Unity in Multeity: Multiple Origins in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

It is no light undertaking to separate what is original from what is artificial in the present nature of man, and to know correctly a state which no longer exists, which perhaps never existed, which probably never will exist, and about which it is nevertheless necessary to have precise notions in order to judge our present state correctly.

–Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality


 The mechanization of printing changed the nature of publishing dramatically between the generation that preceded S. T. Coleridge and his own. The ramifications of mass production included formal changes to textual layouts such as the gradual replacement of the marginal gloss by the footnote. Ultimately, capitalistic incentive pushed the marginal gloss into extinction because “[f]ootnotes, gathered in one place on the page, cost less than marginal notations, and the mass production of books inevitably pulled glosses down to the cheaper method” (Lipking 622). Coleridge witnessed margins shrink as “readers (unlike [himself]) lost the habit of filling them with notes” (Lipking 622). Between the 1798 version of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts” published in Lyrical Ballads and the 1817 version (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in Seven Parts”) published in Sibylline Leaves the poem under went numerous revisions, the most striking of which was the addition of what had become, during Coleridge’s lifetime, an outdated marginal gloss.

            If the 1817 version of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” is analyzed without historical contextualization the gloss appears—at least from my contemporary perspective—to be an awkward commensal parasite straddling the margins of the poem. When the poem is contextualized, however, the gloss appears to no longer act as a superfluous voice, but rather a voice that comments on the poem’s Lyrical Ballads origins and reinforces the issues of origin that the 1798 version of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” dealt with implicitly. The gloss addresses some of the issues that eighteenth-century critics such as Robert Southey and Charles Burney took up with the piece (its archaism, mimetic quality and immoral tone), but the gloss cannot be read without considering the text that it straddles, or the previously published editions of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The addition of a marginal, seemly clarifying, gloss to a poem filled with impeded speech acts (at one juncture the ship’s crew’s tongues are so dry that they “wither’d at the root” and they “could speak no more than if/[They] had been choked with soot”), but centred on a the Mariner who is compelled to tell his “ghastly tale” frames a stark contrast between the inability to communicate and the imperative to communicate; I hope to establish how this tension demonstrates that misinterpretation is not only inevitable, but also productive and positive (Coleridge ed. 1817 L135-138; 585).

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Formalist movement (established by Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky and Yury Tynyano) encouraged defamiliarzation of literary works from their contexts. This movement steered literary criticism away from the biographical context of literary works in an attempt to position literary criticism as a science; for, as Eichenbaum articulated in “The Theory of the ‘Formal Method’”, the aim of Formalism was to produce “a science of literature that would be both independent and factual” (1062). While the influence of the Formalist movement on literary criticism has shaped the analytic practices of many academics, there are a number of poems in the Western literary canon that cannot be properly analyzed without referring to their particular horizon of meaning (Hirsch).[1] Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Seven Parts” is one of the many poems that when analyzed without any biographical contextualization results in an incomplete understanding of the affected gloss; however, relying too much on biographical details to extract meaning can also result in a skewed analysis. In a paper that explores the Romantic notion of origins, and Coleridge’s relationship to said Romantic cultural interest in origins, a breath of conjecture is a some-what fitting gesture. For, as Ian Balfour has noted in his Romantic Texts: The Language of Origins lectures, the Romantic period was at a crossroads: people had enough scientific knowledge to know that the Biblical story of Genesis was lacking, but failed to have sufficient knowledge to unearth the “true” history of mankind (Sept. 7, 2012). Thus, to excavate the facts of humanity’s origins writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith had to extrapolate about what those origins were through conjecture.

In Romantic Origins Leslie Brisman avers that the Romantics believed that origins come into being in two phases, through a “double birth” (15). “[T]he first birth” is from nature, it is the birth of the human organism, “the second birth” occurs later, during the adolescent period, and ignites the “growth of a consciousness that stimulates…the development of symbolic language and poetic experience” (16-17). “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was born three times, with each edition substantially edited. William Empsom and David Pirie have argued in favour of privileging the 1798 edition of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” over the 1800 and 1817 editions, but this paper does not view these three editions as independent works, but as a poetic trinity. A year before publishing Sibylline Leaves, Coleridge published his Theory of Life (1816) wherein he defined the “living form as ‘unity in multeity’ or ‘the power which discloses itself from within as a principle of unity in the many,’ emphasizing that ‘the former, the unity to wit, is produced ab intra’” (Gigante 23).  The three editions of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” are seldom treated as a single poem separated under different book titles, but in order to understand how they relate to Coleridge’s High Criticism-informed theories they must be considered as a unity in multeity, a whole composed of pieces. This essay will first touch on how the gloss represents a dialogue between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s different approaches to poetry, and will outline how the gloss serves as a rebuke to the many critics who lambasted the first edition of the poem for its archaic diction, its supposed amorality and the poem’s confusing narratological structure. The gloss also serves to illustrate what would have been lost if Coleridge had attempted to assuage their criticisms. Should the plot of been more linear, the morality more flagrant and the diction less daunting, the connection the poem makes between the Mariner who is “[a]lone, alone, all, all alone” and Romantic anxieties of community and self would have evaporated (Coleridge ed. 1817 L231). Ultimately, the 1817 version of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” foreshadows modernist concerns of fragmentation as well as modernist techniques. The tandem narrative accounts (gloss and body) accentuate the function, or rather disfunction, of communication. For, no one in the poem, not the Mariner, not the Wedding-Guest, not the Minstrel or the glossator seems capable of saying precisely what they mean. The people that populate the poem cannot communicate properly with each other, but the Mariner is necessitated to ceaselessly repeat his autobiography, and those he confesses to are compelled to listen. The final section of this paper will consider how the poem promotes a notion of origin that is not finite, but some-what postmodern and Foucauldian; Coleridge paints historical narrative (be it an autobiography, a ballad or a critical interpretation) as an act that is shaped by its present moment of telling. The original becomes an ephemeral unexcavatable object, but something that still is still present, for with every re-telling the original is reincarnated.


Context, Form and Text

            In the first edition of Lyrical Ballads “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” appeared anonymously as the first poem in the 1798 volume. Both Lyrical Ballads and “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” began as a collaborative effort between Coleridge and Wordsworth. There were two primary goals behind the Lyrical Ballads project. The first objective, according to the preface of Lyrical Ballads, was artistic innovation. In the introduction of Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth writes that the poems within the volume are to be “considered as experiments [...] written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure” (7). The second objective of the project was monetary compensation. What Wordsworth fails to disclose in the preamble to Lyrical Ballads was his ancillary goal of financing a walking tour with the profits. When Lyrical Ballads began to show promise of turning a large profit Wordsworth seized the opportunity “to mold a recognizable persona that would interest the public enough to continue buying his poems” (Wallen 101). The camaraderie and equality between Coleridge and Wordsworth seems to dissipate in correlation with the success achieved by the volume. It should be noted that there were a number of factors that lead to the deterioration of the Wordsworth/Coleridge partnership that included, but were not limited to, Coleridges increasing dependence on narcotics, his increasing ill health and marital tensions (Lawder 87).

            The 1800 reprinting of Lyrical Ballads omitted a number of Coleridge’s contributions to the poetry collection and reordered the sequence of the texts. In an effort to alleviate the “injury” that “The Rime of the Ancynet Marinere” had affected on the sales of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth demoted the poem from “its original place as the first poem in the 1798 volume to its subsequent position as the twenty-second and penultimate poem of the first volume of the 1800 edition” (Lawder 86). In this second edition of Lyrical Ballads “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was modernized at the behest of Wordsworth and framed as “A Poet’s Reverie” with a stronger emphasis on morality; the original amoral epigraph now contained a moral. Wordsworth’s recommended edits to the epigraph, which attempted to impose Christian morality and modernity upon the text, are echoed in the 1817-affected gloss. Bearing Wordsworth’s textual and narratological alterations in mind, the gloss can be interpreted as Coleridge’s response to Wordsworth’s amendments to the poem.[2] When reprinted in Sibylline Leaves (1817) Coleridge placed the poem at the head the collection (the very same position the poem held in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads), and restored the poem’s original 1798 title, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, In Seven Parts”. Coleridge, however, did not reintroduce to heavy-handed anachronism to the poem, for although the “Seven Parts” was appended to the title, the archaic spellings were not reinstated. The positioning of the poem (at the head of the book) and the restoration of the poem’s full title suggest that Coleridge’s changes (which included the fifty-seven marginal glosses) are commenting on the textual history of the poem.

The edits that Wordsworth made to the original poem, especially in the summarizing epigraph, changed the nature of the narrative. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was no longer a narrative that focused on “the strange things that befell […] the Ancyent Marinere,” but a poem about how “the Ancient Mariner cruelly, and in contempt of the laws of hospitality, killed a Sea bird; and how he was followed by many […] Judgments” (Coleridge ed. 1798; ed. 1800). This attempt to impose morality on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” seems to be reflected in moralizing glossator who injects a orthodox Christian viewpoint into seemingly amoral verse. The gloss embraces the imbued morality imposed by Wordsworth’s pen. Sarah Dyck argues that the “question of morality [...] [does not] enter the tale directly [...] through the Minstrel, the Wedding-Guest, or Mariner, but through the editor of the gloss” (551). There are numerous junctures in the poem where the glossator jumps to a Christian interpretation of the narrative that is not expressed in the Mariner’s account. In the Mariner’s report of events the shooting of the albatross occurs without judgement or interpretation. The first section ends abruptly: “[w]ith my cross-bow/ I shot the Albatross,” there is no room for the recounting of ramification (Coleridge ed. 1817 L81-82). The glossator, however, interprets the Mariner’s action as the “inhospitab[le] kille[ing] [of] the pious bird of good omen” (Coleridge ed. 1817). William Empson and David Pirie vituperatively note that for the gloss to tell the reader that the albatross is “a pious bird of good omen” is ridiculous because “the succeeding stanzas demonstrate how impossible it is until too late to tell whether it is of good or bad omen” (215). For Empson and Pirie, the fact that the gloss would cast the albatross as a good omen “is to make nonsense of the poem at its very core” (215). By comparing the two editions of the poem, it would appear that the gloss is reflective of Wordsworth’s Christian reframing of the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. But, as Empson and Pirie have argued, such changes may also be related to Coleridge distancing himself from his youthful beliefs, as he grew progressively more orthodox in his religious beliefs with age.

Revisions to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” were not the only changes made to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Bruce Lawder notes that in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads the “Advertisement’s (in)famous phrase, ‘the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society,’ vanishes,” is replaced by a “‘selection’, and by implication one made by a ‘selectman’ who is ‘superior’ to those ‘middle and lower classes of society’ that served as a source of his poetry in the initial volume” (83). It is as if the lower classes can produce language suitable “to the purposes of poetic pleasure” only when edited by the critical eye of a gentleman. This new focus on the “selectman” can be interpreted as an effect of Wordsworth’s attempt to promote the sales of Lyrical Ballads among “gentleman [sic], persons of fortune, professional men, ladies, persons who can afford to buy, or can easily procure, books of half-a-guinea [10.5 shillings] price, hot-pressed and printed on super fine paper” (Wordsworth qtd. in St. Clair 201). For, although “Wordsworth may have believed that the rural poor were more sensitive to literature than gentlemen [...] he did not number [them] among his readers” (St. Clair 201). This change of focus from the real speech of rural people to the gentleman’s superior ability to identify the difference between “poetic pleasures” and posies is echoed in Coleridge’s glossed “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

            Perhaps Coleridge wrote the glossator to, in some ways, be a reflection of the effect of Wordsworth’s edits; through this lens the gloss can be read as embodying, in some sense, the voice of this selectman. For, the glossator acts as a filter choosing what to interpret and what to omit from his exegesis. There are points in the poem where the gloss strays drastically from the Mariner’s narrative because the glossator supplements details and imposes interpretations that are not present in the analogous verse. The 1817-affected gloss begins by classifying the ambiguous three figures in the first stanza of part one. The original text is enigmatic with regards to identifying the class, race or sex of the bridegroom’s kin. The gloss, however, identifies them as “three Gallants” thereby imparting onto the wedding guests a sense of social hierarchical superiority over the “grey-beard loon” (Coleridge ed. 1817 L11).  The other primary manifestation of the glossator’s textual additions to the Mariner’s narrative manifest in the imposition of morality onto the Mariner’s killing of the albatross. Interestingly, the gloss omits as well as adds―it is as if the gloss is tailored to suit the palates of critics such as Wordsworth and his fellow gentle selectmen. This is poignantly demonstrated by the glossator’s interpretation of the following passage:

Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail! (Coleridge ed. 1817 L159-161)


The Mariner’s act of “autovampirism” connects the act of communication to the “Albatross’s blood,” and the “bloody sun,” for despite being a gory tale filled with animated corpses, blood is sparsely spilled (Williams 1120; Coleridge ed. 1817 L514; 112). The homophone sun/son can be interpreted as an allusion to the bloody body of Christ. In Romantic Origins, Brisman argues that the “bloodsucking is a perversion of the communion the albatross brought,” but this perversion is productive, for it is one of the few times within the poem where the passive Mariner takes action (41). The bloodsucking is the Mariner’s “feeble attempt to take salvation in his own hands, to make the restoration of language a restoration of communion” (41). Part III is one of the few concrete connections in the Mariner’s narrative between Christianity and Mariner’s penance, and yet the glossator merely states that “at a dear ransom he freeth his speech from the bonds of thirst” (Coleridge ed. 1817). It is interesting that the glossator is so willing to ignore a possible moment to reinforce his Christian exposition of the text in exchange for a more proper, gentle interpretation.


In the Gloss’s Shadow: Non-Substantive Edits and their Effects

                        The gloss is perhaps the most obvious difference between the 1798, 1800 and 1817 editions of the poem, but there are another less substantive edits made by Coleridge that also affect the religious tone of the piece, one of which is the capitalization. The 1798 publication the poem had consistently capitalized all elemental and voyage related nouns such as “Sea,” “Storm,” “Tempest,” “Mist,” “Snow,” “Ice,” “Thunder,” “Breeze,” “Ship,” “Helmsman,” and “Ocean” giving the poem a Deist undercurrent where all aspects of the material world are on par with the metaphysical world (Coleridge ed. 1798 L30; 36; 45; 49; 57; 68; 90; 113; 69; 395). By contrast, in the 1800 publication the amount of capitalization was seriously reduced to celestial bodies, the albatross, and Christian related words such as Christ and God. Thus, the “Albatross,” capitalized like “Christian,” became a blatant metaphor promoting Christian doctrine thereby making the shooting of the albatross an allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus (Coleridge ed. 1800 L61; 63). The verse portion of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” consistently anthropomorphizes the material world. The ice “cracked and growled, and roared and howled,” the “wind did roar,” and the “sails did sigh;” there is life all around the Mariner, and yet the glossator states that in this “land of ice, and of fearful sounds” there were “no living thing[s] to be seen” (Coleridge ed. 1817 L62; 318-319). Empson and Pirie, in their introduction to Coleridge’s Verse: A Selection, have even gone so far as to object to the gloss and the 1817 emendations, arguing that it is reflective of Coleridge’s later Christian orthodoxy and that it obscures the radical views that Coleridge held in the 1790s, which were clearly expressed in the 1798 “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (42-54). Ultimately, the glossator refuses to acknowledge the Deist undercurrent by interpreting the text in a Wordsworthian manner. Thus, the glossator concludes out of ignorance that the moral of the tale has been “to teach […] love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth,” neglecting to acknowledge that, despite being “shrieve[d]” by the hermit, the Mariner is still condemned, marring any possible strictly Christian reading of the text, for there is not absolution (Coleridge ed. 1817 L610-614; 574).

            Another non-substantive edit made to the 1800 version of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” was the modernization of the Middle English diction. The 1798 version of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts” contained many Middle English anachronisms such as “een,” “yspread,” and past tense contractions (Coleridge ed. 1798 L458; 270).  In the second edition, Wordsworth attempted to modernize the poem, updating many of the archaic terms and contemporizing the past-tense structure (a change that Coleridge does not efface when he republishes the poem seventeen years later). This attempt to impose modernity on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” seems to be reflected in the anachronistic voice that Coleridge bestowed upon his glossator. Lawrence Lipking explains that the voice of the glossator was borrowed from

Renaissance travel books, especially those of Purchas. As the early traveller’s report their immediate, often confused experiences, which Purchas’ gloss relates to other sources, so “The Ancient Mariner” recounts a wild voyage that a gloss restores to context; the margin brings the truth of the voyage home. Coleridge deliberately contrasts the primitive wonderworking of the ballad with a later and wiser reader skilled in hermetic doctrine. (618)


Rather than concede to Wordsworth that the anachronistic diction was purposeless, the gloss reinforced the concept that the poem was intended to disconcert its readers. The gloss demonstrated that the verse was intentionally disorienting by paralleling “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to a narrative of an early traveler’s report.[3] Wordsworth claimed that two of the great “defects” of the poem were “that the events [have] no necessary connection [and] do not produce each other,” and that “the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated” (276-77). The gloss, however, illustrates that the poem’s meandering plot and archaic diction are intended to induce upon the reader a sense of disorientation thereby fostering an empathic connection between the Mariner lost at sea and the reader lost in chronologically foreign words—a connection that is further reinforced by the poem’s allusions to Romantic anxieties of the self in relation to a new globalized community.

            The gloss with its almost anaphoric, but ultimately soporific, subject-verb-object structure achieves the coherence advocated by critics of the poem. However, what the gloss gains in coherency it loses in denotive allusions to Romantic anxieties related to the self in relation to the greater global community. When accumulated, the poetic devices of the main text serve to form a bridge between Romantic ideas and the “fragmentation of a modern, market-driven” world, a connection that is unachieved by the gloss (Stillinger 426). A particularly poignant poetic device that the main text of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” employs to bridge the gap between the poem, set in the literary past, and present Romantic reality is repetition. Although repetition is found consistently throughout the poem, the following stanza epitomizes these Romantic anxieties:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide side!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
(Coleridge ed. 1817 L231-236)


Without directly addressing issues of societal fragmentation, this stanza illustrates germinating concerns that would appear a century later in Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock”; that is, how does one retain a sense of community in an increasingly globalized world where members of your community are nothing more than a concept? The Mariner is not on English land when he shoots the albatross; as a sailor he represents the maritime bridge that connects the colonies that lay oceans away with Britain. The ship, however, is not a bridge representative of communication, instead it embodies the failure to communicate as all those on board lose their ability to speak. The above stanza, which emphasizes the lack of community and the isolation of the Mariner, portrays a society where the only common linkage between people is that they are “alone, all, all alone” (Coleridge ed. 1817 L231). Interestingly, the gloss does not attempt to translate this sentiment of solitude expressed in the main body of the text. Thus if the gloss to some degree is responding to Wordsworth’s edits by framing the gloss as unable to express how to cope or communicate pressing anxieties of alienation and social deterioration; the gloss illustrates how an aspect of the 1798 poem that many critics griped about (its lack of clarity) was purposeful. In a tour de force of subtle comedy Coleridge makes the poem even more confusing, by adding an archaic gloss that contradicts the ballad narrative, in an effort to demonstrate how the original 1798 poem’s obscurity was intentional, rather than a failure on his part as an author.


Communicating Alienation: Cross-Textual Meaning

            Dialogue and communication are prevalent themes throughout the poem and manifests in three separate structures of the 1817 edition of the poem: the manner in which the poem is framed, the internal dialogue between protagonists, and the external narrative and its latent dialogue with the verse body of the poem. A different mode of communication is explored in each manifestation of dialogue throughout the text. The poem is framed as an imbalanced dialogue between the Mariner and the Wedding-Guest, with a dominant orator and a submissive listener (with the former being dominant and the latter passive, even arguably submissive, for the Wedding-Guest is compelled to listen, “spell-bound by the eye of the old seafaring man, and constrained to hear his tale”). The second appearance of dialogue in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is between the two voices in Part VI. Unlike the dialogue that frames the poem, this dialogue is not hierarchical―there is equal communication between participants:

First Voice: “But tell me, tell me! speak again,         
Thy soft response renewing—         
What makes that ship drive on so fast?        
What is the Ocean doing?”    

 Second Voice: “Still as a slave before his lord,
 The Ocean hath no blast;      
 His great bright eye most silently     
 Up to the Moon is cast—    

If he may know which way to go;    
For she guides him smooth or grim.  
See, brother, see! how graciously     
She looketh down on him.”   

First Voice: “But why drives on that ship so fast,   
Without or wave or wind?”

Second Voice: “The air is cut away before,
And closes from behind.       

 Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!       
Or we shall be belated:          
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner’s trance is abated.”           
(Coleridge ed. 1817 L410-430)

The two voices are presented as a dramatic dialogue and are not described by the Minstrel. This disorienting technique destabilizes the reader once again, for there is no explanation as to why the exegetic mode shifts from recounted ballad to dramatic dialogue. Like the use of the archaic diction, this technique is employed in an effort to foster a connection between the reader and the Mariner by removing the poem’s narrator. The unexpected exegetic shift forces the reader to submit, some-what unexpectedly, to this forced empathy. In a way the poem is acting out its narrative through its form, for as the Wedding-Guest is forced to listen to the Mariner’s tale, the reader is forced into the role of the Mariner sans stage directions. Finally, there is an external dialogue between the gloss and the text; external in the sense that it relates to the world beyond the text and is aesthetically outside the body of the text. In the external dialogue both speakers are essentially saying the same thing, but ultimately there is lack of fidelity with regards to the gloss’s summary of the poem. This lack of fidelity, and this failure of the glossator to fully interpret the poem, is not necessarily an unfruitful product, for miscommunication can be productive.

            The gloss’s significance has perplexed critics for decades. Before Huntington Brown iterated that the speaker of the gloss was not from the same era as the speaker of the verse portion of the poem, interpretations of the gloss varied immensely. While the critic B. R. McElderry Jr. argued that the gloss was a “tour de force [...] added in 1817 to provide ‘artistic restatement and ornament’” others such as R. C. Bald argued that the gloss was a “fairly straight-forward prose commentary” (qtd. in Dyck 595). And still, despite a general consensus with regards to the voice of the glossator, the purpose of the affected gloss is still very puzzling. Biographical contextualization does not necessarily clarify the gloss’s purpose, however, it does add another dimension to the way one can interpret the gloss. By biographically contextualizing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the glossator’s voice becomes more than the voice of an “early modern scholar, a bookish antiquarian” (Dyck 595). What was once a seemingly extraneous echo of the verse becomes, through contextualization, a strong and very contemporary critique of the poem’s reception by critics such as Wordsworth. The affected gloss elucidates how the jarring imagery, narrative, and diction of the original 1798 version of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere in Seven Parts” was not sloppy writing, but perhaps writing that channeled techniques beyond its time.


Multiple Origins, Multiple Conclusions

            “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a publicly unstable work with three separate editions, each markedly different from the next. Susan Eilenberg has commented on Coleridge’s compulsion to revise the work stating that “as the Mariner is subject to a ‘strange power of speech’ that forces him to repeat his tale endlessly, so the poet himself lay under a similar though more limited compulsion to repeat him-self, revising the poem in 1800 and again in 1817” (39). The first time Coleridge’s name was publicly affixed to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was when he published Sibylline Leaves. The collection’s title alludes to the prophetess Sibyl whose prophecies were incomprehensible if not instantly gathered. Brian Bates avers that the collection’s title, Sibylline Leaves, gesture towards the “textual instability [that] occurs whenever an author’s works leave his personal control and are circulated in public… like those people who were disappointed by the counsel offered through the disordered leaves of the Sibyl, Coleridge’s readers run the risk of departing from his leaves disgruntled with their author because he has provided neither sustained nor systematic counsel” (87). Coleridge’s choice of a poem centred on a protagonist compelled to look back to the past, ceaselessly repeating his autobiography, was a peculiar choice to head a collection entitled Sibylline Leaves, with its allusions to prophecies, which typically look to the future rather than to the past. Although anti-revisionist critics, such as William Empsom and David Pirie, have advocated to privilege the 1798 edition of the poem, privileging one version of “Rime” over the other defeats the poem’s cumulative purpose, which is to illustrate that truth is not something stable that can be excavated, but rather, something that is affected by the lens of history.

            In Jerome McGann’s highly influential essay “The Meaning of the Ancient Mariner,” McGann argues that Pirie and Empsom’s anti-revisionism misses much of the meaning that Coleridge imbues in the piece through historical layering. The poem, according to McGann, is replete with references, allusions and diction choices that stretch back centuries and reach right into Coleridge’s present, for the poem was intended to  “illustrate a significant continuity of meaning between cultural phenomena that seemed as diverse as pagan superstitions, Catholic theology, Aristotelian science, and contemporary philological theory, to name only a few of the work’s ostentatiously present materials” (51). In this High Critical light the albatross is not a symbol of Christ, but the entire poem is representative of the way Western culture has preserved the history of Christ through narrative (both through speech acts and through literary acts). According to McGann,

For Coleridge, the crucial importance of a work like the Bible lies in its continuous historical existence. Because it must be read through the mediation of its transmitters, that is, through the Church, readers cannot receive its words except through acts of faith or, as we should say, through tendentious interpretations, acts of conscious commitment to the received materials. The Bible comes to us bearing with it the history of its criticism; it is a writing which also contains its own readings and which generates the cumulative history of its own further retransmissions and reinterpretations.


“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” illustrates how meaning shifts through time. The added gloss,

which represents an approximate 100- to 200-year gap between the ballad-penning Minstrel and the glossator, reveals how analytical understanding of a text is influenced by a specific time period. According to Michel Foucault, epistemes are “the ‘apparatus[es]’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific” (197). In effect Coleridge is demonstrating that there is no one “‘true’ narrative of certain fixed original events,” for every generation, shaped by its particular epistemes, approaches history (and its documentation) through a specific lens, by adding and subtracting from it as the glossator does (48).

Like the Scriptures, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a text that exhibits “marks of its historical passage (in the form of later interpolations, glosses, and other textual additions and ‘impurities’) retains its ideological coherence despite the process of apparent fragmentation” (49). If for E. D. Hirsch the scholar must interpret a work by looking to the “author’s horizon and carefully exclude his own accidental associations,” then Coleridge is saying that we can never fully access this unmediated viewpoint, for our present defines us, however, to better understand the text the reader must understand its context (1693).

 “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” frames a stark tension between the desire to communicate and the inability to communicate. The glossator’s failure to accurately summarize the ballad is but one of many moments of failed communication within the poem. However, the failures of communication are demonstrated to be productive because once the narrative is interpreted any ill-understood information simply adds to the rich tapestry of meaning. For Coleridge, when errors are introduced into the Bible “the sting is taken out” of whatever errors are introduced “by the existence of [the interpreter’s] faith, by their enthusiasm for the Word and the diffusion of the Word, and by their participation in the continuous historical process of incarnation” (44). McGann notes that one need only look to the 1817 edition of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to see the imprint of High Criticism, but all three editions of the poem are legitimate origin points that inform our contemporary understanding of the poem. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the chronological gap between the glossator’s understanding and the Minstrel’s re-telling of the Mariner’s tale is purposefully unharmonious; the gloss, however, also serves as an albatross worn by the ballad, an albatross imbued with the Wordsworth’s 1800 edits. Thus, while the multivalent poem demonstrates the communication failures inherent in the process of historical inheritance, the 1817 edition also echoes with biographical resonances that allude to the poem’s own textual history.

[1]    With reference to Edmund Husserl, E. D. Hirsch defines the present in the form of a horizon that may be defined as a “system of typical expectations and probabilities” (1692). For Hirsch, then, the scholar interpreting a work must “posit the author’s horizon and carefully exclude his own accidental associations” (1693).

[2]{cke_protected_1}   William Empson has argued that Coleridge’s “over-riding impulse” behind publishing Sibylline Leaves “was an anxiety not to be jeered at any more, and not to give any handle to insinuation” (51). The 1817 version of “Rime” may have changes made to it that reflect or address the criticisms of critics other than Wordsworth, but as I am only interested in looking to the poem’s textual gensis I have limted my focus.

[3]    Huntington Brown was one of the first critics to note a chronological schism with regards to the difference in language. In “The Gloss to the Ancient Mariner” Brown notes that the language of the ballad is that of Henry VII, whereas the language of the gloss is that of a late-seventeenth or early eighteenth century speaker. Thus both ballad and gloss are written in an anachronistic diction (319). 

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