What we have most to dread, is the almost irrecoverable debasement of our minds by looking off from God, living without him, without a due regard to his presence and providence, and idolizing ourselves and the world, considering other things as proper agents and causes; whereas, strictly speaking, there is but one cause, but one sole agent in universal nature.
--Joseph Priestley, Illustrations of Philosophical Necessity
NO QUESTION IN COLERIDGE STUDIES HAS RESISTED RESOLUTION MORE effectively than the question of the Christianity of "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere." Contemporary readers often feel that no theological paradigm survives the nightmarish ironies of Coleridge's tale, of course, but that very feeling requires some assumption about the text's theological investments, so the issue of the poem's religious outlook remains a pertinent one. It is an issue that I will reconsider here by invoking Coleridge's Unitarianism. Critics tend to hurry the poet past his Unitarian period, convinced that the glib optimism of Joseph Priestley could accommodate neither Coleridge's "visionary" interests nor his responsiveness to injustice and suffering. I What troubles me about that conviction is that it seems so thoroughly at odds with the historical record. For in 1797-1798 Coleridge was still zealously engaged in the Unitarian cause: preaching to Unitarian congregations, corresponding with Unitarian ministers on theological questions, and revising his doctrinaire Religious Musings. He renounced his candidacy for the vacant ministry at Shrewsbury not on doctrinal grounds but simply because the Wedgwood legacy allowed him to act on his aversion to ministerial routine. (2) In turning from Coleridge to "The Rime," moreover, we turn from a devout Unitarian to a conversion narrative organized around Christian motifs from the moment Coleridge introduces Crucifixion imagery into it. Is there no connection between the poet's religious beliefs and the poem's religious speculations? There is indeed, critics reply, but they defend the connection by denying or misrepresenting Coleridge's Unitarianism. For Robert Penn Warren, Coleridge's mythmaking reformulates the orthodox Fall occasioned by Original Sin, in the process ignoring Unitarian and Necessitarian doctrine. (3) For James Boulger, conversely,
"The Rime" depends crucially on Necessity, but on a version of Necessity more reminiscent of Hume than Priestley. (4) Jerome McGann advocates reclaiming "The Rime" for historical understanding by looking not to Coleridge's Unitarianism but his interest in Higher Critical hermeneutics. (5) With William Empson, we at last encounter outright insistence on the Unitarianism of "The Rime," thankfully." Yet we also encounter a reconstruction of Coleridge's Unitarian faith so tendentious as to create more problems than it resolves.
My effort to negotiate these contending positions will appeal to the Unitarian convictions expressed in Coleridge's own letters and prose writings and Priestley's theological treatises. My essay will concede Warren's claim that "The Rime" celebrates the One Life, but then argue that the poem displays a typically Unitarian disinterest in Original Sin and the loss of Eden. I will agree with Boulger, against Warren, that the idea of Necessity shapes Coleridge's narrative profoundly, but I will also argue that Coleridge's conception of Necessity is providential rather than skeptical. While accepting McGann's case for a historicist "Rime," with the Mariner as a figure of superstition, I will ignore the marginal glosses tie privileges arid concentrate instead on the 1798 text. My concern with "The Rime" as a Unitarian theodicy, finally, marks the divergence of my argument from Empson's reading. By looking narrowly at the poet's distaste for notions of a hereditary guilt demanding expiation, Empson concludes that Coleridge's Unitarianism disallowed the redemptive rationale of pain and evil--and there I cannot agree. In sum, this essay will present a "Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" in which the theory of the One Life, an inference from Unitarian doctrine, implicates the poem in the related theory of Necessity. I will argue that Coleridge's Unitarian conception of Necessity allows for human moral agency and responsibility while also sanctioning a naturalistic world in which the "supernatural" events of the plot can only be construed as psychological projections. The religions allegory organizing that plot centers not on the Fall but the Crucifixion, a difference important for Coleridge's Unitarian theology, and for our reading of the Mariner's spiritual progress and final situation. In developing these claims, I will not argue that Unitarianism controls, as McGann might say, the Meaning of the poem's meanings. But I do think that the religious vision of "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" explores and reaffirms the Unitarian fifth that Coleridge himself professed in 1798.
I. Necessary Evils
The months spanning the composition of "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" witnessed the full flush of Wordsworth and Coleridge's enthusiasm for the One Life. In early 1798 Wordsworth was recasting his tragic version of The Ruined Cottage to give it an optimistic One Life resolution, and for that purpose describing how the Pedlar "saw one life, and felt that it was joy," even as Coleridge was affirming the One Life in both his poems and letters. (7) For all its pantheist affinities, the idea of the One Life was Coleridge's direct extrapolation from Unitarian theology. When Wordsworth and Coleridge came to believe that "There is an active principle alive in all things" (line 1, Gill Appendix), and from that belief affirmed "a universe of blessedness and love," in Jonathan Wordsworth's phrase ("Wordsworth's Borderers" 176), their affirmation merely reformulated Coleridge's more doctrinaire Unitarian proclamation, "There is one Mind, one omnipresent Mind / Omnific. His most holy name is Love" (Religious Musings, lines 105-6). Entangled in Unitarianism, the idea of the One Life became entangled in the theory of Necessity too. Priestley stressed that the doctrines "of that which is commonly called Socinianism, and of philosophical necessity, are equally parts of one system." (8) It is a mark of Coleridge's dependence on Priestley that his own Unitarianism was bound up integrally with the doctrine of Necessity. Declarations of belief in Necessity toll through Coleridge's early correspondence, and as late as 1817 he was still insisting that Unitarians by definition "believe men's actions necessitated" (LS 182, n. 2). In Wordsworth and Coleridge's poetry, perhaps the most explicit connection between Necessity and the One Life occurs in the "Not useless do 1 deem" lines, in which by "deeply drinking in the soul of things," we will progress in virtue "From strict necessity" ("Not useless," Gill appendix, lines 92, 94). But Unitarianism, Necessity, and the One Life were mutually inseparable facets of a single conceptual constellation. The One Life merely named the power of Necessity informing the natural world. As a poem dedicated to the sacramental "theme of the 'One Life'" (Warren 214), "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" presupposes not only Unitarian theology but the theory of Necessity as well.
What then was that theory? Necessity was a concept prominent in British philosophical debates about free will from at least the time of Milton and Hobbes. For Coleridge, Necessity had both metaphysical and psycho logical aspects, designating a causal principle of the universe internalized in human consciousness. For the form of its internalization, he was, like Priestley before him, indebted to Hartley's explanations of cognitive association. Yet Hartley's psychological exposition had also demonstrated that "the Doctrine of Necessity," as Hartley admitted in his Preface, "followed from that of Association" (OM 1.v1). So Necessity emerged as the direct metaphysical corollary of Hartley's theory of the mind. The second part of Obserpations on Man reconciled that metaphysics with traditional Christianity; Priesttey's discussions of Necessity, especially Illustrations of Philosophical Necessity, then reconciled Hartley's Christian Necessitarianism with Unitarian theology--to the end that Necessity was conceived as an encompassing principle of orderly causation. For defenders of Necessity, the will lacked any power of self-determination and was irresistibly obligated to laws of motivation that, originating ultimately in God, exert their influence from beyond the self. These laws of causality anchored the moral order and intelligibility of the universe, protecting it from incursions of the random and purposeless. For "To suppose, that the Action A, or its contrary a, can equally follow previous Circumstances, that are exactly the same," observed Hartley, "appears to me the same thing, as affirming that one or both of them might start up into Being without any Cause" (OM 1.503). Although atheistic versions of Necessity were available--most notably in Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice--Coleridge deplored naturalistic schemes that rendered man an "outcast of blind Nature ruled by a fatal Necessity" (CN 1.Text, 174G. 169) and invoked the providential Necessity of Priestleyan theology in denigrating Humean skepticism, that "system of Causation--or rather non causation" which he denounced in 1798 as "the sole pillar of modern Atheism" (CL 1.385-86).
So Coleridge's concept of Necessity provided a theological bulwark against atheism and skepticism, a point deserving a certain emphasis. I noted at the beginning that in our one recent reading of "The Rime" as a Necessitarian poem, Boulger employs the idea of Necessity precisely to assimilate Coleridge's text to the traditions of philosophical skepticism. As an expression of "ultimate religious mystery" based on the poet's recognition "that necessitarianism explained nothing in the ultimate sense," "The Rime," for Boulger, discloses "the uneasy Christian skepticism that has been with us since Newton and Kant" (Boulger 444, 451; my emphasis). Now, Christianity traditionally allows the mysteriousness of the Divine Will, but that recognition leaves Christian faith and Humean doubt on opposite sides of a philosophical chasm. It is certainly the case that the providential notions of Necessity familiar to Coleridge subordinated local mystery to foundational conviction, rather than the other way around. So we find Priestley writing, "of the beginning of motion, or action, we must sit down with acknowledging, that we have, in reality, no conception at all," only to add that, nevertheless, "we know there must be a first cause of all things, because things do actually exist, and could never have existed without a cause, and all secondary causes necessarily lead us to a primary one" (MS 300). Priestley recurrently admits that we cannot understand the processes of secondary causation. From such admissions, however, he shifts typically to an emphasis on the ordered reality of causal relations: "as to the manner in which the power of perception results from organization and life, I own I have no idea at all; but the fact of this connexion does not appear to me to be, on that account, the less certain" (MS 303). Priestley's Unitarian notion of Necessity admitted, in short, that several laws of the physical universe had yet to be explained, but that admission circumscribed the unknown within an encompassing assent to Christian truth claims. Deeply respectful of spiritual mystery, Coleridge could occasionally find Priestley's concessions of incomprehension inadequate; he censures Priestley in one letter for seemingly forgetting "that Incomprehensibility is as necessary an attribute of the First Cause, as Love, or Power, or Intelligence" (CL 1.193). Yet that hardly warrants claims that the Mariner's disordered perceptions testify to the inscrutable cosmos hypothesized by philosophical skepticism. The Christian version of Necessity propounded in Priestley and Hartley insisted on orderly causation that was divinely controlled--and that was the position to which Coleridge subscribed. One cannot summon the poet's understanding of Necessity, then, in contending for a skeptical "Rime." In its debts to Coleridge's faith in Necessity, "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" anchors its mysteries in ultimate spiritual truth: a providential order construed as the benevolent consequence of God's certain existence.
The theory of Necessity grounded the optimism that resounds through Coleridge's early writings, as when he admonishes Southey, "I would ardently, that you were a Necessitarian--and (believing in an all-loving Omnipotence) an Optimist," or jots down the Notebooks entry, "Optimist--by having no will but the will of Heaven, -an- we call in Omnipotence to fight our battles!--" (CL 1.145; CN 1.Text.22). Yet Necessity worked the will of God only through the secondary agencies of natural law and psychological association. For Coleridge, Necessity represented an effort, itself an exemplary bit of natural supernaturalism, to adapt traditional faith in divine providence to the discoveries of science. The version of Necessity espoused by Hartley and Priestley illustrates what Norman Fiering calls "the depersonalization of …