The Penance Of Life

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Lines 574-81

“O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!”
The Hermit cross’d his brow.
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say—
What manner of man art thou?”

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrench’d
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.


In the gloss of today’s selection, Coleridge writes “The ancient Mariner earnestly entreateth the Hermit to shrieve him; and the penance of life falls on him.”  We understand penance as it applies to deeds of the past, but what are we to make of this phrase “the penance of life?”

As Malcolm Guite writes:

The phrase “the penance of life” is interesting. If it had been “the penance of his life,” one would have felt the penance referred only to this constraint to keep retelling the tale, but somehow the phrase “the penance of life” suggests more, as though in some circumstances life itself were a penance. For all the joys and graces of life, there is also some sense in which we endure it: we are pilgrims and strangers, we have a sense of elegy and exile, of unappeased longing which lies just under everything we do, and we long to complete our penance, to fulfill the term of our exile, and come home.

How would you define the penance of life?

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Rick Wilcox is Editor in Chief