The Polar Spirit

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Lines 131-40

And some in dreams assured were
Of the spirit that plagued us so:
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.


Today’s excerpt introduces us to the interrelationship of the natural and supernatural.  The mariner’s capricious killing of the albatross stirred a spirit, which Coleridge better explained in the gloss as one of many who inhabits the earth; neither departed human souls or angels.  Coleridge’s reference to Josephus and Michael Psellus is notable because it further indicates the breadth of his reading.

As Malcolm Guite writes in Mariner, Chapter Seven:

In November 1796, almost exactly a year before he began to compose The Mariner, he had written to Thelwall in these terms: “I am and ever have been a great reader . . . almost always reading.”

This letter ends with a request for Thelwall to obtain for him, in a London sale, a list of books which represent the very heart of the Neo-Platonist tradition and on which he drew extensively all his life, and many of which cite Psellus and Josephus as mentioned in the gloss. A common strand in all these works is the idea of the Dæmon (not “Demon”!). Dæmons are beings that are neither angels in heaven, nor fallen angels, but spirits who occupy a middle position and inhabit, and indeed animate, the four elements that were believed to make up the earth. Some of them are deemed to have important roles in relation to the human beings with whom they share the world. Socrates, for example, speaks of his “dæmon” who helps and inspires him and encourages him to “sing.” The term came to be translated into Latin as “genius” and, to begin with, people spoke of a person having a genius rather than being a genius. The English Neo-Platonist Taylor, whom Coleridge specifically mentions in the letter to Thelwall, says in his commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus that there is another role for these dæmons of direct relevance to the frame of The Ancient Mariner: “But there are other Dæmons transcending these, who are the punishers of souls, converting them to a more perfect and elevated life.”

Do you believe in supernatural beings who coexist with us?

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Rick Wilcox is Editor in Chief