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Anticipations of the ancient mariner in the early poetry of S.T. Coleridge North, John S.

Abstract

This study attempts to discover in the early poetry of Coleridge anticipations of the poetic excellence exhibited in "The Ancient Mariner." It begins by explaining that the years from 1787, the date of his first recorded poem, to 1798, when he travelled to Germany, may be divided into three periods: 1787 to 1794, the years spent at school and university; 1794 to 1796, the years of his discipleship to two eighteenth-century rationalists, Godwin and Hartley; and 1797 to 1798, the years of his happy fellowship with the Wordsworths. The poetry has markedly different characteristics in each of these periods. The study proceeds by discussing the poetry under three headings: ideas, imagery and symbolism, and form. Noticeable progress towards the degree of achievement found in "The Ancient Mariner" appears in each of these areas. Chapter One, which discusses Coleridge's ideas, begins by establishing that from 1787 to 1798 the poetry is characterized by attempts to explain and offer a solution for evil and suffering. From 1787 to 1794 Coleridge advocated a simple and trite schoolroom morality, largely based on Church-of-England doctrine. Then he turned to the rationalism of Godwin and Hartley, accepting their concept of necessity, of the mind as a tabula rasa, of private property and institutionalism as the prime sources of evil, and of environment, reason and necessity as forces working toward the perfection of man. Rejecting Godwin's atheism, he subscribed to Hartley's system, in which these same concepts were placed in a Christian framework. However, disillusioned by the sterility of rationalism, and by the failure of the French Revolution to advance the morality of society, he retired to Nether Stowey in December, 1796, confused in mind and depressed in spirit. There he established a more meaningful concept of morality. It was based on faith in man's mind, as was Godwin's, and was focused on religion, as was Hartley's. But, unlike the system of either master, it found its motivation in will rather than reason. "The Ancient Mariner" embodies this concept of morality. In Chapter Two the study proceeds by categorizing the imagery and symbolism in "The Ancient Mariner" into three groups, or clusters, and showing that each appears, at least in nucleus, throughout the early poetry. The first cluster, which describes the Mariner, from 1787 to 1794 is associated with poet figures, from 1794 to 1796 is associated with political and social reformers and the spiritually regenerate. In 1797 and 1798 it is associated with individuals who, through an act of self-less will, have achieved a degree of moral and spiritual regeneracy, or who have a mission to enlighten other men. The second cluster is related to the murder of the Albatross. From 1787 to 1794 murder is treated as the inevitable consequence of living in an evil world, as an act committed consciously by men helpless to do otherwise. From 1794 to 1796 murder is treated as an act of self-interest, and of opposition to God, an act which violates the laws of reason and nature. During 1797 and 1798 murder is treated as the inevitable result of a purely sensual mind, in contrast to a spiritual mind. The final cluster, nature imagery and symbolism, is characterized by duality throughout the early poetry. From 1787 to 1794 the positive and negative aspects of nature describe happiness and unhappiness in Coleridge's personal life, and successes and failures of his poetic imagination. From 1794 to 1796 the duality contrasts the self-centered, ignorant mind to the enlightened, rational mind, which senses divine order in creation. During 1797 and 1798 the dualism contrasts the vision of the sensual man to that of the spiritual man. Chapter Three discusses the three kinds of form in poetry: external form, technique and internal form. Poetry is differentiated from prose by having pleasure as its immediate end. Pleasure is provided by an intuitive recognition of unity in multeity. Therefore form in poetry must be characterized by unity. External form is the relation of various thoughts and feelings to each other in the framework of a poem. Almost all Coleridge's poems have a well-unified external form. The success of this kind of form is most fully expressed in a poem such as "The Ancient Mariner," in which a unified symbolic level is super-imposed upon a unified narrative level. Technique is the way in which a poet expresses his thoughts and feelings. The various elements of technique - diction, imagery, metre, rhyme and stanza form - are well unified when they are the best and most natural expression of the poet's thoughts and feelings, and therefore mutually support and explain each other. The technique of the early poetry is noticeably weak; its mastery in "The Ancient Mariner" is the product of ten years of apprenticeship. Internal form is the proportion between the degree of thought and the degree of feeling in a poem. In all good poems thought and feeling give rise to and balance each other; they are unified. The greatest and best poems contain deep thought - a sense of spirituality in the midst of social and political reform - and deep feeling - a love which concerns itself with the changes in individual men. Deep thought and deep feeling can occur only with the achievement of the ultimate end of poetry: moral or intellectual truth. The poetry of 1787 to 1794 is characterized by an overbalance of feeling, that of 1794 to 1796, by an overbalance of thought. "The Ancient Mariner" contains a fusion of deep thought and deep feeling conveyed on the symbolic level. Enchanting the reader through the pleasure yielded by the perfect harmony of all the parts, and suggesting to him through symbolic patterns that it contains deep truths of human experience, the poem draws him back into itself, that he might discover these truths, find greater unity, and achieve more pleasure.

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