Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"My Soul in Agony": Irrationality and Christianity in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"My Soul in Agony": Irrationality and Christianity in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Article excerpt

As FAMOUSLY DESCRIBED IN BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA, SAMUEL TAYLOR Coleridge's remit in the Lyrical Ballads was to bring a naturalistic edge to the supernatural:

   the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least,
   supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the
   interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such
   emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing
   them real. (1)

However, if The Rime brings supernatural terrors into a convincing naturalistic setting, then this "dramatic truth" is a troubling mixture. Insofar as its weird events seem to overrule the rational order associated with naturalism, then we can identify the poem as part of a Todorovian fantastic, suspended between explicable and inexplicable causality. (2) This suspension, putting its reader in an interpretative hiatus, does not seem to be one that critics have appreciated: the piece has been dismissed frequently as deranged and incoherent.

Thus, an anonymous 1798 writer for the Analytical Review argued that the poem had "more of the extravagance of a mad german poet, than of the simplicity of our ancient ballad writers." (3) The reference to Germany is less straightforward in Robert Southey's "a Dutch attempt at German sublimity." (4) Here, as David Chandler has valuably shown, Southey had a genuine interest in the German ballad tradition, and it was the obscurity and unintelligibility of a "Dutch" rendering of a narrative that was at stake. (5) Despite this difference, Southey shares with the Analytical Review a feeling that the poem is irrational, and bridles at its supposed unintelligibility. Yet in a fulsome review by John Gibson Lockhart for Blackwood's Magazine in 1819, the poem's very irrationality is considered to be its greatest quality:

   it is a poem to be felt, cherished, mused upon, not to be talked
   about, not capable of being described, analyzed, or criticised. It
   is the wildest of all the creations of genius ... its images have
   the beauty, the grandeur, the incoherence of some mighty vision.
   The loveliness and the terror glide before us in turns. (6)

This fantasticality, this Dutch-ness, this incoherent grandeur--noted from the start by Coleridge's contemporaries--must be pursued by any analysis of the poem. As an unfolding of the poem's critical history will illustrate, the enigmatic nature of the protagonist, action and meaning has drawn interpreter after interpreter into an aetiology of this irrational aspect. Compelling and disturbing in equal measure, as Lockhart perceptively notes, the standing of the poem is predicated to some extent on our inability to understand it, and its cultural centrality on its very strangeness.

What I intend to do in this article is as follows, In the first half, I shall resurvey perhaps the central and most established critical question surrounding the poem: whether it provides a coherent moral order or whether its irrationality outstrips such an order. In doing so, I broadly affirm the latter position. However, in the second half, I shall argue that while it is common to portray the text's irrationality as the failure of a Christian moral order, in fact we can find the most convincing explanation for this irrationality within the poem's Christianity, This irrationality lies with the doctrine of original sin, which was a horrifying barbarism for Unitarianism and which remained a religious mystery resistant to explication even in Coleridge's later thought. By putting forward such a reading, I am overturning a longstanding critical position which sees Christianity in the poem as bound more or less absolutely to its ultimate unity, harmony and moral explicability. By contrast, I argue that, for Coleridge, original sin brings a new form of awful but compelling self-knowledge. In the wake of the collapse of the optimistic and perfectible Unitarian model of subjectivity found in poems like "The Destiny of Nations" and "Religious Musings," Coleridge presents us with a subject that is, at its root, unable to come to terms with itself. …

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