SUB SPECIE AETERNITATIS

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Lines 393-409

How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But ere my living life returned,
I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.

“Is it he?” quoth one, “Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

“The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.”

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, “The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.”


Baruch Spinoza wrote of examining life sub specie aeternitatis or “under the aspect of eternity,” meaning that to ascertain truth, one must begin and end with God. These metaphysical tenets resonated with Coleridge’s love for nature and he frequently read Spinoza as a retreat from his circumstantial sufferings. Ironically, though Spinoza wrote of God being in all things, it was the sufferings themselves which would later guide Coleridge’s discernment of a personal rather than pantheistic God who was actively at work in his life.

In the following extended quote from Chapter Ten, Malcolm Guite examines the turning point of the mariner’s (and Coleridge’s) understanding:

Coleridge uses a word that is, in a sense, the key word of the poem: discerned. As we have seen, the whole poem is an instrument of discernment, and even Coleridge had to wait many years before he perceived some of the truths embedded in his own poem. At this point in the poem, the mariner’s altered state allows him to discern the two voices representing the two sides of the tension and dilemma which has halted the ship and to learn a key truth, without which he cannot cross the line and return home…

The cruelty of the deed and the innocence of the albatross are made utterly clear, but that clarity is revealed to the mariner in the only context which can make it bearable: the passion of Christ. “By him who died on cross” is the last and most important of the many occasions when Coleridge rhymes “cross” and “albatross.” The mariner has killed the innocent, as humanity crucified Christ, and the following stanza makes it clear that what is really being wounded and must be redeemed is Love:

“The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.”
(Lines 402–5)

This is the first time that we, and the mariner, learn that the albatross loved the man who killed him, just as surely as Christ loved those who crucified him. But the circle of love extends further. In hearing the phrase “he loved the bird that loved the man / Who shot him,” we must hear some echo of the Christian affirmation that God the Father loved the Son, who loved the men who killed him on a cross. The mariner needs to understand the covenant of love that he has broken in order that the one who restores that covenant can heal him. And so, having heard this declaration of that communion of love which the mariner has violated, we are ready to hear the other voice:

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, “The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.”
(Lines 406–9)

Now the mariner is able to understand that his sufferings thus far are not, in fact, random or meaningless, as the throw of dice by Death and the Night-mare Life-in-Death might have suggested, but that there is a deeper purpose working through them.

How is divinely imposed suffering related to Divine love?

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Rick Wilcox is Editor in Chief