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The Ancient Mariner, the Wandering Jew and Anti-Selfconsciousness

The Ancient Mariner, the Wandering Jew and Anti-Selfconsciousness

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Published by Julian Scutts
Why is the figure of the Ancient Mariner so intriguing and multivalent?
Why is the figure of the Ancient Mariner so intriguing and multivalent?

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Published by: Julian Scutts on Feb 28, 2013
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The Ancient Mariner Interpreted as a "Wanderer"
By Julian Scutts 
On the "Centrifugal" and "Centripetal" aspects of a haunting figure
Coleridge’s Mariner interpreted as a Wandere
 In what sense may the Ancient Mariner be meaningfully described as a “Wanderer”?This question might strike one as odd in view of the fact that the word “wanderer” appearsnowhere in the text of this poem. Even so, no less notable a critic that Geoffrey H. Hartmanhas described the Mariner as “the Wanderer” or “Wandering Jew”. 1 If we agree that everypoem must be treated within the context of literary tradition, the fact that the poem elicits thecritic’s use of the word “Wanderer” carries with it an authority we should not lightlydismiss. The word “Wanderer” has both a centrifugal and centripetal aspect. In one senseof the word a wanderer deviates from a path or itinerary. In another sense he finds his goalintuitively in a journey of self- discovery. Cain and Ahasuerus are wanderers who havelost their bearings. The Prodigal Son or the Pilgrim discover their destination through aprocess of trial and error according to the established educational principle of “learning bydoing”. Thus, the apparent contradiction posed by two distinct kinds of wanderer iscapable of resolution if we admit that a higher form of “wandering” subsumes andtranscends its lesser or partial aspect. Let us then consider Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner inthe light of the centrifugal and countervailing centripetal implications that inhere in the word“Wanderer”. 
I. The Fusing of Archetypal Figures associated with the Wanderer 
 The concept of wandering has roots in religious thought concerning divine power, guidanceand punishment. Wandering might therefore be defined with reference to its traditionalconnections with the wandering figures of the Bible, legend and classical mythology. In thecourse of time these have blended together in western literature. Geoffrey H. Hartman`sopinion that the motif of the Wandering Jew underlies the figure of the Ancient Mariner, Cainand other wanderers in Romantic literature is intuited rather than supported by detailedevidence or argument in his Essay ''Romanticism and Consciousness''. Viewed historically,the legend of the Wandering Jew is a post-biblical invention inspired by the Church'snegative attitude to Jewry. It echoes nevertheless the motif of exile from the Promised Landand the biblical motif of wandering incorporating the figure of Cain (the biblical Cain was notonly a wanderer in a pejorative sense but the founder of civilisation).If a study of the wandering motif is to be based on what on might term a vocabulary of traditional wandering figures derived from the Bible, mythology and legend, what tests areto be applied to ensure the appropriate categorisation of ''Wanderer'' figures in Romanticliterature? The entire exercise of categorising and labelling types of wanderer figures willprove to be of little value unless the phenomenon of ''introversion'' is taken into account.Throughout the development of literature, and particularly at periods of great historicalchange, the factor of ''introversion'' plays a major role in influencing the manner in whichwriter treated culturally transmitted material. In the Romantic Period this factor noticeablyinfluenced the manner of radically recasting wandering figures derived from periodssubject to a predominant religious influence. Originally this storyof Lutheran inspiration served to illustrate the dire consequences of transgressing against religious injunctions.Faust sold his soul to the Devil and went to Hell; there is little in the manner of the narrator'streatment of the story to suggest that anyone should feel sorry for him. Marlow's Faust,though he also goes to Hell in the end, acquires the dignity of a tragic hero. Goethe's Faust,who avoids Hell altogether, becomes the hero of a divine comedy. Changes in theevaluation of content lead to formal changes in the story itself.To the extent that ''transgressing'', albeit as the prerequisite of repentance, is a Synonym of ''wandering'' in one of its principal senses, Goethe's Faust reflects the new positivesignificance with which Goethe and the Romantics invested the word ''Wanderer'' and allthat became associated with it in their minds. Faust, like the Ancient Mariner, becomes theProdigal Son. However, if Faust and the Ancient Mariner is a Cain or Ahasuerus turnedProdigal Son, in what sense can he be identified with the former? In a poetic context afigure such as Coleridge's Mariner is not a flat Personification of an idea (though a poemmay take its inception from a germinal idea).It incorporates a nexus of associations the development of which may often be traced backto earlier works by the poet. For this reason it may prove enlightening to consider how themotif of the wanderer as exemplified in the figure of Cain had found expression in one of Coleridge's works written before he composed The Ancient Mariner. In the Prefatory Note
of The Wanderings of Cain, Coleridge recalls Wordsworth's thinly veiled dissatisfactionwith the Second Canto of The Wanderings of Cain, which they had agreed to write incollaboration. I hastened to him (Wordsworth) with my manuscript- that look of humorous despondencyfixed on his almost blank sheet of paper, and then its silent mock- piteous admission of failure struggling with the sense of the exceeding ridiculousness of the whole scheme -which broke up in a laugh and The Ancient Mariner was written instead.2 Is the connection between the abandonment of this joint project and genesis of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner merely coincidental? The following evidence suggests that theWanderings of Cain and The Ancient Mariner are thematically related and that the latter wasborn of Coleridge's failure to complete the former. This being so, The Rime of the AncientMariner may be directly associated with the word ''to wander,'' not only to the idea of wandering. Cain and his son Enos in The Wanderings of Cain stray onto a dismal plain notunlike the infernal sea described in The Ancient Mariner. Here they encounter a “Shape“ ''embodying the spirit of Abel. It is as a ''Shape'' that the ship bearing Life-in-Death firstappears to the Ancient Mariner (line152). Cain, like the legendary Wandering Jew, vainlywishes for his own death. Coleridge's Cain, incorporating attributes of the Wandering Jew,anticipates the Ancient Mariner, who combines characteristics of both Cain and Ahasuerus,in as far as his cruel slaying of an innocent creature is analogous to Cain’s fratricide Hecommits an act of sacrilege like Ahasuerus in the medieval legend. The motif of theCrucifixion is evoked by a Repetition of the word ''cross'' in association with the Albatrossand its death (of ''At length did cross an Albatross'' in line 63, ''With my cross-bow/ I shotthe Albatross'' in lines 81 and 82). The image of Death-in-Life and Death playing dice for possession of the dead also underlines this motif. The conventional symbolism associatedwith Cain and Ahasuerus accounts for much, but not everything, that happens in the storytold in the Ancient Mariner. Both Cain and Ahasuerus are traditionally eternal wandererswith no prospect of finding their destination. The Ancient Mariner differs from them in thathe is finally released from the curse that has befallen him and "returns to his own country".He incorporates the figure of the returning wanderer pre-eminently represented by Ulyssesand the Prodigal son. In both cases, "wandering" finally proves a beneficial experience. Itspunitive function is outweighed by its ultimate rewards, the widening and enrichment of experience and the education that derives not from theory and precept but from subjectionto the process of trial and error. The Wanderer sets out a fool, a prey to folly and itsconsequences. He becomes wise, even sly like Ulysses, as a consequence of hisexposure to experience. As we may conclude from the stories of Saul and Ulysses,wandering in the biblical and Greek classical traditions establishes the prior condition for the Wanderer's enjoyment of a favoured status accompanied by power and responsibility.In that story which reveals the most generous attitude to wandering, the Prodigal Sonbetters his elder brother, who never ventures from his father's house, to become fit to takepossession of his patrimony. Understood as the Prodigal Son, the Ancient Mariner seems togain few tangible benefits from his harrowing experiences. These, however, allow him togrow spiritually and morally and give him an authority that the reluctant hearer of his storycannot withstand. The wedding guest becomes a ‘‘sadder and wiser man’’, while the Ancient Mariner, in becoming a prophet - implicitly a poet - reveals a truth, evident in manygreat works of literature, that the traveller's misfortune is the narrator's opportunity.Wandering journeys in biblical tradition constitute a Paradox. On the one hand, we may infer from them that wandering, especially long periods of wandering such as that of theIsraelites in the desert of Sinai, is the consequence of transgression or the erringproclivities of the human heart. On the other, the experience of wandering ultimately provesbeneficial, for it supplies the opportunity of moral growth and education \ and may evensecure much greater benefits than those attained by "elder brothers" adhering to the pathof rectitude.  A similar paradox attaches to adventure stories with no overt claim to carrying morallesson. Adventure stories commonly tell of exciting events set in motion by an unforeseenmisfortune which thrusts the unwary traveller into a domain he would not have voluntarilyentered. As both a moral allegory and adventure story, Robinson Crusoe presents a doubleparadox. However much Crusoe laments what he considers to be his ''sinful'' urge towander, he both as man of action and narrator derives immense benefits from hismisfortune. As the narrator of his adventures, Crusoe embodies the figure of thewanderer-speaker with its ancient precedents in such figures as Ulysses and Moses (inrabbinical tradition Moses is not only seen as a participant in the events described by thePentateuch accounts but also as the (human) author of the narrative itself, a Levite, adivinely inspired poet; indeed, some of the most lyrical passages in the Pentateuch areattributed to Moses as dramatic speaker). 3 The greater part of the Odyssey is occupied bypassages attributed to Ulysses as the principal dramatic speaker in the text. The most''fantastic'' or improbable events referred to in the body of the text are those which Ulysseshimself relates. The world described by Ulysses is primarily a mythical world occupied bysuch beings as the Cyclops and Circe. Prolonged, uninterrupted, monologues revealpatterns similar to those informing dreams and dreamlike states of mind. Travellers (insideand outside literary context) are known for their ''tall stories'', the absolute veracity of 
which may be called into question if moral criteria are applied, hence the highly ambivalentstatus of the wanderer-speaker as witness, entertainer and suspected liar (viz. the milesgloriosus in classical times and the Baron von Münchhausen). He is thus alienated fromsociety, set apart from fellows, burdened by the exceptional nature of what he has to telland the compulsion to recount his story. Both as a poet-visionary and as a traveller he is anoutsider. 
2. Dualism and Dichotomies: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 
 The Metaphor equating the poet with an alienated traveller finds its basis both inunawareness of the effects travel may have on an individual's psychology and in thepicture of the believer as an alien travelling homeward in the Bible and religious writings (cf.I Peter; 2,11). The poet like the believer is conscious of a fundamental divide between thephysical world and a transcendent reality beyond it. Baudelaire's concept of the dualitybetween ''Spleen'' and ''Ideal'' is greatly influenced by the concept of the duality betweenthe flesh and the spirit in religious thought (cf. 2 Corinthians; 4,16,5,10). Fundamentally thesame duality underlies ancient mythical accounts of demigods wandering the earth. In TheEpic of Gilgamesh the exact proportions of the hero's divine and human constituency aregiven. O Gilgamesh, lord of Kullab, great is thy praise. This was the man to whom all things wereknown; this was king who knew all countries of the world. He was wise, he sawmysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. Hewent on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, and returning engraved on astone the whole story. When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body.Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowedhim with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others. Twothirds they made him god and one-third man. 4 The Ancient Mariner incorporates aspects and characteristics of the archetypal wanderersof antiquity. Like them he is subject to the overriding influence of higher powers oftenidentified as the planets in the original sense of the word (the seven wanderers - the sun,the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn). The movements of the ''cold earthwanderers'' participate in cosmic movement. As the following quotation makes clear,Gilgamesh's mother holds Shamash (the Sun) accountable for her son's impulse to wander: O Shamash, why did you give this restless heart to Gilgamesh, my son; why did you giveit? You have moved him and now and now he sets out on a long journey to the land of Humbaba, to travel an unknown road and fight a strange battle 5 In no reading of The Ancient Mariner can one overlook the relationship between the Mariner,the Wanderer, and the higher powers represented by the sun, moon, the albatross and thewind. This relationship forms what can be pictured as a vertically oriented polarity betweenthe horizontal plane of the earth and the region of the sky which, together with the manypolarities and parallels contained in the poem, contributes to its dense and complexstructure. The slaying of the albatross, which combines associations with Christ, the HolySpirit, and the poetic genius in one symbol, signals the loss of the modern (sentimental)poet's sense of being harmoniously at one with his source of inspiration. With no certaintyof an objective correlative to the Wanderer's innate divinity, the Mariner is exposed to theheady and terrifying experience of solipsistic isolation. What brings him (or rather Coleridge) the means of breaking out of his despair and isolation is the discovery of themind's inherent objectivity in thought, language and poetic expression. On a symbolic level,the Mariner experiences a transition from death to a new life. In this light we shouldconsider another aspect of the Mariner's affinity with the archetypal wanderers of antiquity.The Mariner, like Gilgamesh, Ulysses and Aeneas, enters the nether realm of death. Thesun, traditionally a symbol of life and regeneration, represents stasis and death inColeridge’s poem. Apollo, the sun god, was not only the god of poetry in classical myth, butalso the bringer of pestilence. The colours displayed by Life-in-Death - red, yellow andwhite carry associations both with the sun and the plague. In a manner consistent with along poetic and religious tradition the sea in The Ancient Mariner combines associationswith death and the renewal of life, as in the story of the Flood and the exodus of theIsraelites through the Red Sea.In Goethe's ''Wanderers Sturmlied'' the central symbol of water is supported by allusions tothe (classical) deluge myth. Water, traditionally a symbol of God's creative power becomesan image symbolising the flow of poetic utterance in the poetry of Goethe and theRomantics. The association of death and water, implicit in biblical accounts of the Flood andthe drowning of Pharaoh's men in the Red Sea, is evident in passages in Shakespearean

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