Mariner: A Theological Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge
By David George Moore
Every so often a book crosses your radar that is something special. Mariner was one of those books for me. The author, Malcolm Guite, is a well-respected poet and the chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. He also teaches in the faculty of divinity at Cambridge.
The following interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching and video interviews can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: Give us a bit of the back story and/or motivation behind writing this book.
Guite: Well, I’ve had a lifelong love of Coleridge’s poetry, ever since my mother used to recite passages of the Ancient Mariner to me when I was a child. But in the last twenty years I have also become deeply interested in him as a philosopher and a thinker whose ideas seem increasingly relevant to our own concerns. When I came to write my book Faith, Hope and Poetry, published ten years ago, which is essentially a defense of the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, I realized that I had cited Coleridge in every chapter and that the chapter on Coleridge himself was really the central chapter of the book. So I resolved that ‘one day’ I would write a fuller book on Coleridge. The more immediate spur that got me going on the book was a growing frustration with the way that secular academia seemed to be airbrushing Coleridge’s faith and his radical theology right out of the picture, and I very much wanted to set the record straight!
Moore: Coleridge, like his buddy, Wordsworth, was a Romantic poet. To orient us, please provide a synopsis of what made one a Romantic poet.
Guite: There are lots of ways to answer that, but at the heart of it I would say that Coleridge and Wordsworth, as the founding figures of the Romantic movement, were reacting against the deadly combination of materialism in science, artifice and mere ‘tasteful convention’ in poetry, and an over –reliance on rationalism in philosophy which prevailed in the 18th Century. By contrast they wanted to write in direct, natural and intuitive ways, to delight in nature without needing to reduce or subdue it, and at all times to awaken the kind of intuitive and imaginative response to the world which allows us to explore how the outward and visible appearances of nature ‘out there’ can give us a whole new language of imagery and experience with which to explore what is ‘in here’, the whole realm of our inner experience. In other words they didn’t want to divorce the ‘objective’ from the ‘subjective’ but to see them as mutually flowing between and through one another in our actual lived human experience. In addition Coleridge in particular wanted to ground that experience of renewed beauty and meaning discovered through nature, in a clear theology of God offering us the cosmos, not as a puzzle to be decoded, but as a poem to be celebrated and to learn and grow from. So in Frost at Midnight Coleridge refers to the natural world as
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
Moore: Most of us are familiar with two of Coleridge’s poems: Kubla Khan and the subject of your book, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. You brilliantly demonstrate that the latter is not just some detached piece of genius but depicts the spiritual voyage Coleridge was on in his own life. Would you share a few themes from the poem that reflect Coleridge’s own spiritual pilgrimage?
Guite: Well, Coleridge once called the imagination ‘the sacred power of self-intuition’ and it is extraordinary how prescient his great poem was, not only in terms of the developing shape of his own life, after he composed it, but also the broad shape and development of our culture in the two centuries since. It is the story of a voyage out and back again, a voyage away from the familiar and into terrible crisis, encounter and transformation. When the ship is surrounded by ice floes with no way out the albatross appears as quite literally a savior, that magically splits the ice and guides them through, and ‘as if it had been a Christian soul’ they hale it ‘in God’s name’. But then of course comes the terrible moment of ‘fall’ and catastrophe in which the savior albatross is slain by the mariner and ‘instead of the cross’ the albatross is hung around his neck. The Christian references are explicit throughout. Coleridge then depicts, with uncanny accuracy the modern experience of utter loneliness, and individualistic isolation living in a Godless and disenchanted world where even the human body has become something loathsome and corrupt. But then comes grace and a turning point. In the act of delighting in and blessing the other creatures of the sea, for their own sake, the mariner recovers the ability to pray and the process of redemption and homecoming begins. This reflected and anticipated Coleridge’s own nightmare voyage into both physical addiction and mental doubt and agony, and then a wonderful recovery of faith as sheer gift and grace, centered on Christ as the Logos who loves and sustains all creation, not just human beings, but it is also a prescient narrative of our own culture’s fall into alienation and anomie, and the possible path of recovery we might take in renewed humility towards God and his good creation, learning, like the mariner that ‘ he prayeth best who loveth best’
Moore: The loss of the transcendent is the bitter fruit of living on this side of the Enlightenment. Our universe, sorry Flannery O’Connor, no longer seems Christ-haunted. We live, as Charles Taylor and others say, in a disenchanted world. How does Coleridge’s work slow us down to reconsider the arrogant confidence in the demise of God in the modern world?
Guite: Reconsidering arrogance, and re-learning humility is right at the heart of the poem’s meaning. Coleridge was deeply and widely read in Enlightenment philosophy and science as it emerged in his own time and he sounded a warning note about where it might lead us if it wasn’t accompanied by reverence, humility and an imaginative willingness to intuit God’s presence and meaning in the world, rather than just seeing the world as a dead mechanism with which we can tinker at will. The ‘transformation scene’ in the Ancient Mariner, in which the mariner at first sees the water snakes as ‘ a thousand thousand slimy things’ and then looks again, under the moonrise, and sees them as ‘ God’s creatures of the great calm’ and is abled to appreciate them in their own right and bless them, is an object lesson in what it would mean to ‘reconsider the arrogant confidence in the demise of God in the modern world’.
Moore: I was struck on several occasions with Coleridge’s acute, observational skills. How do poets like Coleridge help us slow down and pay better attention to our surroundings?
Guite: Coleridge himself sets out his aim, together with Wordsworth, in a passage from the Biographia Literaria where he says that in The Lyrical Ballads they aimed at ‘awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.’ Poetry is able to do that because it is language slowed down, the opposite of skimming and speed-reading, it removes the film of familiarity and allows you to see into the depth of things.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers gain from Mariner?
Guite: I hope that readers will be gripped by Coleridge’s own story and feel an empathy for him and for his ideas, and through that empathy I very much hope that they will sense how his individual story, and the story he tells in the Ancient Mariner, is also our story too: a story of fall, loss and loneliness, but also a story of hope, recovery and redemption. Especially I hope they will thrill to Coleridge’s central idea that when we perceive the world afresh, through a baptized and kindled imagination, we are perceiving it alongside the God who makes and loves it, we are partaking in our own way in what Coleridge called ‘ the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’. Perhaps the best way to summarize my hopes for the reader would be to leave you with the sonnet I wrote about my own response to Coleridge which is in my book The Singing Bowl, but also comes in at the conclusion of Mariner:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
'Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God!'
You made your epitaph imperative,
And stopped this wedding guest! But I am glad
To stop with you and start again, to live
From that pure source, the all-renewing stream,
Whose living power is imagination,
And know myself a child of the I AM,
Open and loving to his whole creation.
Your glittering eye taught mine to pierce the veil,
To let his light transfigure all my seeing,
To serve the shaping Spirit whom I feel,
And make with him the poem of my being.
I follow where you sail towards our haven,
Your wide wake lit with glimmerings of heaven.
(From The Singing Bowl by Malcolm Guite)
Some of David George Moore’s teaching and interview videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com. He can be reached at www.twocities.org.