Coleridge’s Failure to Achieve Unity in Rime of the Ancient Mariner
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a striking example of how Samuel Taylor Coleridge failed to attain his vision of perfect poetic unity. The work in question leaves the reader with unanswered questions regarding its stated moral, its failure to adequately account for the reasoning behind its central action, and its vacillation regarding the mariner’s supposed atonement. Coleridge famously sought unity in life and art, yet in this poem he is remarkably unable to produce any semblance of such. He does, however, succeed in telling a story that instantly grabs the attention of the reader and sustains her attention long after the poem has been initially digested.
Attaining unity within the poem is impossible primarily because it lacks a unifying moral to explain the appalling events taking place on the ship as described by the guilt-stricken mariner himself. The mariner’s states the moral for what has taken place in this way: “He prayeth well who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast. / He prayeth best who lovest best / All things both great and small, / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all” (612-617). This moral explanation seems far too pat and simplistic to account for the harrowing events that have taken place and for the mariner’s exceptional sense of guilt. What kind of God would kill off the innocent, the mariner’s shipmates, instead of the one guilty of killing the albatross? What kind of “morality” is this? To what kind of God is the mariner referring? No satisfying unity exists between the mariner’s final reflections and the sin and guilt that led him to that moral conclusion.
This lack of unity puts into question the poem’s entire meaning. Does the moral belong to Coleridge or only to the mariner? The author’s marginal glosses confound the question, as he echoes the morals as explained by the mariner; for instance: “…and to teach by his own example love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.” The reader knows this is not the mariner speaking, so she can tentatively assume it to be Coleridge himself. If this is the case, then it is Coleridge offering the simplistic moral put forward by the mariner at the end of the poem; if true, this suggests that Coleridge was perhaps a lesser intellectual and poet than commonly believed. Creating a complex and highly entertaining story only to explain it sophomorically is not what one would expect of a a true literary great.
However, other lapses of unity within the poem suggest that Coleridge may have still been in the process of writing the poem upon its publication, that it was merely published before he was able to conclude it more satisfactorily. For instance, the poem’s central event is never explained. As far as the reader can tell, the mariner’s decision to kill the albatross – traditionally regarded as a harbinger of good fortune for sailors – was an arbitrary one. This defining moment is described in just one and a half lines (“‘With my crossbow / I shot the albatross” (81-82)), as if Coleridge wanted to hurry beyond the story’s climax towards a deep exploration of its moral consequences. Without this kind of reflection, the reader cannot understand why so much death and psychic injury follows what apears to be a rather mundane trespass. One cannot appreciate the full weight of the mariner’s crime, nor care much about the mariner and his guilt at all, without knowing more about the mariner, his moral character and motivations. Coleridge fails to unite the crime adequately with its consequences; one learns of the death and guilt that follow without understanding why the action merits such punishment.
The mariner’s quest for deliverance also demonstrates the lack of unity within the poem. After his blessing of the water-snakes, the mariner symbolically casts off his sin. “The self-same moment I could pray, / And from my neck so free / The albatross fell off and sank / Like lead into the sea” (288-291). Despite this supposed respite from his guilt, however, the mariner is still not done paying for his crime. “The man hath penance done / And penance more will do” (408-409). Even though he no longer must carry with him the burden of the albatross, he has not yet paid in full for his sins. Coleridge notes on the side that “The curse is finally expiated,” suggesting conclusion, but the mariner must continue to circle the globe, re-telling his story in what appears to be a vain attempt to achieve salvation. Great discontinuity exists between the mariner’s supposed release from culpability and his compulsion to continue telling his tale.
Coleridge’s desire for unity is firmly rejected in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Unresolved questions leave the reader dissatisfied with the poem despite the work’s strong qualities, e.g. plot, rhyme, and meter. The disconnect between successful components and failed ones is itself evidence for the poem’s lack of unity. Ultimately, the poem lacks enough harmony for the reader to make even an attempt at judging it a success or failure overall.
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“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a striking example of how Samuel Taylor Coleridge failed to attain his vision of perfect poetic unity. The work in question leaves the […]