COLERIDGE'S ANCIENT MARINER by J. C. C. Mays, Reviewed by Paul H. Fry

By J. C. C. Mays
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) xiv + 267 pp.
Reviewed by Paul H. Fry on 2017-02-19.

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It is promising to open a guide to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by the editor of the Bollingen volumes of Coleridge's poetry. J. C. C. Mays is a leading textual critic and romanticist, an important scholar of Irish Modernism and a careful student of the "experimental" poetry that he says Coleridge models for the future. This is indeed an exciting book, bristling with strong, challenging, often convincing opinions--but it is also a somewhat bristly book. Mays is exasperated with a popular consensus about Coleridge that supposes Wordsworth's diffident friend to have lapsed into impenetrable prose after writing three early "mystery poems." Mays thinks this view prevalent not just among lay readers of poetry but also in subtler forms among scholars of romanticism, nearly all of whom--he believes--undervalue Coleridge, especially in relation to Wordsworth.

The framework used for discussing the topic announced in the title rather frequently takes the author away from the "Mariner" itself to an examination of Coleridge's entire career, especially the poetry and prose he wrote long after Sibylline Leaves and the Biographia Literaria (both 1817). While not slighting the poems that Coleridge wrote during the years of his close contact with Wordsworth, Mays considers those poems at once independent and confused, owing to unsettled philosophical opinions that are unequal to the profundities Coleridge later explores. According to Mays, the metaphysical and moral depths he plumbs move well beyond any regions explored by the more professionally-driven Wordsworth.

The book has eight chapters and two appendices (the 1798 text of the "Mariner" and a reprint of an article on the late ballad "Alice du Clós"). The first chapter lays down various gauntlets, most of them mentioned above and in what follows. Turning to the "Mariner," the second promises to focus on its manner, its craftsmanlike enlistment of the reader's sensuous apprehension rather than its meaning. The third chapter considers how Coleridge was enlightened by the sort of "imagination" he discovered in writing the poem but did not yet fully understand; "imagination," Mays argues, disclosed to him the realm of the "numinous," and even when it appears in the form of "fiends," Coleridge's openness to this realm is said to be his authentic strength. The fourth and fifth chapters offer an extremely interesting account of the disagreements between Wordsworth and Coleridge revealed by their poems of the Lyrical Ballads period, especially the Mariner, with a great many new insights to complement the growing body of work in this vein, notably by Lucy Newlyn, Paul Magnuson, and Susan Eilenberg. Here the reader will find much that's new and convincing even in the service of Mays's often less convincing belittlement of Wordsworth (whom he nevertheless does read well), possibly in revenge for all the world's affronts to Coleridge.

In the next chapter, Mays usefully explains Coleridge's many revisions of the "Mariner" but also attacks the editions with hybrid "reading texts" or facing versions of the poem. Though a textual critic needing to find the best format for the Bollingen will have thought long and hard about these matters, Mays's arguments arise from what seems an odd premise, namely, that you can't read more than one text at once in the absorbed spirit that reading requires. This is in itself is perfectly true, but it's hard to understand how this truth precludes reading texts in alternation, each with rapt attention, and then, from time to time and for whatever purposes, reading multiple texts comparatively. As Mays points out in defense of the 1798 "Mariner," you can't even read the 1817 Gloss and the poem simultaneously. Nor can you experience the poem continuously with the wonderful 1817 epigraph by Thomas Burnet, whom Mays in his displeasure confuses with Thomas's contemporary Gilbert Burnet (128). Mays criticizes all the distractions introduced in 1817, while admitting that distancing the reader may have been precisely Coleridge's purpose: a misguided one.

The last two chapters are a fascinating reception history focused on edition formats, children's texts, school texts, and fashions in illustration, culminating in the sad state of affairs today, with everyone who cares at all about the poem, except perhaps children, losing track of the numinous while lost in wand'ring mazes of unwarrantable interpretation.

Part of what makes Mays's account of the "Mariner" so unconventional is his claim that Coleridge did not settle into fixed and coherent opinions until the 1820's. Mays wants no part of the usual story, which may be told as follows: the young Coleridge's Hartleyan Associationism spiritualized by an unswerving Unitarianism, coherent enough in itself, was supplanted by an equally coherent Berkeleyan idealism around the time the "Mariner" was composed, and was soon bolstered by all the German thought he absorbed in Göttingen. To be sure, the chronology of Coleridge's changes of opinion is murkiest in the late 1790's, and one may well agree that the sequencing of ideas imposed much later by the Biographia is too schematic. Agreed too, therefore, that the metaphysics and theology of the "Mariner" were unstable, as indeed they seem to be when one tries to reconcile its conflicting forms of retribution and partial atonement. In Mays's view, Hartley's Associationism persists well beyond the turn of the century, and the German influences do not reinforce but rather unsettle the simplicity of the Berkeleyan esse est percipere, leaving Coleridge in a muddle more respectable than the coherence of shallower minds, but still a muddle.

Mays is especially suspicious of the productive 1817 period. He considers the revised "Mariner" with its new Gloss in Sibylline Leaves to be hesitant among distracted motives, and he finds the Biographia a potpourri full of addled Schelling, resentment-driven Wordsworth criticism (deserved but poorly aimed), gems of passing insight, and above all the unjustifiably celebrated definitions of the Imagination that make no sense. While actually saying little against these definitions, Mays argues that only Coleridge's settled and fully grasped Trinitarian views in the 1820's allowed him finally to lodge the Imagination firmly among the mental faculties. At that point, in passages from the Marginalia, Coleridge makes the Imagination a mediator between the Higher Understanding and Reason, and likewise places Fancy between the Lower Understanding and the Senses.

But this firming up of the Kantian tripartition of the faculties, connected in Mays's view with Coleridge's finally mature thoughts about the Trinity, is surely present already, with or without the Trinity, in the 1814 "Essays on Genial Criticism" published in the Bristol newspaper called Felix Farley's Journal. True, the Imagination per se is not discussed in those three essays, which treat the aesthetics of "taste" in art by warning against the Humean confusion of what Coleridge calls a "taste for Milton with the taste of mutton." Nonetheless, the "Essays" posit a tripartition: the Good is known by Reason's interests, the Beautiful is known disinterestedly by the Judgment, and the Agreeable is known by the interests of Understanding, which Coleridge--following Kant--inherits for metaphysics from Locke and Hartley by way of Hume. Whether this accurately summarizes Kant's aesthetics is open to question (it perhaps more closely follows Schiller's), but it does show Coleridge before the Biographia attaching at least as much value and importance to Kant and his faculty psychology (including the senses, for Mays the gateway to the "numinous") as to the Fichtean immaterialism of Schelling.

In Mays's view, it was also the 1820s that produced some of Coleridge's most thoughtful and lucid returns to the "Mariner," especially the ballad "Alice du Clós," with its mockingly incorrect accent aigu and its fateful pun (Alice's "page" Florian and the illicit "page" she has been reading), which causes her to be killed (ó!) by the slash of an accent-like lance as swift as the mariner's arrow. Examining "Alice du Clós" in his Appendix 2, Mays takes its relevance to the "Mariner" so much for granted that he scarcely mentions the earlier poem. Partly from earlier hints, though, one infers that for Mays, the perceptible guilt lurking in all innocence dooms the tragic victim (Alice in this case) to a fate so nearly arbitrary that it feels Calvinistic. Thus, even while Mays finds evidence of intellectual maturity in Coleridge's late High Church views, he also sees them shadowed by a persisting Calvinism that arises in part from gloomy thoughts about his mother's virtue. This seems quite right, and explains why Coleridge-- like Byron after him-- had trouble putting his sense of guilt into words, linking it obliquely instead to an inadequate scapegoat, the Albatross. As Mays says, the concept of obscure guilt also helps us see how Coleridge and Wordswoth differed in their views of childhood.

What Mays means by "experimental" applies to a poet less concerned with succeeding (a poet like Wordsworth) than with exploring poetry as a medium comprised of sound, rhythm and meter, a medium that can express shades and shifts of feeling. According to Mays, Coleridge wrote prose to state ideas and poetry to express feelings that elude ideas (18). He freed himself to experiment in poetry as soon as he first decided that Wordsworth was the great poet of the age. Mays concedes the element of insecurity in this deference, but he also sees it as Coleridge's way of escaping from the burden of compromising with a public, and he sees the escape already taking place, though not fully accomplished, in the craft and caprice of the "Mariner." While Wordsworth negotiated his reputation, Mays argues, Coleridge could set an independent course and did so, setting an example for difficult modern poets like Jeremy Prynne and Susan Howe, who kept their day jobs and found fit audience though few for their experimental integrity (168).

Throughout the book, Mays resembles Prynne, Simon Jarvis and others as readers, taking note of the "aural" in particular: recurrent sound, variants of the ballad stanza and the four beat line. He glosses techniques that "sparkle," glimpsing the numinous, or "close like a trap" on the unsuspecting reader, often to mark sudden narrative or moral surprises. Mays's interest, then, lies somewhere between--though just where between is not clear--the Russian Formalist fascination with the autonomy of sound as device, independent of sense, and the Symbolist or for that matter Popean attention to aural echoes and subversions of sense.

Yet unlike Prynne and Jarvis (Wordsworthians both, by the way), and also unlike American readers such as Helen Vendler, Mays never invokes the idea that poetry is what I. A. Richards called a machine to think with. (This idea informs Prynne's extraordinary book on "The Solitary Reaper," Field Work; Jarvis's concept of "Wordsworth's philosophic song"; and Vendler's insistence on poetry as thought process.) Since Mays believes that poetry explores feeling at depths beyond meaning, as already noted, he condescends towards any effort at interpretation by criticasters who think otherwise: who don't understand that poetry has value only when it uses its sensuous resources to evoke "the numinous." Keats is especially guilty in this regard. Any sign that poetry deploys virtuoso technique to mean something within the realm of the intelligible, however complex or surprising that something might be, is a mark against it. For this reason Mays ingeniously resists Coleridge's apparent wish, at times, to say something definite. Why did he put "cross" in the same line with "albatross"? He liked the mesmeric effect of the sound, "born of an accident" (41). Why did he conclude six of the seven sections by returning to the albatross? Mays doesn't address this question, so we're still in the dark, where we should wish to be. Guilt needs to be obscure--just to stay with this one example--so the fact that the albatross is an unsatisfactory objective correlative, as all agree, must give way to the claim that the albatross means nothing whatever, or at most very little. ("Pictures of nothing," said Hazlitt of Turner, "and very like.") The albatross was merely Wordsworth's contribution, and Wordsworth didn't understand Coleridge with the narrative wind in his sails, using any passing Aeolian recurrence to keep his aurality in trim.

The poem, we are told, started as a joke, an already belated parody of the "Gothick" ballad (2, 26, 43, 80). Mays gives no evidence for this repeated claim other than the hope of both poets to be reimbursed, as Coleridge had been for his three parodic sonnets in 1797. For Wordsworth the project then became uncomfortable because too deep, and for Coleridge it was no longer a joke when it carried him relentlessly into the terrifying as well as the epiphanic forms of the numinous. Although Mays frustrates the potential student reader in refusing to help with interpretive difficulties, he honors the poem's "depth," and says that there has been no other poem like it (7). For an example of inscrutable depth in prose fiction Mays mentions Treasure Island, I think justifiably, and Moby Dick, which similarly mocks interpretation yet provokes too much of it. Melville probably thought of Coleridge as doing that before him, and Mary Shelley's Walton in Frankenstein should do so but does not.

Mays repeatedly says that Wordsworth's definitions of imagination in his Preface of 1815 led to Coleridge's definitions in Chapter 13 of the Biographia. I think this gets the indebtedness backwards, whether one values any of the definitions or not. Until 1815, Wordsworth simply had no definition at all, but invoked the word when he recognized the unity of all being, citing imagination--a "power," to be sure--as an essentially passive openness to this recognition, not as a "shaping spirit." Then in 1815, when he was already getting rather fussy about his poems and getting away from his own most important earlier depths, and also when he was feeling guilty about his offenses to Coleridge, Wordsworth cobbled together a Coleridgean discussion of the imagination that was meant to appease him. Whether Coleridge cared about this peace offering we have no way of knowing, but the views he set forth in the Biographia had very little to do with anything Wordsworth may have written on imagination, as from the very beginning Coleridge was the dominant theorist of the two, and imagination had always been for him, as never for Wordsworth except in 1815, a "shaping spirit." As Mays rightly says, when Coleridge begins thinking about the imagination he is trying to account for the power of Wordsworth's poetry from his own more decidedly religious perspective. While Mays claims that Coleridge's critique of Wordsworth's theories in 1817 targets the Preface of 1815 rather than of 1800 (126), that assertion seems indefensible, all the more so since Coleridge critiques the Preface of 1800 from Chapter 14 on.

The book's cover offers us a splendid primitive watercolor of Ilfracombe harbor by John Walters. In arguing that the Mariner embarked from Ilfracombe rather than Watchet, Mays is wholly convincing, but later on he says that this sort of sleuth-work doesn't touch on what matters. No, probably it doesn't, but it's good to know, like much else in this provocative book.

Paul H. Fry is the William Lampson Professor of English at Yale University.

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