Mariner

by Malcolm Guite, Hodder, £25

For Malcolm Guite, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a “unique and always generative visionary work”. It’s easy to be deceived by the antique balladic style, the medieval setting or the spooky Gothic imagery, and to forget just how revolutionary the poem was. Guite sees it as part of Coleridge’s challenge to Enlightenment divisions between reason and imagination, and the “deadening effect of a falsely rationalistic and materialist philosophy”.

Guite also makes a fascinating case for the work’s “prescient nature”. Though written when Coleridge was just 25, the poem is “full of intuitive foresight”, and much of Guite’s study traces how events and themes in the Ancient Mariner were paralleled in Coleridge’s later life: the travels, the spiritual highs and lows, the journey from despair to visionary experience and the hope of redemption. Guite is not suggesting that something weirdly magical was going on, but relishes the notion that “the poetic imagination can hold open for us a shape or a space we have yet to grow into”.

Alongside impressive close readings of the text, Guite provides a rewarding sketch of Coleridge’s life and, notably, stresses the crucial role of faith in Coleridge’s deeds and writing: visible not just in his major works but also in his “rich and compelling prayer life” and the many private letters “framed by the divine”.

A fully rounded Coleridge emerges from these pages: a man sometimes brought low by depression and addiction, but someone who could always win loyal friends, whose mind was so active and capacious.

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