John Newton and the Mariner

Bernard Martin

I SUGGEST that when Coleridge was writing The Ancient
Mariner he had in mind, consciously or sub-consciously
(and only a rash man would attempt to diflferentiate, where
Coleridge is concerned), the story of John Newton.
Moreover, I believe that Coleridge had read Newton’s
Authentic Narrative, and, probably, read it about the time
he wrote The Ancient Mariner. As the poem “grew and
grew and became important” the character of John
Newton and, especially, the record of how that character
changed during a sea experience overshadowed the
jumble of images in the poet’s mind—^the albatross of
Shelvocke, the dream of Cruickshank, the dice-players
of Falkenberg, the Wandering Jew and Cain—and provided
the moral which was hidden from “the cursed
Barbauld crew”,** and from the critic who talked lightly
of a new love of animals in English poetry.

Mariner contains an interesting and repeatable aside concerning John Newton’s conversion at sea and the possible connection to the Rime.

As Malcolm Guite writes:

An interesting little book, The Ancient Mariner and the Authentic Narrative, links The Ancient Mariner with John Newton’s account of his own conversion at sea, known as The Authentic Narrative. The author, Bernard Martin, points to many parallels between the Authentic Narrative and the Ancient Mariner, and shows through Wordsworth, Clarkson, and others that Coleridge had certainly read the text. The most interesting comparison is between the mariner and John Newton himself. Newton, now best remembered for the great hymn “Amazing Grace,” a hymn which could well serve as a gloss on The Ancient Mariner, felt compelled to make a series of reiterated confessions, telling again and again the story of his crimes as a slave-ship’s captain in a kind of expiation and warning to others, just as the mariner does at the end of the poem. Indeed, Newton was compulsively and powerfully telling and retelling his story to transfixed listeners from the pulpits of London, even as Coleridge was composing this poem in the Quantocks.

If Grace covers all sin, why is confession essential to forgiveness?






Rick Wilcox is Editor in Chief