Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
A sense o’er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, every where
Eternal strength and Wisdom are.
But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!
And shame and terror over all!
Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know
Whether I suffered, or I did:
For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.
So two nights passed: the night’s dismay
Saddened and stunned the coming day.
Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me
Distemper’s worst calamity.
The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream,
O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child;
And having thus by tears subdued
My anguish to a milder mood,
Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin,
For aye entempesting anew
The unfathomable hell within,
The horror of their deeds to view,
To know and loathe, yet wish and do!
Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?
To be loved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.
Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem
Samuel Taylor Coleridge is best known for his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The poem is the tale of an old sailor and his journey through the self-inflicted consequences of choice. In today’s poem, Coleridge likewise speaks of his own agony from drug addiction, the cruel and ironic outcome of something first taken to relieve pain. From this depth, Coleridge says his prayers were ‘aloud in anguish and in agony.’
Earnest prayer is difficult and untidy, and we are grateful for the poet’s honesty. As Malcom Guite writes in The Word in the Wilderness:
One of the reasons why Coleridge can speak very directly to our own age is that he lived in and confronted addiction, and its attendant self-loathing, which seems to be one of the deepest, if most hidden, curses of our own age. In an age which should theoretically offer us greater possibilities of freedom than in any previous generation, we have in fact used that freedom to devise our own trammels and cages, and our entire culture of consumption seems designed at once to promote and conceal addictive and obsessive patterns of behavior. The specifics of the addictions may have changed since Coleridge’s time, but he fearlessly enumerates their real psychological and spiritual consequences…
How has anguish driven you to prayer?
From the end of the earth I will cry to You, When my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) was born in Devonshire, England, and began studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, which he then abandoned. In 1795 he met William Wordsworth, with whom he collaborated in literature and poetry. In 1798 he published Lyrical Ballads, which included his famous poem “The Ancient Mariner.” He studied Kant in Germany, and wrote several great poems. But from 1802 his powers declined, probably because he was struggling with his growing addiction to opium. Yet in 1816 he published “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan.” In theology and religion he reacted against the rationalism of his early years, and came under the influence of the Pietist J. Boehme and the pantheism of Spinoza. Many date his “Christian” period from about 1810. He urged the use of imagination and creativity, and attacked rationalistic orthodoxy. As is well known, J. S. Mill described him as, with Jeremy Bentham, one of “the two great seminal minds of England of their age.” Newman and Maurice were also greatly impressed by him.In Coleridge’s thought, Bernard Reardon writes, “The basis of faith, then, is not argument but experience” (From Coleridge to Gore [London: Longman, 1971], 65). As regularly occurs in hermeneutics, he distinguished between reason and understanding. He followed Kant in excluding religion and morality from logic alone. Like Schleiermacher, he understood God as One with whom humankind can hold communion. A Christian creed, he held, should not be as cheerless as atheism. He was also influenced in this period by Schelling and Romanticism. Sin, he believed, is the subjection of the will to an external control. He called for a “new and more perceptive approach to the Bible” (From Coleridge to Gore, 81), and was familiar with much current German NT scholarship. Whatever in the Bible “finds me,” he wrote, demonstrates the witness of the Holy Spirit. Reardon considers him “The first of the great nineteenth century ‘thinkers’ ” (88). Truth, he believed, concerns life, not simply thought.
Anthony C. Thiselton, “Coleridge, Samuel Taylor,” The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 248–249.
See Malcolm Guite’s masterful new work on Coleridge here:
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.