Samuel Taylor Coleridge

He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

The well-know lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” often show up on inspirational calendars and in “great quotations.” Good advice they may be, yet out of context, we may find them a bit glib: the kind of idea to pay lip-service to as we ignore the implications in our lives. When we encounter them at the climax of the poem, however, they turn out to be the moral of a vivid cautionary tale. The Ancient Mariner is one of those figures like Cain, the legendary Wandering Jew, or the Flying Dutchman, atoning for a crime by traversing the earth in search of hearers who may be saved from the same fate after hearing his story. In a symbolic fashion, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can be seen as the story of anybody who has discovered the connectedness between all living creatures, and the mystery of God’s love for Creation.

Such a message would not ring true unless it held a strong autobiographical component. In a very real way, Coleridge saw himself as the protagonist of his most famous work. Long before adulthood, he discovered that he had what would now be termed an addictive personality, with a particular weakness for gambling (which he managed to overcome) and opiates (which he did not). Though blessed with genius, nevertheless he felt emotionally deprived – as the youngest of thirteen children, his mother had little time for him. The Rationalism of the 18th Century enlightenment undermined his faith so he fell into an uncomfortable kind of Deism where God is so uninvolved with the world he made that he seems absent and indifferent. This kind of religion only depressed the love-starved Coleridge further. He wanted a personal Savior, but believed it would be irrational to believe in one. In the midst of his confusion he made what came to seem to him the cardinal mistake of his life. He and a friend came up with a Utopian scheme in which they were to marry two sisters and form an ideal community in the wilds of America. This plan came to nothing, but Coleridge felt honor-bound to marry the young woman, when he hardly knew, anyway. As he feared, this proved disastrous, and had the effect of making two unsuitable people (and the three children born of the union) very unhappy. In the midst of this psychic turmoil, however, Coleridge found some good. Through a new friend, William Wordsworth, he became more deeply involved with Nature. And through the remorse of having hurt both himself and another, he rediscovered Trinitarian religion and a personal God. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a metaphorical telling of his newfound mystic perception.

Simply told, the poem relates how a Wedding-Guest, about to enter a church with his companion, is pulled aside by a bearded stranger, and told a lengthy story which caused him to miss the ceremony, but makes him appreciate more fully the fellowship he once took for granted. The Mariner took ship on vessel which was blown into Antarctic waters. There, the other sailors partially tamed an albatross, but the Mariner killed it out of superstition and for sport. After that, the ship make it into the Pacific, only to be becalmed in the Sargasso “where slimy things did crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea.” There all his shipmates died, and the Mariner despaired, hating the world and himself until,
one moonlit night, he saw water snakes swimming on the phosphor covering the surface of the ocean:

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware.

In this instant, God returned to him, and he found he could pray again. Though many other terrible adventures lay before him, he knew now that he could be forgiven for his wanton carelessness which had caused destruction to others no less than to himself. Back in his native land, he begins “to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.” Instead of his earlier dismissal of creation as trivial (the albatross), or hideous (the slimy things), he can recognize the beauty in all Nature now that he understand that it mirrors God’s care:

He prayed best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The supernatural trials of the Mariner seem alive in the poem because underneath we sense the spiritual struggles Coleridge went through before he could come to this mystic perception. The recognition of God in Nature, and the recognition of God in our own natures is intimately related – in this powerful poem as in our existence.