Anna Letitia Barbauld, in a famous exchange recorded in Coleridge's Table Talk, complained that the "Rime" "has no moral".... Coleridge's snappy response to Mrs. Barbauld was that there was too much moral, and then he compared the poem unfavorably in this respect with the tale from the Arabian Nights in which a merchant is subjected to an excruciating penance for having thrown a date pit over a wall and accidentally killed the son of a genie. (22-3)So Fry's an old hand at Romantic poetry, & this is indeed a famous anecdote – so famous that even I've heard it. But there comes a point when paraphrasing from memory is tantamount to just plain faking it. For god's sake, Fry could at least have re-read the Frances Ferguson essay he includes in his own collection, which quotes the actual anedote:
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 judgment 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. It ought to have had no more moral the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a geni starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date-shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the geni's son.Exercise: correlate the two accounts & add up Fry's misremembered details. [FOUR, by my count, in a single sentence.] Pronounce on the fitness to carry out editorial work – on an edition intended for undergraduate students of literature & theory – of an editor who commits so many easily corrected gaffes in his opening summary.
I will spare the rant – who edits these things? where was Ross Murfin (series editor) when this thing went thru proofs? who's at the wheel of these ubiquitous "teaching editions"??
Fry does point me towards a sentence by my critical darling William Empson, who sums up the poem's ostensible "moral" in his inimitably pithy way: "don't pull poor pussy's tail."