The kirk, the hill and the lighthouse

Mariner, Malcolm Guite, Hodder & Stoughton

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the tale of an adventurer, a traveller and his epic journey, reckless acts, a descent into an earthly hell, rescue, a kind of baptism, prayer, the path home, the growth of wisdom and the desire to share that wisdom. The hero is a sailor, but it may as well be Coleridge himself. Writing when he was young, Coleridge seems to have a premonition of what would befall him; the drama matches the ensuing drama of Coleridge’s own life, with his marriage and financial troubles, and his opium addiction.

It is Malcolm Guite’s contention that scholars have missed the religious significance of the poem, not only in its symbolism, but in the way it echoes Coleridge’s own spiritual journey, as he sets off full of hubris and is humbly reduced to prayer and rescued from near-death by the grace of God. While it is good to recognise, as John Milbank does, that Coleridge, like many of us, changed his views over his life, Guite makes a case for Coleridge’s significance as a spiritual writer.

Coleridge is sometimes pegged as a skeptic, sometimes due to the perspective of his biographers (as in the case of Richard Holmes), but he was as immersed in faith as in other areas. In his youth he was part of an ill-fated radical Christian community, and it was not an anomaly when he wrote a letter to a friend with 3000 words on the Trinity. He was particularly interested in prayer, or, let’s say, prayer featured significantly in his life, and in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Guite tells us, the mariner’s prayer is the pivotal point on which the poem moves from despair to redemption.

The poem is also a Romantic response to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, which, according to Coleridge, like dissection, kills the thing it explains. It is not that Coleridge was against reason; he believed in a hidden, Platonic, spiritual world that had explanations beyond the scientific ones, and that an immersion in nature helped uncover. Furthermore, nature was simply God’s good creation and to delight in it was a complement to reason, not a rival. This is a very Christian vision of the world. We see this synthesis in the beginning and end of the poem, when the mariner notes the kirk, the hill and the lighthouse of home, which Guite suggests stand for faith, nature and the life of the mind.

The poem, according to Guite, also has much to say about our own times, just as Coleridge thought the ancient literature he so enjoyed had much to say about his. Guite sees in the lines ‘water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’ a metaphor for our consumerist society, where we have material abundance but a soul-destroying dislocation from nature and subsequent crisis of meaning.

(Reviewed for Crosslight magazine)

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