I’m pleased to publish this guest review by Dr. Mischa Willett.
Let’s get one thing straight: there is nothing wrong with shooting an albatross. As even casual readers in the history of English literature will know, a sailor’s shooting the great sea-bird is the central action in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and as one can probably deduce, that poem is the subject of Malcom Guite’s new book Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Hodder and Stoughton, 2017).
The albatross was never taken commonly to be a symbol of Christian piety, nor were they “tutelary spirits” of a particular region, as Coleridge’s friend Wordsworth somewhere suggests, and as guides of a voyage they were perfectly useless. To kill one (or several) was not to declare one’s independence of nature, or of a God’s provision, and thus mount up on waxen wings, but was instead an effective way to get fresh meat at sea. Sailors looked upon them as “good luck,” not because of some superstition, but because it was lucky to get warm meat after a few days of eating salted ship’s provisions. In 1769, the explorer Joseph Banks records, without a touch of remorse, that he’d personally shot “several large albatross,” some with “nine-foot wingspans,” exclaiming that the crew ate food “fresh every morning as at the Covent Garden Market,” and accounting to such dietary provisions a good portion of his voyage’s success (Holmes 13). In fact, a top score on an individual hole in golf (3 under par), equivalent to a “Double Eagle,” is known as “an Albatross,” because it’s so lucky to get one.
The difficulty arises because in Coleridge’s poem, the action sounds fraught. We read it as a motivated symbol because it appears to be one. The deadpan declarative sentence sounds like a confession: “With my cross-bow/ I shot the albatross” (lines 81-82). The mariner’s wearing it like a talisman seems like penance, and the bird’s slipping off his neck and into the sea upon his praising looks like redemption.
The moral ambiguity of the mariner’s action–or, more precisely, the apparently-meaningful setting in Coleridge’s poem of an historically-meaningless action–has touched off, of course, a whole flock of critical opinion. Robert Penn Warren called the act “a crime against nature and against God” and suggests the poem is about the destruction of “the myth of the unity of being” (Warren 681). Frances Ferguson claims that “the Mariner commits the sin of pride in killing the Albatross, and thereby assert[s] his power over it” (Ferguson 700). But these responses are only possible because Coleridge accomplished a great trick: he took an objectively meaningless (and even common) action and made it sound so fraught, so pregnant with implication that it might as well have been the crucifixion of Christ, or the fall of mankind. In short, he turned it into a symbol.
Symbols are those literary and cultural objects which open outward, revealing more and more layers of meaning as they’re used. They’re like kaleidoscopes, recombining into new permutations of meaning with each turn of the glass. Religious sacramentalists downplay the importance of the eucharist for those who view it as merely symbolic, but there is nothing mere about real symbols. They never exhaust themselves. That’s the thing about poetry: one can make therein much of rather little, or rather, the little one makes is shown to have been much all along.
What Guite has done in this new book, is to turn every line, very nearly every word of Coleridge’s great poem about symbol-making into a distinct symbol. Coleridge writes, for example,
the ship was cheered, the harbor cleared
merrily did we drop
Below kirk, below the hill
Below the lighthouse top (21-4)
From those lines, Guite wrings an essay on Coleridge’s relationship to the church of his youth (“kirk” is a word for church), then discusses (because “hill”) the geographic environs in which he was raised, and then, perhaps most strangely, takes the “lighthouse top” not to discuss the harbors or sea-faring with which the poem is so much concerned, but to discuss the enlightenment–the light of reason, see?–and how it affected Coleridge philosophically.
So, a poetic stanza that means something like “the sailors dropped over the horizon, out of sight of the town” is here an occasion for describing place, theology, biography, and philosophy for the young Romantic, and not only to argue for the significance or the application, but to tell the actual story too, replete with biographical data. And with this simple method, looking word by word for traces of the poet’s own life by looking at his greatest poem, Guite turns out a tome of 430 pages from a poem of 650 lines.
So it is a big project, an interesting one, and at times, an audacious one. This is not a common method of literary biography, although Anne Wroe attempted a similar approach, much less successfully, of finding the poet Shelley’s life in his work with Being Shelley (2008). Nor is it a usual method of poetic explication. The only author I can think of to recieve so narrow and so exhasutive a treatment is Shakespeare of the sonnets in books such as Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1999). But in this case, in Guite’s obviously admiring hands, the method yields such fruit! Every time I thought, when reading, that he couldn’t keep up the high-wire act for long, a new section of the poem arrived, and with it, a new funambulist trick. Not all readers will go with Guite to the regions remote and strange wherein he sees books in the running brooks and a symbol in everything, but those who do, who trust this mariner to steer the ship if not somewhere real, at least somewhere very interesting will be glad they did.
So, the book is pretty delightful, and fun to read. But it is also necessary; not for the audacity of its design, but for the way it highlights along the route the importance of God and the church for Coleridge’s work and life, an aspect often ignored or purposely downplayed. Ask any modern undergraduate, or even fairly well-read person to say anything they know about Coleridge and if they know anything, it’s that he took opium.
Whatever he was for previous generations–abolitionist, revolutionary, philosopher, Germanicist–he seems to be for us a cautionary tale about the dangers of controlled substances. He was an addict. He suffered greatly from it. But he was also a Christian, and not as some accessory to a dignified life (which he didn’t have anyway). Coleridge was a theologian from his youth and few remember now that the best-selling work in his lifetime was a devotional such as might be found in a modern Christian bookstore: Aids to Reflection (1825). Guite, a chaplain himself, gives us back Coleridge as he was: a dedicated churchman who saw all of life through the prism of the divine, who viewed even his own somewhat daemonic imagination as just one more instantiation of the Christian God’s great power and creativity.
Another reason the book is a delight is that it operates both on newcomers and on old Romanticists alike. If you know nothing at all about Coleridge, the book is a good introduction to his life and work; others–the two-volume Richard Holmes biography for instance– might be more thorough and scholarly, but you wouldn’t have the more amiable guide. At the same time, it serves for seasoned readers like myself. There was almost nothing included here that I didn’t already know, as a scholar of Romanticism, about Coleridge’s life, or about the Rime, but I had never thought of them as so intertwined, and, when juxtaposed, so energetically generative as Guite makes them here. Having them placed thus causes me to see both the poem and the life with new eyes, the vision colorfully refracted over bits of broken church window in the end of a shipman’s spyglass.
Mischa Willett is the author of Phases, recently published by Cascade Books, as well as of essays, translations, reviews, and scholarly articles. A specialist in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry, he is also of the podcast Poems for the People, and teaches English at Seattle Pacific University.