Learning About Grace The Hard Way

32192791Parents of college students occasionally despair, thinking that child of theirs will never grow up. They would be encouraged to read about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He might now be known as a tower of wisdom, but when he was a college student, his choices were undoubtedly foolish. Coleridge squandered his money and went home significantly in debt. From there he received more money from his family but spent it before returning to school. He despaired of life to the consideration of suicide and ultimately joined the army using an alias on this day, December 2nd, in 1793.

His experience there was miserable, and he finally wrote to his brother in desperation:

Sweet in the sight of God and celestial Spirits are the tears of Penitence—the pearls of heaven—the Wine of Angels! Such has been the language of Divines— but Divines have exaggerated.—Repentance may bestow that tranquillity, which will enable man to pursue a course of undeviating harmlessness, but it cannot restore to the mind that inward sense of Dignity, which is the Parent of every kindling Energy! I am not what I was:—Disgust—I feel, as if I had jaundiced all my Faculties.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letter to George Coleridge, 23 February 1794

Grace isn’t understood until forgiveness seems impossible. In his book Mariner, a powerful study of Coleridge’s life, Malcolm Guite said this

The feeling of disgust and self-loathing was one with which Coleridge would have to wrestle during key periods throughout his life. And even as he tells us here that disgust extinguishes the “kindling energies,” he was nevertheless able to give permanent and powerful expression to that disgust not only for himself but also for posterity in the telling lines in The Ancient Mariner: “And a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on; and so did I.”

Interestingly, he goes on to say that the inward sense of dignity is “the Parent of every kindling energy.” In that phrase “every kindling energy” we see the first sparks of Coleridge in his mature brilliance, in his account of the mind as a meeting of reciprocal and circling energies, his sense of the intellect as itself an active and kindling light, not merely a blank and passive receptor to the outside senses. Perhaps the greatest characteristic of his mature poetry, particularly The Rime of the Ancient Mariner itself, is its “kindling energy”— kindling in the sense that it not only expresses the lights and energies that were already in Coleridge’s imagination, but also kindles to new flame and form the imaginations of each new generation of readers.

When did you first understand grace? How has that understanding shaped dignity in your life? Is there a kindling energy that fuels you?


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This book is written to take you on a journey: a journey into the hidden life of a great poet, and a journey into your own hidden life; a journey up toward mountaintop moments of vision and a journey down, fathoms deep beneath the traveling keel of your consciousness. This is a journey made possible for us, perhaps even made necessary, because it was made first by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem whose depths and heights, whose darkness and light, were prophetic both of Coleridge’s own life and of ours, he has given us, if we can learn to read it, a chart that maps both our souls and our world.

This one poem, originally begun as a quickly sketched popular gothic ballad, a disposable poem, to be sold to a magazine to fund a walking tour, was to become in the hands and imagination of Coleridge no throwaway but a unique and always generative visionary work. First published in 1798, worked on and reworked until its publication in its full form with the gloss in 1817 and further slight changes even to the last edition in Coleridge’s lifetime in 1834, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has never ceased to compel, baffle, intrigue, and ultimately delight its readers from the end of the eighteenth to the beginning of the twenty-first century. It has been the subject of major critical essays and reviews and indeed of entire books. It has been seen as the central myth of the new Romantic Movement, the first truly symbolist poem, a poem of pure imagination, a moral tale, an immoral tale, a farrago of superstitions, a profound Christian allegory, a drug-fueled nightmare, a poem of psychological disintegration, a vision of final integration, and in more recent times, a prophetic ecological warning. It would seem that each generation, as it looks into the mysterious and reflective depths of this poem, finds something telling, particular, and intimate speaking to their soul. The poem itself, like The Odyssey before it, has the classic shape of a journey out and back again. An unnamed ship, the purpose of whose journey we are never told, leaves the familiar and sails south, across “the line” into the southern hemisphere, and comes at last to great ice floes in the Antarctic. The sailors are lost in fog and surrounded by ice but are befriended by an albatross. This mysterious bird, which has been hailed by the men “as a Christian soul” and has shared the ship’s hospitality, guides the ship through the ice, round Cape Horn, and into the unknown Pacific.

But this narrative is suddenly interrupted as a wedding guest, to whom the tale is being told, notices a terrible change in the mariner’s expression:

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!— Why look’st thou so?”—With my cross-bow I shot the Albatross.

The rest of the poem goes on to explore the profound spiritual and material consequences of this seemingly random deed, which, as the poem proceeds, takes on the resonance and spiritual significance of the primal fall of humankind, and the fall of each of us. The crew makes themselves complicit in the deed by taking a purely instrumental view of the bird, first saying it was a bird of good omen and blaming the mariner and then changing their mind and saying it was right to kill the bird as it had brought the fog and mist.

But the albatross has its own proper life and meaning, and eventually they learn, but only through the medium of a dream, that they have disturbed a delicate balance and grieved the Polar Spirit, the deeply hidden, but living essence of that hemisphere who “loved the bird, that loved the man that shot him with his bow.”

The poem goes on to tell of the death of the other sailors and of the survival of the mariner, in an agony of helpless guilt and isolation in which he curses himself and every other living thing and wishes only to die. And then we have an extraordinary scene of transformation in which the mariner is suddenly able to see the world anew, on its own terms, and without sole reference to himself, and in which he finally blesses the “happy living things” against whose whole web of life he has offended. The rest of the poem tells of his growing

spiritual awareness; his penance and expiation of the curse; his visitation by angels and his final return, purged and transformed, to the place where he began; of his meeting with a hermit; of the sacrament of confession, the recovery of faith, and a new mission to tell his own transformative tale to those who need to hear it.

Astonishingly, every one of these narrative elements can be paralleled in Coleridge’s life as he came to live it after the composition of this poem. I shall bring out these parallels as we look at each section of the poem in detail in the second part of this book. But, briefly, one might observe that, 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 that linked love and prayer with a new humility toward 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.
So, how did he come to write it? What sources were woven into the poem?

What intuitions, dreams, and apprehensions were bodied forth in its strange and vivid imagery? These are some of the questions we will seek to answer in this book. Coleridge’s poem sends us out on a journey around the world, down toward the South Pole, up again through equatorial heat and drought, and finally home transformed. In the opening verses, the mariner glances briefly back at what he is leaving behind—“the kirk, the hill, the lighthouse top”—then turns forward and braces himself for adventure. So we will do the same as we step on board with Coleridge, and begin our journey with and through the poem.

Malcolm Guite, from Mariner

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life