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On a wide wide sea

10 February 2017

Richard Harries reads a poet on Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner

Mariner: A voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Malcolm Guite
Hodder & Stoughton £25
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £20


IN THIS deeply felt study of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the poet and priest Malcolm Guite does three distinctive things.

First, he emphasises the deeply Christian nature both of the poem and Coleridge’s whole being, which has sometimes been almost wilfully overlooked in recent writing. Second, he reads The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as presaging the whole course of Coleridge’s subsequent life, as though his unconscious expressed in that great poem his own future experience of desolation and Christian recovery. Third, he sees the poem as a warning, particularly for our own time with its instrumental view of the universe, rampant consumerism, and devastation of the environment.

Coleridge, who could read fluently by the age of three, read everything and remembered everything. He was recognised by all who met him as a genius. Unlike Wordsworth, however, to whom Coleridge gave so much and received rather less, he could not concentrate on his poetry. He travelled for a long period to Germany to study philosophy, started magazines, did journalism, and went out as an aide to Malta. But above all, and most tragically, he got addicted to opium.

He took this originally to alleviate his bad rheumatism, but then became totally hooked. His marriage failed, and his writing suffered, culminating in a massive overdose, which he only just survived. The last years of his life, which were productive for his highly influential prose, were spent carefully guarded in Highgate by a kindly doctor, as he was gradually weened away from the drug, with all the delirium and bad dreams that this involved.

It was here that his philosophical and theological thought came to fruition. For him, there is a primal imagination in God through whom the world comes to be. Our human minds can participate in this, and, when they do, nature comes for us a sign and sacrament of God and our creative work, especially poetry, also becomes an expression of the primal word. Although this approach was clearly influenced by Platonism it came to be rooted in a strongly Trinitarian view of God.

It may be that Coleridge was one of those people whose sum is greater than the parts, because not only was he a radical campaigner against the slave trade when young, and an equally committed one against child labour later in his life, but he wrote the most vivid letters, notebooks, and essays, as well as poetry. Not least, he was a mesmerising conversationalist, so that, in his last years, young poets and intellectuals tracked up to Highgate to sit at his feet and listen.

But it is Guite’s contention that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem for every generation. He discusses its impact on illustrators such as Gustave Doré and David Jones, and writers such as George Macdonald, C. S. Lewis, and R. S. Thomas. Especially, however, Guite is concerned with its relevance to our own time. In an illuminating close reading of the poem, relating it at every point to the subsequent course of Coleridge’s life, he shows us why it remains so important for our culture.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).

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