Insights into reality itself
by Ken Myers
“Though Coleridge gave The Ancient Mariner a medieval setting, and the verse was meant to imitate early ballads, it was written in the midst of that massive shift in the way we see things and configure the world, which issued from the Enlightenment. The poem is fully alive to that shift and crisis and is indeed a parable about its failings and problems and a prophecy about their resolution. Thomas Pfau, the cultural historian, has shown, in his excellent recent book Minding the Modern, how The Ancient Mariner engages with the problems of alienation and anomie, with the crisis over the very nature of personhood which modernity has brought us. He goes so far as to say that The Ancient Mariner is ‘a parable about the philosophical predicament of modernity' (p. 454), and in the final section of his book, ‘Retrieving the Human,’ Coleridge emerges as something of a hero and a prophet for our times — an opinion with which I entirely concur.
“One aspect of the Enlightenment which had huge implications for modernism was the divorce between reason and imagination and the consequent reduction of knowledge itself to a so-called ‘objective’ realm of quantifiable fact from which all value or meaning had been drained, which in turn led to a reductive, mechanistic, and purely material account of the cosmos.
“Coleridge was living and working in the midst of this process. He saw from within, as it developed, the deadening effect of a falsely rationalistic and materialist philosophy. As a leading figure in the ‘Romantic Movement,’ he was already part of the reaction against a purely mechanical and materialist view of the world, but unlike some of the other Romantic poets he was concerned with more than creating beautiful fantasies as an alternative to grim reality. He wanted to challenge the philosophers on their own ground and show that the insights of imagination are insights into reality itself. In particular he wanted to deliver his age from what he called ‘the tyranny of the eye,’ to alert us to the formative reality of invisible qualities and values to counterbalance our obsession with ‘visible’ facts, with the quantifiable, with dead things that can only be weighed and measured.
“When at last Coleridge published The Rime of the Ancient Mariner under his own name and with his own interpretive gloss in 1817, he prefaced the whole poem with an epigraph: a quotation in Latin from a work by Thomas Burnet: Arcaeologiae Philosophicae, a seventeenth-century work which combined mysticism and science, of which Coleridge possessed the 1692 edition. The very fact that he chose to preface his poem with a passage from such a work signaled that he no longer regarded The Mariner as a piece of gothic frippery but saw it as a serious contribution to our spiritual understanding. The content of the quotation that Coleridge selected makes his intentions for the whole poem even clearer:
“I readily believe that there are more invisible beings in the universe than visible. But who will declare to us the nature of all these, the rank, relationships, distinguishing characteristics and qualities of each? What is it they do? Where is it they dwell? Always the human intellect circles around the knowledge of these mysteries, never touching the centre. Meanwhile it is, I deny not, oft-times well pleasing to behold sketched upon the mind, as upon a tablet, a picture of the greater and better world; so shall not the spirit, wonted to the petty concerns of daily life, narrow itself over much, nor sink utterly into trivialities. But meanwhile we must diligently seek after truth, and maintain a temperate judgment, if we would distinguish certainty from uncertainty, day from night.
“Two key elements from this epigraph are especially relevant to this poem: ‘I readily believe that there are more invisible beings in the universe than visible’; and second, from the central part of the passage, an encouragement for us ‘to behold sketched upon the mind, as upon a tablet, a picture of the greater and better world; so shall not the spirit, wonted to the petty concerns of daily life, narrow itself over much nor sink utterly into trivialities.’ These elements alert us to two key features in the poem, opening our minds to a deeper reading. We are asked to remember the reality of the invisible as well as the visible, to remember that there is always more both to our cosmos and to our own minds than we can at any given moment comprehend. Indeed, a large part of the power and purpose of Coleridge’s poetry is to make the invisible realities visible to us, to clothe them for a moment in visible symbols, which can move and change us. The second element also touches on one of the central themes of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and more widely, one of Coleridge’s most important assertions as a poet: the danger that the petty concerns of daily life, the apparent ordinariness of a world taken for granted, should narrow the mind and sink it into triviality. Burnet’s way of curing this is to suggest that the mind should behold a greater and a better world. Certainly Coleridge’s method in this poem is to take us out of the realm of the familiar, transferring us both literally and metaphorically to an entirely different hemisphere and opening the mind to heights and depths, sublimities and horrors, which are the visible representation of the mind’s own invisible potentialities.”
— from Malcolm Guite, Mariner: A Theological Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (InterVarsity Academic, 2018)