The time of the Romantics in England was a time of great cultural and political shifts that may have been ardently confusing for the general population. Without emotional clarity, an introspective quest for philosophical and religious answers emerges. Where better to examine this quest than in the writers that chronicled it? English Romantic writers also wanted to react against Enlightenment thinking, understanding the importance of science while simultaneously being unwilling to put all trust in reason over intuition and feeling, unsure of where Christianity could fit into all of this. In addition, industrialization meant that technology was advancing quickly and the entire physical landscape was changing, driving the Romantics to often emphasize the importance of Nature and the isolation of urbanism. In times of great change and confusion, many often turn to religion for answers. The Romantics, however, had a complicated relationship with religion as well. Many sought to understand the role of God even as they drifted from organized religion, wanting to reconcile new feelings of rebellion and the comfort of Nature with old notions of Christ and scripture. In “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth, both authors use religious allusions and a pantheistic treatment of Nature as divine to explore their faith.
William Wordsworth wrote “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” in 1798, upon revisiting the banks of the Wye for the first time in five years. This poem appeared in Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth’s collaborative work that is said to be the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature. It established and embodied the Romantic characteristics of the wanderer, the brooding introspective, and the essential role of Nature in life. Nature was very important to Wordsworth ever since he went to Hawkshead Grammar School and was given freedom to rove over the fells that surrounded the town (Schmidt, iv). He travelled extensively and even experienced the French Revolution firsthand. He visited the ruins of Tintern Abbey when he was twenty-three, and was distraught upon returning five years later that the memories in his mind of the place were very different. The individual who visited these ruins originally was a different person from the one who returned. Romantic authors often write autobiographically, and the audience can feel Wordsworth’s pain as he looks back on how simple and happy his life once was, when he was allowed to spend unlimited time in Nature and was not so corrupted by society. This path away from innocence as one matures is very reminiscent of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve: with great knowledge comes great sorrow.
As science began to make breakthroughs by leaps and bounds and organized religion was losing its grasp on the population, Wordsworth used “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” to explore his own religious convictions. In the poem, the speaker returns to visit the banks of the Wye River after five years away. He is distressed that his memories of the place are so different than what he is now experiencing. Interestingly, despite the name “Tintern Abbey” being leant to the poem, Wordsworth does not go into great detail about the Abbey and focuses on the surroundings instead. This is important because the ruined abbey could be a metaphor for the crumbling power of the established church at the time, but Wordsworth only mentions it instead of having his speaker describe it. Instead, the audience is to have already known the state of the Abbey and is asked to focus instead on the natural world around it.
Nature was always a teacher to Wordsworth and a close friend, and his speaker takes on the same qualities in the autobiographical nature of the Romantics. At the outset of the poem, the speaker is more mature than when he had first visited the Wye River and had since become disillusioned with the world, claiming to have a “heavy and weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world” (Wordsworth, lines 39-40). Things were simpler and happier in his youth, and now that he has strayed from Nature he has lost that part of himself and his innocence as well. This loss of innocence parallels the original sin of consuming the Forbidden Fruit: Adam and Eve gained knowledge and experience by eating the apple, but they ultimately sacrificed their innocence and were therefore punished for doing so. “This, like the echo of ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ in Tintern Abbey, is an almost subliminal recognition for the reader, but more overt allusion is also present with the parallels with the Prodigal Son and with Abraham and Isaac” (Wedd, 63). The speaker encourages his audience to have faith, essentially replacing God with Nature in suggesting to never stray too far from Nature because “Nature never did betray/ The heart that loved her” (lines 122-123). He even claims that the love and worship of Nature is a “warmer love – oh! With far deeper zeal/ Of holier love” (lines 154-155), once more emphasizing the divine qualities of Nature. He encourages his audience to draw on their memories in Nature for their ethical characters and their solace in the rough world of politics, work, chores, and society at large. Wordsworth’s pantheistic ideas were a reaction against the authority of the establishment church, presenting the idea that perhaps religion is more of an individual, spiritual journey. The proof of God is in Nature, and that is where one must hold their faith and principles.
Wordsworth’s collaborative partner was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as part of Lyrical Ballads as well, inspired by a book Wordsworth was reading (Schmidt, iii). Coleridge was raised with more of a city life than Wordsworth, but he admired Wordsworth as a poet and they became great friends. He had been a radical at one point and was planning to establish an ideal democratic community in America, but when the scheme fell apart his radicalism also waned. Coleridge, also considered to be a father of the Romantic movement alongside Wordsworth, suffered from depression and therefore contributed the characteristic of the brooding and melancholy to the movement as well. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” specifically contributed suspension of disbelief, the tragic hero, the sinner, a pantheistic philosophy regarding Nature, and the supernatural.
Coleridge also employed Biblical allusions in order to explore his own difficulties with religion, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can be read as an allegory for religious sin. Coleridge was the son of a Reverend but still a radical thinker for much of his life, leading to a cognitive dissonance that parallels him with the Mariner. “His sense of guilt and isolation, so vividly embodied in The Ancient Mariner, demanded the comfort of God’s forgiveness through the willing sacrifice of his Son, Jesus” (Wedd, 67). Both Coleridge and the Mariner felt they lost their innocence and were cursed by this loss. By shooting and killing the albatross, the Mariner has been eternally punished, much in same way that Cain was cursed for betraying Abel or the original sin to which Wordsworth also alluded. By failing to respect God/Nature’s rules, the Mariner has been cast out of his regular life on the ocean and left in some kind of limbo or purgatory where he is doomed to walk the Earth for the rest of his days and tell his story to all he meets. He even has to wear the Albatross after disaster begins to fall upon the ship, in order to mark his sin and show his penance. Despite his curse, he still seeks salvation in his prophet-like wanderings of spreading his story and the proof of God’s greatness.
The Mariner offers this advice: “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” (Coleridge, lines 612-617). He seeks solace in the telling of his tale, reminding his audience to not think themselves invincible and lose themselves in society: “O sweeter than the marriage-feast,/ ‘Tis sweeter far to me,/ To walk together to the kirk/ With a goodly company” (lines 601-604). Coleridge is essentially warning his readers through his character of the Mariner that despite all of the advancements in science, philosophy, and culture, God and Nature will both always be all-powerful and omnipotent, and must still be respected.
Kathryn Walls of the Victoria University of Wellington argues that the Wedding Feast mentioned in the end of the poem serves as a sort of Communion. She states that the Mariner has persuaded the Guest that the sacred is more important than the secular, by reminding the Guest of God’s greatness as well as his “representation of a church congregation as a convivial family gathering, incorporating ‘youths and maidens gay’, [which] tends to blur the very distinction between the sacred and the secular that [he] sets out to underline” (Walls, 56). The contradiction between the Guest’s insistence on making it to the Feast and then his ultimate refusal to go explicitly illustrate the effect the Mariner’s story had on the Guest. At the time of Coleridge’s writings, it was believed that communicants had to be worthy of the sacrament (58). Neither the Mariner nor the now introspective Guest feel themselves worthy of this sacrament, and thus, neither end up attending the Feast. Similarly, Coleridge himself might have felt at odds with religion given both scientific progress and the torment he suffered from manic depression, and also felt unworthy of religious ceremony.
The two texts compare in this confused treatment of religion, and Coleridge and Wordsworth both seemed to treat Nature pantheistically. Both poems were also included in Lyrical Ballads, and were therefore both important in galvanizing the Romantic movement in literature and setting standards for the canon. Both speakers are intelligent and brooding, indicating the troubled emotional state of the times with the disillusionment of the French Revolution and the loosening hold religion had on people. Both speakers feel pained by the knowledge they have: “And till my ghastly tale is told,/ This heart within me burns” (Coleridge, lines 584-585); “That time is past,/ And all its aching joys are now no more,/ And all its dizzy raptures” (Wordsworth, lines 83-85). Perhaps, as in the Bible, they are punished for knowing too much. It can be argued that the focus on Nature is in direct opposition to the Industrial Revolution, suggesting that individuals were closer to the divine before life became complicated with technological advancements.
This turn toward Nature that is evident in both poems, with Nature being an all-powerful almost magical creature: “In nature and the language of the sense,/ The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,/ The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/ Of all my moral being” (Wordsworth, lines 108-111); “And now the storm-blast came, and he/ Was tyrannous and strong:/ He struck with his o’ertaking wings,/ And chased us south along” (Coleridge, lines 41-44). In this movement to be closer to Nature, both speakers also turn away from society, preferring isolation: “This soul hath been/ Alone on a wide wide sea:/ So lonely ‘twas, that God himself/ Scarce seemed there to be” (Coleridge, lines 597-600); “Once again/ Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,/ That on a wild secluded scene impress/ Thoughts of more deep seclusion” (Wordsworth, lines 4-7). Both speakers are wanderers who seem to be looking for themselves rather than looking for specific answers to their troubled emotional states. They both have grown and aged with experience, yet still long for their innocent youth. This experience is so important and impressing to them that they both must retell their tales to relieve some of the pressure this knowledge is expressing on them.
Certainly, the Romantics “confronted in their own lives and expressed in their writing the basic spiritual experiences and theoretical problems of a religious view of the world” (Wedd, 70). “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” are prime examples of this religious struggle. The Romantic Era was one filled with science and social progress which seemed to contradict previously held religious ideas. Even so, Coleridge and Wordsworth both seemed to acknowledge a belief in some kind of deeper spiritual reality: “All which we behold/ Is full of blessings” (Wordsworth, lines 133-134); “For the dear God who loveth us,/ He made and loveth all” (Coleridge, lines 616-617).
Black (editor), Joseph, Leonard Conolly (editor), Kate Flint (editor), Isobel (editor), Don L. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Volume 4: The Age of Romanticism, 2nd Edition. Broadview Press, 07/2010. VitalBook file.
Jamison, Kay Redfield. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Free Press (1994.), 219–224
Walls, Kathryn. “The Wedding Feast as Communion in ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.’” Notes & Queries 61.1 (2014): 56-58. Humanities International Complete. Web. 11 June 2015.
Wedd, Mary. “Literature and Religion.” A Companion to Romanticism. Malden: Blackwell, 1999. 61-71. Print.