The Wedding Guest’s Nightmare: An Oneiric Reading of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


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Abstract

This analysis of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is based on the heuristic device of reading the poem as the dream of one of its voices. The rationale for this assumption is that the poet draws on that part of the mind that constructs our dreams in the process of making the selections of fine detail by which he carries out his conscious artistic intentions. By approaching a literary work in this way, one is able to retrace the paths of the creative imagination, and take into account and relate to each other the formal characteristics and craft that distinguish art from dream and the deep psychic currents that creative art, in common with dream, draws upon. Approaching the poem in this way, we see the poem structured on an emotional tension between the dreamer’s desire to enter the realm of familial affection along with the sexuality that generates families, and fear that doing so will unleash the mingled emotions of vulnerability, rage, and disgust. These emotions have their source in the infantile layers of the psyche that give the poem its incantatory style and supernatural aura. In the course of the poem, the dreamer attempts to end his painful oscillation between a retreat into emotional numbness and desire for a fuller life, but fails. As an uneasy compromise, he finds some consolation in an otherwordly Christian charitas, which has the advantage of still keeping him at a distance from ordinary love, marriage, and family. His emotional dissatisfaction with this resolution impels him obsessively to retell his story.

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