We may find in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s writings essential guides for the seas we have to navigate in the “post-modern” era.
Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Malcolm Guite (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017)
The following passage is a brief extract from my new book Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This book was written in the conviction that Coleridge is not only one of the great romantic poets, but also a prophet for our time, that his rejection of a meaningless “mechanistic/material” view of the world, and his return to a rich Trinitarian faith, combined with his capacity to share that vision and work out its implications for the way we live our lives, made him a writer with as much to say to the twenty-first century as he had to say to his own age. As I began working on Coleridge in depth, I came to see that many Coleridge Scholars tended to confine him entirely to a literary sphere, to “filter out” his faith and all the references to his rich prayer life in the letters and notebooks, and simply to ignore his later theological writings. But the more I read the more I saw that his poetry, his literary criticism, and his theology were all of a piece, and lying behind them all was his deepening faith in a creator God who had made us in his own image, kindled our imaginations, and then entered his own creation to redeem us in Christ. What I offer here is a short excerpt from the introduction to the book which sets out its scope and gives you some idea of its style and tone.
From the Introduction:
Though The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was begun in 1797 when Coleridge was only twenty-five, it was an astonishingly prescient poem. As Coleridge himself came to realize much later, the shape of this story was to be the shape of his own life. With an uncanny clarity, image after image, and event after event in the poem became emblems of what Coleridge was later to suffer and discover. In the rich and honest notebooks Coleridge kept throughout his life he came in the end to recognize and refer to himself as “the mariner”… Like his mariner, Coleridge sailed away from home and all that was familiar, both outwardly in his life-changing voyages to Germany and Malta, and inwardly in his journey deep into the nightmare world of opium addiction and high into the rarefied regions of metaphysical speculation. 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. Just as the mariner met the pilot and the hermit at the moment his ship was sinking, and was rescued by them, so Coleridge was rescued from the shipwreck of addiction and despair by Dr Gillman, with whom he lived for the last years of his life. In that final phase he became, like his mariner, a life-transforming teacher, sharing a spiritual vision which linked love and prayer with a new humility towards God and nature. Not surprisingly, Coleridge later came to identify himself with the mariner, yet when he wrote the poem he had never even been to sea and none of these adventures had yet befallen him…
Although Coleridge is best known for a handful of brilliant poems written in the course of a few miraculous years when he was a young man at the end of the eighteenth century, it is less well known that he spent the rest of his life, the first thirty-four years of the nineteenth century, reflecting on the meaning of that intense experience: of having been the mind through which great works of imagination had been revealed. In this reflection Coleridge found himself compelled to reject the mechanistic, clockwork cosmos of Newton, to reject the distant and detached clock-maker that passed for God with many of his contemporaries. Instead he rediscovered for himself the mysterious and suddenly present God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, and called himself “I AM,” the mysterious and all-sustaining Word made flesh at Bethlehem, and the life-giving Holy Spirit through whom the imaginations of poets are kindled. After all his peregrinations, Coleridge, like his mariner, found haven and firm footing at last in the land of the Trinity.
As we come to the end of the Enlightenment project, the short-comings of which Coleridge so strongly attacked while he was in the midst of it, and as we find the purely material and mechanical models of reality less and less adequate to our experience, we may find in Coleridge’s writings essential guides for the seas we have to navigate in the “post-modern” era.
Editor’s Note: In the lecture below, titled “Mariner: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Voyage of Faith,” delivered at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, Malcolm Guite explores Coleridge’s life, faith and work, and what we might learn from him for our own lives of faith.
A section of this essay was originally published in Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is republished with gracious permission from the author.
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