‘Rime’ with­out rea­son: mis­read­ing Co­leridge?

Mariner: A Voy­age with Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Matthew Adams

Guite’s Chris­tian, vatic and re­demp­tive bias makes his as­sess­ment of Co­leridge feel weight­less and un­con­vinc­ing

Mal­colm Guite Hod­der & Stoughton, £25

The Ro­man­tic poets liked to make grand claims for the prophetic power of their craft. In the per­ora­tion to his es­say A De­fence of Po­etry, Percy Bysshe Shel­ley wrote that “poets are the hi­ero­phants of an un­ap­pre­hended in­spi­ra­tion, the mir­rors of the gi­gan­tic shad­ows which fu­tu­rity casts upon the present”. And in his Biographia Lit­er­aria, Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge ar­gued that the poet, prob­a­bly while se­questered in a gar­ret, cul­ti­vat­ing his “philo­sophic imag­i­na­tion” and in­dulging in ed­i­fy­ing break­fasts of six fried eggs and a cou­ple of glasses of l au­danum (“large”), was ca­pa­ble of open­ing spa­ces in the fu­ture into which he might later travel and grow – much as “the chrysalis of the horned fly [leaves] room in its in­volu­crum for an­ten­nae yet to come”.

Poets, ob­served Co­leridge, “know and feel, that the po­ten­tial works in them, even as the ac­tual works on them”.

In this bizarre and self- in­dul­gent book about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Co­leridge’s life and best- known poem, The Rime of the An­cient Mariner (1798; re­vised 1817), Mal­colm Guite fol­lows his Ro­man­tic pre­de­ces­sors in grant­ing po­etry a pe­cu­liar qual­ity of pre­science. He be­lieves that, when read with suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion, we can see in Co­leridge’s seven- part poem a pre­dic­tion of the ma­jor events and strug­gles that were to char­ac­terise his later life.

Opium ad­dic­tion

Like his mariner, Co­leridge ( 1772- 1834) sailed away from home and all that was fa­mil­iar: out­wardly in his life-chang­ing voy­ages to Ger­many and Malta, and in­wardly in his jour­ney deep into the night­mare of opium ad­dic­tion and high into the rar­efied re­gions of meta­phys­i­cal spec­u­la­tion.

Also like his mariner, Co­leridge en­dured the agony of lone­li­ness, de­spair and sui­ci­dal thoughts, but also, like him, he sur­vived the or­deal, was re­warded with a vi­sion­ary ex­pe­ri­ence of trans­fig­ured beauty in the world, and re­turned from his voy­age into ex­trem­ity with a new sense of pur­pose. He be­came, like his mariner, a life-trans­form­ing teacher, shar­ing a spirit- ual vi­sion that linked love and prayer with a new hu­mil­ity to­wards God and na­ture.

In ad­di­tion to yield­ing such strik­ing in­stances of vague sim­i­lar­ity, Guite thinks that when we read The Rime with even greater at­ten­tion ( or, in his an­noy­ing phrase, “if we can learn to read it”) it will sup­ply us with “a chart that maps both our souls and our world”; “a prophetic eco­log­i­cal warn­ing”; a “pro­found ex­plo­ration of the hu­man con­di­tion, of our fal­l­en­ness” and our “hu­man evil”. Crikey.

From this it will be clear that Guite – a poet, a the­olo­gian and the chap­lain of Gir­ton Col­lege, Cam­bridge – is not just a pretty com­mit­ted be­liever, but also one who as­sumes his read­ers are too: there is a par­tic­u­larly ir­ri­tat­ing mo­ment at which he writes that “as we find the purely ma­te­rial and me­chan­i­cal modes of re­al­ity less and less ad­e­quate to our ex­pe­ri­ence” – speak for your­self – “we may find in Co­leridge’s writ­ings es­sen­tial guides for the seas we have to nav­i­gate in the ‘post-mod­ern’ era”.

Gloomy Angli­can

Ac­cord­ingly, the Co­leridge we get in this book is the Co­leridge Guite likes best: not the opium ad­dict or the young Uni­tar­ian who in 1798 – when The Rime was first pub­lished – left the church be­cause of his hos­til­ity to the idea of re­demp­tion, but the gloomy Angli­can of 1817. This was the year in which Co­leridge com­pleted the project of wors­en­ing his poem by em­bel­lish­ing it with a se­ries of mar­ginal ex­plana­tory “glosses”.

This is the ver­sion Guite treats as au­thor­i­ta­tive. It al­lows him – hav­ing gen­tly ticked off Richard Holmes, whose mag­nif­i­cent two-vol­ume bi­og­ra­phy of Co­leridge he ac­cuses of be­ing inat­ten­tive and un­sym­pa­thetic to its sub­ject’s faith – to get on with the busi­ness of es­tab­lish­ing the poem as a work that car­ries a clear mes­sage of hope and re­demp­tion. Here the mariner, hav­ing shot and killed an al­ba­tross with a cross­bow, is free to shuf­fle cheer­fully around in “the land of the Trin­ity”, telling ev­ery­one to lead bet­ter and more em­pa­thetic lives.

There is an ad­mirable crit­i­cal tra­di­tion of read­ing The Rime as a work of Chris­tian in­struc­tion; the best of it ac­knowl­edges that, in each of its it­er­a­tions, the poem is more shift­ing and com­plex than this anal­y­sis al­lows. And what of its puni­tive, pa­gan and sec­u­lar as­pects?


Guite’s Chris­tian, vatic and re­demp­tive bias leaves his as­sess­ment, ex­haus­tive (and ex­haust­ing) as it is, feel­ing weight­less and un­con­vinc­ing. And it pre­vents him from bring­ing any real vigour or an­i­ma­tion to his ac­count of Co­leridge as a man. Holmes’s bi­og­ra­phy gave us a fig­ure who was brac­ingly present and for­ever on the move: en­list­ing in the Dra­goons, hik­ing around Eng­land, lec­tur­ing, drink­ing, eat­ing ( re­mem­ber those break­fasts), wrestling with ad­dic­tion, de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, and at­tempt­ing to ap­pease his phys­i­cal ail­ments with an as­sort­ment of hideous con­coc­tions. The Co­leridge we get in Mariner is al­most all in­tro­spec­tion and imag­i­na­tion.

These el­e­ments of Co­leridge’s life, prop­erly con­sid­ered, ought to be and are of in­ter­est. But Guite’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to make them prophetic leaves you long­ing to con­sign them to the past.

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