Another first for Dennis, I’ve just completed a 430-page book dedicated wholly to a single poem! I am now officially well acquainted with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But of course, the book is so much more than an analysis of Coleridge’s masterwork of leaving all, great adventure, foolish evil actions, intense suffering, followed by redemption and a return home a sadder but wiser man.
Malcolm Guite sketches out the life of this sensitive, brilliant, stupid, gifted, spellbinding, lovely, complicated, and hopelessly drug and fantasy addicted man.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834): From the earliest age, he was mesmerized by nature and reading. His brilliant mind retained everything he put into it. His happy childhood abruptly ended when his father died, and he was sent away to live at a boarding school in London. At age 13, young Samuel’s life dramatically turned when a well-meaning doctor prescribed opium for the boy to treat his rheumatic fever.
Coleridge had an enduring personality and a communicative gift to go along with his spectacular mind; to know Coleridge was to love Coleridge. Guite includes several journal entries of people who met Coleridge throughout his life; they all fairly drip with admiration for this man. In addition to writing and speaking, Coleridge was also an anti-slavery activist and an idealist caught up in the notions of freedom, equality, and fraternity. The French Revolution inspired him and then disgusted him when it turned into a blood bath. As a young ideologue, he and some friends attempted to create a communal society the entire venture failed miserably. Seemingly the only benefit from this naive episode was Samuel’s hasty marriage to Sarah, which was necessary to make their utopian vision work. But even this litter glimmer of light was snuffed out. Nature captivated his senses, reading, writing, and philosophy captivated his mind, and opium captured his heart. Consequently, there was little left for Sarah and the children.
The “shot that killed the Albatross” and irreparably damaged their marriage happened when Coleridge extended his trip to Germany from his promised three months to ten months, this precisely when Sarah needed him most. In his absence, their youngest child had become horribly sick and died a gruesome death. Samuel was so focused on learning German, writing poetry, and managing his opium addiction that he took little notice of what was going on in England from the letters he received. When he finally figured out the tragedy, his response was curt and insensitive, followed by a further willful delay in his return. This complete failure to be a loving, sympathetic husband ruined any hope for reconciliation in the already strained relationship.
As the opium addiction worsened, all of Coleridge’s relationships faltered. Infatuation with a woman other than his wife further complicated matters, though this interlude of forbidden love is the inspiration for some of this best poetry. Wave after wave of guilt struck him for his failures, further adding to his misery.
Finally, he hit absolute rock bottom. Thankfully a caring doctor and his wife took Coleridge into their home and gave him round-the-clock care for the next 18 years until his death. Who does that? Had it not been for his endearing personality and remarkable talent, I have no doubt this man would have died alone in his mid-thirties crumpled in a London gutter somewhere. Happily, for Coleridge and all who knew him, The good doctor was able to ween this “archangel a little damaged” from his addiction. In the final years of his life, he experienced significant spiritual, relational and emotional healing.
The Best of Coleridge:
- If you don’t like deadlines: “The tenderest touch from the had of obligation wounds me like a scourge of scorpions. (83)
- If you are into depression: “a sort of clam hopelessness diffuses itself over my heart” (83)
- If you don’t like atheism: “Proud of what? An outcast of blind nature ruled by a fetal necessity. Slave of idiot nature! (106) These people have a blind obsession with the parts and a refusal to contemplate the whole (22). The mind is no accidental by-product of the movement of atoms in a mechanical universe (400)
- If you think nature might point you to God: The world around us is not a blank wall, but a window …the shapes and sounds of nature might be themselves and yet more than themselves (134)… God’s unflattering laureate, Nature. (149)
- If you think the heart informs the mind: Deep thinking is only attainable by a man of deep feeling 266
- If you are your parent’s favourite: My father was very fond of me, and I was my mothers’ darling — in consequence, I was very miserable. (24)
- If your idealistic dreams have failed: We built a magnificent edifice of happiness on a fleeting shadow of reality (68)
- If you see emptiness in the midst of plenty: Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.