.  In an entry touched with more humility than this single sentence would suggest, he said in 1805, "few men, I will be bold to say, put more meaning into their words than I or choose them more deliberately & discriminatingly."[50]

That the link between the albatross and the creative imagination grows out of the inner necessity of the poem and of the man can be verified by only one passage in 'The Rime'.  The evidence is extremely nebulous, but, being possibly primary evidence, should not be overlooked.  The shipmates’ first judgment on the killing of the albatross was that the Mariner had 'killed the bird / That made the breeze to blow' (emphasis added). Late in 1806 Coleridge connects genius and the wind:

Tho' Genius, like the fire on the Altar, can only be kindled from Heaven, yet it will perish unless supplied with appropriate fuel to feed it – or if it meet not with the virtues, whose society alone can reconcile it to earth, it will return whence it came, or at least lie hid as beneath embers, till some sudden & awakening Gust of regenerating Grace, άναϚωπρεî, rekindles and reveals it anew.[51]

And the symbol of the imagination, or of inspiration, is frequently, outside Coleridge’s writing,[52] a bird.

Far more important is Coleridge’s reply to the celebrated strictures of Mrs Barbauld.  'The Ancient Mariner', he said, "ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights’ tale of the merchant’s sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a geni starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date-shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the geni’s son".[53]  The tone of the retort is jocular.  If 'The Rime' had for Coleridge the personal significance that I believe it had, it would be difficult for him to reply other than jocularly.  About seven years before the reply to Mrs Barbauld, he tells a correspondent exactly how he reacts to a situation of that kind.

My sentiments on the nature of all intrusions into private Life, & of mere private personalities in all shapes I have given at large in the Friend, and yet more pointedly in the Literary Life....These you know; but you cannot know, my dear Sir! many causes accumulating thro’ a long series of years, and acting perhaps on constitutional predisposition, have combined to make me shrink from all occasions that threaten to force my thoughts back on myself personally – as soon as any thing of this sort is on the point of being talked of, I feel uneasy till  I have turned the conversation, or fairly slunk out of the room....[54]

Coleridge’s facetiousness in speaking of the moral of 'The Ancient Mariner' was misleading, as it was intended to be; but it both hides and contains the clue we are looking for.

The nature of the Mariner’s crime is thrown into high relief by Coleridge’s italics ("must", "because"): and, with it, the nature of Coleridge’s personal "crime" – for so he regarded it in later life.  The identity is then complete.

The crime was at the same time wanton and unintentional.[55]  The Mariner shoots "the harmless albatross", and "inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen" (emphasis added), having no conception of the implications of his deed.  The Mariner could have withheld his arrow, the merchant his date-shell; but neither saw any reason for doing so.  Certainly the Mariner learned a sharp lesson about killing birds before the voyage was done; but that lesson was of no service to him when, in a moment of idleness of boredom, he aimed his cross-bow at the albatross.  "But so it is!  Experience, like the stern lanthorn on a Ship, casts its light only on the Wake – on the Track already past."[56]  There is the sternness and inexorability of Greek tragedy in the paradox that an act committed in ignorance of the laws governing albatrosses and genii must be punished in the most severe manner.

That Coleridge regarded his own suffering in precisely this light is clear from a poem written as early as 1803.

Such punishments, I said, were due

To natures deepliest stained with sin, -

For aye entempesting anew

The unfathomable hell within,

The horror of their deeds to view,

To know and loathe, yet wish and do!

Such griefs with such men well agree,

But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?[57]

"The Pains of Sleep" is saturated with the same confusion and perplexity that the Mariner experienced.  The sin from which the suffering arose was committed in the same way: "Tho’ before God I dare not lift up my eyelids, & only do not despair of his Mercy because to despair would be adding crime to crime; yet to my fellow-men I may say, that I was seduced into the ACCURSED Habit ignorantly."[58]  Even though he may have suspected, when it was too late, what would be the outcome of his struggle with "this body that does me most grievous wrong", Coleridge did not know, when the process began, that he was killing his eagle.  The act was wanton: yes, in the sense that it was unnecessary, that it could have been avoided.  And it is that very knowledge – afterwards – that the act could, perhaps easily, have been avoided, if at the very beginning he had understood the implications of his action, that makes stark tragedy both in Coleridge’s life and in the Mariner’s voyage.

O had I health and youth and were what I once was – but I played the fool, and cut the throat of my Happiness, of my genius, of my utility, in compliment to the nearest phantom of overstrained Honor![59]

Well would it have been for me perhaps had I never relapsed into the same mental disease; if I had continued to pluck the flowers and reap the harvest from the cultivated surface, instead of delving in the unwholesome quicksilver mines of metaphysic lore.  And if in after-time I have sought a refuge from bodily pain and mismanaged sensibility in abstruse researches, which exercised the strength and subtilty of the understanding without awakening the feelings of the heart; still there was a long and blessed interval, during which my natural faculties were allowed to expand, and my original tendencies to develop themselves; - my fancy, and the love of nature, and the sense of beauty in forms and sounds.[60]

The interval was a good deal shorter and less blessed than he was prepared to remember in 1815.  And there was a great deal more in the two apparently naïve verses of moral than Mrs Barbauld could have guessed, more even than Coleridge was willing to remember when, long after their writing, he was asked for an explanation.

When the process of the atrophy of his creative imagination, foreshadowed in 'The Ancient Mariner', was far advanced and Coleridge felt that his life was sinking "in tumult to a lifeless sea", he wrote his comment upon that process.  The lines are some of the most desolate ever written.

But now afflictions bow me down to earth:

Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;

                      But oh! each visitation

Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,

    My shaping spirit of Imagination.

For not to think of what I needs must feel,

    But to be still and patient, all I can;

And haply by abstruse research to steal

    From my own nature all the natural man –

    This was my sole resource, my only plan:

Till that which suits a part infects the whole,

And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.[61]


'The Ancient Mariner', 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.  The poem was probably not originally intended to be a personal allegory; but that is what, in Coleridge’s eyes, it became later as the prophecy was slowly, inexorably and lingeringly fulfilled.

As far as I know 'The Ancient Mariner' has never been interpreted as a personal allegory.  To do so (and the evidence for it is weighty) not only gives a clue to the source of the poem’s intensity but also explains beyond cavil its moral implications.  'The Ancient Mariner' is, however, of primary importance as a poem; and no specialized interest – moral, biographical, or allegorical – can be allowed to assail the integrity to which, as a poem, it is entitled.  But the interpretation I have suggested does bring the reader into intimate contact with Coleridge the man.  Even to attempt to understand him will induce sympathy, and from sympathy some understanding can grow.

Carlyle’s judgment of Coleridge is harsh and grossly unsympathetic: "To steal into forever forbidden.  High treason is the name of that attempt; and it continues to be punished as such."[62]  Yet Coleridge had written:

I dare affirm, that few men have ever felt or regretted their own infirmities, more deeply than myself – they have in truth preyed too deeply on my mind, & the hauntings of Regret have injured me more than the things to be regretted –.[63]

...for years the anguish of my spirit has been indescribable, the sense of my danger staring, but the conscience of my GUILT worse, far far worse than all!  - I have prayed with drops of agony on my Brow, trembling not only before the Justice of my Maker, but even before the Mercy of my Redeemer.  'I gave thee so many Talents.  What has thou done with them?'[64]

...and as to what people in general think about me, my mind and spirit are too awefully occupied with the concerns of another Tribunal, before which I stand momently, to be much affected by it one way or other.[65]

Carlyle’s judgment overlooks the quantity and quality of the work Coleridge did complete; overlooks the fact that Coleridge throughout his life was dogged by physical disease; overlooks the fact that Coleridge became a man tormented and haunted, at times beyond the capacities of desire or effort, by the knowledge that the eagle had visited him, that he had inhospitably killed "the pious bird of good omen", and that it might well have been otherwise.

[1] Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas (London, 1935) I, 240.

[2] Ibid., I, 185.

[3] Ibid., II, 191.

[4] Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge [hereafter referred to as CL], ed. E. L. Griggs (Oxford, 1956-71) IV, 975 (? Nov 1819). Coleridge may be thinking of his 'Allegoric Vision' – The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge (Oxford, 1912) II, 1091-6. This prose allegory, written August 1795, was successively used for an attack on the Church of England, for an attack on the Church of Rome, and in the introduction to A Lay Sermon: Addressed to the Higher and Middle Classes. In the 'Allegoric Vision' Coleridge does not in any sense allegorise himself.

[5] For a consideration of the place of opium as inducing Coleridge's 'Bad most shocking Dreams', as an element in the composition of 'The Ancient Mariner', and specifically as a factor in the image of Life-in-Death, see R. C. Bald, 'Coleridge and "The Ancient Mariner"', in Nineteenth-Century Studies, ed. H. Davis, W. C. De Vane and R. C. Bald (Ithaca, NY, 1940).

[6] 'The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem' (Apr 1798).

[7] CL, IV, 974-5. This passage immediately precedes the passage quoted above (n. 5).

[8] 1798 version.  Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from the poem follow the 1834 version.

[9] See CL, VI, 963; cf. 970, 973, and Poetical Works, I, 492.

[10] Cf. 1798 version: 'And Christ would take no pity on'.

[11] For Coleridge on birds, see n. 47 below.

[12] Emphasis added.

[13] Too little is known of the date of composition of the gloss, and of the process of revision. For the date of  important revisions to 'The Ancient Mariner', see J. L. Lowes, The Road to Xanadu, rev. edn (Boston, Mass., and New York, 1930) pp. 475-6. For successive changes in the 'Courts of the Sun' gloss, see ibid., pp. 164ff.

[14] Cf. Edmund Blunden in Coleridge: Studies by Several Hands on the Hundredth Anniversary of His Death, ed. E. Blunden and E. L. Griggs (London, 1934) p. 66: 'I sometimes wonder whether, germinally, the "Ancient Mariner" altogether is not one of his Christ's Hospital poems. I mean...that he had to travel through a long period of haunted solitariness.'

[15] CL, I, 178-9 (29 Jan 1796).

[16] 'To the Rev. George Coleridge' (26 May 1797).

[17] CL, I, 369 (6 Jan 1798). Cf. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge [hereafter referred to as CN], ed. Kathleen Coburn (New York and London, 1957-72) III, 3324: 'when I am in company with Mr Sharp [et al.]... I feel like a Child – nay, rather like an Inhabitant of another Planet – their very faces all act upon me, sometimes, as if they were Ghosts, but more often as if I were a Ghost among them – at all times, as if we were not consubtantial'.

[18] 'Dejection: An Ode' (4 April 1802). Emphasis added.

[19] Cf. CL, II, 959 (1 Aug 1803). Emphasis added. He speaks of himself as 'an involuntary Impostor'. The whole letter is of importance for the statements which lead to the conclusion: 'This on my honor is as fair a statement of my habitual Haunting, as I could give before the Tribunal of Heaven / How it arose in me, I have but lately discovered.'

[20]CN, III, 4040. Emphasis added.

[21] CN, I, 1554.

[22] CN, I, 263. CN, II, shows that the voyage to Malta, Coleridge's loneliness there and the establishment of the opium addiction, and also the circumstances of his return to England, provide again fulfilment of the prophecy of 'The Ancient Mariner'.

[23] 'Work without Hope' (21 Feb 1825).

[24] Lamb's critical comment is again of interest: 'The Ancient Mariner undergoes such Trials, as overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was, like the state of man in a Bad dream, one terrible peculiarity of which is: that all consciousness of personality is gone' (Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, I, 240). Cf. CN, I, 1834.

[25] 'Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago'.

[26] CN, I, 1622, 1624, 1625, 1627, 1628, 1635, 1648, 1649, 1650.

[27] CN, II, 2139.

[28] Cf. an amusing parallel in CL, I, 658. 'In truth, my Glass being opposite to the Window, I seldom shave without cutting myself.  Some Mountain or Peak is rising out of the Mist, or some slanting Column of misty Sunlight is sailing across me / so that I offer up soap & blood daily, as an Eye-servant of the Goddess Nature.'

[29] Cf. CL., II, 1202: '55 days of literal Horror [at sea], almost daily expecting and wishing to die'; and IV, 673: 'I longed for Death with an intensity that I have never seen expressed but in the Book of Job'.

[30] See the dream-epitaph, CL, II, 992:

                  Here sleeps at length poor Col. & without Screaming,

                  Who died, as he did always liv’d, a dreaming:

                  Shot dead, while sleeping, by the Gout within,

                  Alone, and all unknown, at E’nbro’ in an Inn.

[31] CL, II, 991. Emphasis added. Many other of his letters voice the same theme.

[32] Opium is certainly responsible for the horror of these dreams. Coleridge's interest in the nature of his nightmares and reveries, and the acuteness of his introspective analysis of dream phenomena, are to be seen in CL, II, passim and elsewhere in his writing. Bald, in Nineteenth-Century Studies, pp. 29-35, examines closely the responsibility for opium in Coleridge's dreams of horror; and at pp. 40-3 he considers Coleridge's distinction between dream, reverie and nightmare.

[33] CL, II, 714 (to Godwin, 25 Mar 1801). Cf. p. 831 (July 1802): 'All my poetic Genius... is gone....'

[34] The manuscript of Sibylline Leaves, including 'The Ancient Mariner', seems to have gone to the printer in August or September 1815.

[35] This conclusion would be less tenable if the poet were almost anybody except Coleridge. In this respect 'The Ancient Mariner' stands in sharp contrast to 'Christabel'. 'Christabel' was left in a fragmentary state even though Coleridge 'had the whole present to my mind, with the wholeness, no less than the liveliness of a vision'. The passage on broken friendship is almost the only clear personal trace of Coleridge in 'Christabel'. 'Christable' was far more 'a work of pure imagination' than 'The Ancient Mariner': it had so little personal significance for him that he was unable to overcome the practical difficulties of completing it.

[36] CL, I, 272. (This refers to a suggestion that Coleridge might move from Stowey to 'cursed Acton'.)

[37] 'To a Young Friend'.

[38] CL, I, 320.

[39] 'To the Rev. George Coleridge'.

[40] The earliest reference to the use of opium, CL, I, 188 (1791), implies earlier medicinal use; cf. p. 186 (12 Mar 1796).

[41] See Bald, in Nineteenth-Century Studies, pp. 33ff.

[42] Lowes, The Road to Xanadu, p. 221.

[43] Cf. ibid., p. 303.  Lowes emphasises the triviality of the deed and suggests that Coleridge required a trivial deed to set the punishment in motion.

[44] Cf. T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London, 1933) p. 69, where the eagle is used as the symbol of the creative imagination.  Coleridge also seems to be using the symbol in an epigram of 1807 in reply to Poole’s encouragement: 'Let Eagle bid the Tortoise sunward rise – / As vainly Strength speaks to a broken mind' (Poetical Works, II, 1001). Cf. Shelley’s description of Coleridge as 'a hooded eagle among blinking owls.'

[45] The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford, 1940-9) I, 360-1.

[46] Coleridge’s keen interest in birds is shown by his footnote to 'This Lime-Tree Bower', and by a manuscript note in a copy of Gilbert White’s Works: 'I have myself made & collected a better table of characters of Flight and Motion [of birds].'  See also CN, II, 3182, 3184; III, 3314, 3359.

[47] The giant albatross probably would occur to Coleridge’s mind.  Notice Wordsworth’s mention of 'wingspan of 12 or 13 feet'. But see Lowes, The Road to Xanadu, pp. 266-7 and 529, for the 'feasible' species; and CN, II, 1957: 'Saw a...Boy running up to the Main top with a large Leg of Mutton swung, Albatross-fashion about his neck.'

[48] Biographia Literaria, ch. 9.

[49] CN,  II, 2546 (14 Apr 1805). See also III, 3762: 'words are not mere symbols of things & thoughts, but themselves things – and...any harmony in the things symbolised will perforce be presented to us more easily as well as with additional beauty by a correspondent harmony of the Symbols with each other.'

[50] CN, I, 2372.

[51] CN, II, 3136. This parallel is offered with caution.

[52] But see n. 45 above for an example in Coleridge’s writing.  CN, II, 3182 is also of interest: 'The moulting Peacock, with only two of his long tail-feathers remaining, & those sadly in tatters, yet proudly as ever spreads out his ruined fan in the Sun & Breeze.'  This may be a direct observation; but it is also one of several instances of Coleridge using a bird as a self-image.

[53] Table Talk, 31 May 1830. Henry Nelson Coleridge, in his review of the Poetical Works 1834, observed; 'It was a sad mistake in the able artist – Mr Scott, we believe – who in his engravings has made the ancient mariner an old decrepit man. That is not the true image; no! he should have been a growthless, decayless being, impassive to time or season, a silent cloud – the wandering Jew.' The remark is made on the authority of an unpublished entry in the manuscript of Table Talk.

[54] CL, V, 125-6.

[55] Bald (pp. 39ff), in interpreting this passage, is concerned to explain the amoral attitude as a characteristic of opium reverie.  Lamb notes the same quality in the Mariner without reference to opium.

[56] CL, V, 478.  E. H. Coleridge noted the first appearance of this recurrent stock sentence in the Morning Post of 2 Jan 1800 – Essays on his Own Times, I, 197-8.

[57] 'The Pains of Sleep'. Emphasis added.

[58] CL, III, 476: Coleridge, here replying to Joseph Cottle's harsh accusations, is thinking specifically of the opium habit, but he recognised it as a symptom and did not regard it as the 'sin' itself.

[59] CL, III, 73-4 (17 Feb 1808).

[60] Biographia Literaria, ch. I. See also CL, V, 125-6.

[61] 'Dejection', 11. 82-93. 'Dejection' is echoed in 'To William Wordsworth' (1807).

[62] Thomas Carlyle, The Life of John Sterling, in Complete Works of Thomas Carlyle (New York, 1853) XX, 60.

[63] CL, III, 337 (12 Oct 1811).

[64] CL, III, 476 (26 Apr 1814).

[65] CL, VI, 770-1 (9 Nov 1828).