Walking over uneven ground

Review of “Mariner – A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge” by Malcolm Guite

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I’m currently working at a charity shop with a good range of books on our shelves, but behind the scenes you get a slightly different picture of what the Great British Public are donating to charity. Just how many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code and anything by Jeremy Clarkson are there in the world? Anyway, the fact that these books aren’t wanted anymore tells you all you need to know about them….

So, it’s been a relief to get hold of a much more substantial title this week – “Mariner”, a new biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – by Malcolm Guite, recently out in paperback. I’m usually a library or charity shop addict, but this was £15 on a new book very well spent.

It’s almost 2 centuries since the death of the revered Romantic Poet, so there are plenty of biographies already out there, but this one has found a new and refreshing way of telling his life story – paralleling his ups and downs with the plot of his most famous work – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So for example, the Mariner infamously shoots the albatross for no apparent reason….. equally, Coleridge, on hearing of the death of his son, unnecessarily delayed his return from a trip to Germany by several months. Later, the Mariner falls into the pit of despair, drifting “alone on a wide, wide sea”, before slowly realising his mistake in killing the albatross and returning home, renewed. Similarly, Coleridge experienced the horrors of opium addiction, but with careful supervision managed to make something of the final years of his life. Indeed, Guite explains how – 20 years after writing the poem – Coleridge had sufficiently recognised how his own life mirrored that of the Mariner for him to add an instructive “Gloss” to the poem (to the left of the text – see photo above) and even to start referring to himself as “The Mariner”.

The book’s structure is not only an effective way of telling a life story, but also of bringing the whole of the famous poem itself to life. At 625 lines, over 7 parts, the Rime can sometimes feel a daunting prospect for the reader (I have to admit to getting a little bit bogged down in the middle sections before – like the Mariner himself). But in considering the Rime as a whole, and giving equal emphasis to each of the 7 parts, Guite allows you to see the whole of Coleridge’s vision. Just as there is much more to Coleridge’s life than the annus mirabilis of 1797/8 and his friendship with Wordsworth, so does an albatross round the neck and water water everywhere only scratch the surface of the poem.

Guite also wishes to address an apparent oversight in previous biographies – namely the importance of Coleridge’s Christian faith in both his life and poetry – and argues the point convincingly. This is not to say that either the book or the Rime is exclusively for Christian readers though. I found the passages explaining the source of Coleridge’s inspiration illuminating. And the tale of the Mariner is universal, and can be viewed at a number of levels – a good yarn, dozens of nifty rhymes and phrases, simple moral messages (“don’t do stupid things”, “learn from your mistakes”, “look after nature”) as well as extending to the full-blown religious allegory. Perhaps that helps the Rime remain as relevant today as ever.

Finally, having previously blogged on Coleridge’s fellwalking adventures (not once but twice!), I was interested to read Guite’s take on this habit. After all, the Rime was largely composed on a 40-mile walk in 1797 with the Wordsworths, and around this time their mutual friend William Hazlitt observed (quoted on pp 113-114):

Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel walk.

Like the changing seas his Mariner was navigating, “Walking over uneven ground” seems a fair metaphor for Coleridge’s tumultuous life, and Guite has struck on a novel way of presenting it. I zipped through the 400-odd pages of “Mariner” in just a few days. This is one book I won’t be donating to our charity shop in a hurry.

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