For Coleridge, prayer was vital to the poetic vocation

Washington Allston's portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What is the point of a great work of art? My quick reply is that it provides solace to the human spirit in its restless quest for meaning and transcendence. I asked myself this question on reading Coleridge’s extraordinary and profound poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, alongside a recent book about it, The Mariner, by Malcolm Guite. (I also discovered a fine old tape recording of the poem, made by the young Richard Burton in 1955.)

Guite, the chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge and a lecturer in Divinity, is a published poet himself. Reading his book, with its insightful and sympathetic commentary on how The Rime seemed to foreshadow its author’s own strange circumstances, reminded me of Coleridge’s singular life: his early evidence of genius; his long struggle with opium addiction; his abiding religious sense which grew and developed during his life, alongside the reasoning powers of his brilliant mind and evidenced by the many extracts Guite includes from Coleridge’s Notebooks.

Fascinated by his book, I asked Guite what he thought Coleridge meant by his 1833 Notebook entry: “The pure of heart are not therefore poets; but no man can be a great poet…who has not a pure heart.” Guite thinks the poet “is making an important distinction between a state of spiritual awareness or vision on the one hand, and the capacity and calling to give that vision poetic expression on the other.”

He adds that “Some apologists for the arts have spoken about poetic achievement as though it were itself a religious truth or experience – but Coleridge makes it clear that the blessing on the pure in heart, that they shall see God, is a blessing for anyone and may or may not be shared with others through art. However, he goes on to make the important claim that really great poetry will require from the poet just that clarity of vision, that openness to the divine, which is God’s gift to the pure in heart.”

I also want to know what conclusions Guite has drawn about Coleridge after examining his writings on prayer. He tells me that his first conclusion is “that prayer was a daily reality and indeed a spiritual necessity for Coleridge at all stages of his life”, pointing out that “his letters and notebooks are full of prayers and quite natural, unforced accounts of times when he has prayed, regarding it as part of the natural course of the day or night. This is in addition to the poems and prose pieces that are specifically about prayer.”

Guite explains that “almost all this prayer is personal and individual. Coleridge was not, until the last two decades of his life, a regular churchgoer and while he prayed aloud with friends he did not use many set or liturgical prayers, except for the Psalms. However, in the last years of his life he composed prayers for his own nightly use. Another interesting feature of his prayer life is that he clearly regarded reading the Bible as itself an act of prayer: a marginal note in his copy says that the best preparation he knew for receiving communion was to re-read St John’s Gospel on his knees.”

Guite’s book emphasises the prophetic link between The Rime and modern Western consumerism. How do the famous lines, “Water, water everywhere/nor any drop to drink…” reflect this current crisis? He suggests that there is much more to the lines than merely the literal sense of agony at being surrounded by undrinkable salt water, explaining that “you may be surrounded by plenty but it does you no good; where the more you consume, the less satisfied you are. In our consumer culture, never has every whim of so many people been so completely catered to, so many needs at once stimulated and ‘satisfied’ – yet far from making us happy, we find a growing discontent and anomie until we are forced at last to make a distinction between ‘standard of living’ and ‘quality of life.'”

Guite’s book also raises the “deep and debilitating split in our culture between the arts and the sciences”. How does Coleridge’s poetry help to heal this division? Guite draws attention to a deeper split “between a so-called objective knowledge which is so depersonalised as to be devoid of meaning, and so-called ‘subjectivism’ which is completely detached from fact or history.”

He believes Coleridge tried to heal this split “by showing that consciousness itself is a simultaneously subjective and objective experience: to say ‘I am’ is to be the object of one’s own subjective knowing. More importantly, he traced all truth, both ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, back to its source in God, whom he called “the adorable I AM”, alluding to Exodus and St John’s Gospel. Coleridge showed that true human knowledge of God’s world, whether scientific or artistic, was an exercise of our ‘primary Imagination’ which he defined as ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.'”

Finally, I want to know in what ways for Coleridge theology and poetry complement each other. Guite reflects, “There are two important ways in which they are linked. The first is his high Doctrine of the Imagination, his belief that the vision offered us by poetry should at the very least be consonant with, and offer insights into, the vision of God vouchsafed in Scripture, in the lives of the saints and the teachings of the church.”

“The second is Coleridge’s belief that poetry has the capacity to “awaken the mind’s attention” to God’s presence and meaning in and through his works.” Guite reminds me that “his nature poetry was not, as Wordsworth’s sometimes was, pantheistic; it was rather an attempt to interpret and read nature as ‘the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language’ which God utters.”