Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devon-shire in 1772. He attended Cambridge University, where he first started to use opium, but he left it before taking his degree. Together with the poet Southey, he planned to emigrate to America and found an idealistic community called ‘Pantisocracy’, whose members had to enjoy equal rights and live on communistic lines, but this project came to nothing. In 1796 he met William Wordsworth, with whom he published the Lyrical Ballads. Although aiming at the same purpose, Wordsworth should draw inspiration from everyday life, while Coleridge’s part was to deal with ‘persons and characters supernatural’ and describe them in such a way ‘to procure that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith’. In other words, he was to write about incredible events in such a way to make them credible. In one sense, Coleridge is more full-bloodedly ‘romantic’ than his friend, since his best poems illustrate all the elements which constitute the spirit of Romanticism: mystry and supernatural, nature, exoticism, musicality.
Expression of all these elements is the ‘Rime of the ancient mariner’, of 1798, the opening poem of the Lyrical Ballads. In the poem the protagonist himself, an old mariner, is condemned to expiate the crime he committed by travelling constantly from land to land telling his story and teaching love and respect for all God’s creatures. The poem is divided into seven parts, each ending with an hint at the crime and constituting a new stage in the progress from crime to punishment. The mariner meets a young man who is going to a Wedding feast and begins telling his story. The Wedding-Guest's reaction changes as the story progresses, in fact Coleridge uses narrative techniques such as personification and repetition to create either a sense of danger, of the supernatural or of serenity. Anyway, the Mariner’s tale begins with his ship departing on its journey. During a storm it reaches Antarctica, where an Albatross appears and is welcomed by the crew. The Mariner shoots the bird and we don’t know the reason of the crime, in fact, since the albatross seemed to have led the ship out of the storm, the crime is against the brotherhood which links all God’s creatures.
The crew is initially angry with the Mariner, but they soon change their mind when the weather becomes warmer, thus sharing the crime. The crew begin to be subject to punishment, the ship is becalmed and haunted by spirits. The Mariner is forced to wear the dead Albatross around his neck, perhaps as a sign of his guilt.
In the fourth part, the sense of solitude increases. For Coleridge, Nature doesn't offer any consolation, while Wordsworth found it in contact with Nature. After seeing for seven days and seven nights the corpses of his dead companions, eventually, the Mariner's curse is temporarily lifted when he sees sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as "slimy things" earlier in the poem, he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them. The re-established pact of love with the natural world is underlined by the albatross falling from the Mariner’s neck into the sea, symbolizing the lifting of the load from a repenting soul.
The Mariner is now allowed to enjoy the gift of prayer again. He falls asleep and when he awakes it is raining, as a symbol of the re-birth of the Mariner’s soul. A troupe of angelic spirits enter the dead bodies of his shipmates and, although no wind is blowing, the ship moves on.
Suddenly, the Mariner catches sight of his native country in the distance and a pilot, who has noticed the ship, rows towards it together with a Holy Hermit.
Before they can reach the ship, the latter is unexpectedly shattered and sinks. But the Mariner is saved by the Pilot and after confessing to the Holy Hermit, he can return among his fellow men. The punishment is nevertheless still at work and a lifelong sense of guilt will forever drive the Mariner to tell his story and make people wiser. The moral teaching at the end of the Ballad expresses that everyone should love and respect all God’s creatures, in order to love and respect God.
Though concerned with the supernatural, The Rime is well organized in a progression of events leading to an acceptable conclusion. Moreover, Wordsworth was also able to restrain and discipline Coleridge’s overflowing genius. For example, by suggesting the killing of a bird, instead of a man, as the source of the Mariner’s persecution, he managed to reconcile Coleridge’s unbridled imagination and the formal coherence necessary to give the poem ‘a human interest and a semblance of truth. The result is a ballad dealing with supernatural events, made credible by the presence of real events, without weakening the sense of horror and supernatural mystery it conveys to the reader. The reader, in fact, had to feel the same emotions that he would feel if the story was true. On one hand, the real elements of the ballad are the opening setting, i.e. a wedding feast; the hints at the precise position of the sun during the trip; the changes of the weather; the hints at the Mariner’s native country; the boat with the pilot who saves the Mariner. On the other hand, as an unreal event, nature is perceived as deformed and intensified through memory of past fears and horrors. The ice glistens and makes nightmarish sounds; the sun looks bloody and the moon extraordinary white; the sea is burning with strange colors; the wind suddenly becomes noiseless.
This unreal, fantastic and nightmarish world provides the ideal setting for the supernatural elements spread throughout the poem. The sense of mystery is introduced by the Mariner, with his intrusion upon the Wedding feast, his appearance and his way of speaking, full of archaisms; by the Albatross, which is always accompanied by strange phenomena; by the hint at medieval and oriental superstitions: the Albatross seems a mystical, almost sacred bird, whose killing must be punished; by the hint at the medieval Dance Macabre through the ghosts arriving on the vessel. There are several unnatural creatures, such as sea monsters, spirits and angels or seraphs, and unnatural event, like the ship moving without wind and noise with the crew of dead sailors.
the poem has been considered simply as a dream induced by opium. The description of a first sense of freedom and immensity, soon followed by anguish and fear, with the perception of strange noises and a sense of horror is typically experienced by drug users;
The poem is about the abnormal psychology of a superstitious old sailor, which gives his personal vision of a shipwreck, which he apparently miraculously survived; A more complicated and psychological interpretation considers the poem an allegory of life, where the crew represents mankind, the albatross the pact of love which links all God’s creatures and the ship a microcosm where the evil deed of a single person has repercussions on other, too;
It can be considered as a moral parable of man, from original sin, through punishment, repentance and penitence, to his final redemption; The most complex analysis, elaborated by American critics says that the poem might symbolize the contrast between rationality and irrationality, the former identified with ‘sunlight’,under which the negative events take place, and the latter with ‘moonlight’, the moment of positive events. Sunlight would represent the power of reason and moonlight the power of imagination.
Coleridge worked out a theory of his own, slightly different from Wordsworth’s, on the faculty of the mind. According to Coleridge, the Imagination is divided into two types: Primary Imagination is the faculty by which we perceive the world around us and is common to all human beings. Secondary Imagination is the poetic vision: during a state of ecstasy, images do not appear isolated, but associated according to laws of their own, which have nothing to do with the date of experience. Imagination is contrasted with Fancy, which is inferior to it, since it is a kind of mechanical and logical faculty which enables a poet to aggregate and associate metaphors, similes and other poetical devices.
A difference between Wordsworth and Coleridge is that, while for Wordsworth Imagination ‘half-creates’ i.e., modifies and transforms the data of experience, for Coleridge the Imagination transcends the data of experience and ‘creates’ a completely different world. Despite this, they both despise Fancy and exalt Imagination.
The best example of this concept of Imagination is Kubla Khan, a fragment of fifty-four lines, published in 1816. Along with the Rime of the ancient mariner, Kubla khan is one of Coleridge's most famous poems. The story of its composition is also one of the most famous in the history of the English poetry. As the poet explains in the short preface to the poem, he had fallen asleep after taking some opium while reading a story in which Kubla khan ordered the building of a palace. Coleridge claims that while he slept, he had a vision and composed two or three hundred lines of poetry. Waking up, he immediately set to work to write down these lines but was interrupted by a visitor and was no longer able to finish his work. Nowadays, few critics still believe this account of how the poem was written, but the preface is considered as a sort of manifesto on the working of the poetic mind according to Coleridge: he thought that poetry was the product of the unconscious inducing a kind of ecstasy which could then be reproduced through memory. It also emphasizes that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, the only way of approaching his poetry for full enjoyment.
Regrettably, the story of the poem’s composition, while rich in itself, often overshadows the poem itself, which is one of Coleridge’s most haunting and beautiful.
The speaker describes the "stately pleasure dome" built in Xanadu according to the decree of Kubla Khan, the place where Alph, the sacred river ran five miles through the woods finally sinking into the ocean. Here Kubla Khan heard ancestral voices bringing prophesies of war. The pleasure dome's shadow floated on the waves, where the sounds of the fountain and the caves could be heard. The speaker also says "it was a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure done with caves of ice". The speaker says he once saw a damsel with a dulcimer, an Abyssinian maid who sang about Mount Abora. He says that if he could revive "her symphony and so song" within him, he would rebuild the pleasure dome out of music, and all who heard him would cry "Beware of his flashing eyes, his floating hair". The hearers would circle him thrice and close their eyes with "holy dread" , knowing that he had tasted honeydew and drunk the milk of paradise.
The beauty of the poem is certainly increased by the musicality of the verses, though the rhyme scheme is not a fixed one. In fact it is ABAAB CCDBDB. This poem comes from unconscious inspiration, according to Coleridge’s theory of imagination, which say that the poet has his poetic vision during a state of ecstasy. Imagination can, in this sense, create a completely different world, which has nothing to do with the data of experience. The poet, for Coleridge isn’t a common man, but a prophet who experiences his poetic vision during a state of ecstasy. This poetic vision allows him to be nearer to the Paradise (he drunk the milk of Paradise).
The first three stanzas describe the setting, the landscape outside and the pleasure-dome. Here there’s a third person narration. These stanzas are products of pure imagination: The imaginary elements represent the process of poetic creation and poetic imagination in itself, besides being a beautiful descriptive act. Nature doesn’t offer any consolation for Coleridge, unlike Wordsworth.
It is thought that the last stanza of the poem, thematizing the idea of the lost vision through the figure of the damsel and the milk of Paradise was written post-interruption, also because it’s so well written that it can’t be written on the spot. The speaker says that he had a vision of an Abyssinian girl (a damsel with a dulcimer) playing a musical instrument and singing of an unknown mountain, mount Abora, faintly recalling the image of Paradise. He insists that if he could revive within himself that song , he would rebuild that dome out of music and words, taking on the role of a visionary, of the prophet.