An Astonishingly Prescient Poem

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

They and only they can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come. They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them.

Rick WilcoxToday we continue our introduction to Malcolm Guite’s Mariner by examining key features of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

We’ll look at two today and two tomorrow.

Prophetic Framing

Though Coleridge wrote the Ancient Mariner when he was only 25 years old, an astonishing amount of its content became the story of his life.  As Malcolm explains:

This prescient nature of the poem, the sense that new depths open out when we read it with both the early and the later Coleridge in mind, is further intensified by two of the poem’s “framing” devices. The first is the fact, embedded in the narrative of the poem itself, that an old man tells the story to a younger man, and that the encounter between them is predestined, and is for the younger man’s benefit…In retrospect, it is possible to imagine the wedding guest as the youthful Coleridge and the mariner as the older and wiser Coleridge returning to teach and guide his younger self.

The other “framing device” unique to this poem is the famous “gloss” which was added by Coleridge, nearly twenty years later, to the version published in 1817. Here indeed Coleridge created a beautiful counterpoint to his youthful voice and a more profound interpretation of the poem than he himself could have written when he composed it.

The Sacred Power of Self-Intuition

In the years following the publication of Ancient Mariner, Coleridge recognized the powerful shaping forces that guided his work.  He published a work titled Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions in 1817.  Here he discussed, as he said ‘the sacred power of self-intuition’ which guided his hand, and indeed the hand of every creator.  As Malcolm wrote:

Here Coleridge advances the beautiful suggestive idea that the poetic imagination can hold open for us a shape or a space we have yet to grow into. The great works of art and literature are, as it were, making room for our future insights, giving us the shapes, the stories, the images into which the undeveloped antennae of our inner life can grow.

If this is true of the narrative shape and the imagery of The Ancient Mariner, it follows that the poem is more than just an individual’s story. It is also a profound exploration of the human condition, of our fallenness and, as Coleridge says in the gloss, our “loneliness and fixedness.” Yet the poem also offers hope, release, and recovery.

Do you recognize these forces in your life?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.