Elements of the Romantic in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

When reading poetry of the Romantic Era, it is easy to ascribe specific images and traits to a typified set of devices attributed to Romanticism: the use of nature, and the use of an individual character alone in nature are both examples of this. While Samuel Taylor Coleridges The Rime of the Ancient Mariner might at first appear to subscribe to these traits, a closer examination reveals that it only meets one requirement of Romantic poetry. As Wordsworth describes in the Preface to hisPoetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general (18). In this sense, then, Rime becomes about seeking universal truth, rather than merely understanding the individual in nature.

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As Aukje Van Rooden states in his essayReconsidering Literary Autonomy,for the Romantics, literature is first and foremost a matter of the expression of feelings and emotions, that is, the spontaneous and therefore pure and authentic eruption of the internallife of the artist (171). By this standard, Romantic literature simply seeks to express emotion, whether or not it is aided by the images of nature or pantheistic themes. This idea falls in line with what M.H. Abrams calls the expressive theory of art, or the idea that poetry (and other forms of literature and art) is founded on the basis of the artist generating his/her own product as well as the criteria under which it is judged (22). The Rime of the Ancient Mariner uses many images of nature (the Albatross, the sea) as well as nods to Christianity, but does not necessarily use these images as metaphors. Instead, the poem uses both natural and supernatural images to situate themes of the arbitrariness of life and death and the awe of nature within the poem. In doing so, Coleridge uses the supernatural as thought experiments rather than devices which have deeper meanings to be uncovered.

By examining The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a poem that is about more general, human themes, one can strip away unnecessary readings about Christianity, nature, and divinity, and instead read Rime as both beautiful in imagery and meditative on life. Rather than assuming that Romanticist themes inherently exist in all Romantic poetry, then, one can assume that Romantic themes cannot exist altogether, unless that term is synonymous with universal truths, or general meditations on humanity. The questions surrounding The Rime of the Ancient Mariner after this fact become less about what the poems many images mean, and more about what Coleridge is attempting to say about the arbitrary nature of life and death, or the majesty of nature.

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