ROMANTICISM – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Emerson, Whitman

Romanticism is the term used to denote a period and style of literature that involved the moving away from the traditional Neoclassic structure and subject matter, as a result of “a dissatisfaction with rules and inherited restrictions.” (Abrams, 1993, p. 129)  In his Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth declared that the revolutionary times called for writers to

chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them . . . in a selection of language really used by men; and . . . to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination.”(Wordsworth, 1802)

He also believed that in the “low and rustic life . . . the essential passions of the heart . . . mature . . . [with] less . . . restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language”. (ibid)  This ideal of using colloquial language and common subject matter, linked with the expressing of emotions and feelings, was contrary to the altruistic precursive works that overflowed with nymphs, shepherds and purling brooks, and relied heavily on Greek and Latin mythological classics.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge delved into the imagination, Coleridge coining the definition still used today that set it apart from fancy and involved the engagement of thought by the writer.  They used the landscape as the bearer of a unifying power until they went their separate theoretical ways. People were perceived and portrayed as individuals, not just as part of their culture, and readers were encouraged to link the protagonists of works to their authors.  There arose ideas of nationalism based on individuals as a group of people, rather than governmental, political.  Literature reflected this concentration on the individual, psychologically and socially.

The Romantic poet used Nature as a foil for culture – the grim cities that represented the evils of industrialisation, with their pollution, crowds, and smog.  For the Romanticists the countryside which they revered was created by God, as a psychological resource, as universal, supernatural and spiritual. Romanticists tried to find out the truth about the relationship between themselves and the world in which they lived, to see the world as a whole world, but in single focus showing the social changes.  They saw the natural world as an active agent with a moral quality that corrected mistakes, and were deeply concerned with the immensity of the world and universe.  They attempted to express the inexpressible, those extreme moments that escaped their grasp – the Sublime.

In the 1830s Romanticism crossed the Atlantic to America, where it was adopted and developed into a particular American poetic form.  Emerson wrote a manifesto for the first American Romantic poets with his article, ‘The American Scholar’, in which he stated that the scholar is the poet, the writer, the person of imagination, who should be everybody, each character that he/she creates.  Emerson was far more optimistic than the European Romantics. America was the centre of expansion, capitalism and exploitation were rampant, and the American psyche encompassed the idea of trying again until success was attained.

Romanticism became a dynamic force in American literary and social thought.  Emerson: “Instead of the sublime and beautiful, the mean, the low, the common are explored and poetised.  Literature of the poor, feelings of the child, philosophy of the street, and the meaning of household life are the topics of the time.”(Source: A Taylor, lecture) The everyday, the familiar is stressed rather than the exotic or ancient culture.  Emerson saw the Universe as a harmonious place into which man fitted harmoniously, and believed that specialisation isolated the individual from the rest of the world, spiritual and physical.  He called his form, of Romanticism, Transcendentalism.

Literally relating to Emerson’s views, Whitman took Romantic ideas and cast them in a new form, encompassing the qualities of equality, liberty and solidarity.  Born during the Depression, in 1819, Whitman responded to technology and its effect on people, wrote Civil War poems, and was for his time, openly gay.  Not only was his content revolutionary, but also his structure.  With his development of free verse, he broke down the distinctions between poetry and prose.

In his poem, ‘Song of Myself’ (Norton, 1983, p. 760) written in 1855, with its 52 sections for the 52 weeks of the year, Whitman created a structure of his own, using sentence length lines for speedy recitation, and repetition to form patterns at the beginning and at the end of lines.  He invited the reader to connect with liberty, to be in harmony and unity with the Cosmos. In part 1, he links the individuals within society – “And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (ibid, p. 760, lines 2-3).  In part 2, the ‘grass’ symbolizes anti-racist and anti-classist attitudes – the grass “Growing among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.” (ibid, p. 761, lines 108-109).  In part 11 Whitman sensualises the soul and spiritualizes the body, reinforcing the rights for men and women alike.  The sexual nature of the subject matter, and the prose-like structure with its lack of rhyme and metre, indicates how far the American Romanticists had moved from the Neoclassical restrictions.  In part 24, Whitman focussed on the highly personal with his autobiographical confessional statements –

          Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veiled and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
(ibid, p. 762, lines 516-518)

His Civil War poems give cameos of the effects of war on man – each poem reflecting a different mood.  ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ is fast moving, intrusive, exhortative.  The poem disturbs the reader, as the drums disturb the lives of the people

Leave not the bridegroom quiet . . .
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace . . .
Make no parley -. . .
Mind not the timid – mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man . . .
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties” (ibid, p. 769, lines 5, 6, 16, 17, 18, & 19)

Although an abolitionist, a great supporter of Lincoln, and the Union, Whitman saw the way War ripped individuals from their families and communities.  His poem ‘Cavalry Crossings Ford’ on the other hand is an imaginative blend of landscape and man – the cavalry men “take a serpentine course” along “the silvery river” in which their “splashing horses loitering stop to drink”. (ibid, p. 769, lines 2, & 3)  It is a visual picture of a peaceful moment, yet with the underlying message that they are en route to war.

While putting Emerson’s theories into practice, especially being everybody, Whitman used his imaginary vision.  His subjects were not gained first hand – he didn’t do a fraction of the things he wrote about.  Living mainly in Long Island, he wrote poems that utilised birds, the moon, the beach and sea/ocean.  As a narrator, Whitman dissolves into his landscape, creating an atmosphere to envelop the reader.  His poems, ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ and ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ are examples of his fascination with these subjects, incorporating the birds’ songs, of lost love and death respectively, as translations.  The birds themselves are the theme-bearers.

‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ depicts the man-made versus nature.  The clash of the powerful steam locomotive, with its “black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel,” (ibid, p. 781, line 4) and belching steam, with the “storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,” (ibid, p. 781, line 15) epitomises the evils of industrialisation as it destroys the harmony of the spiritual landscape.

  Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
  Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
  Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
  To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
   (ibid, p. 781, lines 21, 23-24)

Civilization will inexorably encroach on Nature, despite the efforts and concerns of cosmic individuals.

‘The Dismantled Ship’ depicts nature versus the man-made.  It reverses the order.  The “old, dismasted, gray and batter’d ship [is] disabled, done,” (ibid, p. 781, line 3) by the forces of the ocean – the pounding of waves, and the grinding of the beach sand.  Yet until it is completely gone it stands as a stark warning to other man-made things that battle the natural elements.

Whitman in his poetry tackled all the Romantic areas, breaking all the Neoclassic rules.  Only the use of the ‘thee, thy, thou’ remained as a reminder of what the Romanticists had left behind.

Jud House  14/11/1998


Abrams, M.H. (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.  New York:  W W Norton & Company. (REFERRED TO AS NORTON)

Wordsworth, W (1802) ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ Revised Edition.

* * * * *


Narrative, whether told in verse or prose is, according to Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms,

a story …. a fictional representation of life … involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do…. Narratologists treat a narrative as a systematic formal construction … the way that narrative discourse fashions a “story” … into the organized structure of a literary plot.” (Abrams, 1993, pp. 123-4)

To facilitate the construction of the narrative, poets resort/resorted to the use of several devices – imagery, metaphor, simile, metonymy, alliteration, rhythm, metre and rhyme.  While the first five are used equally in poetry and prose, the latter three are specific tools of poetry.  Economy of language, saying a great deal with few words, as compressed meditative poems do, is a differentiating factor between narrative verse and narrative prose.

Before the written word, oral tales were told in verse form, which remained the valid form when written tales began to appear – alliterative verse with metric patterns of stress, caesura within each line, and, in some cases, rhyming patterns.  Their content was either heroic – of super-powerful men battling super-natural enemies (monsters, dragons) as in Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; or allegoric – where abstract human traits were personified as vehicles for homilies on religious behaviour as in Piers the Plowman, and Pearl.  These Medieval verses told complex narratives in formal structures, with interlaced flashbacks, symbolic and allegoric sub-plots.  Similarly, many modern short stories use flashbacks, symbolism and inter-textual references to expand the content of the narrative.  According to C S Lewis, “allegory is a mode of expression [which] belongs to the form of poetry, more than to its content … [s]ymbolism is a mode of thought …”. (Lewis, 1958, p. 48)(my underlining).

The Medieval function of the narrative as entertainment and as the vehicle for spiritual or physical lessons in life underwent a change during the Renaissance, moving away from the heavily allegoric and epic towards the symbolic and metaphoric.  Lessons were no longer the prime motivation for the poem.  Narrative works became shorter and less frequent, as emotions and subjects involving the senses became more popular.  Yet throughout this time, myth and its creatures were still used as vehicles for idealistic standards. With the advent of the novel in the mid-eighteenth century, the narrative function of verse was usurped, leaving to the poet the exploring and contemplation of ideas rather than the expounding of narratives.

In the narrative poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Norton, 1983), the mystic and symbolic abound – events being governed by omens and curses.  When the Mariner shot the Albatross with his crossbow, he realised that he:

 … had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ‘em woe:

For all averred, I had killed the bird

That made the breeze to blow.
(Norton, 1983,
    p. 569, lines. 91-4)

During his tribulations at sea, including the death of his companions, and his own near-death, spiritual beings both good and evil manifested to assist the Mariner to learn the lesson that:

    He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast. ….   

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all. (Norton, 1983,

p. 581, lines 612-3,616-7)

There are two narratives in this poem – the main one of the Mariner, and that of the wedding guest affected by the tale he is told.  Using vivid imagery, Coleridge set up metric, stanza and rhyming patterns that enhance the narration, especially if read aloud, or performed.

By the close of the nineteenth century, much poetry had moved away from the narrative.  While writing contemplative poems, Walter de la also wrote a narrative verse called The Listeners (Norton, 1983), belonging to the fiction fantasy/thriller genre and dealing with a Traveler’s experience at a “lone house” one moonlit night.  It tells of “phantom listeners” who:

                      Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveler’s call. (ibid, p. 906)

The poem doesn’t just describe an eerie moment though.  With the lines:

                    “Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said. (ibid, p. 906)

the narrative expands, teasing the reader with the hint that there is more to the Traveler’s visit to the house than mere chance.  It is left to the reader to fill the gaps.  This is where poetry has the edge on prose – it can tell parts of a narrative, leave whole swathes of information out, yet leave the reader with the knowledge that a tale has been told, and one that fits a bigger picture.  Short story can do this too, although it is rarely done with the same degree of brevity.  According to Dylan Thomas, in his essay , ‘Walter de la Mare as a Prose Writer’, he describes de la Mare’s “elaborate language, [as] fuller than ever of artifice and allusion when it was seemingly simple”.(Thomas, 1983, pp. 110-111)

Of the same era as Walter de la Mare, D H Lawrence wrote contemplative and observational poems.  Yet with his poem Snake (Norton, 1983) he wrote a narrative of a confrontation between man/culture and nature.  It describes the coming of the snake to the poet’s water-trough, giving a physical description of the snake and its actions, followed by his awed, ambivalent reaction underlined and undermined by the fear of snakes bred into him.  As a result of this fear, he threw a log at the snake as it withdrew into its hole.

 And immediately I regretted it. 
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed
human education. (Norton, 1983, p. 953)

With a touch of intertextuality Lawrence refers to the albatross of Coleridge’s poem, and the connotations that accompany it.

                      And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
(ibid, p. 954)

Of significance in these two poems is a breaking away from the formal structure of verse.  Walter de la Mare’s poem was of mixed metrical patterns, with alternate lines rhyming, and no stanzas.  D H    Lawrence abandoned all formal patterns of line-length, stanza-length, and rhyme-grouping.  With no rhymes, and line lengths often those of sentences, he wrote free verse – blurring the line between prose and poetry.

 Of the twentieth century, Dylan Thomas specialized in the sounds of words and their interplay to form vivid and unusual images.  Of mixed metre in six line stanzas, with intermittent rhyming, his poem The Hunchback in the Park (Norton, 1983) makes a social comment about a homeless man forced to sleep in a “dog kennel”.  Much of the narrative is implied, yet evocative due to his turn of phrase.  An example is: “the Sunday somber bell at dark”, telling of the bell rung to inform visitors that the park is closing.  It implies the tolling of the church bell, carrying with it notions of religion and Christian attitudes which should encompass the sheltering of all God’s creations, including the aged and poor.  The narrative is also that of the park, Cwmdonkin Park in the industrial Welsh town in which Thomas grew up.

A favourite of mine, Richard Wilbur’s Boy at the Window (Norton, 1983) comments on cultural perspectives on life and what constitutes security and safety as seen from opposite points of view.  Yet it tells a tale – of a boy snug inside a warm house watching a snowman outside in a storm, and of the snowman watching the boy staring out of:

                        . . . the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.
(ibid, p 1222)

Told with a degree of metrical formality and an economy of words, Wilbur’s narrative is nevertheless crammed with details. His referral to Adam and Paradise shows a leaning towards the earlier poetry, where religion and myth were used as signposts to further meaning, and to strict standards.  Yet the narrative is modern in its use of perspectives and the emotions – the senses it arouses.

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers and Living in Sin (Norton, 1983) by Adrienne Rich provide narrative cameos of modern life, with a wealth of information in a few words.  While both tell stories, Rich structured the first, a ballad, and used no apparent structure in the second.  In Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers, Aunt Jennifer’s life is revealed not just by her tapestry, but also by:

                     The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band [that]
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand. (ibid, p. 1309)

We learn by those two lines that her life has been controlled and restricted by her husband.  By her depiction of the tigers, free “and unafraid” (ibid, p. 1309) upon the screen, a sense of her longing for freedom is evoked.

Living in Sin tells a tale of an illicit affair with the milkman.  Rich used words like “heresy”, “sepulchral”, and “demons” (ibid, p. 1309) to remind the reader of the religious immorality of the protagonist’s way of life.  With words like “beetles”, “dust”, “cigarettes” and “the coffee-pot boil[ing] over on the stove” (ibid, p. 1309), the notion of the sordid nature of the affair is underlined.  The final commentary:

                      [S]he woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs. (ibid, p. 1309)

leaves the reader in no doubt about the futility of the affair.

In these postmodern days, there has been a return to the narrative function of verse, without the structured metre, stanzas, and rhyme.  The Monkey’s Mask, by Dorothy Porter, is a modern novel-length narrative free verse – within the murder mystery genre.  Individual complete verses in lieu of chapters forms a composite that creates the ‘novel’ – the completed narrative.

(C) Jud House  13/09/1998


Abrams, M H (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition.  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.  New York:  W W Norton & Company. (REFERRED TO AS NORTON)

Lewis, C S (1936;1958)  The Allegory of Love – A Study of Medieval Tradition.  New York:  A Galaxy Book, Oxford University Press 1958.

Thomas, D (1983)  Quite Early One Morning – Poems, Stories, Essays.  London:  J M Dent & Sons Ltd.

Mentioned Narratives

Alexander, M (Trans. 1973)  Beowulf.  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Classics, Penguin Books Ltd.

Chaucer, G The Canterbury Tales  Trans. Coghill, Nevill (1970)  Middlesex:  Penguin Classics, Penguin Books Ltd.

Langland, W  (1377)  Piers the Plowman.  Edited by Skeat, Rev W W (1869)  Edition: (1958) Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Porter, D (1997)  The Monkey’s Mask.  South Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing Pty Ltd.

Tolkien, J R R (1995)  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.  London: Harper Collins Publishers.

* * * * *


According to the critic, Tzvetan Todorov, in Abrams A Glossary of Literary Terms, “fantastic literature … [is] deliberately designed by the author to leave the reader in a state of uncertainty whether the events are to be explained by reference to natural or to supernatural causes.” (Abrams, 1993, pp. 168-9)  M. Saxby, in his article ‘Fantasy: Beyond the Rim of Reality’, states that:

[f]antasy … reflects reality through unreality, life
through illusion …. makes visible the invisible and
illuminates the darkness.  It brings the wished for

and the imagined into the rational world …. [and]
arises from the human desire to penetrate the
unknown and to venture beyond the here and now.
(Saxby, 1997, pp. 231-2)

Both definitions apply to Coleridge’s poetry.  His use of the supernatural is deliberate; a breaking away from his collaborator, Wordsworth’s use of Nature as the force that rewards and punishes mankind.  Fantasy fills an important function in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – not only as an expression of his theoretical individuality, but as a vehicle for the expression of dream-vision and the deliverance of a moral lesson.

In Coleridge, fantasy is driven by the imagination rather than by fancy.  According to Coleridge, fancy, relying on memory, is mere technique, for example metaphor and simile, to create links between disparate objects or ideas.  Imagination is so much more – it is the seamless incorporation of these objects and ideas, their blending to form a new complete subject.  While fancy reorders images, reassembles fixities, imagination creates by unification of the fixities.

The faculty of imagination … assimilates and synthesizesthe most disparate elements into an organic whole – that is,a newly generated
unity, constituted by a living interdepen-
dence of parts whose identity cannot survive their removalfrom the whole. (Abrams, 1993, p. 64)

Thus, while fantasy is the expression of the super-real, of dream-vision material, of the uncanny and spiritual, where it is necessary for the reader to suspend their disbelief of the subject in order to immerse themselves in the narrative, in Coleridge’s works it is governed by his theory on imagination.

Yet this theory was not clearly formulated until his Biographia Literaria late in his life. As the difference between his views and Wordsworth’s became gradually more apparent to him, Coleridge increasingly mulled over the notions of his theory.  Consequently, his poetry reflected his developing theory, with the break with Wordsworth occurring with the writing of the Preface to their joint venture Lyrical Ballads, and Wordsworth’s with-drawal from the composition of the poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.  This may have been as much to do with “the voluble facility of an inspired Coleridge in the white heat of creativity” (Hill, 1983, p. 126) as with their difference of opinion where “Words-worth’s objection is that Coleridge ignored the morally curative power of Nature and ‘took to the supernatural’ instead.” (ibid, p.126)

Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’, the transcription of a dream-vision, allegedly unfinished due to interruption, created much controversy and plural interpretations. This however, did not bother Coleridge who stated in an unpublished notebook that poetry “gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood” (Coleridge, E.H.,1895, p.5)  The poem has been interpreted as a ‘musical composition’; ‘romantic inspiration’; ‘pure lyricism’; ‘a poem about poetry’; ‘an unconscious revelation of personal fantasies and repressed, usually erotic, urges’; ‘a landscape-poem and a poetical daydream’; ‘a political statement’; and a ‘theological’ exploration. (ibid, pp. 94-102)

The interpretations can be Mythical; Sexual, with phallic, and womb symbols; Allegorical re the Imagination, where caverns equal the mind, river/water/Milk of Paradise equals the imagination; Tangential with Stream of Consciousness;  and Contradictory with the use of contraries – for example the stately pleasure dome/ ice caves as culture/nature. A man of contraries, Kubla Khan is powerful and dangerous, yet capable of building an exquisitely beautiful palace and gardens.  The supernatural qualities of the content create an ethereal fantasy – it is, as Hill states, “so provokingly enigmatic …. [with] mystery and ambiguity, verisimilitude and teasing suggestiveness [its] … essential ingredients.” (ibid, p. 98 & 102)

My interpretation of ‘Kubla Khan’ (Norton, 1983, pp. 564-5) aligns with the ‘landscape-poem and poetical daydream’, but guided by the intent of the poet.  I believe that he deliberately laid the poem out as he did, with four alternately descriptive and ruminative stanzas.  In the first stanza Coleridge imaginatively describes Xanadu, evoking an enchantment with language that blends the natural with the man-made.  The pleasure dome, the walls and the towers “were girdled round” (ibid, p. 565, line 7), that is enwrapped by beautiful gardens “where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree”.(ibid, p. 565, line 9)  As if wreathed by the magical incense from the gardens, the man-made elements took on their same super-natural quality.  Fantasy, driven by the Imagination and its blending of man-made and natural elements to form a believable cohesive unity called Xanadu, was deliberately created.

Although he was recording the contents of a dream as a result of opium-induced inspiration, nevertheless Coleridge was still the author, in control of the words he wrote, the images he used, the atmosphere he created.  He continued this physical blending of the binary opposites – man-made / nature – in the third stanza, summing up Xanadu, the outcome of the blending, with the lines:

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!
(ibid, p. 565, lines 35-6)

I believe this is a blatant acknowledgement of Coleridge’s deliberate control of his fantasy – the vehicle for the expression of his dream-vision and an expression of his theoretical individuality.

The second and fourth stanzas, however, could be described as tangential, or ruminative.  It is as though having laid down his physical atmospheric description of Xanadu, Coleridge felt compelled to elaborate, to expand the texts of the first and third stanzas in order to add to their verisimilitude.  Having created a ‘supernatural’ place, that the reader can enter by suspending their disbelief, it was necessary to him to back up his creation, make it more credible with extra information.  But the second and fourth stanzas remain an echo of the first and third.  For example, the lines 25-28 are an expansion of lines 3-5 – both describing the river Alph on its journey through the caverns to the “sunless sea” / “lifeless ocean” (ibid, p. 565, lines 5 & 28)  Similarly, the “caves of ice” (ibid, p. 565, lines 36 & 47) feature in both the third and fourth stanzas, with “the shadow of the dome” / “That sunny dome” (ibid, p. 565, lines 31 & 47) creating a sense of contrariness from which in both stanzas the noise of pleasure, the music is heard across the water.

Once again I believe the ruminative tangents, with their mythical tangents – for example, “Abyssinian maid” and “Mount Abora” (ibid, p. 565, lines 39 & 41) – were a deliberate device used by Coleridge to heighten the sense of the supernatural, the unreality of his
creation,  the function of its fantasy.

* * *

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Norton, 1983, pp. 567 – 81) the fantasy is inter-woven within the narrative, an inextricable part of the organic whole.  Once again Imagination is the unifying power for the narrative, although Coleridge used devices of Fancy within his imagery – for example, “the sails did sigh like sedge” (ibid, p. 575, line 319).  It was a working example of his as yet unformulated theory.  Vital to the creation of his fantasy-narrative was the introduction of the supernatural, which was

not separate from the natural, but the inner essence of it; and the Mariner’s experiences, at once physical and meta- physical, constitute an imaginative exploration of the links between the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural. (Hill, 1983, p. 159)

Another Coleridge poem evincing a plurality of critical analyses – poetical, psycho-logical, political, theological, philosophical, autobiographical, and as “a spiritual allegory depicting human life as a sort of Pilgim’s Progress on the sea” (ibid, p. 155) – as a narrative it explores the notions of crime and punishment, guilt, terror, despair, loneliness, retribution and redemption.  Framed by the real world of the wedding feast and its guest, the narrative submerges the reader in mystical events with “daemons and phantoms whom the Mariner encounters [as] projections from the unconscious depths of [Coleridge’s] own troubled mind.” (ibid, p. 128)

Another device used by Coleridge in the construction of his fantasy, that contributes to its function as a vehicle for deliverance of a moral lesson, is that of a gloss.  With its style that of an imaginary medieval narrative poem, the gloss, written in more modern language, “strengthen[s] the poem’s moral theme of crime and punishment and … give[s] Coleridge an opportunity to explain certain obscure or ambiguous incidents”. (ibid, p. 121)  The gloss acts as a marker, a series of bookmarks to assist the reader to locate various events within the narrative.  Then, if the symbolic imagery is  beyond comprehension, the gloss acts as interpreter.

Coleridge opens the poem with a Latin quotation from the 17th century English theologian, T Burnet, concerning the possibility of there being supernatural spirits in our world, their effect on us, and our relation to them.  This sets the scene, directs the readers to the fact that they are about to encounter the supernatural, and that the narrative may be truth or fiction.  By the fourth stanza in Part I the introduction of the uncanny occurs, as the Wedding Guest stands still, compelled by the Mariner’s “glittering eye” to “listen like a three year’s child” (Norton, 1983, p. 568, lines 13 & 15) The Albatross, a good omen, seems to assist the Mariner’s ship, blown off course to the South Pole by a storm, to return to warmer waters.  Part I ends with the deliberate shock of the killing of the Albatross by the Mariner.  Up to this point the narrative mostly lies within the natural world.

In Part II the crew, after blaming the Mariner for killing “the bird that made the breeze to blow” (ibid, p. 569, lines 93-4), change their minds when the sun disperses the fog linked by them with the bird.  As a result of their complicity the ship is becalmed – coincidence or supernatural forces?  The introduction of hallucination due to thirst is coupled with the introduction of the Spirit of the avenging Albatross – the moral lesson of
accountability is begun – “a crime against Nature is a crime against God” (Hill, 1983, p. 156) .  Part II ends with the corpse of the Albatross being hung around the Mariner’s neck as an act of penance.

With each consecutive supernatural event, creature, miracle and personification that enter and effect the Mariner and his crew in their natural world, this fantasy function escalates.  According to Edward Bostetter:

the spiritual forces at work in the Mariner’s authoritarian universe are despotic and unpredictable.  It is a nightmare world of inconsequence, terror and meaningless suffering … governed by chance, where caprice is the decisive factor – as the dice-game between Death and Life-in-Death for the Mariner and his ship-mates makes clear. (ibid, p. 156)

After the appearance of the skeleton ship and its eerie crew, the Spectre-Woman and her Deathmate, Part III ends with the death of his crew.  When in Part IV the Mariner blesses the beauty of the sea-creatures, the spell is broken:

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
(Norton, 1983, p. 574, lines 288-91)

Coleridge makes visible the invisible and brings the wished for and the imagined into the rational world with his creation of the ghostly crew, a Polar spirit, “a troop of spirits blest” (ibid, p. 575, line 349) and a Hermit.  These emphasise the power of retributive supernatural forces, and assist the Mariner to return to his home-land “as a deeply shaken man possessed of a profound and simple truth which he is charged to impart to others”. (Hill, 1983, p. 157)  This truth is:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast. ….
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
(Norton, 1983, p. 581, lines 612-3,616-7)

Thus Coleridge’s function for his narrative, through the medium of Fantasy, driven by the unifying Imagination, and incorporating the metaphor, simile and metonymy of Fancy, conveys to his readers the moral lesson.

(C) Copyright Jud House 15/09/98

 * * * * *


Abrams, M.H. (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition  Fort Worth:
Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.  New York:  W W Norton & Company. (REFERRED TO AS NORTON)

Brett, R.L. & Jones, A.R. (Editors)(1991)  Wordsworth & Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads.  London:  Routledge.

Coleridge, E.H. (Editor) (1895) Anima Poetae, from the Unpublished Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  London

Hill, J.S. (1985)  A Coleridge Companion.  London:  The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Raine, K. (1957)  Coleridge – Poems and Prose.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.

Roper, D. (Editor) (1968)  Wordsworth & Coleridge/ Lyrical Ballads.  London:  Collins Publishers.

Saxby, M. (1997) ‘Fantasy: Beyond the Rim of Reality’, in Books in the Life of a Child: Bridges to Literature and Learning  (231-247), Melbourne: MacMillan.

Watson, G. (Editor) (1965)  Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Biographia Literaria.  London:
J M Dent & Sons Ltd.

 * * * * *