Wind, Breath and Spirit

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Lines 452-63

But soon there breathed a wind on me,
Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,
In ripple or in shade.
It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring—
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.
Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze—
On me alone it blew


Genesis 1:2 describes the Holy Spirit as “breath”, and thereafter our understanding of life is inextricably linked to breath. This Breath moved in the body of a humble girl and from God and mankind we received Immanuel – God with us. Jesus is the fullness of God in human form and our example of human life lived in complete harmony with God’s design.

As Malcolm Guite writes:

In Part V, again just after the mariner has awoken from sleep, we had the grand cosmic arrival of the Spirit with its deliberate echo of Pentecost: the loud roaring wind, the upper air bursting into life, “a hundred fire-flags sheen.” But, significantly, we were told “The loud wind never reached the ship” and it is “moved on from beneath,” not by the wind. It is as though, at that point, the mariner can behold the energy of release and new life “afar off in the element” but it has not yet become his own personal and more gentle renewal of spirit. But now, just as he is being readied to return home, the Spirit comes to him personally. Coleridge was of course well aware that in the Authorized Version of the New Testament the words wind, breath, and spirit are all translations of the single Greek word pneuma. When Jesus has that remarkable conversation with Nicodemus about the possibility of Nicodemus being born anew, he says (in the Authorized Version):

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. ( Jn 3:5-8)

But it is the translators who are choosing when to use “wind” and when to use “Spirit.” It could equally well be translated: “The spirit bloweth where it listeth . . . so is everyone that is born of the wind.” This cluster of water, spirit, and wind is certainly part of the resonance and meaning not only of these stanzas, but of the whole poem. In one sense the wind/spirit that “breathes” on the mariner at this moment is the beginning of this new birth, but it will not be completed until he is also “born of water,” and that is precisely what happens in the final part of the poem when the mariner is pulled, “like one that hath been seven days drowned,” from the sea.

How is baptism like birth?

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Rick Wilcox is Editor in Chief