Coleridge's Transcendental Imagination: The Seascape beyond the Senses in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

Some twenty years ago, Norman Fruman's insightful article, "Ozymandias and the Reconciliation of Opposites" (1986), reflected on the influence of Coleridge's idea of the reconciliation of opposites on literary criticism. He showed how several scholars forced the idea of reconciled opposites in their readings of literary texts, pointing out that literature is often concerned with opposition. He remarks that "[u]nity as an aesthetic category is not something that exists objectively in the work of art. It is projected by the beholder" (1986: 76).

Fruman points out that whereas Coleridge's critical writings are saturated with the idea of the reconciliation of opposites, he never attempted to apply the concept in analysing poetry (p. 77) and he specifically refers to the absence of the reconciliation of opposites in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", asking "[w]hat, after all, is balanced or reconciled in "The Rime of the Ancient mariner?" (p. 85).

Whereas Fruman's article aptly addresses a significant flaw in contemporary literary criticism, showing how people went off on a tangent to demonstrate at all costs the reconciliation of opposites in literature, I do not think that the comment on "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is entirely true. The poem may deal with opposition on a thematic level, but in terms of the rendering of the seascape, Coleridge's imagery does confront the reader with underlying antitheses that can only be resolved dialectically, via the imagination. In this article I revisit the poem in the light of dialectics. The imagery that Coleridge uses may be seen as eliciting in the reader something akin to a dialectic process of making sense of what is described. The analyses show how Coleridge confronts readers with images built on underlying antitheses, specifically familiarity and unfamiliarity, leading them to engage in a dialectic process to synthesise discrepancies to form a meaningful whole. The resulting meaningful whole suggests a sum that is bigger than its parts. The language used to describe the mariner's seascape contributes less to a visual picture of the space than to a sense of awe and wonder at a world that is greater and vaster than humans can comprehend. Put differently, Coleridge's images combine and synthesise familiar and unfamiliar phenomena and guide readers to reconcile these in such a way that they are constantly brought to an important realisation, namely that the world surpasses human understanding. Coleridge frequently advocated this view in his nonpoetry writings. I will show how the combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity in the images problematises visibility in the seascape projected in the poem and, as a result, readers are brought to a temporary glimpse of a transcendent reality, a state in which all antitheses are synthesised into a what was called shortly after the composition of the poem, the "absolute" or "absolute ego" in German philosophy.

The idea of the reconciliation of opposites that Coleridge advocated in his later prose writings is firmly grounded in German transcendental philosophy. I therefore start by briefly outlining the German transcendental idealist idea of synthesised opposites, and then proceed to consider its influence on Coleridge's ars poetica, in order to point to parallels between the composition of Coleridge's images in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and idealist thought.

The fact that Coleridge was significantly influenced by German transcendental thought, especially thoughts related to the mind's and imagination's active role in shaping our realities, is generally accepted and has indeed catalysed most of the critical commentary on the poet since the 1980s. (1)

Scholars have also extensively considered and explored the influence of transcendental thought on Coleridge's poetry. For example, Rookmaker (1987) argues that "Kubla Khan" draws strongly on what he refers to as the Romantic fall myth, the idea of recreating a "lost unity" between subject and object, which manifests in the work of several of the German transcendental idealists that Coleridge read, namely Kant, Schiller, Fichte, Schelling and Schlegel (Rookmaker 1987: 229). …