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Coleridge and Melancholy: The Case of the Wedding-guest1

Michael John KOOY

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  • 1  I’d like to express gratitude to the organisers and participants at the conference Discourses of M (...)

It is an infinite merit to be able to despair. (Kierkegaard Sickness Unto Death 45)

1Most readers of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) agree that the poem’s pre-modern character — its gothic setting, archaic spelling, supernatural machinery and pre-Reformation religious imagery — is an ironic contrast to the Mariner’s modern existential condition, that of inhabiting a world in which meaning is not objectively given but subjectively projected. Nowhere is this latter more sharply, and poignantly, described than in the Mariner’s recollection of his bursting in upon the “silent sea”:

  • 2  References are to the 1798 text, unless stated otherwise. Subsequent references will give line num (...)

O Wedding-guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely “twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be. (Coleridge 282, ll. 630-33)2

2The gothic machinery of the poem, then, which calls up associations of a medieval world of divine order and hierarchical certainty, throws into sharp relief the modern, irrational character of the mariner’s ordeal, an ordeal in which the self’s free act of will (“with my cross bow / I shot the Albatross”) is not the founding act of a new social contract, such as promised by Enlightenment liberals from Locke to Kant, but instead, unaccountably, triggers a profound sense of alienation from others (“I mov’d my lips: the Pilot shriek’d / And fell down in a fit’) and culminates in a state of unproductive repetition that makes a mockery of the Enlightenment’s rationally grounded teleology. The terms on which TheRime of the Ancient Mariner resists these themes of secular modernity, the themes of autonomy, progress, organic community, are the same as those on which it appears most sceptical of theological orthodoxy, of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation (Simpson 158). As John Beer, Raimondo Modiano and others have pointed out, the unproductive repetition in which the Ancient Mariner is trapped — the telling and retelling of his story — casts a shadow of doubt not only on the teleology of Enlightenment historiography(the linear expansion of reason) but also on Biblical redemptive history. From such a possible history the Ancient Mariner seems wholly excluded.

3And yet does not the poem itself remain sceptical of its own scepticism? In contrast to the Jena Romantics, whose irony embraced scepticism, and dramatically distanced the self from the Absolute, keeping all suggestion of completion, unity, resolution, redemption in abeyance — “infinite, absolute negativity” Kierkegaard called it (Concept 26; Lang 571) — Coleridge in The Rime fled from such all-embracing irony, and instead, even while raising doubts, kept precisely those manifestations of the Absolute near to hand (one can hardly think of a single Coleridge text of which this is not true). Instances of this scepticism of scepticism in The Rime easily spring to mind: the sacrament of marriage, put under erasure by the Mariner’s tale but, by the same token, never fully denied (a detail fully exploited in David Jones' striking illustrations to the poem); the ballad form itself, which is naïve, its characters and events thinly drawn (a striking contrast to the clever linguistic mastery of the ironist, such as found in the Athenaeum); the purposive transformation of the Wedding-guest, who emerges in fragile relation with the Ancient Mariner; and, of course, the scandalously naïve “moral” that the Ancient Mariner offers at the end of the poem. In these instances the poem manages to bring its own expansive work of melancholy (the Mariner’s tale) into tension with naïve expressions of belief in a way that can best be explained in terms not of an ironic stasis but what one might call a dialectic of despair.

4One has only to recall the contrast between the opening evocation of the “merry din” of the wedding feast and the final description of the Wedding-guest (“A sadder and a wiser man / he rose the morrow morn”) to notice that the effect of the Ancient Mariner’s harrowing tale is registered primarily at the level of mood. Melancholy, I’d like to suggest, is for Coleridge in The Rime not just a symptom of modern scepticism, as it was for the Baroque allegorists and their literary descendents, who could analyse but not finally “cure” the malady (Benjamin 157, Pfau 23) or as it was for the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, who embraced melancholy out of frustration with their own political ineffectuality and the contradictory demands of commodity culture (Lapenies 61, Batten 11). It figures, instead, a corrective to it. Anticipating Kierkegaard, TheRime encodes a dialectic of despair according to which the very intensity of scepticism itself makes possible a leap beyond it.

5My focus in this essay is on the Wedding-guest, the “sadder and wiser man” of the poem’s conclusion, a melancholy man (though I’ll need to say in a moment with what qualifications this epithet might hold true), and what I’ve just called the “fragile relation” between him and the Ancient Mariner. The relation is fragile not only because it is governed by magic rather than any human motivation such as love or self-interest, but, more importantly, because it is asymmetrical with regard to self-understanding. The Ancient Mariner, though he undergoes a terrible ordeal, can describe but not explain it fully: his explanation, as contained in the homiletic moral at the end of part 6, is inadequate for us and presumably for the Wedding-guest, too (this is no doubt what Anna Letitia Barbauld was thinking of when she said the poem “had no moral” — Coleridge, Table Talk 2: 272-3). While the Ancient Mariner is not made melancholy by his ordeal (he simply lives with it, unselfconsciously), the Wedding-guest, who experiences it only vicariously, emerges from the telling not only “wiser” but “sadder”. What might this mean?

6Certainly, if the Mariner goes on a voyage, so, too, does the Wedding-guest, figuring in various ways our responses to the poem as readers and interpreters. For Jerome McGann, the Wedding-guest is one of several interpretive frames of the poem, of increasing complexity, which mirror the increasingly philosophical phases of Christianity that culminate in the Higher Biblical Criticism. The poem, McGann argues, thus exhibits an exemplary historicism, each level of interpretation self-consciously grounded in a specific historical moment. For Frances Ferguson, by contrast, the Wedding-guest is the first of the poem’s many “deluded” readers, one who “becomes what he reads (or hears)” (123) not through a process of self-transformation, but, quite the reverse, through a process of self-replication. As Ferguson grimly concludes, “It seems that a reader can only read the texts that say what one already knows” (123).

7Here we find ourselves caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of historicism and poststructuralism, the Wedding-guest figuring either as part of a pattern of sceptical self-reflection in the poem or as an illustration of the impossibility of critical understanding, and either way pointing toward the tired, self-consciously deluding melancholy that Peter Sloterdijk provocatively called “cynical reason” (3). But instead of either privileging or, alternatively, denying critical self-consciousness, might the Wedding-guest herald a different hermeneutic altogether, neither critical nor anti-critical, but what Paul Ricœur has called “post-critical” (Freud 28). This post-critical hermeneutic of “reminiscence” consists in the restoration of a meaning addressed in the manner of a message, a proclamation, “or, as is sometimes said, a kerygm”, that is, a manifestation, an announcement (Freud 30). It can only be detected through an attitude of passivity (“Autobiography” 49). How far might the Wedding-guest be seen to adopt such a hermeneutic?

8The transformation of the Wedding-guest consists in, broadly, two distinct changes, which I shall briefly describe before returning to the subject of melancholy. The first is a weakening of his “hermeneutic of suspicion”. This occurs straightaway in the poem. The seesawing of the opening represents not only a struggle of wills, but, at another level a breaking down of the instinctive resistance of the Wedding-guest to listen to the Ancient Mariner on his own terms. Here I’ve put the Wedding-guest’s words in italics:

It is an ancyent Marinere,
And he stoppeth one of three:
“By thy long grey beard and thy glittering eye
“Now wherefore stoppest me?
“The Bridegroom’s doors are open’d wide,
“And I am next of kin
“The Guests are met, the Feast is set, -
“May’st hear the merry din.
But still he holds the wedding-guest —
There was a Ship, quoth he —
“Nay, if thou’st got a laughsome tale,
Marinere! come with me!’
He holds him with his skinny hand,
Quoth he, there was a Ship –
Now get thee hence, thou grey-beard Loon!
Or my Staff shall make thee skip.
He holds him with his glittering eye –
The wedding-guest stood still
And listens like a three year’s child
The Marinere hath his will. (ll. 1-20)

9The Wedding-guest’s objections arise, plausibly, from a view of the unseemliness of the Mariner and the untimeliness of the encounter. But they are expressed with vehemence, too much vehemence, perhaps. They must be thoroughly cleared out of the way if the Mariner, who after all has no choice in the affair, is to get on with the job of telling his tale. And so, after exhausting natural means, he resorts to magic. (By contrast, in the case of the Hermit, who also listens to the tale, no resistance is made to the Mariner’s story, and the glittering eye doesn’t get involved.) While this appears as a disabling of critical consciousness (and thus, in a disturbing prolepsis, hints at the Mariner’s own helpless submission to fate), it is also by the same token a necessary condition of the Wedding-guest opening himself to someone else. His submission is both a reduction — he listens “like a three year’s child” — and a gain. Here is the first sign of a second “naiveté’, which through passive self-humbling entails an openness to change in relation to something else, and not just a numb acceptance of it. It involves, to borrow Ricœur’s terms from Oneself as an Other, a surrendering of ego in order to allow for the emergence of a mutable self. As a condition of listening, then, the Wedding-guest’s passivity is unexpectedly productive. Even though he “cannot chuse but hear” (my italics), the Wedding-guest is nevertheless repeatedly enjoined to listen to the Mariner’s tale, to participate in it (“Listen, Stranger!” is a minor refrain in the 1798 edition of the poem, occurring at lines 45, 49, 205, 372 — all of them, intriguingly, dropped in the later versions).

10The second and subsequent change in the Wedding-guest is that he willingly embraces this new relation. The changes that have so far happened to the Wedding-guest by force of the Ancient Mariner’s magic and persuasion appear, in the final stanza of part one, to happen in him:

“God save thee, ancyent Marinere!
“From the fiends that plague thee thus –
“Why look’st thou so?” — with my cross bow
I shot the Albatross. (ll. 77-80)

11It’s the first time the Wedding-guest has spoken since “Now get thee hence, thou grey-beard Loon!” The words here announce the palpable change in the Wedding-guest, which has less to do with increased fellow-feeling (the poem rejects out of hand the tradition of sentiment and sympathy) or deepened interest in the narrative as such, than with concern for the Mariner and an eagerness to listen. Anticipating the Hermit’s interrogatory later in the poem — “I bid thee say / What manner man art thou?” (ll. 609-10) — the Wedding-guest’s “Why lookst thou so?” is an invitation to the teller to continue the tale in the confidence that the “message” or kerygma, will be received.

  • 3  In the 1800 text this line is occurs a second time, at l. 345 (Poems 265).

12Their relationship is, though, still uneasy. The next time the Wedding-guest speaks, it is to express fear. This is at the very beginning of part 4, after the Ancient Mariner describes the flight of souls from the bodies of his fellow mariners: “I fear thee, ancyent Marinere! / I fear thy skinny hand” (ll. 216-17).3 But even fear is part of belief in the way I’m outlining it here — not submission to nameless power, nor a return to the suspicion with which the Wedding-guest first responded to the Ancient Mariner, but an affirmation of relation to another. This fear, once expressed, is immediately disarmed by the Ancient Mariner, who affirms (like Christ after the resurrection) that he is not a ghost: “This body dropt not down”.

13Throughout the rest of the poem, the Wedding-guest remains willingly transfixed by the Ancient Mariner — and this passivity is the central feature of his hermenteutic approach to the story of suffering that he’s told, a passivity that extends even to silence. “Listen, O listen, thou Wedding-guest!” appeals the Mariner in Part 5 (l. 362), to which the latter replies:

“Mariner! thou hast thy will:
“For that, which comes out of thine eye, doth make
“My body and soul to be still”
Never sadder tale was told
To a man of woman born:
Sadder and wiser thou wedding-guest!
Thou’lt rise to-morrow morn. (ll. 363-9)

14All of these lines were dropped in the 1817 text. Perhaps they constitute too great a degree of self-interpretation in the Mariner (it’s the only moment he seems aware of the effect of his speech) and anticipate too clearly the denouement. These lines in the 1798 edition crystallise, significantly, the close relationship between belief and passivity characteristic of the Wedding-guest’s spell-bound state. Here the disengagement of his critical self becomes the condition for an understanding of the “sad tale” being related: it is a case of passive listening, in which the self-narrating subject is held in suspension, while a “nonsubstantial and nonimmutable” subject emerges, one that is open to “the primordial suffering which appears to be inseparable from human action” (Ricœur “Autobiography” 49). It is a rich passivity, which implies an expectation that one will be spoken to, and a confidence in language as the bearer of meaningful symbols.

15Could this hermeneutic of “reminiscence” be the “wisdom” alluded to in the closing lines? The Wedding-guest is, undoubtedly, transformed by the Mariner’s sad tale, his vision of a world upheld by an uncertain metaphysics (“So lonely “twas, that God himself / Scare seemed there to be” — l. 632-3) eclipsing all merriment. But he’s also transformed by the telling of the tale: his initial suspicion replaced by an unexpectedly productive passivity, which is not silence or forgetfulness, but a posture of expectation, of attentiveness to the kerygma, the posture of a “second naiveté”.

16But the Wedding-guest is not only “wiser”. At the end of a process of self-transformation, which consists, as I’ve been suggesting, not in accepting this or that view of the world, but rather in adopting a willingness to be transformed, the Wedding-guest is figured as sad as well:

The Marinere, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone; and now the wedding-guest
Turn’d from the bridegroom’s door.
He went, like one that hath been stunn’d
And is of sense forlorn;
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn. (ll. 651-8)

17“For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18 KJV). There are many associations conjured up, albeit minimally, in these brief lines, but perhaps the most important of them points us towards melancholy, “sadness without cause”. The cause of the Wedding-guest’s sadness is obscure (the suffering in the poem is all on the Mariner’s side, and nothing in the fragility of their relation suggest that the Wedding-guest shares it), and it is, as in many classic accounts of melancholy, not the passing mood of a moment ascribable to known causes but an enduring condition: “A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn.” That said, we are not in the realm of the akesia or “despondency” of medial moralists like St. Teresa of Avila, for whom it was a sin or, at best, a punishment or divine chastisement, and which had no redeeming value. In medieval literature melancholy is a wilful disgust with the spiritual, associated with avarice, lasciviousness and sloth, not with wisdom (Klibansky 150-5, Radden 5, Ferguson Melancholy 9). Nor is the Wedding-guest’s sadness ascribable to humoral pathology as such, the sadness characteristic of a kind of fixed temperament or, in extreme cases, of disease. The Wedding-guest is not a melancholy type as such, and he doesn’t suffer from the disease of melancholia — after all, he becomes melancholy (as I’ve tried to argue, he is a figure, above all, of self-transformation). Nor, I should add, is there any suggestion here of the early nineteenth-century medicalisation of melancholy, evident, for instance, in the work of Phillippe Pinel, of which Coleridge, certainly in subsequent years, was quite aware (in the notebooks he often ascribed his fits of melancholy to a weakness in his constitution — Vickers 108).

18We can see in the Wedding-guest’s sadness fragments of two distinct traditions in post-medieval thinking about melancholy and its link to wisdom: melancholy as “subjective mood” and “melancholia generosa” (Klibansky passim). The first is a non-humoral theory of melancholy in which “sadness without cause” is tolerated by the self for the sake of promised compensation, namely, wisdom. It is a subjective mood that brings with it, in due course, intellectual riches and heightened sensibility. The locus classicus is Milton’s “Il Penseroso”:

But hail thou Goddess, sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose Saintly visage is too bright
To hit the Sense of human sight;
And therefore to our weaker view,
Ore laid with black staid Wisdoms hue. (Milton 37)

19Melancholy’s association with black is here figured by Milton as mere appearance, since her face, bright with effulgence, would blind us were it not thus covered. Mirth can promise nothing so attractive to “L’Allegro” as “contemplation” of this figure and so it’s little wonder that by the end of the poem “Il Penseroso” enters into a pact with Melancholy confident of compensation: “These pleasures, Melancholy, give, / And I with thee will choose to live” (44).

  • 4  More memorable still is the title of Richard Lee’s cautionary tale, The melancholy end of ungratef (...)

20Both the notion of a “pact” and the model of compensation in this tradition lent itself to poor imitation and eventually degeneration: melancholy posturing became fashionable in poetry and novels as well as in life in the eighteenth century (Sickels 3). Here the symbolic language of melancholy, which in Milton still resonated with Renaissance and classical associations, lost touch with tradition and instead attached itself to sensibility or politics, as in, for instance, George Wright’s collection of poems entitled Pleasing melancholy, or a walk among the tombs in a country church yard (1793) or the pamphlet by an anonymous author, Considerations preliminary to the commencement of a war; with remarks upon a late melancholy event (1793), the late “melancholy” event being the recent beheading of the king.4

21Coleridge himself had contributed to this poeticising of melancholy in his early poem, “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” (1796), where contemplation of that poet’s sad end triggers the self-conscious cultivation of Coleridge’s own melancholy: “For oh! Big gall-drops, shook from Folly’s wing, / Have blacken’d the fair promise of my spring” (Coleridge 38). But this poem is an exception. Like Keats — “Go not to Lethe” — Coleridge had soon had his fill of this tradition and only two years after the “Monody” he light-heartedly poured contempt upon it in the first of his conversation poems, “The Nightingale”, written in April 1798 and included, along with The Rime, in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads:

  • 5  The quoted line is from “Il Penseroso”. Coleridge adds a footnote here defending what seems to be (...)

And hark! the Nightingale begins its song, “Most musical, most melancholy” bird!5
A melancholy bird? Oh! idle thought!
In Nature there is nothing melancholy.
But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain. (Coleridge 215)

22To someone in a buoyant mood this no doubt seemed incontestably right — and indeed behind these lines one can hear almost without interference the confidence and exuberance of Coleridge writing in the full possession of his poetic powers, buttressed by Wordsworth’s esteem, before the latter, and then the former, fell away. But even when they did, and when four years later Coleridge himself became the melancholy “night-wandering man” in his “Dejection: An Ode” (1802), he didn’t change his mind: nature was nothing other than the reflected image of his despair. But by the same token, as he then discovered, it could not rescue him from it either. Here, though, in 1798, Coleridge’s quarrel is not so much with Milton or even “Il Penseroso” but with a set of cheap poetic conventions that the Lyrical Ballads was seeking to exclude, prominent among them the now time-worn conventional trope of melancholy nightingales. So I think we’re justified, in spite of the light-hearted grumbling elsewhere, to hear Milton’s “Il Penseroso” in these closing lines of The Rime, and to detect here the “subjective mood” of melancholy that it celebrates, with its associated state of “enhanced self-awareness” (Klibansky 231).

23In Milton’s poem, though, the relation with “Melancholy” was, in effect, a pact. “Il Penseroso” seeks wisdom from “Melancholy” in compensation for undergoing the effects, on their own wholly unwelcome, of sadness. The Wedding-guest, by contrast, is never in a position to strike a bargain in quite this way. While in Milton this pact is, of course, a conceit, it implies nonetheless a degree of agency in the melancholy man. Such agency increasingly characterises poeticised melancholy in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in England, where at least among poets (not, it’s true, Burton) it begins to dissociate itself from humoral medicine and attaches instead to modes of sensibility, and hence is seen to be subject to conscious cultivation. In this respect The Rime parts company with “Il Penseroso”. For the Wedding-guest does not consciously bring melancholy upon himself; on the contrary, it arrives unasked-for, an unforeseen consequence of his passive participation in the Mariner’s tale. It arrives as a gift.

24Here, I think, we can detect an older tradition, standing behind Milton, standing behind The Rime, namely, that of the Renaissance Neoplatonists, and especially Marcilio Ficino. For Ficino, melancholy was a “divine gift” that, though unasked-for, must be embraced if it is not to destroy the recipient. He developed this view in his Three Books on Life (1489), ostensibly a textbook of humoral medicine on how to preserve the heath of the intellectual. He resurrected the ancient view, so neatly analysed in the pseudo-Aristotle text Problem XXX.1, that melancholy accompanied intellectual life and creative activity — indeed, in some way even stood in causal relation to it, since melancholy and creative intelligence both depended on black bile. Ficino not only restated this view, he also managed brilliantly to reconcile it with the Platonic view of frenzy as insight into divine order, which until then had been linked only to Bacchus, that is, to intoxication and not sadness. He did this by way of a metaphysics of immanence, by which all physical things partook by their nature in supramundane realities (Klibansky 185). In this way, Aristotle’s linking between melancholy and creative energy, which was essentially a physiological one, was given sanction by metaphysics. Saturn, who governed the lower, earthly regions and drew men downward, also, as the highest planet, pulled them furthest upward:

the soul with an instrument of this kind [the melancholy humor]… always seeks the centre of all subjects and penetrates to their innermost core. It is congruent, moreover, with Mercury and Saturn, of whom the second, the highest of the planets, carries the investigator to the highest subjects. From this come original philosophers, especially when their soul, hereby called away from external movements and from its own body, is made in the highest degree both a neighbour to the divine and an instrument of the divine. As a result, it is filled from above with divine influences and oracles. (Ficino 367)

25In this productive relation between melancholy and intellectual creativity, one can see already the elements of the modern notion of genius — as, for instance, articulated by Kant, who said in his pre-critical Observationsof the Sublime and the Beautiful (1764) that the melancholy man in particular was qualified to appreciate the sublime (Klibansky 123).

26Now the Wedding-guest in his melancholy is no genius. Unlike the Ancient Mariner, whose nomadic existence perversely grants him a privileged status (“I pass, like night, from land to land’), the Wedding-guest is bound to ordinary life, his rising “the morrow morn” an unexceptional repetition of everyday routine. But it seems to me that the Neoplatonic figuring of melancholy as a “divine gift’, which stands in such contrast to the medieval dismissal of it as vice, and also remains distinct from the elective melancholy of Milton and the “poets”, may explain how melancholy descends, unasked for, upon the Wedding-guest, as an invitation, a calling or a kerygma. The Wedding-guest is not thrown into frenzy, does not possess metaphysical insight as such, but does from now on move under the potentially beneficent influence of Saturn.

27David Jones, in an essay finely tuned to the theology of the poem, finds the Wedding-guest’s newly acquired wisdom a sign that he has moved closer to “Hagia Sophia” (“Holy Wisdom’) but dismisses his sadness as an empty “Romantic” gesture (41). At one level, of course, it is, the Wedding-guest’s sadness as predictable and poetically stale as the “most melancholy” bird of “Il Penseroso” that Coleridge had gently mocked. Yet, as I’ve tried to show, from another perspective, one that takes into account a fuller view of the case of the Wedding-guest, one can also see that sadness isn’t just tacked on to wisdom but is a fundamental condition of it. Sadness is an indirect consequence of his relinquishing the superficial scepticism and egoism that had accompanied him to the wedding celebrations and it subsequently is the sign that he takes utterly seriously what David Jones has called the “argosy” of the Mariner’s experience. A merely aesthetic appreciation of the sublimity of the Mariner’s tale, or even an ethical comprehension of it (“He prayeth well, who loveth well”) would not have stood in the way of the Wedding-guest taking his place at the celebrations, not least because both propriety and duty urge him to it: he is, after all “next of kin” (l. 6). So his turning “from the bridegroom’s door” (l. 654) out of sadness suggests obliquely that he has embraced a “divine gift”, that he is now motivated by a self-concern that is beyond the ethical, his despair the despair of religious intensity.

28In this way his melancholy, unlike the Mariner’s unself-conscious moralising, not only encodes a modern problem but also appears as a response to it. Just as for Kierkegaard, melancholy, as the lived manifestation of a despair that one might otherwise not know at all, stands as a witness to spiritual insufficiency (Sickness 54-5), so for Coleridge in The Rime, the muted melancholy of the Wedding-guest is “the sickness unto death’, the awareness of spiritual “spent perfection” (Ferguson Melancholy 33), recognition of which is the first stage in leaping beyond it.

29It’s wholly in keeping with the metaphysical uncertainty of The Rime that the possibility of such a religious Aufhebung is not only suspended (we have no idea how the Wedding-guest will live his life from now on, and even to ask is to betray a certain gauche literal-mindedness) but offered as part of a weak denouement to the poem itself, the business-like tidying up of inconsequential loose ends. Whereas the Mariner speaks movingly of his crisis, the Wedding-guest, in his newly recognised despair, says nothing at all. Indeed, in contrast to the overdetermined experience of the Mariner, the Wedding-guest’s life remains strangely, even disturbingly underdetermined. Having brought the Wedding-guest so far, the poem withdraws abruptly, leaving readers with the impression that he has been changed but with little clue as to what he’s been changed into. So from this perspective we might be justified in reading these concluding lines in terms of the larger irony that most critics see operating throughout the poem, in which a salvific operation (at work in the blessing of the water snakes, the rain, the Mariner’s moral self-understanding, and, as I’ve tried to suggest, the recuperative melancholy of the Wedding-guest) is cruelly, though rather magnificently, undercut by the irrational, malevolent forces that are the true rulers of the air. But such an ironic reading presumes that the poetic weakening at the end of the poem is synonymous with a metaphysical one. And might not the reverse be true? For rather than treating melancholy in its own favoured terms of baroque eloquence, in the manner of Burton, or in terms of a grand gesture of refusal, in the manner of medieval moralists, the poem handles it with utmost brevity, almost, one might say, with tact. This weak minimalism, which neither embellishes melancholy nor denies its force, is a novel attempt to think beyond it. From this perspective, the Rime’s conclusion, though weak, is nevertheless metaphysically strategic. It is a kind of kenosis, a self-humbling embracing of the naïve that only the most profoundly self-aware of poems can perform with utter seriousness. This leaves less room for irony to operate. What we’re left with is, paradoxically, a minimalist endorsement of religious intensity. This teleological dialectic of despair, rather than the more familiar Romantic motivations of irony, stoicism or naked striving, seems to be the privileged response to the Ancient Mariner’s “Life-in-Death”.

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1  I’d like to express gratitude to the organisers and participants at the conference Discourses of Melancholy, at Aix-en-Provence, where this paper was first presented, and also to my colleague Peter Larkin, whose unpublished paper “Repetition, Divergence and Liturgical Participation in The Ancient Mariner” has been an important influence on my own approach to the poem.

2  References are to the 1798 text, unless stated otherwise. Subsequent references will give line numbers only.

3  In the 1800 text this line is occurs a second time, at l. 345 (Poems 265).

4  More memorable still is the title of Richard Lee’s cautionary tale, The melancholy end of ungrateful children. Exemplified in the dreadful fate of the son and daughter of a wealthy farmer, who, after receiving and dividing the wealth of their parents, refused them, in their old age, the shelter of their roof, or a morsel of bread.: With an account of the wonderful scenes the daughter beheld in her trance (Rutland, printed by James Kirkaldie for Richard Lee, 1795).

5  The quoted line is from “Il Penseroso”. Coleridge adds a footnote here defending what seems to be mockery of Milton: “This passage in Milton possesses an excellence far superior to that of mere description; it is spoken in the character of the melancholy Man, and has therefore a dramatic propriety. The Author makes this remark, to rescue himself from the charge of having alluded with levity to a line in Milton: a charge than which none could be more painful to him, except perhaps that of having ridiculed his Bible” (Coleridge 215). This caveat does little to soften the contrast “The Nightingale” presents between a now degenerate tradition of ‘mood’ poetry and its healthy alternative in a Rousseauvian appreciation of the inherent goodness of nature.

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Michael John KOOY, « Coleridge and Melancholy: The Case of the Wedding-guest »e-Rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 1, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael John KOOY

University of Warwick
Dr Michael John KOOY is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Warwick. He is the author of Coleridge, Schiller and Aesthetic Education (Palgrave, 2002) and articles on Charles Lamb, francophobia, historiography and contemporary British poetry. He is currently completing a study of Coleridge and war.

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