Mariner (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Malcolm Guite. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.
Summary: A biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with an analysis showing how his most famous poem foretold and paralleled the course of his own life–a journey of fall, a need for grace, and redemption.
“Instead of the cross, the Albatross/About my neck was hung.”
I first read these lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a class on Romantic Literature over forty years ago. I must admit that I have not revisited these lines until reading Malcolm Guite’s Mariner. In the poem, the mariner voyages across the Equator, braves storms and fogs, encounters an albatross who guides the crew until they are able to head northward once more, only for the mariner to kill it with an arrow. Subsequently the winds die, they languish in the doldrums until the coming of the death ship when all around die, while the mariner lives, bearing the albatross around his neck, despising the slimy creatures of the sea and the brazen sun. Things turn on a moonlit night when suddenly the mariner’s heart is filled with love for all, including the once despised sea creatures, the albatross falls and he can pray. The ship is propelled mysteriously home, spirits inhabiting the bodies of the crew. At one point he swoons, hears voices speaking of the penance he has yet to undergo for taking the life of the albatross, loved by God. Eventually, the ship in tatters, arrives home, and as the harbor pilot, his helper, and a hermit arrive, the ship sinks, with the mariner being rescued. He confesses to the hermit, and then pursues his task ever after of telling the story, including to the wedding guest detained to hear him out. He concludes his words to the guest with these, that capture the grace he has gained amid the loss of the journey:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
What Malcolm Guite does in this work is to show us how the poem, written when Coleridge was at the height of his poetic powers, presciently parallels the subsequent course of Coleridge’s life as he descends into an opium addiction that destroys his marriage, alienates his friends, and undermines his health.
Part One of the book is both biography and analysis of Coleridge’s work leading up to the composition of Rime. Guite traces his childhood upbringing as the youngest of ten children of a minister in the Church of England, his education at Cambridge, his failure to win a critical scholarship, his first use of opium, his comic career with the dragoons, his early literary efforts, his marriage through his friendship with Southey to Sara, and his growing relationship with Wordsworth, complicated as it was by first supporting him in the joint project of the Lyrical Ballads and then being overshadowed. While his marriage begins to unravel, there is an annus mirabilis of literary production, culminating in the Rime.
Part Two, in seven chapters that follow the seven parts of the poem combine analysis of the poem with a narrative of Coleridge’s deterioration as he struggles with opium addiction, his repeated failed efforts to get his finances on a sound footing, to heal his marriage, and to struggle with his affection for “Asra,” an affair that remains Platonic until broken off. We see the brilliance of his production, even afflicted by addiction, and wonder what might have been. Guite also describes the spiritual journey of Coleridge, his growing realization that his reason, even his reasoning faith cannot save him, but only grace alone. He traces the movement of Coleridge’s faith from head to heart, and the decisive surrender of his life into the care of his physician, with whom he lives the last eighteen years of his life. He writes:
“Most writers about Coleridge have opted to tell only one of two apparently very different stories: the first and best know is the sublime yet tragic story of the poet of inspiration and of agony, of the love who speaks with and from a broken heart, the poet of freedom who finds himself evermore deeply meshed in the bondage of opium, and ends his life, from that perspective, in apparent failure. The second is the story of Coleridge the thinker, the philosopher, the man of faith, the founder of literary criticism, and the originator of almost every school of literary criticism we now possess….But the real story is much more moving….When we see how Coleridge reached out toward, shaped, and attained that dynamic philosophy, that integration of faith and reason, in the midst of the heartbreak of forsaken love and the corruption and damage of opium, how he achieved what he did not only in spite of the pain and despair through which he lived, but with that pain and despair, expressed in prayer and poetry, as his materials, then we begin to see the greatness of his achievement” (p. 220).
I never felt that the parallel that Guite draws between the poem and Coleridge’s life to be forced. Rather, it seems to be a case that Coleridge wrote more than he knew. For Guite, the later glosses on the poem that Coleridge added are vital to his argument, hinting at the insights from life Coleridge has gained that only deepen the meaning of his work.
I also appreciated Guite’s analysis of the poem and its movement of descent and fall, realization of the need for grace, and redemption. In addition, one of the themes Guite explores is an environmental one–the groaning creation, and the necessity of loving what God has loved. I also delighted in how the seven sections of his analysis of the poem are complemented by the illustrations of Gustave Doré.
This book is an utter delight, doing justice to Coleridge, his work, and his most famous poem. Malcolm Guite, an accomplished poet and theologian, brings all these gifts to bear in a study that helps us appreciate the intellectual contribution of Coleridge, the power of his poetic works, and the work of grace experienced by this tormented man. The narrative of Coleridge’s opiate addiction, his inability to save himself, his surrender and dependence upon a Higher Power is a narrative that others who struggle with addiction will understand, and perhaps find hope in for themselves. I think both Coleridge and his mariner would be glad were this so.