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A Note on the "Moral" of The Ancient Mariner

Pain from having cursed a gnat that was singing about my head.   (CN, ii 2666)

[163]   Doubtless the most celebrated anecdote about The Ancient Mariner is Coleridge's retort to Mrs Barbauld's criticisms of the poem, as recorded in Coleridge's Table Talk (31 May 1830):
Mrs Barbauld once told me that she admired The Ancient Mariner very much, but that there were two faults in it -- it was improbable, and had no moral.   As for the probability, I owned that that might admit some question; but as to the want of a moral, I told her that in my own judgement the poem had too much; and that the only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination.   It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a genie starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son.   (TT, p. 106)1
One should approach this anecdote with considerable caution, for its intention is by no means as transparent as is often assumed.   It is, after all, an after-dinner comment divorced from its after-dinner context of port and cigars, which has tended to invest it with a seriousness and rigidity that may well have been absent in the original telling.   And this raises some interesting points.   In the first place, Coleridge was certainly not opposed to didactic poetry, although he believed that morality should be delivered obliquely:   "the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose, . . . [but] truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the [164] ultimate end" (BL, ii 9).   It may be supposed, therefore, that "the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader" (emphasis added) refers to the blunt moral maxims of the Mariner at the end of the poem:
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.           (610-17)
But, if Coleridge felt these stanzas to be obtrusively moralistic, why did he not alter or excise them?   He had plenty of opportunity.   Yet, from 1798 through the major revisions of 1800 and 1817 and into the later editions of 1828, 1829 and 1834, these stanzas stand unchanged.   Presumably, then, Coleridge thought them to be integral to his poem.   But this leaves us still with the problem of explaining (a) how they might be integral to the poem, and (b) why he should have called them "the only, or chief fault . . . in a work of such pure imagination".
      One possible and, I think, highly probable solution to the latter problem is that the charge of obtrusive morality is levelled, with witty irony, against Mrs Barbauld herself.   Mrs Barbauld was a professional moralist and third-rate poet, who devoted herself in print to the inculcation of virtue and who often inveighed against the sin of being cruel to animals, particularly birds:2
A naughty boy will not feed a starving and freezing robin; in fact he even pulls the poor bird's tail!   It dies.   Shortly after that, the boy's parents leave him because he is cruel, and he is forced to beg for food.   He goes into a forest, sits down and cries, and is never heard of again; it is believed that bears ate him.
And then there is her Epitaph on a Goldfinch [165]:
if suffering innocence can hope for retribution,
    deny not to the gentle shade
       of this unfortunate captive
    the natural though uncertain hope
        of animating some happier form,
    or trying his new-fledged pinions
        in some humble Elysium,
    beyond the reach of Man,
        the tyrant
   of this lower universe.
Mrs Barbauld complained that The Ancient Mariner had no moral.   Au contraire, riposted Coleridge, it has too much! -- a dexterous turning of the tables and a witty rebuke to a lady to whom imaginative writing was as foreign as imported brandy.   The origin, too, of an amusing postprandial anecdote.
      The story, of course, has its serious side as well, for the moral stanzas at the end of the poem clearly do draw attention to themselves by their jingling prosody and Sunday-school sentiment.   Most of the early critics, unable to account for so apparently awkward an intrusion of sententious godliness as the spiritual dénouement of the Mariner's tale, found themselves forced, like John Livingston Lowes, to deplore "the Mariner's valedictory piety, which does, I fear, warrant Coleridge's (and our own) regret".3   More recent readers, however, have defended the moral stanzas in terms of their dramatic propriety:   the valedictory piety, in other words, is the Mariner's simple-minded summary of what his terrible experience has taught him, but it does not necessarily follow that Coleridge stops with the Mariner.   According to Lionel Stevenson, "the 'morality' of the poem . . . is not Coleridge's, but that of a primitive seaman who has evolved a creed for himself on the basis of terrific experiences, and is therefore fanatically devoted to it".4   For George Watson,
the Mariner's moral is a centrally Christian one . . . . [but the reader] is no more required to believe [it] to be Coleridge's than to accept phrases like "To Mary Queen the praise be given" as evidence of the poet's mariolatry during his unitarian years.   The truth of the poem . . . is a dramatic truth, and the Mariner may well be wrong.5
  [166]     As attractive as is the general notion of distinguishing between Coleridge and his Mariner, however, both Stevenson and Watson go too far in insisting upon a radical divorce.   Distinction does not necessitate division.   And, in any case, there is a great deal of evidence to put beyond doubt the fact that not only Coleridge but the Wordsworths as well would heartily approve of the Mariner's "piety".   Coleridge, who in verse could pity a tethered donkey, was also someone who in real life could be pained "from having cursed a gnat" that disturbed his rest (CN, ii 2666).   Wordsworth, too, learned moral lessons out of a guilty response to his thoughtless plunder of a raven's nest (The Prelude (1805) i 333-41).   And, perhaps most revealing of all. is Dorothy Wordsworth's unmotivated uprooting of a wild strawberry-plant:
I found a strawberry blossom in a rock.   The little slender flower had more courage than the green leaves, for they were but half expanded and half grown, but the blossom was spread full out.   I uprooted it rashly, and I felt as if I had been committing an outrage, so I planted it again.   It will have but a stormy life of it, but let it live if it can. (31 Jan 1802; JDW, p. 83)
It is as if the Mariner, having felt on his own the moral imperative of the universe, were able to reanimate the albatross.   But the Mariner must be brought to an understanding of his deed by external forces which, as it happens, are not really external at all, since they are projections from his own troubled psyche.
      The point, quite simply, is this:   the Mariner's moral is not, as is sometimes claimed, either a "sham moral" or an ironic non sequitur,6 for it expresses a faith in the "One Life" that Coleridge himself espoused and which, in the poem, is a legitimate lesson for the Mariner to learn.   The Ancient Mariner is not a tract on the prevention of cruelty to albatrosses; it is an imaginative and profoundly moving exploration of the moral integrity of the universe, which concludes -- and here is the problem -- with an unsettlingly naive expression of this leading idea in the form of two sentimental quatrains.   The major problem with the "moral stanzas", then, is an artistic one.   Are they a banal excrescence, a platitudinous restatement of the poem's "theme", or are they organically and dramatically defensible?   There are almost as many answers, or shades of opinion, as there are commentators who have addressed themselves to the question.   Humphry House argues that the Mariner's [167] moralising, "coming in context, after the richness and terror of the poem", is both justified and meaningful because its meaning "has been lived".7   John Beer, on the other hand, finds it anticlimactic and unsatisfying:   "Successful as the occasional nursery-rhyme diction is within the scope of The Ancient Mariner, one recognises it as another (albeit more successful) attempt to deal with the check that [Coleridge] had elsewhere felt obliged to impose (as in The Eolian Harp) upon his more adventurous speculations".8   But Gayle Smith, who argues well that the "moral stanzas" belong to the frame story rather than to the central narrative, defends them as an intentionally insipid choric summary of the action which, like the rhyming endings in Shakespeare's tragedies or the banal epigrammatic conclusions of Sophocles and Euripides, provides the "perspective of the moral commonplace upon the moral sublime".9
      But one need not go so far afield as Sophocles or Shakespeare to find analogies for the Mariner's moralising.   Coleridge's own Conversation Poems, although lyric rather than narrative, share the Mariner's moralising strain.   Indeed, the similarities can be quite striking.   It is not often enough remarked, for example, that The Ancient Mariner is built upon the same structural pattern of departure and return as the Conversation Poems.   Setting out from his home harbour, the Mariner is swept outward and upward into a world of rêverie and imaginative experience from which he is returned, at the poem's close, to the same harbour from which he had first sailed.   As in the Conversation Poems, however, the "return" is not a simple coming-back:   the self who returns is not the same as the self who had set out; he has been fundamentally altered by his experiences.   Sometimes, too, the moral lessons of the Conversation Poems are expressed, as in The Ancient Mariner, in the form of an explicit and detachable maxim that neatly sums up the poem's didactic drift.   Such is clearly the case, for example, at the close of This Lime-Tree Bower:
                    Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty!                 (59-64)
[168]   In essence, this is the Mariner's message as well, except that he, having learned in terror and suffering that no sound is dissonant which tells of Life, is constrained to preach his lesson against a backdrop of profound personal guilt and a less-than-perfect reconciliation.   The Ancient Mariner, in other words, is both more complex and less optimistic than the Conversation Poems; and its sermonising conclusion -- the Mariner's stumbling effort to articulate what he has learned -- is at one and the same time an accurate inference and a hopelessly inadequate expression of what befell him on the wide wide sea.

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  1. Henry Nelson Coleridge, the editor of his uncle's Table Talk (1835), first reported this anecdote a year earlier in the Quarterly Review, 52 (Aug. 1834) 28:   "Mrs. Barbauld, meaning to be complimentary, told our poet, that she thought the 'Ancient Mariner' very beautiful, but that it had the fault of containing no moral.   'Nay, madam,' replied the poet, 'if I may be permitted to say so, the only fault in the poem is that there is too much!   In a work of such pure imagination I ought not to have stopped to give reasons for things, or inculcate humanity to beasts. The Arabian Nights might have taught me better.'   They might -- the tale of the merchant's son who puts out the eyes of a genie by flinging his date-shells down a well, and is therefore ordered to prepare for death -- might have taught this law of imagination . . ." -- quoted in T.M. Raysor, "Coleridge's Comment on the Moral of The Ancient Mariner", PQ, 31 (1952) 88. *
  2. Both the prose passage (from Mrs Barbauld's Lessons for Children of Three Years Old, pt i) and Epitaph on a Goldfinch are quoted from Frances Ferguson, "Coleridge and the Deluded Reader:   The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", Georgia Review, 31 (1977) 626. *
  3. Lowes, Road to Xanadu (cf. Composition, n. 1), p. 277. *

  4. Lionel Stevenson, in The Personalist (cf. Ballad, n. 1), 42. *
  5. Watson, Coleridge the Poet (London, 1966), p. 99. *
  6. See Irving Babbitt, "Coleridge and the Moderns", The Bookman, 70 (1929) 120; E.M. Bewley, "The Poetry of Coleridge", Scrutiny, 8 (1940) 406-11; Bostetter, Romantic Ventriloquists (cf. Kubla Khan as a Fragment, n. 5), pp. 116-17; and Chayes, in SIR (cf. Critical Approaches, n. 22), 81-103, esp. pp. 101-3. *
  7. House, Coleridge (cf. Conversation Poems, n. 6), p. 92. *
  8. Beer, Coleridge's Poetic Intelligence (cf. Critical Approaches, n. 22) p. 182. *
  9. Gayle Smith, "A Reappraisal of the Moral Stanzas in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", SIR, 3 (1963) 42-52; the quotation is from p. 50. *

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Document Completed:   16/05/96