Diagnosing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner": Shipwreck, Historicism, Traumatology

By Davies, Damian Walford | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Diagnosing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner": Shipwreck, Historicism, Traumatology


Davies, Damian Walford, Studies in Romanticism


FORGING A NEW HISTORICISM AVANT LA LETTRE IN THE ROAD TO XANADU (1927), John Livingston Lowes claimed that in his voracious consumption of voyage narratives prior to writing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Coleridge read "with an eye which habitually pierced to the secret spring of poetry beneath the crust of fact." (1) Recognizing the poem as "a supreme crystallisation of the spirit of maritime expansion," (2) New Historicism has subsequently embraced the task of excavating the poem with an eye that pierces to the secret layers of "fact" beneath the crust of "poetry." History's quarried particulars, identified since the early 1960s, have ranged from (premonitions of) a slaver, (3) "colonial expansion," "European racial guilt," the killing of a slave, and "abolition propaganda" (4) to the pathogenesis and "material conditions" of yellow fever, (5) the terror of impressment, (6) "tremors of political faith," "political complicity," (7) misplaced jacobinism, national political guilt, (8) and the psychodrama of Coleridge's own neuroses ("a projection, albeit an exaggerated one, of intellectual and emotional tendencies in himself"). (9) Each has been tailored with varying degrees of persuasiveness to the layered contours of "The Ancient Mariner." In all of this, the ostensible--and not easily exorcisable--master-narrative of unthinking transgression, horrific castigation, compound penance, and compulsive restitution has retained its power both to accommodate and to contest historicist readings. Carl Thompson has emphasized that "The Ancient Mariner" is crucially "indebted" to what he terms the "scripts" of contemporary shipwreck narratives and the literature of "maritime misadventure." (10) In this essay, I offer a new interdisciplinary reading of "The Ancient Mariner" that identifies the traumatic subjectivity of the Mariner-as-shipwreck-survivor as the very condition of the poem's narration. Further, I credit Coleridge with a remarkably prescient dramatization--an empathetic inhabitation--of a condition of trauma codified only in the late twentieth century: post-traumatic stress disorder.

1. Diagnostic Uncertainty

As the core event to be excavated in "The Ancient Mariner," naufrage (literally, the breaking of a ship) and its traumatic aftermath clearly represent a different order of "fact" from those already listed above. However, some of the critical methods I deploy will be recognizable to those familiar with materialist excavations of Romantic texts. At the outset, it is worth profiling the acute hermeneutic challenge posed by the poem. Interpretation is taxed by the poem's "sheer excess" (11) and "omnisignificance"; (12) its multiple vocalities that collapse "borders of speech"; its relativization of centers of authority; and its knowing interpellation of the reader by means of seductive totalizing schemas that elicit what J. R. Ebbatson has described as "Pavlovian" critical responses. (13) As Raimonda Modiano has shown, some of the most robust historicist readings fail to extricate themselves from the alluring, essentialist interpretative frames the poem promotes, just as the Mariner himself can be seen to order his nightmare experience within orthodox paradigms that guarantee the social acceptability of his story--indeed, its very communicabilky. (14) Critical readings have wrestled with the apparent "emptiness" of the poem's historical referentiality (a vacuum that actively invites us to supply our own excess of historical data), its construction of an "undomestic atopia, a site both maddeningly blank and refractive of the fragments of mythology once attached to its textual representations," (15) and the arbitrariness and irrationality that characterize the poem's cosmos. (16) Further teasing aporiae (for which my own reading will have to account) include the repudiation of "rationalist cartography" and the seemingly programmatic elision of what David Simpson has called the "work of running a ship. …

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