Has literature a function in the state? …. It has. And the function is not the coercing or emotionally persuading or bullying or suppressing people into the acceptance of any one set or any six set of opinions as opposed to another set or half-dozen set of opinions.
It has to do with the clarity and vigour of ” any and every” thought and opinion. It has to with maintaining the very cleanliness of the tools, the health of the very matter of thought itself. Save in the rare and limited instances of inventions in the plastic arts, or in mathematics, the individual cannot think and and communicate his thoughts, the legislator cannot act effectively or frame his laws without words, and the solidity and validity of these words is in the care of the damned and despised literati. When their work goes rotten -by that I do not mean when they express indecorous thoughts- but when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten ie. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and individual thought and order goes to pot. This is a lesson of history , and a lesson not yet half learnedEzra Pound
Category: Book Talk
KNOWING WE DO NOT BELONG TO OURSELVES : DIFFERENT VIEWS.
What know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?(1.Corinthians 6.19)
But during the long February nights with the ewes in labour, looking out from the shelter into the flashing stars, he knew he did not belong to himself. He must admit he was only fragmentary, something incomplete and subject. There were the stars in the dark travelling, the whole host passing by on some eternal voyage. So he sat small and submissive to the great ordering.D.H.Lawrence The Rainbow
“I did it my way”Frank Sinatra “My Way”
Newspaper reports in the United Kingdom have suggested that most people want a secular rather than a religious funeral and that the favourite music is Frank Sinatra’s song “I did it my way”.
But does your life belong to you? And is your satisfaction (or disatisfaction) in it because of that? Or are you responsible to something beyond yourself?
Christ said” I am the way, the truth and the life”.(Gospel of St.John 14.6)
INSPIRATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY WRITERS ARE INSPIRED?
Biblical literalists will tell you the Bible is inspired by God and a picture has arisen of the writers faithfully transcribing God’s inspiring Word. However, poets have long sought from beyond themselves the inspiration of the Muse. That there might be similarity with the Biblical in the kind of inspiration in some artists’ and prophetic voices is suggested by the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who claimed in The Oak and the Calf that for the final draft of The Gulag Archipelago three large volumes written in seventy three days, his was merely the recording hand.
William Blake, referring to his pictures, though he might well have said the same of his prophetic poems, “though I call them mine I know they are not mine”.
The idea of divine inspiration is reflected by D.H. Lawrence, reflecting to a colleague on his approach to his work:
I know how hard it is. One needs something to make one’s mood deep and sincere. There are so many frets that prevent our coming at the real naked essence of our vision. It sounds boshy doesn’t it? I often think one ought to be able to pray, before one works- and then leave it to the Lord. Isn’t it hard, hard work to come to real grips with one’s imagination- throw everything overboard? I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me-and it’s rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist. I often think of my dear Saint Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said, “Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side.(To Ernest Collings, 24th February 1913 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence)
That it was possible for Lawrence- son of a coal miner- in 1913 to pitch his inspiration at so high a level- scarcely imaginable in a writer in English a hundred years later- demonstrates an intense seriousness in his conception of the possibilities and meaning of art in the twentieth century, which links it closely with the Biblical idea of inspiration.
Whatever, both Blake and Lawrence were brought up as Nonconformists; one was the earliest great English Romantic and the other developed into perhaps the last representative of that great outcrop of writers. Solzhenitsyn, a faithful follower of the Russian Orthodox church writes out of the the great tradition of the Russian novel, but all three writers develop their work out of the Judeo-Christian heritage.
But to get back to the Bible, perhaps you remember the second story of creation in Genesis 2:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils; and man became a living soul.Genesis 2: 7 KJV
Hence inspiration -the breath of God breathed in by Man; with Man as “living soul” created in the image of God (Genesis1.27) ;there follows creative speech (Adam is to name the animals) developing into what, in time, Lawrence is to call “art speech” (“art speech is the only speech”) properly and originally inspired in Man by God.
The idea of inspiration is central to the Old Testament. God inspired Moses, much against his will, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When Moses argues he has not the gift of eloquence he is told by God:
Who hath made man’s mouth…………Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt say.Genesis 4 11-12
The great Hebrew prophetic tradition follows in similar vein. Jeremiah similarly protests about being unable to speak “for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1.6) and God reassures him Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me “Behold I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jeremiah 1.9). We hear of Ezekiel’s vivid visions followed by the words:
“Son of Man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thy heart, and hear with thine ears“. (Ezekiel 3.10)
The prophetic tradition demonsrates most obviously the Biblical idea of inspiration. The prophets are men with a deep sense of accountability to God, deeply disturbed by the way in which their nation is going and finding, through inspired vision, a voice to express what they are convinced is God’s will. While much of what they say is directed towards the plight of their nation at a particular time, within the fluctuations of Middle-eastern geopolitics, from them emerge great visions like those of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, visions that were to inspire future prophets and indeed Jesus himself , who seemed particularly influenced by Isaiah’s idea of the “suffering servant” and Daniel’s apocalyptic visions.
Yet inspiration is not confined to the prophets. The Genesis stories of creation and the Fall are told at a depth which makes them continue to be deeply meaningful thousands of years later. The psalms are poems written by poets inspired to address God, some in gratitude to the good shepherd, some in distress to a God seemingly turned away. Job’s great drama daringly imagines God giving voice to the creation of the cosmos.
Biblical literalists then are not misguided in seeing inspiration as central to the creation of the books of the Bible. However the power to be a prophet or seer does not guarantee authenticity in itself. The Bible speaks of false prophets. Ezekiel is warned to distinguish true prophecy from those so called prophets who “follow their own spirits and have seen nothing” (Ezekiel 13.7). Of them God says
Have ye not seen a vain vision and have ye not spoken a lying divination, whereas ye say,The Lord saith it albeit I have not spoken.Ezekiel 13.7
We are disturbed by Biblical visions that speak of the the destruction of the Ammonites. These are visions, based on an idea of tribal purity at odds with later Christian ideas. Peter’s wonderful vision of being commanded to eat foods he instinctively considers impure (Acts 10. 9-16) is a revelatory turnaround of what he has learned from his religious heritage.
We need, in other words, as well as revelation, critical discernment . It is not enough to claim the inspiration and expect immediate endorsement. Prophecy may stretch the bounds of credibility or seem confusing or downright wrong as sometimes do the later Blake and the later Lawrence.
Yet inspiration, that is true inspiration, has an authority about it that we should be wary of countermanding:
And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.Gospel of St. Mark 1.27
The voice of Jesus saying and doing what intellectual traditionalists of his day find outrageous, yet calls forth, as the revelatory does, wonder at the voice of counter- authority.
We, of the English language, have been peculiarly fortunate in a tradition of great prophetic voices who from Blake, Coleridge, Carlyle, Dickens, Lawrence, Leavis have represented a continuity of voices protesting against mainstream thought systems that have led to modern day scientism and technological- Benthamism (the phrase is Leavis’ characterisation of the age) which have vitiated our modern culture and depressed and diverted the religious spirit of the people.
Inspired voices? Our age desperately needs to learn from them.
HOW DO WE GROW?
We may say that when we use language, or a probe, or a tool, and thus make ourselves aware of these things as we are of our body, we interiorize these things and make ourselves dwell in them. Such extensions of ourselves develop new faculties in us; our whole education operates in this way; each of us interiorizes our cultural heritage, he grows into a person seeing the world and experiences life in terms of this outlook. (from Michael Polyani “The Logic of Tacit Inference” (Knowing and Being)
What do you think of this quotation?
I love it because it challenges the idea that education is an accumulation of facts, of external knowledge, of developing skills detached from who we are.
Education is to do with “indwelling”, within a science, an art, a language, a literature, a history; so that it becomes “interiorised” within our person.
It challenges the idea that education is simply for utility and not for our personal growth.
Let me know what you think.
THE MARRIAGE AT CANA (PART 2)
Last time we looked at a poem on the Marriage of Cana -which if you have not yet read I would encourage you to look at. Here is the story as described in St. John’s Gospel.
And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there. And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus, saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. And there were set there six waterpots of stone after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now and bear to the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was (but the servants which drew the water knew) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.
Our first reaction reading this as if for the first time might be to say “What an extraordinary story!”. We might it also find it a very mysterious one. The mystery is less as to the actuality of the miracle : “Did it happen?” or “How did it happen? ” and more on its significance: “Why has John decided to make this the first “sign” of Jesus’ ministry?”
Another way of looking at it is its sheer strange aliveness. We are caught up in a story we are not sure we fully understand so that at the critical moment, when the “governor” of the feast tastes the water, we are filled with suspense. How will he react to this drink that is prepared as water and is purportedly wine? All we are given is a good humoured, genial reaction demonstrating that transformation has indeed been wrought.
The reader’s curiosity is roused by John’s choice of this story, not one of healing as the opening sign of Jesus’ ministry. There is clearly a significance in the use of waterpots normally used for purification purposes. And the underlying significance seems to be contained in the summing up phrase “You have kept the good wine till now”. Wine is used in John’s gospel by Jesus as something he brings as the “true vine”. The Communion service as introduced by Jesus at the Last Supper (not included as such in the gospel unless this story is seen as an alternative symbolic reference) relates the transformation brought in us in drinking the “wine ” of Jesus.
More simply this is a story whose significance is less bound up with the amazement of a miracle but the transformation Jesus brings in his ministry and through his death and Resurrection. The realism of the telling combines with a mysterious hinterland of points of significance that engages our sense of wonder as readers of a fascinating story.
At the heart of Christian belief is the idea of transformation. John’s gospel and this story that is the first sign manifesting Christ’s glory is one that invites us into a reading that takes us beyond the literal, beyond the happening to the significance of the presented happening.
It might be called an inspirational story. John clearly was to inspired to develop the story and give it a primary place in his gospel. The Christopher Morgan poem we looked at last time is an inspired imaginative reflection on the story. With Jesus’ new wine readers are encouraged to seek inspiration.
“THE MARRIAGE AT CANA” : A POEM. (1)
The following poem gives a wonderful sense of the mysterious vitality of the story of Christ’s first sign or miracle from the Gospel of St John.
THE STEWARD’S TALE”
We did not usually run out of wine; My chief, a stern man, took his stewardship So very earnestly. There had been, You might say, an administrative slip. This was, you understand, a marriage feast Of consequence. The guests had come from far And wide. I startled when I saw the last Drops slowly draining from my serving jar. Word of the shortage had not got around; The chief knew nothing. How could I tell him? Then the voice of one who knew his own mind Bade me fill up six pitchers to the brim. I turned to see a young man standing there, One of the guests, quiet, knowing, benign. Do as I bid he said, and have no fear. You bring me water I will give you wine. Strange to say I did not hesitate, though Even at this time it seemed absurd. Those pitchers were so heavy it took two To lift them. I obeyed without a word. It was with trepidation that I took A sample for approval to the chief. He sipped, nodded and with a puzzled look, Sent me away. Imagine my relief. Later, as the feast progressed, I heard Him laugh and chat, politely tease the groom Uncannily an atmosphere of shared Peace almost of blessing had filled the room. I often wondered about that young man, When I left Cana for another place, Another life. Until today, watching Them unfix the Nazarene from the cross, I recognised at once his gentle face.
Chrsitopher Morgan in this poem (in the short collection Stalking the A4 The Brynmill Press 2009) is presented by critic Ian Robinson as one of the few contemporary poets whose work continues to “haunt” him
. “He is the best practitioner of English verse I have read in our time. Especially in the twenty first century it is not faint praise to call a writer a supreme master of the iambic pentameter and Morgan’s fluency in other forms is amazing.”
The Marriage of Cana in St John’s gospel is one of the great tales of the gospel. Rich meaning is distilled through Jesus’ direction leading to the transformation of water to wine.
The steward’s predicament here gives another perspective: the telling the tale from another imagined angle, through a dramatic monologue of one who has no previous knowledge of the man Jesus, so giving a fresh view on the power of his influence in creating an atmosphere of “shared Peace, almost of blessing” through the room. Behind this feeling is the cryptic and powerful prediction the Lord has made: “You bring me water I will give you wine“.
The steward speaks in exact, measured terms as one seeking to describe the events simply for a hearer. The precise account and the sure poetic use of enjambement (last Drops), the surprise of the single word active verb for “startled” (it is usually in passive voice) enables us to focus on the steward’s predicament. The introduction of Jesus is striking: first by unexpected voice-he is heard before he is seen- “ the voice of one who knew his own mind“- and then his appearance “quiet, knowing, benign” confirming the authority of voice when the steward is at a loss as to how to break the news. The decisive command is intriguingly reinforced by the fine chime of “wine” with “benign”.
The immediate effect within the poem is witnessed by the steward, in trepidation as he watches the master of the feast imbibe that drink he knows was poured out water. His relief at his master’s reaction is developed into wonder by the transformation wrought in the room.
This is beautifully wrought poetry. The steward’s wonder is prepared for by “uncannily”. As we return to the word we realise it is a stretched four syllable word drawing out the sense of the steward’s feeling as he sees the transformation gradually taking place. Note how the enjambement throws the emphasis on the keyword “Peace”( rhythmically elongated) . We are seeing the room through the steward’s eyes. His additional “almost of blessing” reminds us this is the voice of one who does not know Jesus, trying to find the right word and lighting on the powerful word “blessing” with its strong religious implications (of grace, of revelation) to describe the effects of his action.
That could have ended the poem but there is an additional five line stanza bringing us up to date linking the forgoing story with the crucified Jesus. The one who brought blessing and new life, the one whose “cup” he invited his disciples to drink as his blood at the Last Supper, is the one whose potential is declared in that opening miracle of John’s gospel.
The poem is thus an inspired re-telling of the first sign the inspired gospel writer, John brings of one who continues to have the power to transform.
TELLING HOME TRUTHS!
RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART 7
This Hermit good lives in that wood Which slopes down to the sea. How loudly his sweet voice he rears! He loves to talk with marineres That come from a far countree. He kneels at morn, and noon, and eve- He hath a cushion plump: It is the moss that wholly hides That rotted old oak stump. The skiff-boat neared: I heard them talk, "Why this is strange I trow! Where are those lights so many and fair, That signal made but now?" "Strange, by my faith!" the Hermit said- "And they answered not our cheer! The planks look warped! and see those sails, How thin they are and sere! I never saw aught like to them, Unless perchance it were Brown skeletons of leaves that lag My forest-brook along: When the ivy-tod is heavy with snow, And the owlet whoops to the wolf below, That eats the she-wolf's young". "Dear Lord! it hath a fiendish look- (The Pilot made reply) I am a-feared"- "Push on, push on!" Said the hermit cheerily. The boat came closer to the ship, But I nor spake, nor stirred; The boat came close beneath the ship, And straight a sound was heard. Under the water it rumbled on, Still louder and more dread: It reached the ship, it split the bay; The ship went down like lead. Stunned by that loud and dreadful sound, Which sky and ocean smote, Like one that had been seven days drowned My body lay afloat: But swift as dreams, myself I found Within the Pilot's boat. Upon the whirl, where sank the ship, The boat span round and round; And all was still, save that the hill Was telling of the sound. I moved my lips-the Pilot shrieked And fell down in a fit; The holy Hermit raised his eyes And prayed where he did sit. I took the oars: the Pilot's boy, Who now doth crazy go, Laughed loud and long, and all the while His eyes went to and fro. "Ha!ha!" quoth he, full plain I see, The Devil knows how to row." And now, all in my own countree, I stood on the firm land! The Hermit stepped forth from the boat, And scarcely he could stand. "O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man! The Hermit crossed his brow. "Say quick " quoth he, " I bid thee say- What manner of man art thou?" Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched With a woful agony Which forced me to begin my tale: And then it left me free. Since then at an uncertain hour, That agony returns: And till my ghastly tale is told, This heart within me burns. I pass, like night from land to land: I have strange power of speech: That moment that his face I see, I know the man that I must teach. What loud uproar bursts from that door! The Wedding-guests are there: But in the garden-bower the bride And bride-maids singing are: And hark the little vesper-bell, Which biddeth me to prayer! O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been Alone on a wide wide sea: So lonely twas, that God himself Scarce seemed there to be. O sweeter than the marriage -feast 'Tis sweeter far to me, To walk together to the kirk With a goodly company!- To walk together to the kirk, And all together pray, While each to his great Father bends, Old men, and babes, and loving friends And youths and maidens gay! Farewell, farewell! but this I tell To thee, thou Wedding-Guest! He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast. He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small: For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all. The Mariner, whose eye is bright, hose beard with age is hoar, Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest Turned from the bridegroom's door. He went like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man, He rose the morrow morn.
The journey is almost done. We are being returned again-as the previous part has indicated-to the lighthouse-top, the hill, the church.
In Part 7 the Mariner is conducted to harbour by the Pilot roused by the strange lights of the incoming ship. The pilot is attended by the Hermit who brings the imagery of the wood into this poem of sea voyage. The Hermit combines a God-fearing quality with love of Nature ( of which he is revealed to be a close observer), and also a curiosity in the tales of mariners from far abroad.
The transfer of the Mariner to the pilot’s boat takes place after the mysterious sinking of the ship, which Coleridge makes wonderfully dramatic, or climactic. The supernatural powers have completed their mission of carrying the mariner back to his homeland; the ship disintegrates and goes down “like lead”. The Mariner is submerged and then :
Like one that hath been seven days drowned My body lay afloat
Guite (Mariner:A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Hodder and Stroughton 2018) likens this experience of the mariner to baptism. “Baptism is a ritual enactment of dying and rising, of drowning and breaking the waters coming to new birth.”
The shock of the disappearance of the ship, the whirling round of the pilot’s boat in the consequent whirlpool and the mysterious transition of the body of the Mariner to the company, not as a drowned body but one capable of speech and action induces the fear that the mariner is a ghost and is, amid the boy’s hysteria, relieved by a moment of humour :
" Ha! ha! quoth he, "full plain I see The Devil knows how to row".
The presence of the Hermit advances the redemption theme. The Mariner needs to be shrieved-to utter confession to be fully absolved of his sin and continue in penetential purpose. This develops the Wandering Jew idea in which the Mariner becomes a wanderer from land to land as one also, needing to tell his tale.
There is a shift of perspective, returning to the Wedding-Guest scene of the start of the poem, to the Mariner’s address to the Wedding-Guest, bringing to him a new understading of the familiar: communal-life, the need to share in worship and prayer and a reminder of the great moral point of the poem. While Coleridge later felt that this section was too overt in its putting out the moral message -ideally he believed the moral truth should be contained within the art and not made to become explicit moral statement-it is also the case that for the mariner on his mission such explicitness would be a necessary part of his mission. As such it seems to me to work:
He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast. He prayeth best who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.
These stanzas are contrasted with the previous one which emphasises what had been the Mariner’s plight:
"O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been Alone on a wide wide sea: So lonely twas that God himself Scarce seemed there to be.
Isolation and disbelief are put together. The poem affirms, however, that the God who “seemed” not to be is in fact there as a potentially redemptive power which eventually on the turn of the Mariner’s mind towards love of the beauty of the water-snakes comes fully into play.
Modern readers have recognised the continuing relevance of the poem especially in our time when the threat to the natural world destroyed by human exploitation has come to the fore. The albatross destroyed by the Mariner’s arrow remains a creature encapsulating the wanton heedlessness and greed of humankind. That came to the fore with Chris Jordan’s film of the devastation plastic is causing in the albatross population. (See an excellent review of his film in The Guardian March 12 2018)
Coleridge’s poem in its theme is peculiarly modern in its concern with our relationship with the natural world while also pointing to the crisis of the individual soul having lost a belief in a creator God separated from Nature, living in a state of apartness from the creation which for his own health or wholeness he needs to reverence. Aware of the individual’s capacity for evil Coleridge combines what we might call the ecological theme with the need for personal redemption. This is the challenge of the poem to the modern reader, who may tend to emphasise the priority of the ecological theme at the expense of the religious purpose. But Coleridge reminds us that -to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn- the line between good and evil runs not just between political ideologies-the ecological -minded against the promoters of growth- but through every individual heart. To Coleridge the heart turned to a loving Creator knows the need to reverence God’s creation.
RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART VI
FIRST VOICE "But tell me,tell me! speak again, Thy soft response renewing- What makes that ship drive on so fast? What is the ocean doing?" SECOND VOICE Still as slave before his lord, The ocean hath no blast; His great bright eye most silently Up to the moon is cast- If he may know which way to go; For she guides him smooth or grim. See, brother, see! how graciously She looketh down on him." FIRST VOICE "But why drives on that ship so fast, Without or wave or wind?" SECOND VOICE "The air is cut away before, And closes from behind. Fly, brother fly! more high,more high! Or we shall be belated: For slow and slow that ship will go, When the Mariner's trance is abated. I woke, and we were sailing on As in a gentle weather; Twas night, calm night, the moon was high; The dead men stood together. All stood together on the deck, For a charnel-dungeon fitter: All fixed on me their stony eyes, That in the moon did glitter. The pang, the curse, with which they died, Had never passed away: I could not draw my eyes from theirs, Nor turn them up to pray. And now this spell was snapt: once more I viewed the ocean green, And looked far forth, yet little saw Of what had else been seen- Like one that on a lonesome road Doth walk in fear and dread, And having once turned round walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread. But soon there breathed a wind on me, Nor sound nor motion made: Its path was not upon the sea, In ripple or in shade. It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek Like a meadow gale of spring- It mingled strangely with my fears, Yet it felt like a welcoming. Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship, Yet she sailed softly too: Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze- On me alone it blew. Oh! dream of joy is this indeed The light-house top I see? Is this the hill? Is this the kirk? Is this mine own countree? We drifted o'er the harbour-bar, And I with sobs did pray- Oh let me be awake, my God! Or let me sleep alway. The harbour-bar was clear as glass, So smoothly it was strewn! And on the bay the moonlight lay, And the shadow of the Moon. The rock shone bright, the kirk no less, That stands above the rock: The moonlight steeped in silentness The steady weathercock. And the bay was white with silent light, Till rising from the same, Full many shapes, that shadows were, In crimson colours came. A little distance from the prow Those crimson shadows were: I turned my eyes upon the deck- Oh, Christ what saw I there! Each corse flat, lifeless and flat, And by the holy rood! A man all light, a seraph-man, On every corse there stood. This seraph- band, each waved his hand, No voice did they impart- No voice;but oh, the silence sank Like music on my heart. But soon I heard the dash of oars, I heard the Pilot's cheer; My head was turned perforce away And I saw the boat appear. The Pilot and the pilot's boy, I heard them coming fast: Dear Lord in heaven! it was a joy The dead men could not blast. I saw a third- I heard his voice: It is the Hermit good! He singeth loud his godly hymns That he makes in the wood. He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away The Albatross's blood.
It seems to me there are two ways readers might regard Part VI. If the poem is seen as simply story, plotting a development from a wicked misdeed, with gothic incident, spells, supernatural visitations thrown in to create a tale of fantastic incident, then the ending of the poem over this part and the next might seem a malingering. What has to be done is after all becoming clear: the mariner has to be got home, an exit has to be arranged for the corpses, a moral neatly relayed. For such readers Part VI might seem unduly extended. But increasingly I have become aware that this is a spiritual poem in every sense, that it is an organic poetic unity and I am more and more impressed by the way in which mythological and cosmic elements give depth to the redemptive process. The mariner- and we along with him -has to learn that his crime is meaningless destruction; it is something that goes against not only the natural order but the spiritual interconnectedness of living beings. The conclusion has therefore to be given time for working out.
In terms of the poem’s unity note how effects are repeated. Stanzas and phrases are repeated, recalling earlier stages of the (spiritual) journey. The mariner although on the way towards home and redemption has flashbacks which threaten to immerse him. Once again he cannot escape the accusing eyes of the dead, he is trapped by the inability to pray, he is, as before ( in Part 1), like one pursued by a foe. In effect, Coleridge is maintaining dramatic interest as we shift between the possibilities of the mariner being trapped and finding escape. An example of this is the invocation of Christ ( another echo, this time from Part 2) which leads us to expect the worst when in fact, this time, it leads to a wondrous seraphic visitation.
Coleridge knew -if anyone knew-that the road to spiritual redemption is not linear. Malcolm Guite in his marvellous book on the poem (Mariner) and Coleridge’s life which I would encourage every reader interested in this series of posts to read, links these reversions to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Guite connects this condition with the agonies and self- recriminations the opium- addicted Coleridge had to contend with. It is true when Coleridge first wrote the poem (which appeared with Wordsworth’s in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads) he was not an addict but Guite argues that imaginative fore-seeing is one of the powers at work within the poem. It is certainly remarkable the extent to which the mariner’s journey towards redemption reflects that of the great poet. as Guite so effectively shows..
The Part re-invokes the spiritual and redemptive qualities the Moon retains throughout the poem (see earlier parts of the discussion):
See, brother,see! how graciously She looketh down on him.
The supernatural aspect is brought out by the seraphic -band:
A man all light, a seraph-man, On every corse there stood. This seraph -band, each waved his hand, No voice did they impart- No voice; but oh! the silence sank Like music on my heart.
This has a spiritual beauty underlined by the redemptive effect of a silence compared with the power of music. The passage seems to me to possess a wondrous quality which is nevertheless connected with a practical purpose. The ship having reached the harbour-bay would normally signal by light to the harbour pilot for guidance for entering the harbour walls.
The Part then continues the marvellous interplay of story with spiritual symbolism, with the regressive pull of defeat mixed with the progressive urge towards redemption encouraged by the ever present gracious Moon and the startling supernatural sublimity of the seraphic presence. It ends with a note of hope- on the mariner spying the Hermit on the pilot boat with the inevitable final recall of the last stanza to the (always capitalised) Albatross:
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away The Albatross's blood.
RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART 5. COLERIDGE’S MYTHOLOGY.
O sleep ! it is a gentle thing. Beloved from pole to pole! To Mary Queen the praise be given! She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven That slid into my soul. The silly buckets on the deck, That had so long remained, I dreamt that they were filled with dew; And when I awoke, it rained. My lips were wet, my throat was cold, My garments all were dank; Sure I had drunken in my dreams, And still my body drank. I moved and could not feel my limbs: I was so light- almost I thought I had died in sleep, And was a blessed ghost. And soon I heard a roaring wind; It did not come anear; But with its sound it shook the sails, That were so thin and sere. The upper air burst into life! And a hundred fire-flags sheen, To and fro they were hurried about! And to and fro and in and out, The wan stars danced between. And the coming wind did roar more loud, And the sails did sigh like sedge; And the rain poured down from one black cloud; The Moon was at its edge. The thick black cloud was cleft, and still The Moon was at its side: Like waters shot from some high crag, The lightning fell with never a jag, A river steep and wide. The loud wind never reached the ship, Yet now the ship moved on! Beneath the lightning and the Moon The dead men gave a groan. They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose, Nor spake, nor moved their eyes: It had been strange, even in a dream, To have seen the dead men rise. The helmsman steered, the ship moved on; Yet never a breeze up-blew; The mariners all 'gan work the ropes, Where they were wont to do; They raised their limbs like lifeless tools- We were a ghastly crew. The body of my brother's son Stood by me knee to knee: The body and I pulled at one rope, But he said nought to me. "I fear thee ancient Mariner!" Be calm thou Wedding-Guest! Twas not those souls that fled in pain, Which to the corses came again, But a troop of spirits blessed. For when it dawned -they dropped their arms, And clustered round the mast; Sweet sounds rose slowly from their mouths, And from their bodies passed. Around,around, flew each sweet sound, Then darted to the Sun; Slowly the sounds came back again, Now mixed, now one by one. Sometimes a dropping from the sky I heard the sky-lark sing; Sometimes all little birds that are, How they seemed to fill the sea and air With their sweet jargoning! And now 'twas like all instruments, Now like a lonely flute; And now it is an angel's song, That makes the heavens be mute. It ceased; yet still the sails made on A pleasant noise till noon, A noise like of a hidden brook In the leafy month of June, That to the sleeping woods all night Singeth a quiet tune. Till noon we quietly sailed on, Yet never a breeze did breathe: Slowly and smoothly went the ship, Moved onward from beneath. Under the keel nine fathom deep, From the land of mist and snow, The Spirit slid : and it was he That made the ship to go. The sails at noon left off their tune, And the ship stood still also. The Sun right up above the mast, Had fixed her to the ocean: But in a minute she 'gan stir, With a short uneasy motion- Backwards and forwards half her length With a short uneasy motion. Then like a pawing horse let go, She made a sudden bound: It flung the blood into my head, And I fell down in a swound. How long in that same fit I lay, I have not to declare; But e'er my living life returned, I heard and in my soul discerned Two voices in the air. "Is it he?" quoth one, "Is this the man? By him who died on cross, With his cruel bow he laid full low The harmless Albatross. The Spirit who bideth by himself In the land of mist and snow, He loved the bird that loved the man Who shot him with his bow." The other was a softer voice, As soft as honey-dew: Quoth he" The man hath penance done, And penance more will do."
Coleridge’s universe is vital: full of stir and movement and spiritual presences. The eighteenth century, by way of Newtonian physics, had presented a mechanical universe, run like clockwork, according to “regular motions” . The Deist God existed as a distant applicator of the workings of the machine, the Divine Clockmaker who designed the clock and left it to run. So when Coleridge writes:
The upper air burst into life! And a hundred fire-flags sheen, To and fro they were hurried about! And to and fro and in and out, The wan stars danced about.
he is consciously reacting against the mechanical lifelessness of the Newtonian heavens.
The Romantics were fascinated by Science; for instance, by the new understanding of electricity and electro-magnetism.. The idea re-emerging in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley was of spirit interacting with matter. The discovery of Electricity, an unseen power with material effects, suggested the complementary association of universal Spirit with created Nature acting upon the mind. Wordsworth gives the idea expression in “Tintern Abbey” in these wonderful lines:
" And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.
What Coleridge does in “The Rime ” is to particularise within the unfolding of the poem what Wordsworth gives expression to in these lines of the interfusion of spirit, Nature and human thought; this is done by underlaying the story of the poem with a mythic depth. There is a bringing together of Christian and pagan elements ; or, perhaps more truly by demonstrating the development of Christian thought from pagan ideas. The Pagan worshipped- Sun, that which creates life, is made to symbolise the Christian God; the “moving” Moon of pagan mythology is given renewed life expressing the redemptive powers of the Blessed Virgin. (Male and female, it might be said, are given a living connection within the godhead which they lack in Milton’s Protestant epic “Paradise Lost”). Towards the end of Part 5 we are introduced to conversing spirits of the Polar region as a further element of the poem’s mythology.
It is the quality of the poetry that gives potent power to the mythology. This is invoked by the opening stanzas in explaining the renewing sleep of the mariner:
To Mary, Queen the praise be given! She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven, That slid into my soul.
We notice the way in which the restorative power of sleep is created by the preponderance of s-sounds and especially by the alliterative “slid” that suggests the gradual peaceful movement of restoration. The redemptive movement that brought the previous part to and end with the water-snakes being blessed by the “Spring of love gushed through my heart” is confirmed first by sleep , then dreams of moisture and then the blessing of rain. Given that one of the most powerful effects of the mariners’ physical condition has been that of a desperate feeling of thirst ( “with throats unslaked, with black lips baked”) we empathise as readers with the joyful release of the rain on the mariner. And the release from burden is emphasised by turning the fearful implications of ghostliness to one of blessing:
I was so light- almost I thought that I had died in sleep, And was a blessed ghost.
A similar transformation is made of the crew members where their corpses become spirits guiding the ship. The astonishing development here is to show these spirits not just in action but as a worshipping gathering. Hence, the wonderful lines:
"Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths, And from their bodies passed. Around,around, flew each sweet sound, Then darted to the Sun; Slowly the sounds came back again, Now mixed, now, one by one."
A wondrous sense is created of sound being circulated and rising to the Sun and then being renewed and returned. To emphasise the importance of what he is seeking to convey Coleridge adds two stanzas on the nature of the sound, comparing it to a profusion of bird song and then to a sounding orchestra followed by the single note of a flute. This rises to the finale of “an angel’s song That makes the heavens be mute”. Coleridge is creating not so much a poetry of spiritual enchantment but a poetry in which transcendent spiritual life, extended throughout the universe, is given expression, so that we as humans are made receptive to other spiritual possibilities within a universe radiated by spiritual life.
Towards the end of the Part there is a further development in the mythological aspect with the re-introduction of the Polar Spirit. This spirit is linked to the Southern Ocean where the ship had earlier ventured when it was visited by the Albatross and it is this Spirit which seeks vengeance for the killing of the Albatross. In his marginal gloss which he added to the poem for further elucidation Coleridge has written alongside the conversation between spirits ending the part:
The Polar spirit’s fellow daemons, the invisible inhabitants of the element, take part in his wrong; and two of them relate, one to the other, that penance, long and heavy for the ancient Mariner hath been accorded to the Polar Spirit who returneth southward.
This conversation enables the ending of the part to bring together the mythological element with the spiritual direction of the poem. The two spirits in their talk bring out not only the need of accountability for evil but also of mercy for the redeemed soul performing penance, with the concluding stanza bringing out with a beautiful image, the tender compassion of the merciful spirit.
"The other was a softer voice, As soft as honey-dew: Quoth he: "The man hath penance done, And penance more will do."
THE LANGUAGE OF THE SUN AND MOON : DRAWING ON BOEHME.
You may have noticed in our readings of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” how the sun and moon are significant presences in the poem. Coleridge thought deeply on the subject of symbols and symbolic language. He saw Nature as reflecting the language of God the Creator and he also conceived that the poetic imagination, given that Man was created in God’s image (Gen.1: 26-27), was a means of discerning the meaning of God’s language working through Nature.
Many of the poem’s first readers were shocked by the description of the Sun:.
Nor dim nor red, like God's own head The glorious Sun uprist.
According to Malcolm Guite in Mariner (Hodder &Stoughton 2017) one contemporary viewer wrote the likeness “makes the reader shudder…with religious disapprobation.” For the second edition Coleridge was persuaded to remove “God” and replace the phrase with “like an angel’s head” but when he produced the Sibylline Leaves edition (1817) he brought back the original phrasing.
The association of God and the Sun is of course both common and apposite. Without the sun there is no life, with light and heat the Sun enables growth; God the Creator acts to give light. Guite argues that the identification of the Sun with God as source of light is vital for Coleridge’s “sacramental” view of Nature. If God is creator, then the universe should not simply be seen as a mass of dead objects but as vital elements expressing God and our attitude to the universe should not be of its instrumentality or usefulness to us but reverential. As we have seen this is the message the mariner’s experiences teach him.
Guite here brings in Blake because Blake, like Coleridge, was profoundly opposed to what both saw as the deadening effects of the Newtonian view of the universe, Deism and Locke’s empiricism. For both poets, humans are creative participants in reality , not passive recipients of a reality presented to them. Blake has an interlocutor asking, “When the sun rises, do you see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea” and replies” O no,no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
Why then readers of the poem might ask is the God-like invocation of the Sun followed by a more negative picture? :
All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody Sun at noon, Right up above the mast did stand No bigger than the moon.
The answer to this is suggested by Coleridge’s reading of a German mystic, Jacob Boehme 1575-1624 (also an influence on Blake). John Beer in his work “The Mysticism of Coleridge (Chatto & Windus 1970).
The heat of the sun is an essential element in the speculations of Jacob Boehme. Boehme’s insistence on the benevolence of God led him to the doctrine that if God sometimes seems angry, this was no more than an appearance engendered by the diseased imagination of fallen man. Cut off from the light of God, he could experience only the heat of his presence: and an exposure to his full glory would therefore be felt as nothing less than exposure to unendurable fire,
In relation to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” this is clearly relevant to the expression of the Sun as not only ” glorious” but also as oppressive, “bloody” and by implication condemnatory. The mariner’s guilt metaphorically expressed by the blood on his hands is projected on to a “bloody” sun representing an angry, vengeful God as Judge. ( The idea has a wider relevance when we consider the way in which the Israelites in the Old Testament project their guilt on to a God who is perceived as vengeful and angry with them for their misdeeds). Guite points out that the sense of blood-guilt is expressed later in the poem when he longs for forgiveness:
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away The Albatross's blood.
It is the action of the Moon that saves the mariner from living under what he feels as oppressive judgement. As noted in my commentary on Part 4 there is a rhythmic shift of the verse when the Moon appears. The presence of the Moon is set against the shadow of the ship :
But where the the ship's huge shadow lay, The charmed water burnt away A still and awful red.
While the “awful red” is associated with judgement and condemnation when the mariner looks beyond the shadow he sees the action of the moon on the water and his vision is transformed. The water-snakes, hitherto rejected with disgust are now seen as creatures of beauty. As Coleridge’s marginal gloss puts it: “By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”.
Beer considers that as the moon is reflected sunlight the moon is interpreted by the poem acting as a mediator between God and Man in his fallen state. The moon is associated with radiating grace. It can also be seen in its traditional form as female; there is a Marian element in Coleridge’s poem. In part 3 when the skeletal ship comes between the Sun and the mariner’ s ship the mariner appeals to Heaven’s Mother:
"And straight the sun was flecked with bars (Heaven's Mother send us grace)"
This corresponds to the mediating action of the moon in Part 4:
Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water snakes: They moved in tracks of shining white, And when they reared the elfish light Fell off in hoary flakes. Within the shadow of the ship, I watched their rich attire: Blue, glossy green and velvet black They coiled and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire.
As we have seen in the previous post it is the sight of the hitherto abhorred water- snakes in the beauty of the moonlight that enables the beginning of the redemption of the mariner. As Coleridge’s later-added gloss puts it:”By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”. He sees what he did not see with the albatross when he killed the bird, that these are God’s creation. The moon, then, as reflector of the Sun’s light, Heaven’s mother, bringer of grace, mediates the mariner’s transformation.
Guite points to an entry in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks which has relevance to the meaning he is addressing here: “Quiet stream with all its eddys [sic] and the moon playing in them; quiet, as if they were Ideas in the divine Mind anterior to Creation.”
Guite goes on:
For Coleridge, the meaning of the moon and moonlight is not a purely human invention. It is a symbol, but it is not a randomly chosen or arbitrarily constructed human one; it is a symbol which is moulded by and participates in the reality it represents.
Guite refers to a late work in which Coleridge writes: The Symbol is characterised by… the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which renders it intelligible, and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity of which it is representative. (The Statesman’s Manual).
The Sun and Moon then in Coleridge’s work point to the spiritual and transcendent dimension working in Nature. They represent God’s creative glory, the expression of His Word, Logos, within Nature. Coleridge sees his responsibility (as does Blake) to challenge the materialist view of Nature as a mechanism, with God as the absent clock maker who has created the laws of operation and then retired from the scene. Reality for Blake, the visionary and Coleridge, the idealist, is God-penetrated and the creativity in Man is continuous with what God has created in Nature. Coleridge’s use of the Sun and moon as symbols in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”brings together the life within and the living reality of the external world.
They represent for us, these Romantics the first great creative reaction, developing the Christian world-picture to fight against the reductive tendencies of scientism and materialism. In a world still so reduced we still can find inspiration in these poets.