Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 8. The Ancient Mariner

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VI. Coleridge

§ 8. The Ancient Mariner

In the case of The Ancient Mariner, no such question could be raised. There, we have an ordered story which moves on unchecked, doubtless through a world of wonder, from mysterious preface to inevitable close. Each incident stands out clear-cut and vivid; each corresponding change in the soul of the mariner is registered, no less distinctly, as upon the plate of an enchanted dial. That is one side of the matter; and a side which sets the poem in the sharpest contrast with the phantasmagoria of Kubla Khan. On the other hand, each incident in that long succession—the sailing of the ship, the gradual disappearance of the landmarks, the southward voyage and the rest—is presented not with the shorthand brevity which suits the needs of daily life, but in the successive images, distinct and single, which struck the eye of the mariner at the moment; and this with a persistency which is clearly intentional, and which it would be hard to parallel from any other poem. It is here that the method of Kubla Khan repeats itself.

In one respect, indeed, The Ancient Mariner carries that method a step further. In Kubla Khan, there is a general sense of colour diffused throughout the poem. But, when we come to ask how that impression is conveyed, it is impossible to lay our finger upon anything more definite than the

  • forests ancient as the hills,
  • Enclosing sunny spots of greenery.
  • In The Ancient Mariner, on the other hand, we are not at loss for a moment. The ice “as green as emerald,” the “copper sky” of the tropics, the moonbeams “like April hoar-frost spread upon the sultry main,” the moonlight that “steeped in silentness the steady weathercock”—these are but a remnant of the lavish store of colour which brightens the whole poem. And the touches which mark the more unearthly moments of the mariner’s sufferings are still to add:
  • The water, like a witch’s oils,
  • Burnt green and blue and white;
  • The charmed water burnt alway,
  • A still and awful red;
  • not to speak of the ghastly colours which “patched the bones” of Death, in a verse which the subtle instinct of Coleridge led him subsequently to strike out. Of all the elements that blend to make an image, colour is the most potent. And, if there be any poem which drives this truth home, it is The Ancient Mariner.

    As to the significance of this imagery—above all, in the supernatural episodes of the poem—Coleridge himself has done something to mislead later critics. Even to friendly readers, such as Lamb and, perhaps, Wordsworth, “all the miraculous parts” seem to have been things suspect. And Southey, with however ill a grace, was probably giving voice to the common verdict when he pronounced the poem to be “an attempt at the Dutch sublime.” It is small wonder, therefore, that Coleridge, who was never too confident in his own genius, should have taken fright. And, in Biographia, he is a shade too anxious to explain that his stress lay not on the incidents themselves, but on their working upon the soul of the mariner. That there is some truth in this, is certain. But it is not the whole truth, nor anything like it. The incidents themselves—and, not least, the marvels—have a compelling power upon the imagination; the story, as a mere story, is among the most thrilling ever told. And, when we remember that this story shapes itself in a succession of images unsurpassed for poetic power and aptness, how is it possible to deny that all this counts, and counts unspeakably, in the total imaginative effect? It is, no doubt, still more surprising that, when all is said, these things should be no more than an element in a larger whole; that, side by side with these outward incidents and images, we should have to reckon, and reckon at least as largely, with their reflection in the soul of the man who saw and suffered from them; that, from beginning to end, we should see them through his eyes and feel them through his spirit. But this is the miracle of Coleridge. And it is a poor tribute to his genius if we insist upon isolating one element and asserting that it is all he had to give. It is only by taking both elements together and giving full allowance to both that we do justice to the unique quality of this “miraculous” poem.