Preface to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" : Coleridge on the uses of the supernatural in narrative.
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Milburn, Michael F.
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In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge promised to compose an essay on the uses of the supernatural in poetry as a preface to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The essay, if ever completed, has not survived. In this project, I consult his collected works, including letters, notebooks, and marginalia, as well as works by the authors he analyzed, such as Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Radcliffe, and Scott, to reconstruct what might have gone into the essay, thereby establishing his theory of supernatural fiction. Coleridge thought that supernatural poetry, like its natural counterpart, could foster the capacity for recognizing a reality beyond mere appearances, but for an even wider audience, including those for whom nature or natural poetry might not be able to accomplish the task on their own. He was opposed to the so-called explained supernatural of Radcliffe and related attempts, as he saw them, by Scott, in which apparently supernatural phenomena like ghosts were reduced to rational explanations like burglars by the end of the story, because he thought the inherent rationalism of this alternative left inadequate room for acknowledging the inevitable “terra incognita” or still unexplored regions of knowledge which had to be humbly admitted before one could become aware of a greater sweep of reality than before. Coleridge thought that by presenting the supernatural in a straightforward manner and addressing it, therefore, to the willing suspension of disbelief, authors could help their audiences to rehearse the open-mindedness necessary for engaging spiritual questions. The supernatural, in his view, also allows for abstract, associative allegory to be combined with a form of symbolism that is supposed to have a deeper metaphysical basis, so as to render this latter kind of symbol more accessible. Finally, Coleridge believes that writers can use the supernatural to lead the mind beyond the appearances of nature to contemplate the transcendent ground on which they depend. This study of Coleridge’s criticism should pave the way for future work on his own supernatural poetry and on his influence among later theorists of fantasy, such as Macdonald, Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien.