Coleridge belongs to the First Generation of English romantic poets. He was a   friend of William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth. For some aspects of This literary production, i.e. the use of the medieval ballad form, the interest in the supernatural and the mystery, exoticism and Gothicism, he is considered the most romantic among them. Disappointed at not winning a literary prize on poetry, he left Jesus College, Cambridge, without taking a degree. Together with Southey, he had met at the College, he planned the foundation of a utopian society, “Pantisocracy”, which had to be established somewhere in America by twelve gentlemen and twelve ladies.  Following Thomas More’s Utopia, it was to be an ideal community in which private property was to be abolished and all its members had to enjoy the same rights. The project went to nothing, but among the ladies there was Sara Flickers, who became his wife. They moved to a village in Somerset where he met Wordsworth. They became close friends and started a literary cooperation that led to the publication of the Lyrical Ballads. When their friendship ended, probably because of Coleridge’s relationship with Wordsworth’ sister-in-law, he moved to London where he spent the rest of his life lecturing and writing for newspapers. Coleridge had suffered with rheumatic pains since when he was at Cambridge. The doctors had prescribed him to use opium. When they became worse, he was obliged to increase the daily doses and became a drug-addict. He died on July 25th, 1834.

WORKS: Coleridge’s literary production was varied: translations from German, essays on philosophy, religion and politics, lectures and journalism, and a drama, The Fall of Robespierre, written in collaboration with Robert Southey.

He produced his best works in the field of poetry and literary criticism. He contributed to the Lyrical Ballads with his Golden Poems or Daemon Poems: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the first part of the unfinished Christabel and the fragment  of Kubla Khan. Concerned with the supernatural, they all contain those elements which constitute the spirit of Romanticism.  Kubla Khan, as Coleridge explains in a preface, was written after the awakening from an opium induced dream. It was inspired by a book on the travel of Marco Polo. While the poet was reading this book, he fell into a kind of trance and had a vision of Kubla Khan’s palace and realm. It is not complete since his vision was interrupted by “a person from Pollock“.

In the field of literary criticism, Biographia Literaria is very important. It deals with a great variety of subjects but chiefly with poetry.

The most important part is the one in which he made the celebrated difference between Fancy and Imagination. In developing his theory on imagination, he was influenced by the German philosophers Kant, Fichte and Schelling. Coleridge divides imagination into two types: primary imagination and secondary imagination.

PRIMARYIMAGINATION   is an act of self-consciousness and it is common to all human beings. It is the power by which we perceive the world around us through our senses; it unifies the scattered elements of perception and recreates “God’s creation” faithfully.

SECONDARY IMAGINATION is an act of the conscious will which does not imitate or reproduce faithfully the natural world; it is the poet’s vision which can “dissolve, diffuse and dissipate” images in order to recreate them in a new harmonious whole; it transforms the input from the external world into poetical inspiration. It is original and unique because two human beings can’t fully have the same vision of the world.

FANCY is a mode of memory. Being a kind of mechanical and logical faculty which only juxtaposes images, it is inferior to imagination.

In Biographia literaria Coleridge also gave us an account of the genesis of the Lyrical Ballads .He wrote that Nature had to be the main theme but illuminated by the modifying colour of the imagination. It was to deal with poems of the supernatural by Coleridge and poems of simple Nature by Wordsworth. The supernatural had to be treated in such a way that the emotions aroused were real and natural while the poems of simple nature had to be based upon characters and incidents from ordinary life and had to describe the beauty of the world. In order to make his narrative credible, Coleridge had to combine the supernatural “with a semblance of truth” so that the reader could suspend his judgement and accept even what was rationally unacceptable; Wordsworth had to give the subjects taken from everyday life ” the charm of novelty” in order to direct the readers’ attention to the loveliness of nature.


– were enthusiastic about the French Revolution in its beginning and later   they                    changed their mind after the Regime of Terror;                                                                               – thought that English poetry had to be reformed;                                                                           – felt the need to express their feelings in poetry in a way that the convention of the time       did not allow;                                                                                                                                          – loved nature and exalted the imagination;                                                                                      – thought of imagination as an important creative force.

DIFFERENCES:- Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge did not find consolation and happiness in Nature;                                                                                                                                            -Wordsworth saw nature in a pantheistic way, identifying it with the Divine while Coleridge saw nature and the natural world in a sort of neo-platonic interpretation as a projection of the real World of Ideas ;                                                                                                – Wordsworth considers poetry as “an outburst of powerful emotions”, while Coleridge sees it as the product of unconscious;                                                                                                   -Wordsworth drew inspiration from everyday life of humble and rustic people, while Coleridge wrote about incredible and supernatural events;                                                      -For Wordsworth the imagination “half creates” or recreates or rather modifies the data of experience through recollecting them in tranquillity and lifting them above a sort of “passive recording“, while for Coleridge the imagination transcends the data of experience and creates in the true sense of the word “a new harmonious whole“. He does not go back through his memory as Wordsworth used to; he is more philosophical and uses his poetic vision, the secondary imagination, without order or logic;                                                       – Wordsworth considered the language used by rustic people as purer and more profound because “they hourly communicate with the best objects from which the most part of the language is originally derived“, while Coleridge dissented   and considered it inferior to that of the educated man because “the best part of human language ….is derived from reflections on the acts of mind itself“.


The Rime was composed between 1797 and 1798 and first published in the Lyrical Ballads as the opening poem.  Initially it was planned as collaboration with Wordsworth who suggested some central episodes such as the killing of the Albatross. It is introduced by a Latin epigraph taken from Thomas Burnet’s Archaelogie Philosophicae  and an Argument which is a brief summary of the Ballad contents. The Latin epigraph is important because it spoke about the presence of irrational forces in the human mind and in the world that act upon man. In some way these moral forces are similar to the forces in man’s unconscious: “I easily believe that there are more invisible than visible beings in the Universe….The human mind has always circled after knowledge of these things, but has never attained it“.

PLOT: The Rime tells the tragic story of a seaman who kills an Albatross and the consequences of his action. It starts with an Ancient Mariner stopping a Wedding-guest  to tell him his terrible story. He had killed an Albatross and as a result of his offence against Nature, he was cursed. Terrible things happened to him and to the crew and his ship was blown from the Equator to the Antarctic by strong wind. They met a phantom ship with two women on board,  Death and Life-in-Death.They cast lots for the crew’s lives. Death won the Crew and one by one all the sailors died.The Ancient Mariner was won by Life-in-Death and he was left alive. He was alone and isolated in the Ocean, the ship did not move, there was no wind, no water to drink.  While in despair, he saw some water snakes near his ship; moved by their beauty, he blessed them and prayed God. He fell asleep and when he woke up the ship was being moved by spirits which had entered the bodies of the dead men. Eventually he was rescued by a boat and   reached home. The horror at what had happened returned to him regularly and he had the need to tell his story to someone to expiate his crime wandering from land to land and teaching love for Nature.

STRUCTURE: The form used is the medieval ballad form. It is divided in seven parts and written in stanzas of four lines rhyming ABCB. Sometime there are longer stanzas of five, six and even nine lines at moments of particular narrative tension.

THE TITLE: To suggest the flavour of the old Ballads, the title contains archaic words. In modern English it could have been “The Poem of the Old Seaman“. The archaisms contribute to the creation of an atmosphere outside time and set in a very distant past. The term “Ancient” referred to the Mariner gives an impression of an enormous unnatural age.

FEATURES: The Rime is an authentic medieval ballad both in contents and in style:

– It tells the story of a single character;                                                                                               – it has got a tragic end;                                                                                                                          – the main events are governed by the supernatural;                                                                      – it is written in a dialogue form and the language is simple and direct;                                     – all the literary device of the Ballad are present such as repetitions(ll 24-25 Below …below..below etc...), incremental repetitions, alliterations( l.14 Stood Still   and so on), internal rhymes (l. 7 met….set; l.21 cheered…cleared and so on), personifications(l. 26 “he” referred to the Sun; from line 41 to line 50 both the storm and the ship are personified: the storm as an enemy who chases the ship yelling and beating it, the ship as a person who tries to avoid the storm’s blow leaning forward), onomatopoeic sounds (l. 60 It cracked and growled, and roared and howled ),  oxymoron( life-in-death), emphatic form(l.18 He cannot choose but hear – l. 22 Merrily did we drop– l. 26 Out of the sea came he!  ), similes (l.15 And listens like a three years’ child – l. 34 Red as a rose is she).

NARRATION: There are three levels of narration: the narration of the poet, the narration of the Ancient Mariner and a prose summary.

The narration of the poet constitutes the framework and introduces the situation and the two characters: the storyteller and the listener.

It is an ancient Mariner,                                                                                                                    And he stoppeth one of three.

The narration of the Ancient Mariner is the real story and deals with the extraordinary adventure of the protagonist himself. It starts in l. 10. It is unexpected and dramatic; no introduction is given and all this creates an effect of mystery.

«There was a ship,» quoth he

The prose summary is provided by Coleridge himself   to make the story easier to be understood.

How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.

An ancient Mariner meeteth three Gallants bidden to a wedding-feast, and detaineth one.

CHARACTERS: the main characters are: An Ancient Mariner, a Wedding-guest, a crew, an Albatross and some spirits.

The Ancient Mariner is shown as a phantom; he has got skinny hands, a long-grey beard and glittering eyes as if endowed with hypnotic powers .

He holds him with his glittering eye—

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath his will.

He is doomed to spend the rest his life after his rescue telling his story of guilt and expiation. He belongs to a series of legendary figures like the Wandering Jew. The theme of the Wandering Jew was very popular in the Romantic Age: We can find it in Byron’s Manfred, in Shelley’s The Wandering Jew and in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. According to the legend the Jews were condemned to wander about the world until Christ’s second coming because they were considered responsible for Christ’s death.

The function of the Wedding-guest is structural; he represents both the listener at the Mariner’s narration and the reader who, after finishing the reading of the poem, should become  a new man .

He went like one that hath been stunned,

And is of sense forlorn:

A sadder and a wiser man,

He rose the morrow morn.

He is impatient with a bad character and lack of solidarity. He is necessary in the Ballad because if there was a story to be told there should be a listener.

The Crew: They all die as accomplices of the Mariner but their punishment is used to contrast the Mariner’s one because it is not heavy if compared to the Mariner’s sentence to eternal obsession for what he has happened.

The spirits and the strange creatures were necessary to provide the poem with the ideal setting for the supernatural and the mystery. The Mariner and the Albatross in some sense are a mystery, too. The Albatross comes from nowhere and is accompanied by strange phenomena. As far as the Ancient Mariner, we don’t know why he killed the Albatross.

From this poem we can see that Coleridge followed what he had written in his Biographia Literaria. He wrote that his task was to deal with the supernatural combined with “a semblance of truth“. To confer a degree of credibility on the narration, he alternates REAL AND UNREAL ELEMENTS. It is real the opening set, a wedding feast, the right position of the Sun in the sky, the sudden changes of the weather at sea, the harbor, the church, the hill and the boat with a pilot who rescues the Mariner from the shipwreck. Among the unreal elements we can mention the perceiving of nature as deformed, the strange colours of the ice, of the sea and of the sun, the motionless and noiseless wind which pushes the ship on, the spirits and some strange animals.

INTERPRETATIONS: The poem can be read at various levels:                                                – As a dream caused by opium: there are some descriptions that are similar to the ones usually felt by drug-addicts, i.e. a fine sense of freedom followed by anguish and fear;           -A moral parable of man from the original sin(the killing)through punishment(isolation), repentance(the blessing of the Water Snakes) and penitence( obsessive repetition of the story) to the final redemption;                                           -As a contrast between rationality(neo classicism/prose) and irrationality (romanticism/poetry). Rationality is identified by sunlight, under which the main bad events take place and irrationality by moon light, under which the main good events happen. Sunlight stands for day and represents the power of reason while moonlight stands for night and represents the power of imagination.

SYMBOLS: The Rime contains many symbols: the ship represents the human soul; the voyage life; the sun the benevolence of nature; the ice lack of solidarity between man and man and the hardships of life; the Albatross the love bond that links man to nature but also poetry (Baudelaire) and imagination (killing the Albatross the Mariner had killed them both); the drought the aridity of the soul; the rain regeneration and rebirth; life-in-death the life of man abandoned by God.

TURNING POINTS: there are two turning points in the poem: the killing of the Albatross at the end of the first part and the blessing of the water snakes at the end of the fourth part.

«God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—

Why look’st thou so?» —With my cross-bow

I shot the Albatross

According to medieval and oriental superstitions, the Albatross is a mystical bird whose killing is as sacrilege and breaks the sacred laws which link all living creatures. It is a crime against nature and it must be punished.

Within the shadow of the ship,

I watched their rich attire:

Blue glossy green, and velvet black,

They coiled and swam; and every track

Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.

The self same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea

The Mariner’s act of blessing the water snakes offers him the possibility to   recognize the value of all created things and gives him a hope of redemption. A lack of love towards one living creature had brought the curse; an impulse of love towards other creatures brings it away.

DIDACTIC INTENT: it is to teach love for all God’s creatures. It is shown at the end of the poem:

“he prayed best who loveth best

all things, both great and small;

For the dear God who loveth us                                                                          

He made and loveth all”.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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