Necessary Evils: Unitarian Theodicy in "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"

By Ulmer, William A. | Studies in Romanticism, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Necessary Evils: Unitarian Theodicy in "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"


Ulmer, William A., Studies in Romanticism


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.

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