No writer has had as much ink spilled in the interpretation of his works only to remain so woefully undervalued in the popular imagination as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Despite co-creating English Romantic poetry with Wordsworth, introducing the ideas of German Romantic philosophy and aesthetics to the English, and revitalizing the study of Shakespeare through a series of brilliant lectures, Coleridge remains defined in large part by addiction and an unfair reputation as a burnout. This label persists despite countless wonderful studies detailing the full power and scope of Coleridge’s accomplishments in books such as Owen Barfield’s What Coleridge Thought and The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes. Any serious new study of Coleridge’s life and work must not only take popular underestimations into account, but also genuflect to the authority of the masterly works that have come before, not least of which among them stands Richard Holmes’ two-part biography of the poet. There simply isn’t any point in writing about Coleridge unless the biographer is thorough enough to confront what came before and distinctive enough to resuscitate some of the power of the poet’s original genius.
If any contemporary figure is idiosyncratic enough to convey the unique power of Coleridge’s vision, it’s Malcolm Guite. The chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge and a member of the divinity faculty there, Guite has made a reputation as a speaker and lecturer who draws from a vast repository of spiritual and literary material in order to render profound spiritual truths in approachable forms. Perhaps a bit crunchy for some tastes—his website homepage features a picture of him in a tie-dye shirt strumming an acoustic—it can’t be denied that Guite is also an accomplished poet and critic. The Rt. Revd. Rowan Williams has praised his sonnets as penetrating resources for prayer and contemplation, and his criticism of C. S. Lewis is profoundly refreshing. It’s exciting that someone with this sort of pedigree has turned his attention to the work of Coleridge.
Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge is built around a fascinating conceit. It takes Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem which Guite describes as “the central myth of the new Romantic Movement, the first truly symbolist poem, a poem of pure imagination, a moral tale, an immoral tale, a farrago of superstitions, a profound Christian allegory . . . ,” and makes the claim that the events described in the poem “ . . . can be paralleled in Coleridge’s life as he came to live it after the composition of this poem.” In other words, that through the poem Coleridge anticipated the shape of his own moral development.
Guite is able to elaborate his admittedly ambitious thesis by telling two stories at once. On one hand is the story in the poem, in which a wedding guest is stopped by a wizened old seaman who relates the tale of his senseless killing of an albatross while on sea voyage. The destruction of the bird, which is sacralized with a symbolic spiritual energy, precipitates a series of agonizing experiences for the mariner, including the deaths of the other crew members. The mariner himself is spared from death by something far worse, an anthropomorphized force Coleridge calls “The Night-mare Life-in-Death”, which is the torture of being able to consciously experience a kind of anti-life while still living. The depth of the mariner’s suffering compels him to repent, which earns him an absolving grace. The other story is of the poem, which is really the story of Coleridge himself. The poet’s early radical years, so full of promise, were arrested by a series of moral and personal failures. His abandonment of wife and family, and his plummet into addiction before his late-life rehabilitation, in many ways echo the mariner’s tale. And so Guite’s book is written in a sort of double-vision, with the specifics of Coleridge’s life overlaying the metaphysical poem of redemption like a palimpsest.
The effect is suggestive of divination, as if Coleridge was preternaturally aware of the course that his life would take when he wrote the poem in his twenties. But what Guite suggests is both subtler and more profound, drawing on Coleridge’s own theories of the relationship between language and experience—could even be called a Coleridgean take on Coleridge. Guite writes,
Perhaps the most important of Coleridge's many insights is this parallel . . . between our experience of language and our experience of the world. . . . The words we use are living symbols taking us the instant they are uttered through and beyond themselves, connecting us with an intricate network of references; reference to other words and references to the realities in nature and in ourselves of which the words are symbols. . . . And so it is that in reading great poetry, our vision is doubled: we become aware simultaneously both of the word as a thing itself, a chosen sound, a kind of music in the air, and also of that other reality, that mystery of truth of which the word is the gatekeeper.
So it isn’t that Guite is making a claim to Coleridge’s occult abilities, but rather to his particular genius in sussing out the delicate entanglements between logos and the experience of life.
Guite is at his best when glossing Coleridge’s complex metaphysics, so much stranger and more profound than the philosophies of his fellow Romantics. “Coleridge,” writes Guite, “has the experience as he sees the moon dim-glimmering through the window-pane, that, as it were, there is a meaning behind it, that it is like a word, that he could pass through it and see something beyond it; but he simultaneously has the experience that whatever is beyond it is also resonant with something which is within him, something which ‘already and for ever exists.’ ”
At the heart of Coleridge’s vision, a heady blend of philosophy and theology, is a re-sacralization of a world rendered spiritually mute by the deadening effects of modern society. This vision has been laid cold on a slab countless times by scholars and critics, but their perspectives tend to originate from the same dry secular world that Coleridge put himself at odds with. What’s wonderful about Guite’s take is that, being written by a theologian and a believer, it has an intimacy with its subject that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a straightforward biography or scholarly rendering of Coleridge. It gives off as much heat as it does light, and this is because Guite brings more of his own belief and being into the project than the average scholar might. At times, however, that openness is also a weakness; Guite rarely pushes back against Coleridge, unable to cast a critical eye on some of the flaws of Coleridge’s ideas and art. In this way, Guite’s strength is also his weakness and vice versa—a Coleridgean notion if ever there was one.
Guite’s synthesis of literary analysis and theological exegesis is exactly the sort of rendering that Coleridge deserves. T. E. Hulme pithily defined Romanticism as “spilt religion,” but that’s only partially right. It’s true that English writers such as Wordsworth and Shelley, as well as Germans like Fichte and Hegel, all generally participated in a joint project of de-sacralization. The scholar M. H. Abrams describes it as “the tendency in innovative Romantic thought . . . [to] greatly to diminish and, at the extreme to eliminate, the role of God, leaving as the prime agencies man and the world, mind and nature, the ego and the non-ego . . . .” This project of secularization has continued into modernity, and so, however profoundly flawed and vacuously solipsistic it may be, it feels familiar to us. But Coleridge, particularly in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, moves in the opposite direction, re-sacralizing the world through deep religious sentiment. And, as Guite’s book shows, that Coleridge feels so much more alien to the contemporary reader simply suggests that he has more to teach us.