Shattering Trauma: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the Problem of Making Meaning

Claudia Stumpf


According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Anna Letitia Barbauld once told him that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was “improbable and had no moral” (272) To this Coleridge replied that he thought that “the chief fault of the poem was that it had too much moral, and too openly obtruded on the reader” (272-3). The Rime does in fact have both no moral and too much moral. There is a clear moralizing voice, both in the main text of the poem and, especially, in the glosses of the 1817 version. However, the main narrative of the poem refuses this kind of clarity, evoking an ambiguous mythology and then withholding explanations for the behaviors of the characters or the natural world. As a result, the narrative of the poem and the marginal gloss are often in conflict with each other, creating a dynamic of tension.


I believe that this dynamic can be productively read as reflective of the poem’s central concern with trauma. In my reading of literatures of trauma, I have been continually struck by the way that trauma is irreconcilable with simple or coherent explanatory frameworks. In fact, trauma threatens our philosophical and/or cognitive understandings of the world and can shake the very foundations of those understandings. This paper explores the way that this threat is represented and explored in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, focusing primarily on the relationship between the main narrative poem and the marginal gloss.


To begin, I will consider assumptive world theory and its argument: that the underlying assumptions that make up our conceptual systems are very difficult to change. It claims that trauma threatens assumptive worlds because it demands sudden and radical change in our assumptions. I will then look at Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as an example of a literary text that illuminates the impossibility of reconciling the experience of trauma with systematic explanatory frameworks. In order to explore the ways that the shattering of assumptive worlds can be a source of pleasure and aesthetic play instead of simply anxiety and fear, I will then turn to the work of Hélène Cixous and place it in dialogue with Coleridge’s poem.


Cixous’ work opens up an alternative model of thinking about trauma and language that might allow us to think about the possibilities/pleasure/play opened up by the loss of a clear system of meaning (an assumptive world). Her work raises an important question: instead of experiencing anxiety because of the tension between the desire for meaning and the chaos of trauma, could that tension be something that allows us to express possibilities that are unavailable if we remain in an ideologically bounded text? I assert that Cixous’ model of writing, which she calls écriture feminine, offers a vision of writing as a vehicle for understanding that is particularly useful when we think about understanding trauma and its effects.


In particular, I believe that putting these two seemingly disparate theories (assumptive world theory and écriture feminine) together allows for a fuller understanding of the dynamics at work in literatures of trauma. Assumptive world theory is a “ground up” theory, built from clinical work and the daily realities of individuals who have experienced trauma. As such, it provides a clear description of (and prescription for) the cognitive effects and dynamics of traumatic experience, which I believe can be seen written out in literature of trauma, including Coleridge’s Rime. The theory provides a clear description of the way that trauma threatens and shatters cognitive frameworks and is an important starting point for thinking about the nature of the tension between narrative and explanatory framework in such literary works.


The work of Cixous, on the other hand, offers a feminist poststructuralist perspective that is influenced by psychoanalytic theory and firmly rooted in high theory. Her work encourages a non-teleological, unbounded understanding of both writing and the mind. Cixous is committed to the disruptive and even violent nature of the writing she espouses and she asserts that this disruption and violence can be pleasurable (in writing). Not driven by a clinical concern for individuals recovering from trauma, she is able to offer a freer and more radical model for understanding the role of literature in writing trauma. I begin, however, with the insights provided by assumptive world theory as a vehicle for thinking about the tensions and disruptions caused by the relationship between the traumatic narrative and the marginal gloss in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.


Meaningless Suffering: Assumptive World Theory

From its beginnings, trauma theory has asserted that the difficulty of making meaning out of trauma is central to the psychological and cognitive problems posed by trauma. The anxiety that trauma creates for an individual – because it cannot be integrated into existing structures of meaning – sometimes becomes the very definition of trauma.1 For example, Caruth writes, “The trauma is the confrontation with an event that, in its unexpectedness or horror, cannot be placed within the schemes of prior knowledge – that cannot, as George Bataille says, become a matter of ‘intelligence’” (“Introduction” 153). It is this crisis – the problem that trauma poses to systems of meaning – that I want to explore more thoroughly through the lens of assumptive world theory.


Assumptive world theory was established by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman in a 1992 text entitled Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. Starting from previous work done on the central beliefs that ground our cognitive-emotional worlds and her own experience working with survivors of trauma, Janoff-Bulman created a theory within traumatology that focuses on the way in which trauma threatens or shatters established assumptive worlds and on ways for individual survivors to build new assumptive worlds.


In Shattered Assumptions, Janoff-Bulman states that an assumptive world is “a conceptual system, developed over time, that provides us with expectations about the world and ourselves” (5). These systems consist of specific beliefs about ourselves as well as more general, fundamental assumptions. It is these fundamental assumptions that we are least aware of and that are the most difficult for us to change. Indeed, a fundamental assumption is “such a familiar aspect of one’s sense of reality that its disruption is hard to conceive, the loss of confidence in its truth putting one’s sense of identity at risk” (Kauffman 1).


According to Janoff-Bulman, one of the key qualities of these assumptions is that they are very difficult to change. Of course, some change is inevitable. Janoff-Bulman writes that “‘normal’ change [in our assumptive worlds] is apt to occur slowly and gradually, and is represented by small, incremental adjustments in our narrower schema” but that “the core of the system is nevertheless likely to stay intact” (43). This reflects the theory of cognitive conservatism, the idea that individuals are motivated “to maintain cognitive consistency” (26-7). Our attachment to cognitive consistency, to retaining and supporting our existing systems of meaning, helps to explain the disruption that trauma causes. Experiences of trauma mean that our assumptive worlds are shattered and forced to change dramatically, rather than incrementally over time.


Trauma causes this rupture because it is by definition cognitively inassimilable, at odds with pre-existing cognitive schemas. Traumatic experiences require a re-evaluation of our meaning-making systems. And they can threaten the very possibility of such a system, because the loss of individual assumptions can provoke a sense of existential meaninglessness. Trauma does not only force us to question or abandon our more superficial assumptions about ourselves and the world, it also threatens our core assumptions. Because these assumptions “organize our experience of ourselves, relationships, the world, and the human condition itself,” the “subjective experience of trauma not infrequently includes a crisis of meaning at a deep level of experience” (Landsman 13). Our system(s) of meaning-making are thrown into question, prompting reconsiderations of our understanding of the world at a profound level. These reconsiderations are played out symbolically and formally in Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.


Preaching from the Marginalia: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner provides a useful model examining the dynamics created by the tension between the impulse to make sense of the world and the epistemologically disruptive nature of trauma because the poem presents both a moralizing voice that attempts to establish an assumptive world and a traumatic narrative that refuses such moral or cognitive clarity. Scholars have long identified the marginal gloss in the 1817 version2 as at odds with the main narrative poem. As Steven Jones notes, “It is by now a critical commonplace that the gloss offers a kind of enfolded dialectical or ironic perspective on the main text of the ballad” and that “the gloss opens up an ironic counter-voice on the main action of the ballad” (n.pag.).3 The marginal glosses in the later versions of the poem have an uncomfortable relationship with the ‘main’ text of the poem and create more ambiguity rather than less, causing an on-going tension among the different voices within the poem.


While I am going to focus primarily on the glosses as a site of moralizing that coexists uncomfortably with the narrative of the poem, this tension exists even in the earlier versions of the poem. In fact, in the 1798 version of Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one of the final stanzas contains such a straightforward moral that it was used as the inspiration for a popular Anglican hymn. The lines from the Rime are:

He prayeth well who loveth well,

Both man and bird and beast

He prayeth best who loveth best

All things both great and small:

For the dear God, who loveth us,

He made and loveth all. (lines 645-50)

In 1848, Cecil F. Alexander wrote a now-beloved Anglican hymn entitled “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” probably inspired by the Coleridge lines. The chorus to this hymn is: “All things bright and beautiful, / All creatures great and small, / All things wise and wonderful, / The Lord God made them all.” This echo is unsurprising given the simplistic moral sentiment of this stanza. As a hymn often sung by children, these lines are perfectly appropriate. As an explanation of the story of a mariner who kills an albatross for some unknown reason, sees Death play dice, watches his fellow sailors drop dead, encounters a phantom ship and shiny water-snakes, is navigated home by the re-animated corpses of the dead sailors, talks to a hermit and wanders the earth re-telling his strange story, it is clearly inadequate.


The moral’s inadequacy stems from the traumatic nature of the story itself. The attempt of the final moral, and of the moralizing in the gloss, to create a theological or philosophical explanation, an assumptive world rooted in Christian morality that could contain the events recounted in the mariner’s narrative, is doomed to failure because the traumatic narrative itself is too excessive to be contained in such a system. By almost any definition of trauma, the events recounted in the Rime are traumatic. Janoff-Bulman describes traumatic events as “out of the ordinary and […] directly experienced as threats to survival and self-preservation” (53). Caruth describes trauma as “the unavoidable reality of horrific events, the taking over of the mind, psychically and neurobiologically, by an event that it cannot control” (Unclaimed Experience 58). Certainly, the killing of the albatross and the events that follow are horrifically real, unexpected and represent a confrontation with mortality and survival.


As a result of the traumatic nature of these events and the hyperbolic plot,4 the mariner’s final moral and the assumptive world that it invokes cannot possibly encompass the experience. The mariner’s invocation of a system of coherent (if simplistic) Christian morals sits in tension with the rest of his narrative. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner writes out the inevitable tension between an assumptive world and an experience of trauma. Coleridge presents both the attempt to sustain a coherent worldview that makes sense of trauma and points towards the difficulty of that attempt. The assumptive world that suggests that “He prayeth best who loveth best” and “And to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth” (gloss to lines 610-614) loses its credibility in the face of “a thousand thousand slimy things” and “Night-mare Life-in-Death” (lines 238, 193). As a result, the moral cannot make sense of the traumatic narrative.


Despite this “failure” of the moral to explain or sum up the traumatic narrative of the poem, the strength of the impulse towards moral in this work should not be underestimated. Robert Penn Warren was convinced by the moral impulse of the poem and argued that it is a fable with two themes (one of crime and punishment and reconciliation and the other of sacramental vision) that come together in a “final symbolic fusion” (672). Like most contemporary critics, Joseph Sitterton argues that the text’s invitation to allegorical interpretation is “deceptive,” but that it is also “deliberate” (16). He writes that

the incommensurability of the Mariner’s moral to his tale […] results from the Mariner’s only partly successful attempt to understand his own experience. This gap between experience and understanding becomes emphasized when Coleridge presents a second character struggling with the same problem vicariously, namely the glossist struggling to understand the Mariner’s experience. (23-4)

These struggles lead the reader to consider the ways that interpretation can struggle and fall short of satisfying explanations or conclusions. The incommensurability of the moral at the end of the poem is one site of this. However, the gloss in the 1817 version of the poem is the place where both the impulse towards explanatory moralism and the poem’s essential incoherence become most evident. And while the glosses often appear to clarify, to attempt to establish an assumptive world that can make sense of the narrative of trauma, they in fact point to the difficulty (or impossibility) of clarifying a traumatic experience through a comprehensive assumptive world.


The gloss is a unique if often discordant voice within the poem. Sitterton identifies the “glossist” as a distinct character, but whether or not we want to identify a “glossist,” the gloss is certainly a voice separate from the mariner, the wedding guest, or Coleridge himself. The gloss exhibits an assumptive world constructed from Neoplatonic philosophy and intellectual pretensions that is absent from the other voices in the poem. The very form of the gloss indicates visually its relationship to the rest of the poem. Glosses have a long history as explanatory additions to sacred texts. Biblical glossia have played a variety of roles, which included everything from simple definitions of obscure words to theological guidance and scriptural commentary. However, the gloss in the Rime undermines this expectation, becoming a satire of the form. Steven Jones writes that the gloss is a “parody” of this type of “academic or monkish interpretation” and as such “has proven to be a continuous source of hermeneutic questions about the poem and about hermeneutics in general” (n.pag.). Instead of explaining the text, the gloss complicates it further, demonstrating the way that systems of meaning-making are shattered by trauma through the gloss' own incommensurability with the primary narrative and its hermeneutic failure.


Some of the glosses in the Rime echo the moralistic ending of the poem itself.5 Others are so lengthy that they escape the margin and physically invade the text. The first of these overlong glosses reads:

A spirit had followed them; one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed soul nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted. They are very numerous, and there is no climate or element without one or more. (gloss to lines 131-134)

The allusions to Josephus and Michael Psellus are more confusing and misleading than they are clarifying, as they are obscure references to ancient medieval sources on demonology that cannot be assumed to be familiar to the reader nor clearly explicate the nature of the dream-visions described in the primary poetic text. The obfuscation is only heightened by the difficulty of reading or speaking the phrase “Platonic Constantinopolitan.”


Even when the gloss seems most helpfully explanatory, it is often at odds with the main narrative. Joseph Sitterton identifies one example of this:

The gloss [to lines 393-397] confidently identifies the two voices as ‘The Polar Spirit’s fellow-daemons, the invisible inhabitants of the element’; however, there is nothing in the text which leads to that identification – the Mariner is unconscious – and, further, that identification does not clarify other difficult parts of the poem (23).

While the gloss creates the illusion of a mythical system that would explain the course of events described in the poem, a gesture towards an assumptive world that could account for the narrative, this system is neither consistent nor does it explain the obscure meanings of the Rime.6


The gloss’s attempts to create a symbolic universe (or assumptive world) that would explain the events of the poem create a complicated and contradictory reading experience. The reader is asked to constantly negotiate the opacity of the main poem and the explanatory misdirection of the gloss. Even when the gloss does not illuminate the poem, the reader is forced to consider its logic and its attempt at explanation, to follow its often tortured logic before returning to the narrative. Instead of creating a system within which to understand the traumatic, mystical events of the poem’s narrative, the gloss (and the moral within the poem itself) draws attention to the difficulty of understanding trauma. In reading the Rime, the reader is forced to confront the epistemological impossibility of explaining the excess and trauma of the mariners’ voyage through reading the explanatory attempts of the gloss and negotiating the incoherence and tension that it creates. The poem is a literary example of the problem that trauma poses to assumptive worlds.


A French Feminist Intervention: Hélène Cixous

Having looked at The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in light of the difficulty of creating a coherent and meaningful narrative explanation for trauma, I now want to turn to the question of what may be lost in such a quest and to consider more carefully the Rime’s exposure of the impossibility of such a task. Cathy Caruth, in her introduction to the second section of Trauma: Explorations in Memory, writes:

trauma...requires integration, both for the sake of testimony and for the sake of cure. But on the other hand, the transformation of the trauma into a narrative memory that allows the story to be verbalized and communicated, to be integrated into one’s own, and others’, knowledge may lose both the precision and the force that characterizes traumatic recall. (153)

She continues by arguing that along with this loss of precision and force comes “the loss, precisely, of the event’s incomprehensibility, the force of its affront to understanding” (154). This discussion suggests that something is lost when one reintegrates a traumatic experience into rational thought and language. As Caruth follows this line of thought, she comes to the conclusion that “the refusal of understanding, then, is also a fundamentally creative act” and that “the attempt to gain access to a traumatic history, then, is also the project of listening beyond the pathology of individual suffering, to the reality of a history that in its crises can only be perceived in inassimilable forms” (155, 156). Perhaps the fact that trauma eludes our understanding and fails to be easily assimilated into our existing schemas is not a problem, but rather something that should be accepted and even embraced.


The psychologists and psychological theorists whose work is part of assumptive world theory almost all describe a process of working through trauma that has three major stages: first, the cognitive disruption of the traumatic event itself; second, the symptoms of trauma including compulsive retellings, excessive emotional responses, anxiety and flashbacks; third, reconfiguring systems of meaning so as to mitigate the symptoms and produce a healthy individual. These reconfigured systems may be virtually identical to the pre-trauma systems, or they may be adjusted to become more accurate, more adaptive or more useful to the individual. It is this final step that I want to question, at least within a literary framework – this idea of reconfiguring the belief system in light of the apparent impossibility of integrating a narrative of trauma with a coherent belief system. If this integration is impossible, then the question is why. What is the problem with such systems of meaning?


One answer comes from Derridean poststructuralism. Satisfactory, complete explanations for trauma would require both singularity of meaning and the possibility of closure. Poststructuralism tells us that these are impossible to begin with, because that is simply not how language works, that language contains within it excess and multiplicity rather than coherent meaning. But there is something more specific happening in texts that center around trauma and that struggle with ways of explaining that trauma. Why are these struggles both so compulsive and so doomed to obvious failure? I argue that because of the nature of trauma, which exposes the fragility of our systems of understanding, the impossibility of creating a truly enduring system of meaning is exposed. In addition to the problem of explaining a trauma based on an old, now-shattered assumptive world, we are faced with the reality that the new, revised system created in the final step of assumptive world theory is still vulnerable. The new assumptive world, too, can be shattered. Even if we have adapted our beliefs to match our previous experiences, can we really be sure that the new system will hold in the face of a new experience of trauma? According to poststructuralism, the answer is no. So the attempt to reconfigure our systems of meaning so as to produce a healthy, whole, recovered individual is inevitably a failure.


However, I suggest that we do not need to see this simply as failure, because the “failure” itself can open up new possibilities. Schemas, assumptive worlds, and cognitive mastery can all be seen as part of a phallogocentric worldview, one that privileges reason, philosophy, masculinity and singularity. Maybe there are some experiences and ideas that cannot be expressed in a bounded, phallogocentric text, but that can still be expressed in language, if we understand language in a radically different way. To think more deeply about some of these questions, I will turn to the work of Hélène Cixous, who rejects phallogocentric writing in favor of what she calls écriture feminine. Cixous presents an alternative vision of using language that does not struggle with closed systems of meaning. Her work opens up new possibilities for the way that literature and language can approach the tension between assumptive worlds and experiences of trauma by privileging excess, disorder and the non-rational over what she sees as the oppressive forces of philosophical or religious systems of meaning.


Cixous’ écriture feminine is a multiplicitous language that allows for the possibility of contradiction that resists theorization, unifying logic and restrictive grammars.7 She describes it as a kind of violent or explosive transgression. She connects this with a new kind of form: “the nature of its fury demanded the form that stops the least, that encloses the least, the body without a frame, without skin, without walls, the flesh that doesn’t dry, doesn’t stiffen, doesn’t clot the wild blood that wants to stream through it – forever” (Cixous “Coming to Writing” 10). The connection she makes here between fury/explosion and innovative, borderless literary forms provides a useful model for thinking about a kind of writing that would exceed the “reasonable” bounds of “masculine” narratives and instead explore the pleasure of an excessive type of writing that allows for new aesthetic, representational and political possibilities.


Cixous’ critique of closed systems of meaning is founded in her feminist critique of a culture of binary opposition. For Cixous, logocentrism, phallocentrism, philosophical systems, and the tyranny of reason are all implicated together in oppression. Building on the work of both Derrida and Lacan, she imagines a new language that is not concerned with mastery, and which is “antilogos.” She writes, “Nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason, of which it is at once the effect, the support, and one of the privileged alibis. It has been one with the phallocentric tradition” (“Laugh of the Medusa” 879). Her radical vision is of the end of logocentrism and phallocentrism.


The vehicle for undermining phallogocentrism, the alternative model, is a new kind of writing: écriture feminine. She describes the process of this type of writing as both full of tension and as full of pleasure. The “breaking through” required of the writer is violent, and she recognizes that as part of the process. She says in an interview, very clearly, that “writing is always a tension in language, a struggle” (“When I do not write” 55). In addition, she argues for the pleasure inherent in this type of writing. Incomprehension and tension are not things to be feared, but instead are to be embraced as full of pleasure and the possibility of liberation. In “Coming to Writing,” Cixous writes, “Write? Taking pleasure as the gods who created the books take pleasure and give pleasure, endlessly; their bodies of paper and blood; their letters of flesh and tears; they put an end to the end” (13). The openness of écriture feminine is a source of pleasure as well as an act of violence against boundaries. Instead of insisting on coherence and structure, Cixous suggests that slippage, play, openness and even incoherence are virtues and that they allow us to represent things that are otherwise inaccessible.


In other words, perhaps it is only through a theory as committed to the positive aspects of ambiguity and incoherence as écriture feminine that trauma’s essential unknowability can be fully written out, confronted and explored. If trauma creates a cognitive rupture and break in our closed systems of meaning, or ideological structures, perhaps we should celebrate the possibilities in that moment of rupture and stop to consider them rather than attempting to immediately create new structures. Literature, and art in general, provides a realm in which those explorations can happen without putting an individual’s psychological health in danger. The pain of trauma can be presented through artistic production in a way that allows for both the reality of pain and the pleasure of exploration.8


Coleridge was committed to the pleasure of poetry. His very definition of poetry, found in his 1817 work Biographia Literaria, emphasizes the importance of pleasure: “A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth” (493). Anna Taylor, in her essay on Coleridge’s commitment to the pleasures of meter and poetic form, writes of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

 Coleridge’s variety of sound results from practiced skill and an epicurean ear, cultivated in obedience to a theory that pleasure is not only permissible but the point [….] In “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the accelerations of the meter affect the listener in heart and pulse, sinuously racing. (552)

Coleridge took seriously the physical and aesthetic pleasures of poetry, including the pleasures of such difficult poems as the Rime.


One specific way that the Rime evidences this commitment to pleasure is through humor. Steven Jones identifies the poem as part of Coleridge’s interest in satire, claiming that the poem can be meaningfully understood in the context of “his propensity for self-parody and the parody of his fellow-poets” (n.pag.). Jones specifically focuses on the glosses as a location for parodic humor. He points to lines 29-36 and the gloss that accompanies them as a location of humorous discord between the poem and the gloss. The stanza includes the lines “The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,/Yet he can not chuse but hear”9 while, according to Jones,

The gloss merely says in deadpan fashion: “The wedding-guest heareth the bridal music; but the mariner continueth his tale.” The simple discrepancy in tone between the agony of the Guest and the gloss-writer’s imperturbability is potentially parodic. (n.pag.)

He also points out the gloss next to lines 190-194: “Like vessel, like crew!”, which is a surprisingly concise and flippant analysis of the lengthy and eerie descriptions of the ghost ship and Life-in-Death.


The humor from glosses like these comes from the same tension between the gloss and the main poetic text that I discussed above. But seen through the lens of Cixous’ theories of writing and Coleridge’s commitment to poetic pleasure, the tension becomes a source of amusement or bemusement, rather than simply a source of anxiety. The disruption of the text’s boundaries, particularly the boundary between the gloss and the narrative poem, may be evidence of anxiety, but it may also be a kind of Cixousian “breaking through” that delights in its own disruption.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also disrupts our expectations for a teleological narrative that ends with narrative closure. Instead, along with the text’s confrontation with incoherence comes a lack of closure. The poem is framed as an interruption to a wedding, as something that is at odds with the “happy ending,” the symbolic, heterosexual closure of marriage.10 The wedding guest, standing with two other “gallants,” is individually accosted by the mariner and forced to listen to his story despite the fact that the wedding is in progress:

The bride hath paced into the hall,

Red as a rose is she;

Nodding their heads before her goes

The merry minstrelsy (lines 33-36).

The mariner tells his tale right through the occurrence of the wedding, disrupting the quintessential narrative ending with his tale of wandering. At the end of his tale, he is in turn interrupted by a “loud uproar” from the wedding party, and the singing of the bride and the bridesmaids (line 591). However, the wedding guest is unable to join them. Instead, when the mariner leaves, the wedding guest “turn[s] from the bridegroom’s door” and goes “like one that hath been stunned” (lines 621-622). The narrative has prevented the wedding guest from participating in the (phallogocentric) teleology of the wedding narrative.


Furthermore, the poem begins and ends with a sense of compulsion that by the end of the poem, as many critics have noted, is clearly identified as repetition compulsion. The wedding guest is compelled to listen to the mariner, who “holds him with his glittering eye” and makes him listen as if he were a child (line 13). The reader is told that he “cannot choose but hear” twice in the opening section (lines 18, 38).


At the end of the poem, we learn that the mariner himself is compelled to tell his story. He is stuck in an unending cycle of storytelling, forced to speak because of his pain:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,

That agony returns:

And till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns (lines 582-585).

The mariner experiences classic repetition compulsion – a need to tell his story over and over in order to alleviate his pain. As a result, even while the mariner’s encounter with the wedding guest is over, the ending of the Rime promises that the mariner will continue to tell this narrative again and again.


The gestures towards conclusion or simple moralizing found in the last seven stanzas of the poem are thus undermined by the way that the trauma of the narrative creates narrative repetition as well as the way it disrupts assumptive worlds and fixed systems of meaning. As Anne Williams writes, “the Mariner’s cognitive conclusion – ‘He prayeth best, who loveth best’ – concludes nothing. He is doomed to repeat forever the struggle ‘to idealize and to ‘unify.’” (1115). The comfortable conclusion that a clear moral would attempt to provide is refused by the poem structurally through the gloss and narratively through its refusal of closure. Instead, the poem remains in tension between the impulse towards explanation and closure and the complexity and destructiveness of the narrative of trauma.


This Cixousian embrace of contradiction allows us to understand the tensions created by the differences between the main text of the Rime and the glossist’s marginalia as a source of creative power and pleasure. From this perspective, the sometimes violent disruption of a given system of meaning, the collapse of an assumptive world in the face of trauma, opens up a space of exploration for author and reader alike.


Works Cited


Caruth, Cathy. “Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 151-7. Print.

---. Unclaimed Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. “Coming to Writing.” “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. 1-58. Print.

---. “Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (Summer 1976): 875-893.

---. “The Novel Today.” White ink: interviews on sex, text and politics. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. 15-25. Print.

---. “When I do not write, it is as if I had died.” White ink: interviews on sex, text and politics. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. 51-7. Print.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano,  58-99.

Ferguson, Frances. “Coleridge and the Deluded Reader: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’” Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano,  696-709.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961. Print.

Halmi, Nicholas, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano, eds. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. New York: The Free Press, 1992. Print.

Jones, Steven E. “‘Supernatural, or at Least Romantic’: The Ancient Mariner and Parody.” Romanticism on the Net 15 (1999). n.p. Web. 25 May 2012.

Kauffman, Jeffrey. Introduction. Loss of the Assumptive World: A Theory of Traumatic Loss. Ed. Kauffman. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2002. 1-9. Print.

Landsman, Irene Smith. “Crises of Meaning in Trauma and Loss.” Loss of the Assumptive World: A Theory of Traumatic Loss. Ed. Jeffrey Kauffman. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2002. 13-8. Print.

Sitterton, Joseph. “‘Unmeaning Miracles’ in ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’” South Atlantic Review 46.1 (Jan 1981): 16-26.

Warren, Robert Penn. “From A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading.” Halmi, Magnuson and Modiano, 696-709.

Williams, Anne. “An I for an Eye: ‘Spectral Persecution’ in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” PMLA 108.5 (October 1993): 1114-1127. 




Claudia Stumpf is a graduate student in English at Tufts University. She holds a BA from Yale University and an MA from Tufts University and is currently writing a dissertation entitled “Excess of Joy, Excess of Sorrow: Writing Trauma in Sentimental and Gothic Texts 1740-1830.”



1. At one point in her book Shattered Assumptions, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman suggests that we might “throw in the towel and simply conclude that a traumatic event is one that shatters a victim’s fundamental assumptions” (53).

2. The Norton edition that I am quoting from uses the 1834 text, which is fundamentally the same as the 1817 text but includes revisions by Coleridge.

3. Critics who have made arguments in this vein about the gloss and the poem’s interpretive instability include (among others) Jerome McGann, Joseph Sitterton, Frances Ferguson, Lawrence Lipking, Tilottama Rajan and Anne Williams.

4. Anne Williams describes the narrative this way: “The Mariner’s dreamlike tale, though told and heard, is virtually nonsensical, almost failing to mesh with the structures that impart meaning to experience” (1115).

 5. For example, the gloss positioned next to lines 610-613 reads “And to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things God made and loveth.”

6. Another such reading is by Frances Ferguson, in her essay, “Coleridge and the Deluded Reader,” where she analyzes the tension between the gloss and the main text through a reading of the albatross. Within the poem, Ferguson argues, “the Albatross seems good, then bad, then good, because the death of the Albatross causes first fog and mist (bad), then clearing (good), and finally the failure of the breeze (bad)” (699). In contrast, a “striking feature of the Gloss is the attribution of unambiguous moral qualities to the bird” (Ferguson 700).

7. This kind of writing, while associated with the feminine, is not exclusively the terrain of women. Cixous writes, “When a similar wave of writing surges forth from the body of a man, it’s because in him femininity is not forbidden” (“Coming to Writing” 57). She explains her use of gendered terms thus: “I talk of femininity in writing, or I use heaps of quotation marks, I speak of ‘so-called feminine’ writing. In any case, femininity – to define it – also exists in men, it does not necessarily exist in women, and so this should not return to enclose itself in the history of anatomical differences and of sexes. All that is a trap. One cannot speak of it in an exact manner. It’s immediately vulgarized in current discourse. It’s because, culturally, it is always in question, that I cannot avoid it” (“The Novel Today” 22).

8. Freud himself identifies this dynamic in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, writing: “a reminder may be added that the artistic play and artistic imitation carried out by adults, which, unlike children’s, are aimed at an audience, do not spare the spectators (for instance, in tragedy) the most painful experiences and can yet be felt by them as highly enjoyable” and that “there are ways and means enough of making what is in itself unpleasurable into a subject to be recollected and worked over in the mind” (17).

9. This passage echoes a passage from Wordsworth’s “Expostulation and Reply” (1798), which was also published in Lyrical Ballads:

    The eye--it cannot choose but see;     

    We cannot bid the ear be still;     

    Our bodies feel, where’er they be,     

    Against or with our will.

The passage also anticipates the Mount Snowdon section of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), in which he describes the power of nature, writing: “That men, least sensitive, see, hear, perceive, / And cannot choose but feel.” In both passages, Wordsworth focuses on the way that our sensory perception, and with it, our experience of the world, is not entirely within our control or subject to our volition. As I will discuss below, in the Rime, Coleridge extends this idea to give it a valence of pain and to connect it to repetition compulsion, to the repeated telling of personal narrative. Here, not only does the wedding guest have to hear but also the mariner has to tell.

10. Anne Williams writes, “A wedding is an appropriate occasion for this revolutionary disruption of the law of the father, for the ceremony is patriarchy’s central ritual for regulating the female” (1117).



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