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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

05 June 2020

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner resonates during lockdown, says Malcolm Guite

TWO roses grow in the little bed just in front of the Temple of Peace, my writing hut. One is called the Poet’s Wife and the other the Ancient Mariner. The Poet’s Wife is, I am happy to say, flourishing and beautiful, but the Ancient Mariner is looking a bit bedraggled and sorry for itself, in spite of tending, feeding, and pruning.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the Ancient Mariner should wilt a little, since so much of that great poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is about being more than just bedraggled, it is about being in the depth and agony of isolation. For that reason, it has become something of a lockdown poem.

Indeed, there has recently been an internet reading of it in which all kinds of celebrities took turns, each reading a verse. I’m not so sure about the success of this project. I think that the poem builds and develops precisely because it is a single voice — the voice of personal experience, telling the tale; but the celebrities were certainly right in thinking that the poem had something to say to us now, not just in the famous and perhaps obvious moments of acute loneliness —

Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

— but, much more, in the development of the story. For if the poem plots a journey into loneliness and isolation, it is a journey out and back again, and the return is a return to empathy and compassion, to a whole new vision of how to live.

In slaying the albatross, the mariner demonstrated a complete lack of empathy and a failure to understand how we are all interwoven in a single web of life; but he soon learns otherwise, the hard way, as we are learning, too.

One of his teachers is the terrible death toll among his fellow travellers, and a kind of survivor guilt. As the other crew members succumb to their mysterious deaths, the mariner suddenly sees their worth; so, in the stanza that follows “Alone, alone”, he says:

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

Later in the poem, he comes to recognise God’s beauty and joy in every living thing — even, eventually, in himself. The transition comes through a crisis and a renewal in prayer. At first, he cannot pray at all, he finds that his heart has become “as dry as dust”; but then, under a miraculous moonrise, he finds himself blessing his fellow creatures, the many-coloured watersnakes, whom he had despised:

The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

The Mariner returns with a new sense that the life of prayer and the commandment to love are two aspects of the same thing: “He prayeth best who loveth best” is the core message that he passes on to the hapless wedding guest and to the reader.

It is curious that the whole poem takes place in a conversation outside, not inside, a church door. Maybe we, too, will have had encounters outside our churches which will change our understanding of what goes on inside them.

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