“He cannot chuse but hear”—Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner

L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles

Qui l’observant avec des regards familiers.

Man passes through forests of symbols
Which observe him with familiar looks.

Charles Baudelaire, “Correspondances”

Every man’s language has, first, its individualities; secondly, the common properties of the class to which he belongs; and thirdly, words and phrases of universal use. … Anterior to cultivation, the lingua communis of every country, as Dante has well observed, exists everywhere in parts, and nowhere as a whole.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria Chapter XVII


When we look at the world through our senses, as the empiricists like Locke did, we see a prosaic world of objects and events, cause and effect. When we look at our mental world of thoughts and words we find ourselves haunted by ancient and innate ideas, preconceptions and contradictions. Such was the view of Coleridge which he expressed in a marvelous and curious way in his narrative poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

The “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a poem filled with archaic words (even for it’s time). In it, we see a man (the wedding guest) who for some mysterious reason is can no longer move. He is captivated by some ancient spirit, the mariner. For some unknown reason the man has been selected to hear a story while all his companions continue to the wedding. It is the story of a ship that for some mysterious reason can no longer move. The ship has been captivated by spirits. For some unknown reason the mariner is allowed to live while all his companions die.

While there is not much going on in the poem we get marginal glosses that explain that not much is going on in the poem. Many of these notes talk of spirits, including one that refers to a book on spirits by an ancient writer (Michael Psellus) and another ancient writer (Josephus) who comments on spirits in his book Jewish Antiquities. Even the epigraph tells us, in an ancient language (Latin) about the presence of spirits in the air, water, earth and fire.


Everywhere we turn in the “Ancient Mariner” we are deluged with spirits, traces, glosses that inform or misinform, advance or hinder our progress. We are subject to capricious rules that we cannot fathom and their inescapable but equally capricious consequences. We are by haunted ancient thoughts and words and customs whose origins are murky but their effects are unavoidable.

It is whimsical and poetic counter argument to the empiricism of Locke who saw us arrive in the world a blank slate to be filled by our impressions and experiences. But Coleridge knows that what we experience are not simple ideas that build to more complex ones. We arrive with a mental world that is already filled with dangerous complexity. Our language and culture, from which we perceive the world, comes pre-stocked with wild and untamable notions many of which we only barely glimpse. Early commentators found the poem compelling but unfathomable. I think that just might be the point.



~ by severalfourmany on March 10, 2013.

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