Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere,” (1798) delights in the supernatural, particularly in the realm of spirits. Unlike Wordsworth, his counterpart in Lyrical Ballads and good friend, Coleridge views nature as separate from himself, and in that regard, Friedrich Schiller would have considered Coleridge to be a sentimental poet. Nevertheless, when involving the supernatural, Coleridge depends upon his idea of the “suspension of disbelief”—or “the means by which the reader might accept unreal elements of verse to illuminate senses strictly afforded within the real” (McMorrough 229). It is through this process that Coleridge’s work transcends space and time, and lost in Coleridge’s world, the reader questions his own reality.
In the introduction of Lyrical Ballads, Fiona Stafford of the Oxford University Press discusses the writing abilities and partnership of Wordsworth and Coleridge. She states, “To make the supernatural entirely believable, or to transform the ordinary into something equally compelling, required extraordinary imaginative and technical powers” (xxix). Both Wordsworth and Coleridge viewed the imagination as an almost supernatural feature, although Coleridge dives into the metaphysical much more. Stafford also writes that “although the supernatural are most obvious in ‘The Ancient Marinere,’ the poem can be—and often has been—read psychologically or symbolically” (xxix). Stafford’s point is an excellent segue to discuss what the supernatural symbolically represents in Romantic writing.
The first poem of the 1798 and 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere,” which features a mariner who has been cursed. Coleridge’s poems “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel” also feature the supernatural, but it is important to note that he did not include them in Lyrical Ballads. However, all three of these pieces feature dreams, as expressed in Jennifer Ford’s essay. She writes, citing essayist Thomas DeQuincey, “DeQuincey described [Coleridge] as a poet…a prolific dreamer: a man whose poetry was shrouded in mystery—supernatural like the ‘ancient marin
ere’—awfully sublime” (Ford 171).
“The Rime of the Ancient Marinere” features its own spirits, although they look different from traditional ghosts. In fact, Coleridge’s spirits are sublime entities—things not to be understood by the human brain. The following section is an excerpt describing Coleridge’s spirits:
“I saw something in the Sky
No bigger than my fist
At first it seem’d a little speck
And then it seem’d a mist” (lines 139-142).
This “mist” that Coleridge describes also represents the sublime, often symbolized by a mist or a fog. This entity soon curses the entire ship, leaving all the people on board dead except the mariner, who must live with the curse. Here is an excerpt about the curse that plagues the mariner:
“An orphan’s curse would drag to Hell
A spirit from on high
But O! More horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights I saw that curse
And yet I could not die” (lines 249-254)
By repeating the word “seven,” Coleridge makes these lines sound like a chant, going along with the ballad structure. Because he does not die, the mariner is cursed and must repeat the story in order to find any peace. This is an embodiment of storytelling and the role writers and storytellers play. After hearing the mariner’s story, the wedding guest turns into “[a] sadder and wiser man” (line 624). It is through this repetition, this retelling of stories, that represents the oral tradition of stories, including ghost stories.
Biographical Statement: Elizabeth Laughlin is a graduate student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she is a part of the English Literature and Composition master’s program. She also writes for the school’s Marketing and Communications Department. Above all, she is interested in Gothicism, Romanticism, and Modernism. In her spare time, she enjoys meditating, writing books, and watching football.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere.” Lyrical Ballads. Edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp.5-24.
Ford, Jennifer. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Pains of Sleep.” History Workshop Journal, no. 48, 1999, pp. 169–186. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4289640. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
McMorrough, John. “Funny, Crazy, Silly: Lyrics for The Suspension of Architectural Disbelief.” Log, no. 37, 2016, pp. 228–233. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26324736. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
Stafford, Fiona. “Introduction.” Lyrical Ballads. Edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. xii-xlv.