Shipwrecked: looking for God in The Ancient Mariner

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”.

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”.

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