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13 February 2017

Shipwrecked: looking for God in The Ancient Mariner

Malcolm Guite's religious portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

By Frances Wilson

Charles Lamb once told a story about having Thomas De Quincey to supper. Lamb was Samuel Coleridge’s oldest friend and De Quincey was Coleridge’s greatest fan, so their talk naturally centred on the poet. While De Quincey badgered his host for information about his hero, Lamb, to allev­iate his boredom, pretended to mock “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a poem he in fact greatly admired. (“I was never so affected with any human Tale,” Lamb wrote; on first reading Coleridge’s ballad, he had been “totally possessed with it for many days”. In response to Wordsworth’s complaint that the mariner had no character, Lamb explained to him that the trials undergone by the seafarer both “overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was”, erasing “all consciousness of personality”, “like the state of a man in a Bad dream”.) On this occasion, however, to wind up De Quincey, Lamb described the sailors who died aboard the mariner’s ship – Coleridge’s “many men, so beautiful” – as nothing but “a gang of Wapping vagabonds, all covered with pitch, and chewing tobacco”.

“But, Mr Lamb, good heavens!” gasped the horrified De Quincey, covering his ears. “How is it possible you can allow yourself such opinions?” With a sarcastic smile, Lamb informed his guest that had he known they were going to talk “in this strain”, they should “have said grace before we began our conversation”.

Malcolm Guite is the chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, and reading Mariner: a Voyage With Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a little like saying grace before discussing Coleridge. This is Coleridge as a middle-aged Anglican as opposed to Coleridge the opium addict or the creator of Christabel, literature’s first lesbian vampire. Guite argues that the two-volume life of the poet by Richard Holmes, “brilliant” though it is, does not draw out his contribution to Christian thinking, which is the purpose of the present book. “Prayer”, he writes, is the poem’s “central theme and prominent at all its turning points”. The ballad is a narrative of sin and atonement: when the mariner kills the albatross he experiences profound guilt and isolation. He finds repentance in the blessing of the water-snakes; when his ship goes down “like lead into the sea”, his submersion is a baptism.

Guite is by no means the first to interpret “The Ancient Mariner” as an allegory of man’s fall: critics have usually divided between pagan, for whom the poem is a drug-fuelled nightmare or an account of debilitating guilt, and Christian, for whom it offers hope. For Guite, the mariner’s “redemption” lies in returning to “the land of the Trinity”, where his new mission is “to tell his own transformative tale to those who need to hear it”. A different interpretation of the mariner’s life on land is to see it as a form of purgatory: a pariah, he is doomed to roam the world repeatedly confessing his crime – if killing an albatross with a bow and arrow can be called a crime (depending on your interpretation of the poem).

At the heart of Guite’s argument is the recognition that “The Ancient Mariner”, written when Coleridge was 25, prophesies the sufferings that lay in store for him: his catastrophic marriage, his doomed romance with Sara Hutchinson (loving her, Coleridge said, was like being hit by a fatal arrow), his opium addiction, the loss of his poetic powers, the comfort he found in his final years as the Magus of Highgate. The guilt-ridden, wandering, compulsively verbal Coleridge mirrors his guilt-ridden, wandering, compulsively verbal mariner; the poet’s tumultuous inner life resembles his subject’s harrowing sea voyage. Coleridge, who referred to himself as a “mariner” and a drowning man, saw both life and death as a voyage (“Death itself will be only a Voyage—” he wrote, “a Voyage not from, but to our native country”). The voyage has subsequently become the ultimate metaphor of the Romantic period, and “The Ancient Mariner” the movement’s flagship poem. That art might anticipate, rather than mirror, life was not
such a strange idea to Coleridge: our greatest works of imagination, he explained in Biographia Literaria, open up spaces into which we have yet to grow, just as “the chrysalis of the horned fly” leaves “room in its involucrum for antenna, yet to come”.

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Mariner, which Guite likens to a journey, is composed of two halves. The first looks at Coleridge’s youth and early adulthood up to the point of meeting Wordsworth and writing “The Ancient Mariner”. The second contains a line-by-line explication of the poem which draws attention to its religious tropes (the rhyme, for example, in “cross” and “albatross”). Slotted in to a Christian frame, this notoriously unresolved poem appears less strange, less savage, far easier to swallow, and Guite puts his argument together like pieces of a teleological puzzle: “Just as the mariner met the pilot and hermit at the moment his ship was sinking, and was rescued by them, so Coleridge was rescued from the shipwreck of addiction and despair by Dr Gillman, with whom he lived for the last years of his life.”

If the poet’s life was not as neat as this suggests, it’s because Guite is a theologian first and a biographer second. Richard Holmes’s Coleridge is half in this world, leaping over fences, and half in the next, but Guite’s Coleridge is less vivid. Coleridge wanted to show that the imagination was as real as solid matter, Guite writes, yet he is so immersed in the invisible in these pages that it is hard to see him at all. The first, and only, time we are told what Coleridge looks like to other people is when, on page 91, Guite quotes Dorothy Wordsworth’s description of him as having a “wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth”.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this prophetic poem is that it is haunted by a double. There are two versions of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The first begins the 1798 Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the second is the 1817 revision published in Sibylline Leaves, to which Coleridge added a running marginal gloss explaining away, in a pastiche of 17th-century prose, his zombified sailors and “slimey things with legs”. Between the first version and the second, Coleridge reconsidered his faith: in 1798 he was a Unitarian who had cut himself off from the Church because he disapproved of redemption, and by 1817 he had softened into an Anglican.

“The Ancient Mariner” is a casualty of this change of faith. The gloss, “in which the young man’s original text is opened out by the older poet’s subsequent experience”, is the key to Guite’s interpretation and his “decision to use the poem itself as a key to Coleridge’s life story”. For him, Coleridge’s revisions offer a “more profound interpretation of the poem than he himself could have written when he composed it”. For William Empson, on the other hand, “The Ancient Mariner” was “mangled” by Coleridge in 1817 “for reasons of conscience”. Coleridge, Empson regretted, “did not discover the meaning” of his poem until after it was finished, when he “ratted on it as fast as he could”. This recalls Dr Frankenstein’s appalled response to his creature; it is worth noting that Mary Shelley’s novel, also framed around an ice-bound explorer’s supernatural story, was inspired by “The Ancient Mariner”.

Guite encounters several problems by treating the 1817 version of the poem as the primary and superior text. To “gloss” means to conceal as well as to explain, and Coleridge’s gloss glosses over what Empson describes as his “baffling and ­heart-freezing experiences”. Equally, by focusing on Coleridge’s second thoughts, Guite glosses over the birth of the poem: “The Ancient Mariner” was written, in collaboration with Wordsworth, for inclusion in Lyrical Ballads, whose purpose was to revolt against contemporary definitions of literature and to propose a vision of a deeper, wiser, better life. While a conventional ballad rehearses an action, a “lyrical” ballad investigates the telling of that action, and “The Ancient Mariner” is as much about the mariner’s expression – which horrifies the wedding guest – as the tale he unfolds. The mariner is as unreliable a narrator as the governess in The Turn of the Screw, and the poem’s original strength lies in its lack of clarity.

Placed at the prow of the Lyrical Ballads, “The Ancient Mariner” set the tone for what was to come, but it is not until page 341 here that Guite mentions, in passing, that this poem opened the collection. By detaching “The Ancient Mariner” from its moorings, he sets it adrift. The first readers of Lyrical Ballads embarked, with the mariner, on a voyage into unknown worlds – landscapes on the edge of society peopled by what King Lear described as “poor, bare, forked animals”. Though Guite notes that the Romantic movement “took root” from Lyrical Ballads, he does not mention the other 22 poems in the volume.

The mariner was not alone: he came accompanied by mad mothers, female vagrants, old huntsmen, idiot boys, leech gatherers, convicts and forsaken Indian women. The plan was for Wordsworth to write about the natural world and Coleridge to focus on the supernatural, but Wordsworth, who did not understand “The Ancient Mariner” and thought that it “deterred readers from going on’”, demoted it, in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, from the front to the back of the volume. When Coleridge revised the poem, any confidence he had in his mariner had been quashed.

The effect of the gloss is to create a running commentary in which opposing voices speak over one another. Instead of strengthening his story, Coleridge produced a weirdly bifurcated text in which the poem is interrupted by its own superego. Take the verse in which the mariner, who has made his confession ten thousand times already, struggles to articulate his motiveless action to the wedding guest: “With my crossbow/I shot the albatross,” he finally splutters out. The Tannoy system in the margin now explains that “The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen”. The mariner says that the bird was playful; the gloss says that it was also pious. If the mariner has indeed killed a pious bird (that is to say, Christ) then his guilt is justified; if he has killed a bird that had no God in it, then his guilt is excessive. But excessive and objectless guilt was Coleridge’s default position. For ten years, he wrote in a letter of April 1814,


. . . the anguish of my spirit has been indescribable, the sense of my danger staring, but the conscience of my GUILT worse—far worse than all! I have prayed, with drops of agony on my Brow; trembling, not only before the justice of my Maker, but even before the mercy of my Redeemer. “I gave thee so many talents, what hast thou done with them?”


In Part V of the poem, where the zombified sailors rise from the deck animated by “spirits”, the gloss explains that these spirits were not in fact “demons of earth or middle air, but a blessed troop of angel[s]”. For Empson, turning the spirits into angels “makes nonsense of nearly all the details about them, so nothing can be done to clarify the poem until the parasitic growth has been removed”.

There is much to praise in Mariner – not least that it is a 470-page book unapologetically devoted to interpreting, and celebrating, a single poem. That Guite neither sexes up his manuscript nor curbs his religious enthusiasm gives his interpretation an impressive dose of integrity.

But a poet’s second thoughts are rarely an improvement. Those readers who prefer poetry to contain what Wordsworth called, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, rather than “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, might find themselves gasping, as their journey with Guite begins: “Good heavens, chaplain! How is it possible you can allow yourself such opinions?”

Frances Wilson’s books include “Guilty Thing: a Life of Thomas De Quincey” (Bloomsbury) and “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber & Faber)

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine