The margins of the text where the reader annotates . . . are
literally the workship in which the reading of the text be
comes an understanding of that text through the use of
words; analogously, these textual margins are the margins of
the reader’s mind where the mind confronts inscriptions and
signs and makes meaning out of these signs.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a poem riddled with shad ows: spirits, spectres, irresolvable mysteries; it stands as the realiza tion of Coleridge’s aim to write about the supernatural, to spark a “human interest and semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination a willing suspension of disbelief.”1 The actual language of the Mariner’s narration contributes to this sense of mystery. In Biographia Literaria Coleridge notes a chasm existing be tween language and experience that could cause this obscurity; he remarks that human experiences are “reported only through the im perfect translation of lifeless and sightless notions. Perhaps, in a great part, through words which are but the shadow of notions” (p. 140). If language is already at a remove from experience, then the poem’s creation of two interacting “languages,” verse and gloss, complicates further this idea of a shadowy reality. Certainly the Mariner’s tale seems a shadowy translation of an event; yet this shadow’ is again fil tered through a set of narrative frames, a plurality of voices created within the very structure of the work. The narrator’s re-telling of the Mariner’s tale and the gloss on the entire poem create a set of re moves, a layering of shadows, which cloud the notion of an originary (through supernatural) language-free experience. The doubled form of the poem, that of verse and gloss, creates a labyrinthine reading experience which accentuates the act of interpre tation by probing the problematical relationship between not only discourse and experience, but also between interacting discourses as critiques of one another.Order now
The one test of poetry, Coleridge tells us, is its “untranslatableness into words of the same language without in jury to the meaning” (BL, p. 263). The inscription of an interpretation within the poem, a marginal “translation” or commentary, demon strates and unsettles this notion of language; it exposes the pull to ward closure inherent within the interpretative act. I w’ould like to argue that the tension in the poem between verse and gloss initiates the reader into an understanding of the chasm which necessarily in habits/inhibits interpretation, then erodes the distinction between in terpretation and poetry by revealing that all language is exegesis, is previously inscribed. The reader discovers through the shifting of boundaries in the poem not only a suspension of disbelief, but also a suspension of the reading experience which attempts to frame the poem, to render whole or opaque a textual shadow. Coleridge republished the poem with added gloss in 1817, nine teen years after its original publication in Lyrical Ballads, to counter criticism that the poem was obscure and lacked a clear narrative glue; initially it was critically received as a summary of the poem.2 David Pirie, however, condemns the gloss as the “feeble literary joke” of an “ageing and conservative Coleridge,” noting that the revision is Cole ridge’s reactionary attempt to reshape his nineteen-year old poem in a Christian mold; the result, Pirie concludes, is a gloss that “lies”:
The most serious attempt to distract the reader from the
poem in the Sibylline Leaves version is of course the addition
in the margin of the ageing Coleridge’s own interpretation of
his poem. Partly just a feeble literary joke, this must have
always been intended to confuse the unwary as indeed it
continues to do. . . . The marginalia turn the speaker into a
specimen. Worse, they lie. It is clearly not true, nor ever
could be, that “the curse is finally expiated” and the very real
creature that the mariners fed on biscuit-worms cannot be-
come “a pious bird of good omen” without being ludicrous.
To tell the reader in the margin that it is a good omen, when
the succeeding stanzas demonstrate how impossible it is until
too late to tell whether it is of good or bad omen, is to make
nonsense of the poem at its very core.
According to Pirie, the gloss to the “Ancient Mariner” reverses the traditional role of a gloss as that which unearths, makes clear the in terior meaning of the text; instead, he argues, it subverts the “true” meaning of the poem. Thus his edition of the poem omits this “au thorial mistake,” printing only the verse, sans marginal gloss. Other recent critics also see the gloss as a revision of, rather than a clarifica tion of the verse; the gloss is commonly read as a new perspective that mirrors the reader’s interpretative abilities.4 Reacting against crit ics such as Pirie who see the gloss as detracting from the poem, David Simpson in Irony and Authority, suggests that the gloss is part of a hermeneutic exercise demonstrating a reductive reading; it stands as a “conscious albeit gentle parody of the habit of overinscription and reductive explanation which the poem undoubtedly atttracted in its first readers.” If the gloss is a false distracting apparatus, how ever, or the emblem of multiple perspective imbedded in the work, then how does the reader literally maneuver around this apparatus in reading and making meaning out of the poem?
My emphasis on the reader corresponds with Coleridge’s own methods in literary criticism and scriptural exegesis; he frequently ex amined the role of the reader in producing the meaning of a work, depicting the text as process rather than a static form.6 The imagina tion, he argues, which half-creates the external world also creates the text. Coleridge reverences the energy expended in this task of read ing-creating, but warns that this necessitates that the reader risk him herself. “The reader,” he argues “who would follow a close reasoner to the summit and absolute principle of any one important subject has chosen a chamois-hunter for his guide. Our guide will, indeed, take us the shortest way, will save us many a wearisome and perilous wandering. . . . But he cannot carry us on his shoulders. We must strain our sinews, as he has strained his; and make firm footing on the smooth rock for ourselves, by the blood of toil from our own feet.”7 The degree of difficulty within the process of reading, then, is privileged as an important standard by which a poem is judged. Coleridge maintains that the “grandest efforts of poetry are when the imagination is called forth, not to produce a distinct form, but a strong working of the mind.”8 Commenting on Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, he notes, “You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything; there is a perpetual activity of attention required on the part of the reader”(BL, p. 177). The perpetual activity which is re quired of the reader makes suspect the facility of a gloss. Given Cole ridge’s emphasis on a “strong working of the imagination,” perhaps the gloss functions to tear down form, to erase structure. Formless ness becomes that which allows the inclusion of the active reader. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” foregrounds interpretation by the inclusion of the gloss which does indeed confound the poetic struc- ture. This in turn, inscribes an active reading process within the poem, a path of perilous wandering.does it work within the poem itself? In many instances, the Within this reading process, how do we assimilate a gloss? How does it work within the poem itself? In many instances, the gloss flat tens poetic language into the discursive as words of action become description. The gloss subverts the energy required by the reader by providing a digested form of verse, a point most evident by the gloss on lines 24-28. The verse states:
The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the Sea came he,
And he shone bright, and on the right
When down into the Sea.’
The gloss counters: “The Mariner tells how the ship sailed South ward.” Certainly the reader can easily map out right and left to un derstand that the ship is traveling south, but this process of mapping out disappears with the aid of the gloss. Figurative language is iiteral ized. Likewise when the Mariner returns from his voyage, he rejoices at the sight of his homeland. The emotion which powers the verse, “O! Dream of Joy!” is lost in the words, “And the Mariner beholdeth his native country” (BL, p. 464). Instead of clarification, the gloss re duces the activity of the poem. This reduction suggests, as David Simpson has noted, that the poet is playfully scolding a certain type of reader. In Shakespearean Criti cism, Coleridge points out four types of reader, two of which are: “(1) Sponges who absorb all they read and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied. (2) Strainbags, who merely return the dregs of what they read.”10 On one level, the gloss does return the dregs of the verse, the action minus its emotional impact. When the gloss, “A Flash of Joy!” describes the reaction of the dying crew to a rescue ship, the reduction seems parodic, almost cartoon-like; language fails to capture the import of the event. Coleridge, who quite often com plained of his public’s inability to read poetry and who had for nine teen years been subjected to criticism that the “Rime” was obscure, seems to be slyly mocking the sponge-like reader.