You may have noticed in our readings of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” how the sun and moon are significant presences in the poem. Coleridge thought deeply on the subject of symbols and symbolic language. He saw Nature as reflecting the language of God the Creator and he also conceived that the poetic imagination, given that Man was created in God’s image (Gen.1: 26-27), was a means of discerning the meaning of God’s language working through Nature.
Many of the poem’s first readers were shocked by the description of the Sun:.
Nor dim nor red, like God's own head The glorious Sun uprist.
According to Malcolm Guite in Mariner (Hodder &Stoughton 2017) one contemporary viewer wrote the likeness “makes the reader shudder…with religious disapprobation.” For the second edition Coleridge was persuaded to remove “God” and replace the phrase with “like an angel’s head” but when he produced the Sibylline Leaves edition (1817) he brought back the original phrasing.
The association of God and the Sun is of course both common and apposite. Without the sun there is no life, with light and heat the Sun enables growth; God the Creator acts to give light. Guite argues that the identification of the Sun with God as source of light is vital for Coleridge’s “sacramental” view of Nature. If God is creator, then the universe should not simply be seen as a mass of dead objects but as vital elements expressing God and our attitude to the universe should not be of its instrumentality or usefulness to us but reverential. As we have seen this is the message the mariner’s experiences teach him.
Guite here brings in Blake because Blake, like Coleridge, was profoundly opposed to what both saw as the deadening effects of the Newtonian view of the universe, Deism and Locke’s empiricism. For both poets, humans are creative participants in reality , not passive recipients of a reality presented to them. Blake has an interlocutor asking, “When the sun rises, do you see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea” and replies” O no,no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
Why then readers of the poem might ask is the God-like invocation of the Sun followed by a more negative picture? :
All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody Sun at noon, Right up above the mast did stand No bigger than the moon.
The answer to this is suggested by Coleridge’s reading of a German mystic, Jacob Boehme 1575-1624 (also an influence on Blake). John Beer in his work “The Mysticism of Coleridge (Chatto & Windus 1970).
The heat of the sun is an essential element in the speculations of Jacob Boehme. Boehme’s insistence on the benevolence of God led him to the doctrine that if God sometimes seems angry, this was no more than an appearance engendered by the diseased imagination of fallen man. Cut off from the light of God, he could experience only the heat of his presence: and an exposure to his full glory would therefore be felt as nothing less than exposure to unendurable fire,
In relation to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” this is clearly relevant to the expression of the Sun as not only ” glorious” but also as oppressive, “bloody” and by implication condemnatory. The mariner’s guilt metaphorically expressed by the blood on his hands is projected on to a “bloody” sun representing an angry, vengeful God as Judge. ( The idea has a wider relevance when we consider the way in which the Israelites in the Old Testament project their guilt on to a God who is perceived as vengeful and angry with them for their misdeeds). Guite points out that the sense of blood-guilt is expressed later in the poem when he longs for forgiveness:
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away The Albatross's blood.
It is the action of the Moon that saves the mariner from living under what he feels as oppressive judgement. As noted in my commentary on Part 4 there is a rhythmic shift of the verse when the Moon appears. The presence of the Moon is set against the shadow of the ship :
But where the the ship's huge shadow lay, The charmed water burnt away A still and awful red.
While the “awful red” is associated with judgement and condemnation when the mariner looks beyond the shadow he sees the action of the moon on the water and his vision is transformed. The water-snakes, hitherto rejected with disgust are now seen as creatures of beauty. As Coleridge’s marginal gloss puts it: “By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”.
Beer considers that as the moon is reflected sunlight the moon is interpreted by the poem acting as a mediator between God and Man in his fallen state. The moon is associated with radiating grace. It can also be seen in its traditional form as female; there is a Marian element in Coleridge’s poem. In part 3 when the skeletal ship comes between the Sun and the mariner’ s ship the mariner appeals to Heaven’s Mother:
"And straight the sun was flecked with bars (Heaven's Mother send us grace)"
This corresponds to the mediating action of the moon in Part 4:
Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water snakes: They moved in tracks of shining white, And when they reared the elfish light Fell off in hoary flakes. Within the shadow of the ship, I watched their rich attire: Blue, glossy green and velvet black They coiled and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire.
As we have seen in the previous post it is the sight of the hitherto abhorred water- snakes in the beauty of the moonlight that enables the beginning of the redemption of the mariner. As Coleridge’s later-added gloss puts it:”By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”. He sees what he did not see with the albatross when he killed the bird, that these are God’s creation. The moon, then, as reflector of the Sun’s light, Heaven’s mother, bringer of grace, mediates the mariner’s transformation.
Guite points to an entry in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks which has relevance to the meaning he is addressing here: “Quiet stream with all its eddys [sic] and the moon playing in them; quiet, as if they were Ideas in the divine Mind anterior to Creation.”
Guite goes on:
For Coleridge, the meaning of the moon and moonlight is not a purely human invention. It is a symbol, but it is not a randomly chosen or arbitrarily constructed human one; it is a symbol which is moulded by and participates in the reality it represents.
Guite refers to a late work in which Coleridge writes: The Symbol is characterised by… the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which renders it intelligible, and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity of which it is representative. (The Statesman’s Manual).
The Sun and Moon then in Coleridge’s work point to the spiritual and transcendent dimension working in Nature. They represent God’s creative glory, the expression of His Word, Logos, within Nature. Coleridge sees his responsibility (as does Blake) to challenge the materialist view of Nature as a mechanism, with God as the absent clock maker who has created the laws of operation and then retired from the scene. Reality for Blake, the visionary and Coleridge, the idealist, is God-penetrated and the creativity in Man is continuous with what God has created in Nature. Coleridge’s use of the Sun and moon as symbols in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”brings together the life within and the living reality of the external world.
They represent for us, these Romantics the first great creative reaction, developing the Christian world-picture to fight against the reductive tendencies of scientism and materialism. In a world still so reduced we still can find inspiration in these poets.