Coleridge believed that symbolic language was the only acceptable way of expressing deep religious truths and consistently employed the sun as a symbol of God. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge compares the sun to “God’s own head” (97) and, later, attributes the first phase of the mariner’s punishment to the sun, as it dehydrates the crew. All told, this poem contains eleven references to the sun, many of which signify the Christian conception of a wrathful, vengeful God. Bad, troubling things happen to the crew during the day, while smooth sailing and calm weather occur at night, by the light of the moon. Frequently, the sun stands in for God’s influence and power, as well as a symbol of his authority. The setting sun spurs philosophical musings, as in “The Eolian Harp,” and the dancing rays of sunlight represent a pinnacle of nature’s beauty, as in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.”
Like the sun, the moon often symbolizes God, but the moon has more positive connotations than the sun. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the sun and the moon represent two sides of the Christian God: the sun represents the angry, wrathful God, whereas the moon represents the benevolent, repentant God. All told, the moon appears fourteen times in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and generally favorable things occur during night, in contrast to the horrors that occur during the day. For example, the mariner’s curse lifts and he returns home by moonlight. “Dejection: An Ode” (1802) begins with an epitaph about the new moon and goes on to describe the beauty of a moonlit night, contrasting its beauty with the speaker’s sorrowful soul. Similarly, “Frost at Midnight” also praises the moon as it illuminates icicles on a winter evening and spurs the speaker to great thought.
Dreams and Dreaming
Coleridge explores dreams and dreaming in his poetry to communicate the power of the imagination, as well as the inaccessible clarity of vision. “Kubla Khan” is subtitled “A Vision in a Dream.” According to Coleridge, he fell asleep while reading and dreamed of a marvelous pleasure palace for the next few hours. Upon awakening, he began transcribing the dream-vision but was soon called away; when he returned, he wrote out the fragments that now comprise “Kubla Khan.” Some critics doubt Coleridge’s story, attributing it to an attempt at increasing the poem’s dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the poem speaks to the imaginative possibilities of the subconscious. Dreams usually have a pleasurable connotation, as in “Frost at Midnight.” There, the speaker, lonely and insomniac as a child at boarding school, comforts himself by imagining and then dreaming of his rural home. In his real life, however, Coleridge suffered from nightmares so terrible that sometimes his own screams would wake him, a phenomenon he details in “The Pains of Sleep.” Opium probably gave Coleridge a sense of well-being that allowed him to sleep without the threat of nightmares.