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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

09 February 2018

Malcolm Guite thinks that Coleridge would have enjoyed Sri Lanka and its people

LAST week, I wrote about stepping out of a chill January drizzle into the snug and fuggy atmosphere of a winter ale festival. This week, I write from a rickety wooden terrace in bright sunshine, the tropical heat gratefully tempered by a gentle breeze wafting in from the Indian Ocean, whose lovely green waves lapse and spill on bright white sands just below me, and the same breeze carries the delightful scents of frangipani and hibiscus, and mingled voices, calling variously in Singhalese, Tamil, and English, as merchants ply their wares, and a snake-charmer gathers a little crowd beneath a coconut tree on the astonishing island of Sri Lanka.

The man responsible for this remarkable transition is S. T. Coleridge. It so happened that, on the memorable occasion when I just missed my albatross in Wells (Poet’s Corner, 10 November), my talk there on Coleridge was heard by someone from the Fairway Galle Literary Festival, and, on the strength of that talk, he sent an invitation that would lift me off my own island and bring me to his: from Somerset to Sri Lanka in one fell swoop.

That little serendipity seems fitting for an island once known by the Persian name of Serendib, from which our own “serendipity” is derived.

How Coleridge would have loved this island! It has its own beautiful lighthouse, green hill, and fine white temples and churches, which echo “the kirk, the hill, and the light-house top” in his poem. But perhaps his most delightful surprise would have been to discover how many of the islanders here know and love The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Happily, my talk on Coleridge was, in every sense, warmly received, but it was the Indian and Sri Lankan audience, even more than the Westerners, who leaned forward and could be seen chanting along with the passages of the poem which I cited, its phrases as deeply embedded in their own minds as in mine. After the talk, they crowded round to tell me how I had revived their childhood memories; for they had all loved and learned the poem at school.

Coleridge would also certainly have enjoyed the hospitality. When I gave a poetry reading, the festival arranged for a chef to cook different cakes and sweetmeats to go with different tea-blends — not only from the famous plantations here, but from around the world.

Coleridge imagined his mariner as completing a circumnavigation, and, in the latter part of the story, his hero would have been sailing through the Indian Ocean, perhaps in sight of this island, propelled by the deep Spirit beneath the keel and accompanied by two aery Daemons who fly above him and look down from the air at the little vessel speeding through the sea.

Coleridge had to imagine what that ocean would look like from above, but by another serendipity I saw it for myself; for, on the third day, I was taken up in a small aeroplane, out beyond the island, to where the sea changes from green to blue, colours as clear and sparkling as the emeralds and sapphires displayed by the island’s many jewellers, and there I saw from the air the little ships, and, disporting themselves in the deep, two magnificent blue whales.

But the last and best serendipity came when I celebrated a bilingual Candlemas at All Saints’, Galle, and heard for myself, in Singhalese, old Simeon’s proclamation that Christ would be a light to the nations — both theirs and mine.

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