"Abolitionist Publics in Robert Southey’s 'The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade' and Coleridge’s 'The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere'"


Abolitionist Publics in Robert Southey’s "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade" and Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"


1.        In "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade" (1799), Robert Southey tells the story of a dissenting minister in Bristol who hears the confession of a sailor who has murdered an unnamed enslaved woman aboard a ship. The sequence of events that the poem narrates begins when the enslaved woman protests her subjugation by refusing her food. The captain of the ship orders the sailor to whip the woman in order to make her eat, but she continues to refuse food. The woman subsequently suffers torture so horrific that she dies from her wounds the following day. As the poem begins, the minister finds the sailor praying alone in a hovel. Although the sailor insists that the murder was unintentional, he registers his guilt in his descriptions of the way that the image of the dying woman follows him everywhere he goes. Finally, he begs the dissenting minister for help: “O give me comfort if you can— / Oh tell me where to fly / And bid me hope, if there be hope, / For one so lost as I” (lines 113–6). [1]  In the earliest version of the poem, the minister responds by encouraging the sailor to flee the hovel and instead go to find a church in which to pray for his sins. In the later versions, Southey has the minister join the sailor in prayer in the hovel and enjoins others to do the same.

2.        Implicit in this abolitionist narrative is a theory of how one individual's guilt might be converted into a public feeling, and how this, in turn, might inspire political action—alongside a series of ethical questions about what it means to use representations of the suffering of enslaved people in order to incite such feeling. Presumably, Southey believes that confronting people with this murder scene and its aftermath might convince them to adopt the abolitionist cause. Yet the ethics of Southey’s decision to use this story for abolitionist ends are deeply riven, since Southey himself, like the sailor, lacks empathy for the enslaved woman he represents. Not only does Southey refuse to grant her the dignity of a name; he also dehumanizes her when he instrumentalizes her pain for the benefit of his abolitionist audience. The abolitionist moral relies on the idea that forgiveness is still possible, not only for the sailor, but for British society as a whole—but this happens at the expense of the enslaved woman, who is not allowed any space to tell her own story. Marcus Wood has argued that "The Sailor" is a “truly woeful ballad in every sense of the word . . . in which the slave inevitably emerges not as a suffering human but as a catalyst for the sailor ’s suffering” (201–2). By choosing to speak from the perspective of the sailor, rather than from the point of view of his victim, Southey capitulates to the biases of his majority-white audience.

3.        The complications surrounding Southey’s positionality in relation to this story multiply, however, when one realizes that this poem has been written in dialogue with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ballad, "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts" (1798). [2]  At first glance, Southey’s graphic narration of the murder of an enslaved woman appears to have very little in common with Coleridge’s poem: a supernatural tale that depicts a series of strange events leading on from the moment the mariner shoots an albatross. Yet the "Rime," at its root, is another ballad about a lonely sailor who has committed sins at sea and thus becomes obsessed with his own guilt, even if his crime differs vastly in scale from that of Southey’s sailor. Both the sailor and the mariner ask for sympathy, even as they refuse to reflect on their responsibility for their actions. Focused on the past and unable to engage with the present, they each inhabit a different temporality from the people they encounter and are isolated by their compulsive storytelling. Just as the ancient mariner sees spirits aboard his Spectre-Bark, Southey’s sailor is haunted by “the wicked one” (line 106) everywhere he goes. Finally, while Southey’s sailor asks the dissenting minister for help, Coleridge depicts the mariner asking the hermit to shrieve him (“Oh shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!” (line 607)); both the sailor and the mariner, (at least in the 1799 version of Southey’s poem), end up at church.

4.        Southey directly echoes Coleridge’s diction several times, suggesting he was inviting his audience to hear echoes of the "Rime" in his poem. The mariner’s reflection on the moment he shoots the albatross, “And I had done a hellish thing” (line 89), clearly resounds in two of Southey’s sailor’s outbursts; “Oh I have done a wicked thing! / It haunts me night and day” (line 25), and “Oh I have done a cursed deed!” (line 53). The sailor stresses that the hovel he inhabits is “lonely” (line 26), just as the mariner stresses that he is “all alone” on the ship (line 224). Southey advertised his imitation of Coleridge much more boldly in 1815 than in 1799, when he changed his poem’s first line to read “It was a Christian Minister” (in order to directly echo the first line of Coleridge’s poem, “It was an Ancient Mariner”). Although these echoes are easy to catalogue, however, the question of what Southey might have meant to communicate in these echoes of the "Rime" is more difficult to answer. In what follows, I argue that the changes Southey makes to Coleridge’s poem in his imitation reveal a fundamental difference in his methodological stance toward the cultivation of public feeling. Although the ballad might intuitively be called a “public” form, each poet imagines the way that this form mediates the relationship between the characters in the ballad and their audiences very differently.

5.        The question of whether Southey understood himself to be translating the subject matter of Coleridge’s poem to an entirely new context, or whether he aimed to bring its underlying abolitionist message to the fore is debatable, though by now, it is commonly (though not universally) accepted that Coleridge’s poem can already be read as an abolitionist allegory in itself. [3]  Coleridge’s mariner’s overwhelming sense of guilt, as several critics have noted, seems disproportionate to his crime of shooting the albatross and so might be best explained by his repressed confession of involvement in the triangular trade. [4]  Southey’s imitation means that he was in effect the first critic to note this. His ability to see the allegory at work in the "Rime" was likely informed by his friendship with Coleridge during the time they had both spent living in Bristol in the mid-1790s. In 1795, Southey had witnessed Coleridge give his "On the Slave Trade" lecture in Bristol and was also making plans with him to emigrate to America to build a new Pantisocratic community. Their plans for their utopian society unraveled over time, partly because Southey wanted to take servants to the banks of the Susquehanna. This paved the way for further poetic disagreements. By October 1798, Southey’s review of the "Rime" in the Critical Review publicly accused Coleridge of being too obscure (“We do not sufficiently understand the story to analyze it . . . ”). This negative review is one of the things that Southey became best known for in the twentieth century, as Lynda Pratt has observed, and has therefore had a disproportionate influence on how his own poem has been read [5] .

6.        Because Coleridge’s poem is much longer and more complex than Southey’s—with its supernatural themes, mythic elements, and confusing symbolism—discussions of Southey’s imitation of Coleridge have tended to argue that he simplified his source text. Southey has often been characterized as a more “public” poet than Coleridge. [6]  As Mary Jacobus puts it, in an influential 1971 article on "Southey’s Debt to the Lyrical Ballads":

What is idiosyncratic or disturbing in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge is replaced by a topical or humanitarian interest of a quite straightforward kind: the poems become not simply shallower, but more public… A generalized, symbolic study of guilt and alienation [in "The Rime"] becomes an anti-slave-trade poem, its theme given immediate topical resonance and its underlying moral emphasis made explicit. Gothic accretions and psychological depth are stripped away to leave horror of an entirely straightforward kind. (30)

Jacobus also stresses that Southey’s style is defined by his magazine audience—“In some cases, poems from Lyrical Ballads are returned firmly to the level of the magazine poetry from which they had been raised, stripped of their new thematic depth and sophistication” (24)—and notes that Southey might also have been offering his poem as a corrective to the complexity of the "Rime." “One has to concede that his… borrowings represent a deliberate attempt to put right what he had criticized in his review” (24), Jacobus concludes. This argument has been very influential in readings of the poem. For instance, Patrick Keane concurs that his ballad is a “straightforward” version of Coleridge’s poem (158). Christopher Smith sees the poem as “an answer to Coleridge” (par. 3), arguing that “Southey converts the disturbing open-endedness of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s work to sententious, clear-cut, rapidly-moving stories, or emblems of suffering” (par. 8). Chris Rubenstein argues that “Either Southey in his poem tells us . . . what Coleridge ought to have written in the ‘Rime;’ or he writes—and I prefer this alternative—what he is reasonably certain Coleridge had in mind” (24). More recently, David Chandler has aimed to correct this consensus by offering Southey’s poem "The Old Woman of Berkeley" as a more persuasive “answer” to Coleridge’s poem, arguing

There is no reason to question Southey’s assertion that his ballad was inspired by a real story (Poems 105), however, and if that story was, in the telling, fertilized with ideas from "The Ancient Mariner," it does not mean that Southey conceived of it as an “answer” to the problems he found in Coleridge’s poem. As he fully accepted and happily contributed to the genre of the supernatural ballad, he must have realized that a political, “natural” ballad like "The Sailor" was generically too distinct from "The Ancient Mariner" to challenge plausibly Coleridge’s experiment. (par. 5)


7.        A tendency to criticize the simplistic nature of Southey’s didactic poem is balanced with a generalized sense of admiration for Coleridge’s psychologically subtle approach to the representation of guilt in the critical conversation about the possibility of an abolitionist allegory in the “Rime.” Coleridge has been lauded for his success at cultivating a disturbing feeling of identification with the mariner’s guilt in his audience, precisely because he avoids describing why the mariner shoots the albatross, or what this action might signify. [7]  This argument has a different logic when read in conversation with criticism of Southey’s poem, however, than when read in relation to Coleridge’s poem alone. The juxtaposition reveals a strange paradox, whereby "The Rime" has not only been called a more successful poem than "The Sailor," but has also subtly been framed as a more successful abolitionist poem—despite never directly mentioning the topic of slavery. Considering how many people have read and discussed the "Rime" without referencing the context of Atlantic slavery, however, questions remain about how useful the generalized sense of guilt that Coleridge summons was to the project of abolition.

8.        The critical consensus that Southey’s poem is simplistic also requires reconsideration, since Southey complicates the status of Coleridge’s poem as abolitionist allegory while simplifying its underlying plot. For instance, he often seems to read Coleridge’s poem psychoanalytically, suggesting that Coleridge’s use of supernatural imagery might be read as a sign of the way that mention of the Atlantic trade has been repressed in the poem. In "The Rime," a “million million slimy things” haunt the ancient mariner’s field of vision after the mass death of the ship’s crew (lines 227–35); this image resurfaces in Southey’s description of the way that the enslaved woman’s dead body seems to refuse to sink after she has been thrown overboard. This perhaps implies that Coleridge was himself repressing a reference to the murdered bodies of enslaved people in his description of the “rotting sea” (line 232). Southey further excavates the unconscious of Coleridge’s poem by drawing a connection between the way the sailor describes his torture of the enslaved woman and the vision of his crime that later haunts him. Southey uses the verb “twist” twice; first to describe the enslaved woman’s pain— “She twisted from the blows” (line 81), and then later to describe how the sailor sees his victim’s dead body “twisting everywhere” in the water, long after the sea has closed “over her” (line 101). He thereby suggests there is a connection between the symbolic vehicle the sailor’s guilt takes on and the reason for the guilt itself and invites readers to think about whether this might also be true in the case of Coleridge’s poem. When he examines the unplumbed abolitionist depths of some of Coleridge’s supernatural symbolism, Southey draws attention to the way in which Coleridge allows some readers to disregard the context of slavery, in a way he will not himself allow.

9.        Beyond Southey’s decision to make his poem obviously abolitionist, and to translate supernatural references into descriptions of how the unconscious works, his decision to preface his version of the poem with a headnote that addresses the poem's "public" audience also offers a subtle commentary of Coleridge's methodology. He makes several further alterations to the setting and plot of Coleridge’s poem, when he decides to set the poem in a hovel, to convert the character of the wedding guest into the character of the dissenting minister, to add the character of a captain, and to introduce the question of whether the poem should end in prayer. None of these changes are merely incidental; each of them subject the mechanisms of Coleridge’s allegory to scrutiny, and many of them complicate, rather than simplify, Coleridge’s text. In what follows, I examine the effects of each of these revisions to Coleridge’s poem in detail, putting special emphasis on how they work to cultivate public, as well as private, feeling. In doing so, I do not mean to recuperate Southey’s poem, so much as offer a case study of the way in which abolitionist poetry's overt public purpose has changed the way it has been read.

The Headnote

10.        Southey never directly spoke of his poem as an imitation; instead, he repeatedly claimed that the motivation for the poem came from a real-life encounter. In a letter to his friend John May (26 September 1798), in which he first shares the poem, he describes how he first heard the narrative from the Bristol publisher, Joseph Cottle:

A dissenting minister here, a man of unquestioned veracity, discovered the sailor as you will find related: only last week & Cottles mother took down the account from his mouth. I have verified it as the best means of a story that ought to be widely known. You will not I think object to the frequent ejaculations when you recollect the effect which the whole is intended to produce. (Robert Southey: Poetical Works 288)

Southey recounts the same details in a note to his brother Tom in October 1798 (although this time he states that it was Cottle’s “friend,” rather than his “mother,” who first heard the account): “This my dear Tom which Edith has copied for you is a true story. It is about six weeks since a friend of Cottle found a sailor thus praying in a cowhouse and held conversation with him of which the exact substance is in the ballad” (qtd. in Rubinstein, 24). [8] 


11.        If the sailor’s story does indeed have a basis in truth, notwithstanding Southey’s confusion about whether Cottle heard the story from his mother or his friend, it was mediated several times before Southey came across it. An ungenerous reading of Southey’s claim that the dissenting minister was the only source for his poem is that he was surreptitiously diverting attention away from his borrowings from Coleridge. Chris Rubenstein argues that “Southey must have fictionalized the origin of ‘The Sailor…’” (24). It is certainly possible that Southey could have invented the story of the sailor wholesale, as a kind of cover for his influence. However, the fact of the imitation does not discount the possibility that Southey had heard a story like the sailor’s and was therefore moved to think differently about Coleridge’s poem, or that he adapted a story he had heard in service of an imitation of the “Rime.” Since Southey leaves so many clues for observant readers that his poem is in conversation with the "Rime," however, I will set aside this unsolvable question, in order to instead focus on the effects of reading "The Sailor" as an imitation.

12.        The headnote itself can also be read as a self-conscious experiment with—and revision to—the "Advertisement" of the Lyrical Ballads (1798). With the status of the poem as imitation in view, echoes of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s "Advertisement" abound in Southey’s headnote:

In September, 1798, a Dissenting Minister of Bristol, discovered a Sailor in the neighbourhood of that City, groaning and praying in a hovel. The circumstance that occasioned his agony of mind is detailed in the annexed Ballad, without the slightest addition or alteration. By presenting it as a Poem, the story is made more public; and such stories ought to be made as public as possible. (Robert Southey: Poetical Works 289)

Southey’s reference to the date, 1798, and his emphasis on the authenticity of the ballad indicates that his interaction with the Lyrical Ballads is hiding in plain sight. [9]  In his emphasis on the veracity of his source, Southey, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, builds on tradition that Thomas Percy began when he traveled extensively around the British Isles to collect and record folk ballads in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). [10]  In keeping with the trend which valued ballads directly transcribed from singers’ mouths more highly than those already written down, and presenting himself as a kind of ethnographer, Southey privileges the orality of his text. His insistence that there has been no “addition or alteration” to the sailor’s words obviously contradicts his statement that the story is being “presented” as a poem, yet he preserves a sense of verisimilitude by noting that he has merely fitted the sailor’s words to verse, rather than asking readers to imagine that the sailor originally spoke in ballad meter. By removing the mention of Cottle as an intermediary in the headnote (as opposed to the letters), Southey instead makes the ballad form itself the vessel for the transmission of the tale. He presents the ballad as a medium that takes a story, changes it in a way that makes it more likely to be shared, and then relies on its audience for distribution (akin to something like a meme today). The story has already passed from one member of the public (the sailor) to another (the dissenting minister); the ballad form will allow it to spread much further. As song, the ballad will become the agent of its own re-creation, even beyond the circulation of the printed text. Southey’s suggestion that converting the sailor’s story to ballad meter makes it more transmissible anticipates Wordsworth’s statement in the later "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads (1802), that the story of "Goody Blake and Harry Gill" was “communicated to many hundreds of people who would never have heard of it, had it not been narrated as a Ballad” (112). [11] 


13.        By drawing attention to the way he has “presented” the speech as a ballad, Southey coyly aligns his project with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s 1798 description in the "Advertisement" to the Lyrical Ballads of their wish to experiment with the question of how far “the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure (3).” [12]  From a cynical perspective, when Southey acknowledges that he thinks it necessary to “present” the sailor’s story as a poem, he hints that he thinks his audience might only be persuaded to listen to truths about the Atlantic trade if its horrors are aestheticized or packaged in “a poem.” Yet swapping an emphasis on imitation for one on mediated speech is also a Coleridgean method. Maureen McLane and Celeste Langan have explored the ways in which Wordsworth and Coleridge highlight the status of their ballads as mediated texts. In the end, Southey’s experiment in mediation seems truer to the principles in the "Advertisement" than Coleridge’s poem itself: a comparison between Southey’s poem and Coleridge’s (especially the first version, with the antiquated spelling which Wordsworth so disliked), reveals Southey to be closer to “the language of conversation” than Coleridge was. [13]  Southey’s decision not to name Coleridge in either his headnote or his letters can, from this perspective, be read as evidence of his commitment to his imitation, rather than his desire to cover it up.

14.        Even the language Southey uses to frame the poem’s origins in the private letters echoes the themes of the "Advertisement." His insistence that the ballad was taken down “from the mouth” of the sailor and his apparent misgivings about the style of the sailor’s diction in his “frequent ejaculations,” for instance, mimics Wordsworth and Coleridge’s concern that readers might think “the author has sometimes descended too low, and that many of his expressions are too familiar, and not of sufficient dignity” ("Advertisement," 3). Cottle was the person responsible for showing Southey the MS version of Lyrical Ballads in May 1798 (see Jacobus 21), so he was certainly the intermediary who carried the inspiration for the poem to Southey, one way or another, and Southey’s reference to Cottle’s role as conduit for the story could even be a coy way of gesturing toward this. Cottle’s mother (or friend) could also be considered an avatar of the wedding guest, who receives a version of the poem from the mariner’s mouth, unmediated by text.

The Public and the People

15.        Once the similarities between Southey’s headnote and the 1798 "Advertisement" are clear, it becomes easier to see how Southey also diverges from Coleridge’s example in "The Rime" when he emphasizes the "public" nature of his ballad. This stands out as a crucial difference between his framing of his poem and Coleridge's. Where Coleridge prefers to locate his ballad in a mythical landscape, Southey prompts his audience to recognize the poem’s currency by noting the date (September 1798). Southey also encourages his audience to imagine themselves as part of the “public” in a way that Coleridge avoids. Rather than relying on a pre-established category for defining the public, the headnote calls its own public into being. Since such a small percentage of the population of Britain could vote in 1799, it seems less likely that Southey straightforwardly equates the phrase “the public” with the “voting public,” than that he also envisions his public to also include disenfranchised citizens as he incites readers to coalesce as a group. [14]  To encounter the poem after having read the headnote is to become part of the category of the “public” it is intended to reach.

16.        Whereas Southey openly displays his poem’s didactic purpose, Coleridge was more wary of doing so. In Table Talk, he recalls Anna Barbauld’s objection that the "Rime" had no moral, in order to underline that he considered the “obtrusion of moral sentiment” a “chief fault” in the poem. [15]  As Malcolm Ware notes, Coleridge’s poem does conclude a version of a moral, in the aphoristic line, “He prayeth well who loveth well, / Both man and bird and beast,” (lines 645–6) and the wedding guest leaves his encounter “a sadder and a wiser man” (line 657). Yet this was as much as Coleridge was willing to offer in terms of didacticism: the statement “as public as possible” is anathema to his methodology. Since both Wordsworth and Coleridge’s criticism of the “public” became increasingly vehement, Southey’s emphasis on making the story “as public as possible” has made his poem seem less and less Coleridgean as time has gone on. The 1802 “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads speaks briefly of its wish to appeal to “the approbation of the Public” (115) but after this, Wordsworth and Coleridge quickly begin to vilify this group.

17.        Although it seems counterintuitive that Wordsworth and Coleridge attack the public while also valorizing “the real language of men,” the position makes more sense in light of the knowledge that they did not use the term “public” to denote the “public sphere.” Instead, they used it in a more complex way to describe a group of people whose views were governed by tastemakers and trends. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge distinguished between the “public” (whom they disliked) and the “people” (whom they admired). The most famous explanation of the way they each understood the distinction can be found in Wordsworth’s "Essay Supplementary to the Preface" of his Poems (1815), where he draws on Edmund Burke to argue that the People are worthy of much more respect than the made-up category of “the Public”:

Still more lamentable is his error who can believe that there is any thing of divine infallibility in the clamour of that small though loud portion of the community, ever governed by factitious influence, which, under the name of the PUBLIC, passes itself, upon the unthinking, for the PEOPLE. Towards the Public, the Writer hopes that he feels as much deference as it is entitled to: but to the People, philosophically characterized, and to the embodied spirit of their knowledge, so far as it exists and moves, at the present, faithfully supported by its two wings, the past and the future, his devout respect, his reverence, is due. (661–2)

As Georgina Green summarizes, Wordsworth is interested here in the opposition between a group interested in “transitory” versus “transhistorical” ideals (The Majesty 146). Wordsworth summed up this argument more laconically when he famously quipped that “The people would love the poem of Peter Bell, but the Public (a very different being) will never love it” (Letters 329). Like Wordsworth, Coleridge also often referred to his dislike of the public. In the Biographia Literaria, for instance, he disparages “the multitudinous PUBLIC,” as “shaped into personal unity by the magic of an abstraction” (59); he objects to the notion that a multitude might think in the same way. [16] 


18.        Wordsworth and Coleridge’s argument about the difference between the public and the people has political consequences for their work, though it had humbler beginnings, since it seems to have largely resulted from a defensive reaction to negative reviews of the Lyrical Ballads. Anthony Harding’s explanation that Wordsworth and Coleridge’s use of the term “public” might make more sense if understood as a reference to a “reading public” is useful here (113). In various letters written in the wake of the "Rime," Coleridge insists that no one person should imagine they can speak for the public’s opinion. He calls the public “an imaginary word” which is “of pernicious effect by habituating every Reader to consider himself as the Judge & therefore the Superior of the Writer who yet if he has any justifiable claim to write ought to be his Superior” (Biographia 57, note 3). At the same time, however, Coleridge argues that the way literary reviewers conceive of “the public” will, in turn, impact the way politics are conducted, hinting at the way that his own decision to disavow the public has political implications. Coleridge foresees in the new tendency for critics to describe how the public will receive texts the advent of an era in which individual readers cannot be expected to have their own opinion, or individually evaluate what they read, which will then affect how “the State” treats them:

The Root of the Evil is a Public—and take my word for it, this will wax more prolific of inconvenience, that at length it will scarcely be possible for the State to suffer any truth to be published, because it will be certain to convey a dangerous falsehood to 99 out of a hundred. (“To T.G. Street” 713)

Essentially, Coleridge is suggesting here that once the public assent to the idea that they are part of a group whose opinions can be formed by publications, the status of “truth” itself will become suspect. Thus Coleridge’s disgust for the notion that the public would all respond in a similar way after reading a review aligns with his disinterest in allowing a didactic abolitionist moral to intrude in “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere.” The problem with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s resistance to imagining their audience as a public, however, is that the cause of abolition requires imagining an audience situated in a particular historical moment, and also requires people to be persuaded to act by means of the “clamour” of a “small though loud portion of the community.” Coleridge likely did not expect his ideas about “the public” to affect the way other people’s abolition poems were received, yet his decision to dwell on the difference between the public and the people has had this unfortunate effect.


Entering the Hovel

19.        The opening of the "Rime" perhaps models Coleridge’s preferred relationship to the audience external to the poem, as members of the “people,” rather than as “public”:

IT is an ancyent Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three:
By thy long grey beard and thy glittering eye,
“Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?” (1798, lines 1–4)

Coleridge begins by demonstratively portraying the mariner separating the wedding guest from a group of people in order to tell him his tale. Though this emphasis on “one of three” has sometimes been read as a Biblical allusion (since Jesus is unrecognized as one of the three travelers on the road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13–35]), the lines also emphasize the one-on-one interaction between the mariner and the wedding guest. Coleridge’s 1834 marginal gloss also emphasizes the singularity of the wedding guest: “An ancient Mariner meeteth three gallants bidden to a wedding feast, and detaineth one” (Norton 61). This creates an opportunity for single readers to imagine that they receive an individual hearing of the poem. When Coleridge explains that the mariner will melancholically repeat his tale over and over again, he further encourages individual readers of “The Rime” to imagine themselves being stopped, one by one, in order to hear the next iteration of the tale.


20.        Although Coleridge emphasizes the way he wants his readers to form their own opinions, however, he does not give the internal audience in his poem a choice about whether to listen to his tale. Instead, the mariner compels the wedding guest to submit to his story by separating him from the group and performing a supernatural kind of hypnotism on him. By emptying the wedding guest of volition, Coleridge makes him a kind of vessel for the mariner’s story to fill:

He holds him with his glittering eye
The wedding guest stood still
And listens like a three year’s child;
The Marinere hath his will.
The wedding-guest sate on a stone,
He cannot chuse but hear:
And thus spake on that ancyent man.
The bright-eyed Marinere. (1798, lines 17–24)

Whereas the mariner intrudes into a scene of sociability in order to assault the wedding guest with his tale, Southey suggests the minister has more of a choice about whether to cross the threshold of the hovel to enter into this withdrawn space. Thus, Southey also encourages his poem’s readers to feel that they also have a choice about whether to listen to the sailor’s story, alongside the minister. In this, he grants his readers a sense of agency about whether to count themselves among the number of the “public” he refers to in the headnote.


21.        Southey’s hovel provides a location where a collective abolitionist public can form, allowing his audience to conceptualize a space in which they might metaphorically gather, despite being physically separated by time and space:

He stopt, — it surely was a groan
That from the hovel came!
He stopt and listened anxiously
Again it sounds the same.
It surely from the hovel comes!
And now he hastens there,
And thence he hears the name of Christ
Amidst a broken prayer.
He entered in the hovel now,
A sailor there he sees,
His hands were lifted up to Heaven
And he was on his knees. (lines 1–12)

When the minister enters into the confined space of the hovel, he also metaphorically enters into the intimate space of a confessional box; a space situated somewhere between the public and the private sphere. Just as the confessional is an enclosed space which two people occupy within the larger space of the church, the hovel is situated within the city of Bristol and yet also separate from its hurry. Southey’s decision to situate the poem here, a significant departure from the "Rime," also provides a spatial metaphor for how the public’s entrance into the space of the sailor’s consciousness might work. One might imagine that the sailor would immediately break off his lament on seeing the minister enter, but as Southey depicts him, he hardly notices the entrance of the minister into the hovel. Instead, he continues to “groan” (line 18) and say his prayers as if no change had occurred. The subtle way Southey figures the setting for his sailor’s confession means that the minister is not merely a proxy for individual listeners; he is also a metonym for the “public” that Southey mentions in the headnote, as they collectively enter into the space of the sailor’s mindset.


Speaking with the Sailor

22.        To be part of Southey’s “public” is to first be asked to witness the sailor’s confession from the perspective of the dissenting minister, and then to be asked to imagine oneself in the role of the confessant himself. Southey not only encourages members of his poem’s public to identify with the sailor’s subject position when he asks them to enter the hovel; he also does so sonically, by asking them to engage in a recitation of his confession, through the medium of the ballad (whether they recite out loud or inwardly). [17]  When the sailor uses the first-person pronoun to say he has done a “cursed deed,” readers must also say this pronoun:

Oh I have done a cursed deed
The wretched man replies,
And night and day and every where
’Tis still before my eyes.
I sail’d on board a Guinea-man
And to the slave-coast went
Would that the sea had swallowed me
When I was innocent!
And we took in our cargo there,
Three hundred negroe slaves,
And we sailed homeward merrily
Over the ocean waves. (lines 53–64)

Despite his repeated insistence that his “sin” torments him, the sailor remains unreflective about the events that led up to his crime. The sailor was not “innocent” at the point that he took “three hundred” people onto a ship, yet still insists on continuing to willfully overlook the violence of the act he participated in. When Southey slips in the detail that the sailor’s ship, like Coleridge’s ship, embarks “merrily” (line 63), he not only indicts the sailor for his carelessness, but also the ancient mariner as well. The bouncing merriness of Southey’s ballad meter is obviously opposed to the sailor’s subject matter, emphasizing the profanity of the idea that anyone could believe that this kind of ship could sail “merrily.” Nonetheless, an audience has to viscerally participate in the sailor’s use of meter, and so is also forced to confront this tension.


23.        In his depiction of the sailor’s insouciance, Southey subtly reminds his readers that people not directly involved in the violence of the Atlantic trade are still guilty of perpetuating the system, even if they consider themselves “innocent” (line 60). At a time when consumer habits drove the violence forward, William Wilberforce often made the argument that slavery was a moral degradation for all members of the British public, not just the people directly involved in it. In a speech he made on 12 May 1789, he cast all citizens in the role of those who had done “cursed deeds”:

We are all guilty. We ought to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others… when we reflect it is we ourselves that have degraded them to that wretched brutishness and barbarity which we now plead as the justification of guilt.” (qtd. in Sonoi 28)

Southey encourages individual members of the public to realize that they share in the blame for the sailor’s crime, even if they have not themselves committed it.


24.        The ballad form also emphasizes this sense of a shared “public” guilt. Anyone who reads Southey’s ballad reads it knowing that many others have spoken, and will speak, in chorus with him. Even if the sailor seems to be voicing private pain, he does so using a “public” form. Susan Stewart’s theory of lyric possession, alongside readings of abolitionist poems that rely on it, such as Ivan Ortiz’s work on "Lyric Possession in the Abolitionist Ballad," is instructive here. [18]  The sailor’s voice, qua ballad, is always already inhabited by other voices, joining in a chorus that transcends time and space: speaking singly and communally at once. Both the hovel and the ballad form are containers for Southey’s public: the ballad, like the hovel, marks out a space for a collective confession, spoken through the sailor’s only seemingly individual voice. The way the ballad form functions as a middle space between the private and the public can be conceptually compared with the way the hovel functions as a middle space between the sailor’s private life and the public space of Bristol which surrounds him.

25.        The ancient mariner also speaks in ballad meter, which means that his audience outside the poem can also recognize his narrative as an entrance into a form of collective consciousness with other readers outside the space of the poem. In Coleridge’s poem, however, even those readers who identify with the mariner’s sense of guilt, and acknowledge that other readers are also doing so, can still escape a confrontation with their own role in the complicity in the violence of slavery, because the allegorical mode allows them security. For a reader reciting Southey’s ballad, by contrast, there is no refuge in metaphor. No member of Southey’s public can join voices with the sailor without also confronting the brutal horror of the “cursed deeds” that the lack of an abolition ruling was causing.

The Violence of Representation

26.        The ethical value of asking an audience to put themselves in the position of the guilty sailor becomes increasingly strained as the poem continues, however. Although Southey’s sailor sounds very like Coleridge’s mariner in the opening lines of his speech, his confession suddenly takes on a very different tone when he starts to narrate the way he was forced to torture the enslaved woman, while also emphasizing his own suffering. No sooner has the sailor confessed to the murder than he begins to insist on his own status as a victim, harping on the pain his guilt causes. Perhaps Southey may have defended his representation of such extreme selfishness by arguing that he was parodying the Coleridge’s mariner’s focus on himself. Certainly, the mariner comes to seem more culpable through the lens of Southey’s poem: "The Sailor" offers an implicit critique of how problematic Coleridge’s emphasis on the mariner’s obsession with his own suffering becomes if the poem is read in an abolitionist context. Yet this section of the sailor’s narration of his crime is violent in other ways, too, and should come with a content warning:

But some were sulky of the slaves
And would not touch their meat
So therefore we were forced by threats
And blows to make them eat.
One woman sulkier than the rest
Would still refuse her food, —
O Jesus God! I hear her cries —
I see her in her blood!
The Captain made me tie her up
And flog while he stood by
And then he curs’d me if I staid
My hand to hear her cry.
She groan’d, she shriek’d — I could not spare
For the Captain he stood by —
Dear God! that I might rest one night
From that poor woman’s cry!
She twisted from the blows — her blood
Her mangled flesh I see —
And still the Captain would not spare —
Oh he was worse than me! (lines 65–84)

When Southey adds the character of the captain to his depiction of this scene of torture, he may be referencing Isaac Cruikshank’s well-known image of a notorious scene in which Captain Kimber ordered an enslaved woman to be whipped. In this image, which I have chosen not to reprint here, the woman who is being whipped by a sailor has been stripped of her clothes, suggesting that she has been sexually assaulted, while a lascivious captain in the foreground of the frame unabashedly meets the viewer’s gaze. The euphemistic title of the image also draws attention to the way she has been assaulted: "The abolition of the slave trade Or the inhumanity of dealers in human flesh exemplified in Captn. Kimber’s treatment of a young Negro girl of 15 for her virjen (sic) modesty." The “public” Southey addresses would likely have heard of this case, because Wilberforce referenced it in a speech denouncing Kimber in the early 1790s. [19]  This intertext points to the way that any reference to the torture of an enslaved woman can be understood to be sexualized, even if Southey does not make overt reference to sexual assault. Yet by asking viewers to meet the captain’s gaze, Cruikshank also dramatizes the way in which viewers to some extent participate in a scene like this when they observe it. Even if Cruikshank might defend his picture by saying that the representation of such a scene is designed to limit violence, he also encourages viewers to become complicit onlookers to violence within the scene itself.


27.        Southey’s description of the torture of the enslaved woman, like Cruikshank’s drawing, also enacts violence, as well as recording it. His representation of the sailor’s confession is a stark example of the violence often inherent in the representation of violence done to Black bodies by white abolitionists (and primarily for white abolitionists). The very fact of his decision to represent this scene is ethically problematic, because of the way that it makes the woman’s pain instrumental. Critical reactions to the recordings and representations of Black suffering today offer a theoretical lens through which to understand the harm that Southey’s abolitionist tactic causes. Reflecting on the videos of the beating of Rodney King in 1991, Elizabeth Alexander has noted that the video of King’s assault circulated in such a way as to inure viewers to the violence, even when those circulating the images did so with the intention of bringing justice. Alexander’s argument, which details the ways in which the recordings of violence can function as a tool of white supremacy, can also be applied to representations of violence. Christina Sharpe also explores the ethics of representation when she provides a chronology through which to understand the critique of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till. Sharpe’s logic can be applied to a viewing of Southey’s tableau: when he chooses to represent the murder of an enslaved Black woman, he also incites associations with previous representations of enslaved women, which have taught viewers to exert their gaze in a different way than they might confront images of violence done to white bodies. Looking at such violence is not simply a passive condition: it is an act that participates in a hierarchical structure imbued with its own history of violence. [20] 

28.        The sailor has not learned from his representation of his victim’s suffering to understand the woman’s humanity. He twice calls the woman he has murdered “sulky” for her decision to refuse food, dismissing her act of protest (lines 65, 69). The violence Southey himself does to the enslaved woman continues in the way he has the sailor describe her death: “She groan’d and groan’d, but her groans grew / Fainter at morning tide (lines 93–4). Thus the enslaved woman’s suffering is slowly rendered inaudible as she dies, her subjecthood growing “fainter” alongside her groans. By emphasizing the way in which she seemingly disappears as her groans diminish, the sailor also diminishes the force of her suffering, in order to turn his attention back towards his own groans in the hovel—“So I came here alone, / That I might freely kneel and pray, / And call on Christ and groan” (lines 29–31). The sailor further heightens the sense that he has learned very little when he begins to complain that his suffering is worse than the woman’s. Repeatedly trivializing his victim’s pain, the sailor seems incapable of understanding it, despite having put himself in the woman’s position for other more selfish reasons. His frequent comparisons of himself to her are outrageous: “She could not be more glad than I / When she was taken down” (lines 85–6), he says. His assertion that he is envious of the “rest” his victim has been granted in death is also grotesque:

They flung her overboard; — poor wretch
She rested from her pain, —
But when — o Christ! o blessed God!
Shall I have rest again! (lines 97–100)

Looking back at the beginning of the poem through the lens of these lines, the sailor seems increasingly self-obsessed. Early in the poem, for instance, the sailor says he wishes he had drowned before he committed the murder, only to later describe how the sea did in fact swallow the enslaved woman. The status of the poem as an imitation or parody does not absolve Southey of the violence of his representation at moments like this.


“The Captain He Stood By”

29.        Southey’s addition of the character of the captain—another departure from the narrative of the "Rime"—might also be seen to increase the violence of Southey’s representation, as compared with Coleridge’s poem. Whereas Coleridge’s mariner stresses that it was his own decision to commit his crime (even though he doesn’t understand why he did it), Southey’s sailor argues that he was forced to do so. His argument that the captain was “worse” than him seems designed to absolve himself of blame, and Southey could be seen to be absolving the sailor of his sin when he encourages the public to channel their outrage at the captain, rather than the sailor himself. From the sailor’s perspective, it is as if the captain refuses to “spare” him, as well as the woman, when he orders the whipping.

30.        From another perspective, however, Southey’s decision to exaggerate the sailor’s self-interest could be read as a critique of the sailor’s denial of his responsibility. The way that Southey introduces the character of the captain just at the moment that the true force of his violence emerges exposes the sailor’s inability to accept culpability for his crime, and therefore a lack of true contrition. To this extent, his insistence that he was not in control of his own “hand” does not absolve him of the crime. This exploration of how a network of blame-shifting allows the slave trade to function looks forward to Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil. [21]  Like Eichmann, he repeatedly insists that he was only following orders.

31.        The status of Southey’s own ethical position vis-à-vis the sailor also becomes much more complex when Coleridge’s lecture "On the Slave Trade" in Bristol in 1795 is brought into view as another intertext for the poem. Although there is no “Captain” in the "Rime," Coleridge had emphasized the plight of sailors at the hands of such captains in the lecture. In Bristol, Coleridge looked forward to an argument Thomas Clarkson would also make, when he described the brutal psychological and physical damage that sailors press-ganged into going to sea suffered and argued that they should also be considered victims. The printed version of the lecture, published in The Watchman (1796), offers a crucial intertext for Coleridge’s representation of the mariner, and also offers the possibility that Southey may have seen himself to be amplifying a message he finds in Coleridge’s poem about the sympathy that mariners were due:

For the officers, employed as the immediate instrument of buying, selling, and torturing human Flesh, must from the moral necessity of their circumstances become dead to every feeling of confession. From the brutality of their Captain and the unwholesomeness of the Climate through which they pass, it has been calculated that every Slave Vessel from the Port of Bristol loses on average almost a fourth of the whole Crew—and so far is the Trade from being a nursery for Seamen, that the Survivors are rather shadows in their appearance than men and frequently perish in Hospitals after the completion of their Voyage . . . (238).

 [22]  Southey perhaps mimics the argument of the Lecture when he foregrounds the “brutality” of a “Captain” in his poem. Although Southey’s sailor has not become fully dead to confession in the way Coleridge describes, he could be said to live a kind of undead life after he murders the woman. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker note that sailors often saw themselves on a continuum with the enslaved, since the predominance of press-gangs meant that they were not always in control of their decision to go to sea. [23]  Southey gives many clues that the sailor considers himself to be at the mercy of the captain. The ambiguity of subject and object in the sailor’s utterance, “We were forced by threats and blows to make them eat,” means that it is unclear whether the sailor is the only one doing the beating or is also himself being beaten and threatened as he is forced to act. The title Southey gives to his poem, "The Sailor who had Served in the Slave Trade" (my emphasis), also invites a comparison between servitude and enslavement. Southey perhaps even subtly invokes a sonic link between the sailor as “chattel” and “cattle” when he says he “has no place to pray onboard” and decides to exile himself in a “cow-house,” as the 1815 Preface puts it. [24] 


32.        Whether or not Southey meant to defend the sailor’s position, the presence of the captain in his poem draws attention to how the structures of slavery work to disperse guilt; a strategy that is not so apparent in Coleridge’s poem. When Southey adds the detail that the captain authored the woman’s murder by merely standing by, he underlines the fact that guilty actors are not necessarily the people who commit the violence, they are also those who insist their hands are clean while creating the conditions in which violence occurs. Speaking on the issue of police brutality today, Angela Davis has argued that it is not enough to blame the individual police officers who have committed murder, or demand that they be punished. Instead, she argues, the emphasis must be on collective consciousness of collective responsibility: “The major challenge of this period is to infuse a consciousness of the structural character of state violence” (22). Southey’s addition of the character of the captain, when read in relation to his phrase, “as public as possible,” might be read as a similar call to draw attention to the need for structural change, rather than merely focus attention on individual actors.

33.        By dramatizing the sailor’s indictment of the captain alongside evidence of his monstrous self-interest, Southey demonstrates that the functioning of Atlantic slavery relies on people trying to absolve themselves of guilt by creating a hierarchy of blame, drawing attention to the way in which a logic of individualized guilt allows the continuation of violence. Because of the way Southey triangulates the agency of the sailor’s crime, readers cannot condemn either the sailor or the captain without also implicating themselves in the guilt of the system he decries. That is, as soon as a reader condemns either the sailor’s or the captain’s violence, that reader becomes someone who justifies their own role in the system of the slave trade by also blaming someone else. The moment that readers decide that either the captain or the sailor is “worse than” them, they also suddenly employ the sailor’s logic of shifting the blame. Thus, Southey complicates Coleridge’s plot, and once again foregrounds his interest in inciting a collective sense of responsibility in the public, as he subtly confronts them with the question of whether they might themselves be guilty of tacitly “standing by” as others commit violence on their behalf. The addition of the captain not only implicates Southey’s “public” in the dispersal of guilt, it also asks them to cohere on that basis.

Praying Together in 1815

34.        Another way that Southey complicates Coleridge’s poem is to problematize the question of what it means for the mariner to end up being allowed to pray in the church at the end of the "Rime." In the 1799 version of his poem, Southey merely echoes the end of Coleridge’s poem, when he pictures the minister sending the sailor out of the hovel and towards the church, where he can “hear the word of God” (line 123). The minister assures the sailor that he can find “help” there (line 124); and that “All sins shall be forgiven” (line 120). In the "Rime," Coleridge had similarly stressed the mariner’s transition from isolation to “goodly company,” emphasizing the mariner’s joy at being able to go to church with other people after his time alone on the ship. If Coleridge’s poem is read as an allegory about a slave-ship, the mariner benefits from the doctrine of “Amazing Grace” when he is rescued by the hermit and allowed “To walk together to the Kirk / And all together pray” (lines 637–8).

35.        When Southey revises his poem in 1815, however, he makes the sailor’s—and the public’s—passage to absolution seem less easy, since he de-emphasizes the idea that the sailor will straightforwardly be granted forgiveness for his sins. Rather than allowing the sailor to go to church, he decides to leave the sailor in the hovel, frustrating the sense of hope and resolution granted to him in 1799. At this very moment, he also demonstratively ushers the poem’s readers into the space of the hovel when he suddenly asks a question about whether they will pray alongside the sailor and the minister. In this way, the presence of the listening “public” Southey appeals to in his headnote suddenly becomes visible in the poem itself:

He bade him pray, and knelt with him,
And joined him in his prayers;
And some who read the dreadful tale
Perhaps will aid with theirs. (1815, lines 124–8)

 [25]  This new ending introduces a question about whether readers will choose to pray for the sailor or not. “Some” will pray; others may decide the sailor is not worthy of such “aid.” Even as Southey notes that the sailor may not deserve such attention, however, he may also be indicting those contemporary readers who choose not to pray, since the rest of the poem has asked them to consider their own complicity in the violence of the Atlantic trade, and their own need for contrition. In other words, he may not only be asking readers to pray for the sailor, but also for their own sins. Where Coleridge is focused on the mariner’s singular crime and singular guilt, Southey is focused on how one prayer might become many prayers, as he tries to transform Coleridge’s emphasis on the mariner’s individual “soul in agony” into a sense of communal responsibility. At the same time, there is still an obvious ethical tension in Southey’s decision to allow the minister to pray for the sailor. The 1815 ending to the poem, like the 1799 version, centers on white guilt more than Black suffering, meaning that Marcus Wood’s point about the poem’s perspective still stands, despite this revision.


36.        Where there is optimism for what this ballad might achieve in the public sphere and about the public’s power to effect change, however, there is also an implicit indictment of the public for allowing slavery to continue. Southey’s decision to use one term, “public,” to include both those who allowed slavery to continue and those who sought to end it (as well as those who were aware of their complicity and those who weren’t) is more complex than it might seem. In his headnote, Southey presages Jürgen Habermas’ theory of the relation between the public and the counterpublic, by asking readers to identify themselves as part of a group that has the potential to form its own countervailing discourse against predominant public norms, while also acknowledging their own position within the broader public sphere that is complicit in their production.


37.        I have aimed, here, to give an abolitionist poem the same quality of attention that other only seemingly simple poems in the Lyrical Ballads have received. As responses to Southey’s poem show, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s disparagement of “the public” not only defined the taste by which Southey’s poems have been read by, but also, much more broadly, influenced the conditions in which antislavery poetry has been reproduced and received. This is a legacy that persists. It has long been acknowledged that the field of Romanticism has been subject to a structural problem that has meant it has evaluated abolitionist texts differently than other texts from the same period, yet even after that critique, biases remain. "The Sailor" is one of the few abolitionist poems routinely found in anthologies: this is perhaps precisely because it bears a relationship to Coleridge’s more well-known poem. In closing, then, I wish to acknowledge that the process of tracing responses to Southey’s poem has caused me to reflect on my own decision to begin to write about it. As Marlon Ross has argued, many Romanticists focus “almost exclusively on how writers of the period approached abolition debates concerning the slave trade and colonial slavery” (25), perpetuating a system that has privileged white perspectives of slavery above the voices of enslaved people themselves. I close, then, with a reminder that the voices of the sailor and the mariner are heard against the backdrop of the forced silence of enslaved people themselves. The question of how to make this brutal act of silencing “as public as possible” still remains.


I would like to thank Kate Singer, Lily Gurton-Wachter, Tristram Wolff, Sylvia Lanni, and Caroline Seitz for their comments on this essay.

Works Cited

Alexander, Elizabeth. "‘Can you be Black and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s)." Public Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, 1994, pp. 77–94.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Viking Press, 1963.

Bainbridge, Simon. "‘Was it for this [. . .]?’: The Poetic Histories of Southey and Wordsworth." Romanticism on the Net, no. 32–3, 2003–2004. Erudit, www.erudit.org/en/journals/ron/1900-v1-n1-ron769/009258ar.

Baum, Joan. Mind-forg’d Manacles: Slavery and the English Romantic Poets. Archon Books, 1994.

Butler, Marilyn. "Repossessing the Past: The Case for an Open Literary History." Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History, edited by Marjorie Levinson, Blackwell Publishers, 1989, pp. 64–84.

Chandler, David. "Southey’s 'German Sublimity' and Coleridge’s 'Dutch Attempt.'" Romanticism on the Net, no. 32–3, 2003–2004. Erudit, www.erudit.org/en/journals/ron/1900-v1-n1-ron769/009257ar/.

Coleridge, John Taylor, et al. Table Talk. Edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge and Carl Woodring, vol 1., Princeton UP, 1990.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, vol. 7, Princeton UP, 1983.

———. "On the Slave Trade." The Watchman, no. 4, 25 March 1796. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Lewis Patton, Routledge & Kegan Paul / Princeton UP, 1970, pp. 130–40.

———. "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere." Lyrical Ballads, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, London, J. & A. Arch, 1798. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano, Norton, 2004, pp. 58–99.

———. “To T.G. Street.” 22 March 1817. The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by E. L. Griggs, vol. 4, The Clarendon Press, 1956, p. 713.

"Citizenship: An Exhibition." The National Archives, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/getting_vote.html. Accessed 26 July 2020.

Cruikshank, Isaac. The Abolition of the Slave Trade. 1792, The British Museum, London. The British Museum, www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1868-0808-6179.

Davis, Angela. Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement. Haymarket Books, 2016.

Diaby, Bakary. "Black Women and/in the Shadow of Romanticism." European Romantic Review, vol. 30, no.3, pp. 249–54.

Empson, William. "The Ancient Mariner." Critical Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 4, 1964, pp. 298–319.

Foreman, P. Gabrielle, et al. "Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help." NAACP Culpepper #7058, naacpculpeper.org/resources/writing-about-slavery-this-might-help/. Accessed June 2020.

Fulford, Tim. "Slavery and Superstition in the Supernatural Poems." The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, edited by Lucy Newlyn, Cambridge UP, 2002.

Green, Georgina. The Majesty of the People: Popular Sovereignty and the Role of the Writer in the 1790s. Oxford UP, 2014.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Polity Press 1989.

Harding, Anthony John. "Contempt for the Reading Public? —Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Book Business." Grasmere 2012: Selected Papers from the 2012 Wordsworth Summer Conference, Humanities E Books, 2012, p.113.

Jacobus, Mary. "Southey’s Debt to Lyrical Ballads(1798)." The Review of English Studies, vol. 22, no. 85, 1971, pp. 20–36.

Keane, Patrick J. Coleridge’s Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner and Robinson Crusoe. U of Missouri P, 1994.

Kitson, Peter. "Coleridge, the French Revolution, and ‘The Ancient Mariner’: Collective Guilt and Individual Salvation." The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 19, 1989, pp. 197–207.

———. "Coleridge, the French Revolution, and 'The Ancient Mariner': A Reassessment." The Coleridge Bulletin, no. 7, 1996, pp. 30–48.

Langan, Celeste, and Maureen N. McLane, "The Medium of Romantic Poetry." The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry, Cambridge UP, 2008.

Lee, Debbie. Slavery and the Romantic Imagination. U of Pennsylvania P, 2002.

Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra : The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Beacon Press, 2000.

Lowes, John Livingston. The Road to Xanadu - A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Houghton Mifflin, 1927.

McLane, Maureen N. Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry. Cambridge UP, 2008.

Ortiz, Ivan. "Lyric Possession in the Abolition Ballad." Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 51, no. 2, 2018, pp. 197–218.

Paul-Emile, Barbara T. "Samuel Taylor Coleridge as Abolitionist." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 5, no. 2, 1974, pp. 59–75.

Pratt, Lynda. "Introduction: Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism." Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism. Routledge, 2016, pp. xvii–xxix.

Ross, Marlon. "The Race of/in Romanticism: Notes Toward a Critical Race Theory." Race, Romanticism, and the Atlantic, edited by Paul Youngquist, Ashgate Publishing, 2013.

Rubinstein, Chris. "A New Identity for the Mariner?: A Further Exploration of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’" The Coleridge Bulletin, no. 3, 1990, pp. 16–29.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.

———. "‘What Does It Mean to Be Black and Look at This?’ A Scholar Reflects on the Dana Schutz Controversy." Hyperallergic, hyperallergic.com/368012/what-does-it-mean-to-be-black-and-look-at-this-a-scholar-reflects-on-the-dana-schutz-controversy/. Accessed 8 June 2020.

Smith, Christopher. "Robert Southey and the Emergence of Lyrical Ballads." Romanticism on the Net, no. 9, 1998. Erudite, www.erudit.org/en/journals/ron/1900-v1-n1-ron421/005792ar/.

Sonoi, Chine. "Coleridge and the British Slave Trade." The Coleridge Bulletin: New Series, vol. 27, 2006, pp. 27–37.

Southey, Robert. "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade." Poems, Bristol: Biggs and Cottle, for Messrs. Longman and Rees, London, 1799. Robert Southey: Poetical Works, 1793–1810., edited by Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford, and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts. Pickering & Chatto, 2004, pp. 288–92.

———. "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade." The Minor Poems. vol. 1, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815, pp. 43–55.

———. "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade." The Poetical Works of Robert Southey, Collected by Himself. vol. 1. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1837, pp.61–7.

———. Review of Lyrical Ballads, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Critical Review, 24, 1798, pp. 197-204.

———. “To John May.” 26 Sept. 1798. The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, edited by C. C. Southey, pp. 1849–50.

Stewart, Susan. "Lyric Possession." Critical Inquiry, vol. 22, no.1,1995, pp. 34–63.

Ware, Malcolm. "Coleridge’s ‘Spectre-Bark’: A Slave Ship?" Philological Quarterly, vol. 40, 1961, pp. 589–93.

Wood, Marcus. Slavery, Empathy, Pornography. Oxford UP, 2002.

Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "Advertisement" to Lyrical Ballads, 1798. The Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802, edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford UP, 2013, pp. 3–5.

———. "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, 1802. The Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802, edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford UP, 2013, pp. 95–117.

William Wordsworth. "Essay Supplementary to the Preface" to Poems, 1815. William Wordsworth: The Major Works, edited by Stephen Gill, Oxford UP, 2000, pp. 640–63.

———. “To Sir George Beaumont.” Dec. 1807. Letters of the Wordsworth family from 1787–1855, edited by William Knight, Boston Ginn, 1907, p. 329.


[1] All references to "The Sailor" are from the 1799 version of Southey’s poem, reprinted in Robert Southey: Poetical Works, 1793–1810, unless otherwise stated. As this edition notes, "The Sailor" was first published in Poems (1799), extensively revised for Minor Poems (1815, 1823), and also included in Poetical Works (1837) (288). BACK

[2] All references to "The Rime" are from the 1798 edition of the Lyrical Ballads in Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. BACK

[3] Malcolm Ware referenced Southey’s poem when he first made this claim. William Empson, Barbara T. Paul-Emile, Patrick Keane, Peter Kitson, and Debbie Lee have also explored the status of Coleridge’s poem as antislavery allegory. Marcus Wood objects to the argument that Coleridge thought of his poem as an abolitionist text, however, calling that argument a failed experiment. Emphasizing Coleridge’s superior sense of tact in avoiding the subject of slavery, Wood argues that Coleridge understood “the essential selfishness of the cult of sensibility, and of its inappropriateness as an imaginative resource for interpreting slavery” in a way that Southey did not (219). BACK

[4] John Livingston Lowes argues that the ancient mariner’s “punishment, measured by the standards of a world of balanced penalties, palpably does not fit the crime” (274–5), yet, through the lens of Ware’s argument, the ancient mariner’s fascination with his guilt becomes more appropriate. BACK

[5] Lynda Pratt, “Introduction: Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism,” Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism. Routledge 2016, xviii. BACK

[6] Simon Bainbridge emphasizes Southey’s role as “public” poet when he argues that, “Marilyn Butler has presented the political, public Southey as an alternative exemplary Romantic figure to the Wordsworth that she sees constructed by the quietest, intellectual agendas of the academy” (Butler, "Repossessing" 64–84).” Bainbridge himself argues that Southey offers “a manifesto for a different poetic mode to the one normally defined as Romantic, one that is politically committed and speaks with what Southey terms in another poem of 1798 ‘the calm, collected public voice’” (Bainbridge par. 2). BACK

[7] See, for instance, Tim Fulford: “distancing himself from contemporary events allowed Coleridge to find terms which would let readers share the mental state that, he argued, was produced by, and in turn reproduced, those events” (50). See also Joan Baum, who argues in a reading of Wordsworth’s poem on Toussaint L’Ouverture that “the genius of Romantic poetry is to avoid palpable or overt moral purpose, and explore the imaginative consciousness of both the poet and humanity” (146). BACK

[8] Rubenstein notes that the postmark to this letter is obscured; however, comparing the references in the letters to Tom and May (“one week” and “six weeks”) makes it likely that the letter was sent in October 1798. BACK

[9] The phrase Southey uses to describe the psychological results of the sailor’s guilt in his headnote, too, “agony of mind,” recalls Coleridge’s mariner’s line, “And Christ would take no pity on / My soul in agony” (lines 226–7). BACK

[10] Southey’s transformation of his source text into a poem also chimes with Percy’s tendency to correct or make changes to the songs he recorded, which was well documented by this period. BACK

[11] William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Preface," to the Lyrical Ballads (1802), The Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802, edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford UP, 2013, pp. 95–117. BACK

[12]  I refer to the "Advertisement" of 1798 since this is the edition Southey had access to when he wrote the first version poem, though he would also have been aware of the longer "Preface" and "Essay Supplementary to the Preface" when he made successive revisions to the poem. BACK

[13]  In the 1798 "Advertisement" to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth makes an apology for Coleridge’s poem ("The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" was professedly written in imitation of the style, as well as of the spirit, of the elder poets; but with a few exceptions, the Author believes that the language adopted in it has been equally intelligible for these three last centuries.”) BACK

[14] “A survey conducted in 1780 revealed that the electorate in England and Wales consisted of just 214,000 people - less than 3% of the total population of approximately 8 million” ("Citizenship"). BACK

[15] In a reflection on "The Ancient Mariner" in Table Talk, Coleridge noted “Mrs Barbauld once told me that she admired The Ancient Mariner very much, but that there were two faults in it—it was improbable, and had no moral. As for the probability, I owned that that might admit some question; but as to the want of a moral, I told her that in my own judgement the poem had too much; and that the only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination” (vol. I, 272). BACK

[16] Coleridge also calls the Public a “misgrowth of our luxuriant activity,” as if the practice of reviewing has not been properly pruned (“To T. G. Street”). BACK

[17] The sailor’s “broken prayer” also emphasizes a sense of community within the hovel since prayer is a familiar form of communal speech. Since the public knew the Lord’s Prayer, that the sailor forgot, they might find themselves filling his silences. BACK

[18] See Ivan Ortiz, "Lyric Possession in the Abolition Ballad." BACK

[19] See “Curator’s Comments” on Cruikshank’s print: "The abolition of the Slave Trade." BACK

[20] Bakary Diaby also discusses the Dana Schutz controversy in relation to the protocols of Romanticism: “The Open Casket affair… participates in a long tradition of Black women serving as the occasion for a sustained discourse on race while remaining in the shadows of that discourse…We see a similar dynamic play out, I will suggest, in contemporary scholarship on Romanticism” (249). BACK

[21] See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). BACK

[22] Coleridge’s image of the spectral “shadows” of sailors, zombified by the trauma of the violence they commit, might find an echo in his depiction of the dead crew aboard the ship in "The Ancient Mariner." BACK

[23] See Linebaugh and Rediker: “For sailors, the press-gang represented slavery and death: three out of four pressed men died within two years, with only one in five of the dead expiring in battle. Those lucky enough to survive could not expect to be paid, as it was not uncommon, writes John Ehrman, the preeminent scholar of the navy of the 1690s, for a seaman to be owed a decade's wages. The figure of the starving, often lame sailor in the seaport town became a permanent feature of European civilization, even as the motley crew became a permanent feature of modern navies” (151). BACK

[24] I am grateful to Susan Wolfson, who pointed this echo between “cattle” and “chattel” out in a graduate seminar at Princeton University. BACK

[25] This ending to the poem does not appear in the editorial apparatus to the poem in Robert Southey: Poetical Works, 1793–1810, but I have verified it in the original version. BACK