Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner as our companions

What if during your creative 'annus mirabilis', you wrote a poem that became prophetic of the trajectory of your own life? Looking backward could you use that very poem to structure your life within a deepening, meaningful frame, fruitfully illuminating it? Can we, wanting to understand the poet better, do likewise?

This is the guiding conceit of Malcolm Guite's wonderful book on the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the poem, as illustrated here by David Jones, is 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.

The Mariner, as will be recalled, went on a journey that takes him to the very edge of alienation, the very bottom of despair where he confronts Death and the yet more disturbing Death in Life; and, yet, through unmerited grace, is drawn back to a life of continuous 'penance' of offering his story to those who are, in being ripe to hear it and in need of hearing it, turned themselves to a new path. The wedding guest whose path he deliberately crosses to recount his tale does exactly this at the poem's closing. The wedding guest's invitation to listen and change their lives is our invitation too.

The Mariner, to use an image from another tradition, is a Bodhisattva, his own full redemption postponed vowed to roam the earth to bring enlightenment to every one as and when they are ready. Equally, the context of that redemption, is not of isolated 'selves', for no one can be redeemed without recognising that they belong to a whole cosmos alive and all actually loved and known, brought into being by God's love. It is violating that web of life, imaged forth in the albatross the Mariner kills, that triggers his, and his shipmates, fall. Indeed the Bodhisattva vow is to remain in the world of 'samsara' (of restless dissatisfaction) until all is seen as it is, one-d in nirvana, 'each blade of grass being enlightened'.

Guite shows how Coleridge's own life trajectory mirrored his art and how reflecting on this mirroring, it deepened and extended Coleridge's understanding of his own poem, reflected in his subsequent work, his own reflections and, importantly, the glosses he added to the poem in its later editions that bring out its essential theological meaning.

One of Guite's purposes indeed, as might befit an Anglican priest (and theology lecturer), is to demonstrate that Coleridge is a profoundly Christian poet - both in thought and in practice. The second part being as important as the first. Coleridge was a poet that prayed indeed prayer frames and flows through his life - and it is prayer that is tested by the depths as it ascends to the heights.

For famously too Coleridge was an addict wracked by the opiates that he had begun to take for his lifelong rheumatic pains and which effectively destroyed him as a poet (accompanied by other insecurities, themselves magnified by the drug). It is precisely the moment, Guite shows, when Coleridge finally confronted by his own paralysing 'Life in Death' moment, trapped in a hotel, midway between abandoned home and a series of lectures that he is too ill to give, that he 'surrenders' his self possession and releases himself into higher care that proves the trigger to a pathway of 'penance' of metanoia that, as Guite also shows, allowed Coleridge a second round of life, not primarily as poet, but as pioneering literary critic, autobiographer and thinker/theologian. A life that allows him, if we listen, to share a profound understanding of human life that critically inspired others - there is a wonderful account of Keats encounter with Coleridge - and that can inspire us.

For Guite treats Coleridge seriously, as he is, as a thinker - possibly the most intellectually gifted of all English poets - who works out a remarkably coherent vision of a world born out of God's imagination in which our imagination is an active, sharing participant. It is a vision shaped by experience, by deep philosophical reflection - in Plato and the neo-Platonists, Spinoza, Kant and the German Idealists - and baptised by the Christian mystics, most especially Boehme and his English follower, William Law; and, in Coleridge's case lived out in service (not least in his secondary, but important role, as a campaigning, radical journalist) and the liturgical celebration of the Anglican Church whose institutional failures though he recognised .  One of the people Coleridge met in his (accelerated) and their old age was the poet, William Blake. Ah to be a fly on that wall! They would have recognised each other, methinks, as to the two great defenders of a living cosmos born of the divine logos, Jesus the Imagination.

The book is a tour de force - a compelling reading of one of the greatest poems in English, the celebration of a life and a defence of its subject and the ongoing importance of their thought.


  1. Thank you for this well-written and insightful review of my book, I love your idea of the Mariner as Bodhisattva!

    1. Yes, I thought it captured the sense of having seen yet complete redemption postponed until all see, indeed redemption being that communal arrival when (to quote Edwin Muir) we summon with one voice.


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