Glowing Ardor and Cool Ferocity: Political Enthusiasm and Poetic Terror in The Ancyent Marinere
by David S. Hogsette, PhD
Delivered at the American Conference on Romanticism
The spiritually riveting epic The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere written in 1797 was created within an historical context characterized by nationalistic uprising, revolutionary enthusiasm, political terror, and ideological apostasy. Coleridge wrote this poem, and many of his other more overtly political poems such as “Religious Musings” (1795), “The Destiny of Nations” (1796), “Ode to the Departing Year” (1796), “Fears in Solitude” (1798), and “France: An Ode” (1798), during and shortly after the peak of his public political activism of 1795-96. Coleridge, like many of his contemporaries, was most disheartened by and concerned about abuses of power and the horrors of tyranny resulting from unchecked political enthusiasm. The one political figure who best illustrated this threat of enthusiasm and revolutionary zeal was, of course, Maximilien Robespierre, whose bloody Reign of Terror shocked and horrified English revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries alike. However, Coleridge viewed Robespierre from a somewhat sympathetic perspective, transforming him into a tragic hero in his melodramatic The Fall of Robespierrre (1794). Curiously, though, the figure of Robespierre comes back to haunt Coleridge’s poetic imagination between 1797 and 1798, thus becoming a model not only for the tragically flawed political agent but also for the failed poet-prophet. In the arguably tragic figure of the Mariner, Coleridge expresses an internalized creative self-doubt and creates a unique poetics of imaginative failure based upon a national obsession with political fear.
“Enthusiasm” from the Greek enthousiasmos means being possessed or inspired by a god, a condition that was believed to result in madness and social disruption. Coleridge and his contemporaries were keenly aware of the personal and political dangers of unchecked enthusiasm, because throughout the last two decades of the eighteenth century, England witnessed political change abroad and experienced much of its own social and political disruption: the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, revolt and repression in Ireland, war with France, and radicalism and anti-revolutionary reaction at home. This concern over enthusiasm and its threat to social order was most clearly associated with religious enthusiasts who sought to replace the Biblical prophetic visionary discourse and prophetic canon with their own visionary experience. These enthusiasts believed that divine inspiration and prophetic vision were available to anyone. Therefore, as John Mee notes in his book Dangerous Enthusiasms: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s, “[s]uch enthusiasm was felt by many contemporaries [in the 1790s] to be a vulgar feature of popular culture, whereas the millenarianism of Price and Priestly was couched in a much more respectable rationalist discourse” (20). This concern over the potential danger of mass riot and mob mentality is key for Coleridge, who felt that religious enthusiasm as a political discourse ran the risk of diffusing political authority. If divine inspiration were available to anyone, how would we know who to follow and who to believe. The result, Coleridge believed, would be a tyranny of relativism.
Enthusiasm, then, was viewed as an infectious disease, a contagious dementia that would destroy the minds of the lower orders of society and lead to social disruption and chaos (Mee 49). Coleridge shared and expressed this fear of the masses being too weak in mind and spirit to participate directly in political debate and reform, believing that political enthusiasm and zeal in the masses would ultimately threaten the social order. Throughout his lecture Conciones ad Populum or Addresses to the People (1795) Coleridge directly addresses this issue of inciting the masses and controlling political enthusiasm (Lectures 1795 33). Coleridge was indeed a reformist at heart, but he was not a “radical” in the strictest sense, meaning he wanted gradual, controlled, and reasonable political change without violent bloodshed or social upheaval. His main concern was how to contain political power and to control the power of reform. The task of the reformist was not to whip the masses into a frenzy but, rather, to control the enthusiasts and to base all social and political change on established principles and carefully studied programs of change. Coleridge advocated a principled programmatic of change so as to avoid enthusiastic social contagion. He called for the dismantling of oppressive systems, not the violent annihilation of its misguided adherents, and he desired that the pure act of egalitarian reform not be contaminated by or transformed into tyranny by the very evil it attempts to eradicate.
This concern over controlling power and avoiding its abuses is reflected in his representation of poetic power and the power of the creative imagination. The great task is to generate sincere, true, honest power that is diffused through the masses, that works as a carefully guided public opinion, one that is democratic and not selfishly tyrannical. Coleridge’s job as orator and political reformer is to cultivate this egalitarian public power. Ironically, his poetic figures, his creative and imaginative counterparts represent creative demagogues, tyrannical wielders of a divine power that crushes the will of their listeners, alienates the poet, and terrifies the public. This tyrannical poetic figure, most clearly developed in the Mariner, is modeled after the one political tyrant that most preoccupied Coleridge’s political, philosophical, and poetical imagination during the 1790s—Maximilien Robespierre. Nicholas Roe, in his excellent study Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years, notes that Wordsworth was filled with joy when he eventually heard of Robespierre’s death in the summer of 1794. Yet in Coleridge Robespierre’s execution sparked an imaginative boost that reveals Coleridge’s complicated response to this political figure’s life. He immediately collaborated with Robert Southey to write the tragedy The Fall of Robespierre (1794), and, as Roe further notes, Robespierre becomes a “foil in his developing idea of the imagination during 1795-6” (199). Furthermore, I suggest here, Coleridge’s imaginative representation of Robespierre factors significantly and ironically in Coleridge’s developing formulation of the creative and social agent of the imagination—the poet.
In Conciones ad Populum or Addresses to the People Coleridge provides a most sympathetic description of Robespierre, one that reveals his complex response to this political figure and that provides the political context informing his ironic representation of the poet:
Robespierre, who displaced [Jean-Pierre Brissot], possessed a glowing ardor that still remembered the end, and a cool ferocity that never overlooked, or scrupled, the means. What that end was, is not known: that it was a wicked one, has by no means been proved. I rather think, that the distant prospect, to which he was traveling, appeared to him grand and beautiful; but that he fixed his eye on it with such intense eagerness as to neglect the foulness of the road. (Lectures 1795 35)
The Mariner, as I will discuss in more detail in a moment, exhibits this same kind of “glowing ardor” in which he levels his gaze upon the beautiful and glorious end—completing a supernatural narrative despite the protests of the listener—without contemplating the violence inherent in the artistic means. Coleridge’s description of Robespierre continues:
If however his first intentions were pure, his subsequent enormities yield to us a melancholy proof, that it is not the character of the possessor which directs the power, but the power which shapes and depraves the character of the possessor. In Robespierre, its influence was assisted by the properties of his disposition. –Enthusiasm, even in the gentlest temper, will frequently generate sensations of an unkindly order. If we clearly perceive any one thing to be of vast and infinite importance to ourselves and all mankind, our first feelings impel us to turn with angry contempt from those, who doubt and oppose it. The ardor of undisciplined benevolence seduces us into malignity: and whenever our hearts are warm, and our objects great and excellent, intolerance is the sin that does most easily beset us. (Lectures 1795 35)
Coleridge’s greatest fear is that enthusiasm will imprison the reformist’s or the poet’s creative will, possessing and shaping his character. And even if his intentions are basically benevolent, the undisciplined mind predisposed to ardor will be transformed into a malignant tyrant. The Mariner exemplifies this undisciplined benevolence that becomes seduced into malignity. What I am suggesting by briefly discussing Coleridge’s idealistic views on political reform and by juxtaposing this long description of Robespierre to the poetic figure described in The Ancyent Marinere is that Coleridge’s duplicitous response to Robespierre’s ideological grandeur and eventual political failure informs his self-conscious and ironic representation of poetic failure. By repeating much of the same imagery and language used in this description of Robespierre, Coleridge simultaneously posits the poet-prophet as the true agent of social change and spiritual transcendence while revealing the poet to be a failed prophet and a tyrannical presence in society.
The Ancyent Marinere is indeed a rich poem with a complex textual and interpretive history. In no way am I trying to provide a comprehensive reading of this poem, and I do not wish to diminish its richness by focusing so narrowly on the politics of poetics I see working in it. Only a few critics, such as William Empson, J. R. Ebbatson, Peter Kitson, and, most recently, Patrick J. Keane, have examined various political contexts and subtexts working within, beneath, and around this magnificent poem. I hope to add to these political discussions by examining more closely the enthusiastic and tyrannical qualities of the storyteller and his storytelling act. I am interested here in the ways in which Coleridge’s representation of the Mariner as a tyrannical poet-prophet reveals Coleridge’s own fear of poetic enthusiasm and is own imaginative disillusionment, fears that stem from his concern with political enthusiasm and untamable political tyranny embodied in his representation of Robespierre.
The Mariner figure is clearly a tragic, Robespierrean zealot whose enthusiasm transforms him into a tyrannical storyteller. The Mariner closely resembles the mad poet-prophet figure modeled after Moses, whose divinely altered white hair and glowing face terrified the Israelites upon his return from speaking with God. (Coleridge will give us this figure again in “Kubla Khan” who terrifies those who witness his “flashing eyes” and “floating hair.”) The Mariner sports a “long grey beard” (CPW II 3) and a hypnotic “glittering eye” (CPW II 3). It is this glittering eye that ultimately entraps the wedding guest:
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The wedding guest stood still
And listens like a three year’s child;
The Marinere hath his will. (CPW II 17-20)
The Mariner’s imagination tyrannizes the will of the wedding guest, transforming him into a gullible, enraptured child who is powerless to resist this oppressive poetic enthusiast. The Mariner is a frightful figure because he enslaves the individual will and, worse, because he also disrupts the community and interrupts the domestic, two destructive acts of the political zealot that Coleridge feared the most. The Mariner intrudes upon a wedding ceremony, a joyous celebration and ritualized commencement of the creation of the home and family. His obsessive desire to retell his tale interrupts this ceremony and pulls the wedding guest away from this communal celebration, replacing the celebration’s pleasures and cultural reaffirmations with metaphysical angst.
The ideal poet-prophet indeed disturbs and disrupts the social, especially if it is corrupt, and his visionary words seek to edify the confused and lead the lost back to salvation. The Mariner visibly resembles this disruptive poet-prophet figure, but his words fail to liberate the spirit or redeem the soul. Rather, he spins visionary tales that emotionally tyrannize and psychologically enslave his listeners and that force the Mariner to reexperience the spiritual horrors of his journey. His very first speech act upon his rescue and return to human company enacts severe emotional and psychological violence upon those who hear him:
I moved my lips: the pilot shriek’d
And fell down in a fit.
The Holy Hermit rais’d his eyes
And pray’d where he did sit
I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laugh’d loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro,
“Ha! Ha!” quoth he—”full plain I see,
“The devil knows how to row.” (CPW II 593-602).
So when the Mariner first addresses humanity after his long ordeal, his speech violently unnerves two communal institutions, the family and the church: the pilot has a nervous breakdown, the pilot’s son becomes a laughing, crazed idiot, and the Hermit prays adamantly to God for protection from this fiendish man. The Mariner tells his tale to the Holy Hermit, claiming that his confession leaves him free (CPW II 614); however, he further notes that at various times he is compelled to tell his tale again and again to perfect strangers. The Mariner is not free, and his storytelling is in no way redemptive. He is damned to a life-in-death existence, wandering the earth doomed to repeat his tale, to relive his emotional and psychological trauma, and to enact verbal and emotional violence against his audience, whom he transforms into existential zombies alienated from their own families and communities and disillusioned of their own belief systems:
The Marinere, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone; and now the wedding-guest
Turn’d from the bridegroom’s door.
He went, like one that hath been stunn’d
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn. (CPW II 651-58)
The Mariner’s prophetic role is further undermined because in the act of retelling his tale the Mariner recommits the very same sin of his journey—the disruption of communal order and familial harmony. The narrative is indeed circuitous, as M.H. Abrams (272-75) and others suggest, but the circuity of the travel and the narrative plot is not redemptive in nature. Rather, it is reproductive, repetitious, and revolutionary in the negative sense. The Mariner’s own narrative experience begins with domestic cheer:
The Ship was cheer’d, the Harbour clear’d—
Merrily did we drop
Below the Kirk, below the Hill,
Below the Light-house top. (CPW II 25-28)
Yet his willfully zealous and rash act of killing the Albatross destroys this cheer and harmony, a sin whose punishment extends to everyone on the ship, yet whose potential redemption is extended only to the Mariner. However, the Mariner is never redeemed, because his storytelling confessionals do not shrive him of his guilt. The tale itself begins with domestic harmony, moves through domestic disruption with the killing of the Albatross, arrives as domestic return, and ends with a disruption of this community to which he returns (the pilot, his son, and the Hermit). Furthermore, his storytelling acts begin with domestic disruption and end with domestic denial and ideological disillusionment. In other words, the Mariner’s confessional speech acts repeat the very sin from which he seeks retribution through confession. At best, the Mariner represents a failed and ironic prophetic figure.
Moreover, the Mariner actually relives the horrors of his experience through the retelling, repeatedly succumbing to the very enthusiasm that doomed him from the beginning, and this emotional repossession oppresses his audience. For example, when he works up to confessing that he shot the Albatross, he becomes clearly repossessed by the very same fiends that initially possessed him to shoot the bird. As he is telling this part of the story, the wedding guest breaks into the narrative and cries, “‘God save thee, ancyent Marinere! / From the fiends that plague thee thus— / Why look’st thou so?'” (CPW II 77-79). The Mariner’s body and face visibly change because of his increasing enthusiasm, causing the wedding guest to remark on this change and to fear him even more. Later on in the storytelling act, the Mariner becomes even more enraptured by his own enthusiasm and transformed by the horrors of his emotional excess, causing the wedding guest to cry out,
“I fear thee, ancyent Marinere!
“I fear thy skinny hand;
“And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
“As is the ribb’d Sea-sand.
“I fear thee and thy glittering eye
“And thy skinny hand so brown— (CPW II 216-21)
The Mariner is gradually becoming more crazed and transformed as he retells and thus relives these experiences, and this enthusiasm, this repossession tyrannizes the guest and oppresses his will.
But isn’t there some element of redemption in this poem? Most readers point to the Mariner’s blessing the sea creatures (CPW II 274-83) as the moment of his redemption, and I agree with this reading for the most part. It is a redemptive moment because the Mariner is saved by Godly possession, if you will, by an enthusiasm that links him momently with God: He looks upon the sea creatures he previously cursed and feels a sudden rush of joy and God’s eternal love. He experiences a kind of Godly possession or redemptive enthusiasm, because he blesses them “unawares”—not of his own Reason—and a spring of love gushes from his heart. This is a truly redemptive moment. Unfortunately for the Mariner, this form of Godly enthusiasm does not stay with him. Instead of being continually possessed by Godly love, he expresses a kind of zeal or cool ferocity like that of Robespierre which enacts violence and tyranny as it attempts to achieve liberty and freedom. The Mariner is condemned to relive and reexperience his sin, without ever realizing or rediscovering the true nature of Grace and redemption he experienced as he blessed the sea creatures. Instead, he spreads fear, disillusionment, and emotional tyranny in his ghastly wake. The Mariner prefigures the existential despots of the early 20th century who spread chaos and disillusionment as God’s death was proclaimed by man.
It was Coleridge’s desire—and that of other male, Romantic-era poets—to achieve spiritual transcendence and to unify with the great “I AM” through imaginative creation. However, in much of his poetry Coleridge simultaneously celebrates the possibility of such transcendence and renounces the resulting tyranny or anti-social effects of such creativity. This ambivalence ultimately reveals Coleridge’s own artistic self-doubt. In The Ancyent Marinere the poet figure’s unrelenting quest to tell his tale blinds him to his own transformation into a horrific tyrant who is ostracized and feared by the surrounding public. Coleridge presents us with a poetic figure who is motivated by untamed enthusiasm, thus suggesting that the poet’s artistic zeal, like Robespierre’s violent ardor, warps his imagination into a dark, brooding tyrannical force. The poet becomes a frightful fanatic who is a menace to society and an object of fear and ridicule.
Abrams, M.H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 1971.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Ernest Hartely Coleridge. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1912.
—. Lectures 1795 On Politics and Religion. Eds. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971. Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Kathleen Coburn. 16 vols. 1969-.
Ebbatson, J. R. “Coleridge’s Mariner and the Rights of Man.” Studies in Romanticism 11 (1972): 171-206.
Empson, William. “The Ancient Mariner.” Critical Quarterly 6 (1964): 298-319.
Keane, Patrick J. Coleridge’s Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner and Robinson Crusoe. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1994.
Kitson, Peter. “Coleridge, the French Revolution, and The Ancient Mariner: Collective Guilt and Individual Salvation.” Yearbook of English Studies 19 (1989): 197-207.
Mee, John. Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1992.
Roe, Nicholas. Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988.
 William Empson suggests that the guilt and restitution theme hinges upon a cultural guilt associated with English colonial expansion and its horrific treatment of colonized peoples. J. R. Ebbatson offers a similar political reading, arguing that the punishment and retribution is associated with a “European racial guilt, and the need to make restitution” (198). Peter Kitson also examines issues of guilt, but the guilt he identifies is associated with Coleridge’s apostasy and retreat from effective politics, and the redemption theme reveals Coleridge’s desire for individual redemption through poetic and creative forces. And most recently, Patrick J. Keane in his immense study Coleridge’s Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner and Robinson Crusoe is most interested in the vacillations between fear and hope and light and dark that speak of Coleridge’s own philosophic and political vacillations between hope and despair over the events in France and the oppressive reactions of the Pitt administration.
 For this analysis I’ve chosen to study the 1798 Lyrical Ballads text, because it was written just two years or so after his most active political radicalism, when much of his creative energies were channeled away from political lecturing and essays toward the production of poetry, a poetry that was most directly informed by his political concerns, fears, and interests.