Almost Connecting with Coleridge
I recently found myself within 20 miles of where Coleridge had composed some of his greatest poetry including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. Rather impetuously, and on the wings of my urge to see the spot, I whisked my wife off without checking the state of play on the National Trust website. To say the least I was slightly disappointed to find, on our arrival in Nether Stowey, that the cottage opposite the Ancient Mariner pub was locked, barred and bolted and, when we stared hopefully through the grimy windows for some sign of welcoming life, we realised the interior was crammed to the rafters with scaffolding. It clearly would not be open to visitors for quite some time yet. I leave you to imagine my wife’s feelings on the matter.
The whole episode is rather symptomatic of my lifelong relationship with Coleridge, always feeling I would like to get to know him and his work much better but somehow always finding other distractions and commitments coming in between my wish and any effective action.
On the run in to this disappointing encounter, I had re-read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and resonated powerfully to its gripping narrative of careless cruelty, extreme suffering and eventual redemption. It has been noted that the poem, written by the time Coleridge was twenty-six, in its account of the Mariner’s agonies of soul brought on by his own thoughtless action, seems uncannily prescient given the course that Coleridge’s life was going to take.
The ending, out of context, reads rather sentimentally. Coming at the end of a reading of this great poem it has a simple force that is quite compelling:
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.
A Seditious Dog?
What makes Coleridge even more interesting to us now, right at this moment of modern history, when the Middle East is swirling with the unsettling energy of frustrated hopes striving for long awaited fulfilment under oppressive regimes, is that the poet as a young man was an advocate of freedom when Europe was in political turmoil for very similar reasons. In the introduction to James Reeves‘ Selected Poems (Page xiv: Heinemann, 1979) we find an amusing but chilling illustration of the state of play at that time. Coleridge was promoting The Watchman, a literary and political weekly which was regarded by many as a rebellious publication.
A friend in Nottingham gave a prospectus of The Watchman to an aristocrat, who glanced at the motto: ‘That all may know the truth, and that the truth may make us free,’ and remarked, ‘A seditious beginning!’ On being told that this motto was quoted from another author, the aristocrat said, ‘What odds whether he wrote it himself or quoted it from another seditious dog?’ He was then told to look up the Gospel of St John, Chapter VIII, verse 32, and he would find that the seditious dog was Jesus Christ.
A key element in the development of Coleridge’s thinking was the ideal of Pantisocracy, with its dream of a truly egalitarian society. Reeves feels his engagement with this ideal demonstrated both ‘his fundamental sincerity’ and ‘his failure to achieve the practical expression of any of [his] plans’ (page xi). None the less his keen intelligence and fine emotional resonance to the culture and politics of his time, as well as his initial affinity with its progressive movements, make him a fascinating witness to the feel of the moment. As Reeves’ describes it (page x) at the time of the fall of the Bastille in 1789:
It seemed as if the inveterate despotism of the old order in Europe had been triumphantly challenged, and as if nothing could prevent the destruction of tyranny and the establishment of liberty for all those groaning under oppression.
Even in 1795 Coleridge still felt that liberty could be achieved elsewhere without violence and wrote in A Moral and Political Lecture (Pages 246-247: Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose, Norton Critical Edition):
We have reason to believe that a revolution in other parts of Europe is not far distant. Oppression is grievous – the oppressed feel and complain. Let us profit by the example of others; devastation has marked the course of most revolutions, and the timid assertors of Freedom equally with its clamourous enemies have so closely associated the ideas, that they are unable to contemplate the one disunited from the other. The evil is great, but it may be averted – it has been a general, but it is not therefore a necessary consequence.
As time went on his position shifted. In their preface to the section on his lectures of that time, the editors of this edition explain (page 259):
The lectures provide a telling point of contrast to Coleridge’s later defence of private property, his denunciation of Unitarianism, and his adoption of Trinitarian religion.
Across Europe where there had been hope there was disillusionment, as the biographies of innumerable Romantic artists, musicians, poets, thinkers and writers witness. The British poets Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth were among those who progressed from naive enthusiasm for the French Revolution to more conservative opinions, putting away, as Coleridge had it, his ‘squeaking baby trumpet of sedition’ after French forces invaded his beloved Switzerland.
This transition from euphoria to disenchantment, with a consequent shift from an idealistic passion for wholesale change to a cautious desire to hold on to the albeit tainted benefits of an imperfect status quo, is an all too familiar pattern.
It is worth mentioning, as an aside, that Coleridge also had his own rather different reasons, at one point in his life, for taking the same keen interest we are now taking in the Middle East. He was in Malta during England’s War with France. A role, well suited to his abilities and experience, sprang out of a friendship that developed between Coleridge and Sir Alexander Ball, civilian governor of Malta. Richard Holmes, in the second volume of his biography of Coleridge, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, describes this link with the Middle East (page 18):
By mid-June [1804, Ball] had enlisted Coleridge in [a] top-level and highly confidential discussion, commissioning him to draft a series of ‘position papers’ . . .
This was work well adapted to Coleridge’s experience as a leader writer for . . . . the Courier. Over the next few weeks he produced four long papers, the first of which . . . was dispatched to Nelson on 7 July 1804. Others followed on ‘Algeria,’ ‘Malta,’ and ‘Egypt,’ which were forwarded to . . . . Downing Street.
Echoes of the Same Unrest
Given the pattern of disillusion in the face of disappointing realities seen in Coleridge and others at the time of the French Revolution, it should not be surprising, but it is certainly none the less intriguing, to find that the Universal House of Justice has written some words of caution about the current situation in the Middle East (April: 2011):
. . . cumulative instances of political upheaval and economic turmoil on various continents have shaken governments and peoples. Societies have been brought to the brink of revolution, and in notable cases over the edge. Leaders are finding that neither arms nor riches guarantee security. Where the aspirations of the people have gone unfulfilled, a store of indignation has accrued. We recall how pointedly Bahá’u'lláh admonished the rulers of the earth: “Your people are your treasures. Beware lest your rule violate the commandments of God, and ye deliver your wards to the hands of the robber.” A word of caution: No matter how captivating the spectacle of the people’s fervour for change, it must be remembered that there are interests which manipulate the course of events.
From a Bahá’í point of view the core principles we are striving to learn how to translate into effective action are an essential part of the ultimate resolution of these problems. In the words of the House (ibid):
. . . so long as the remedy prescribed by the Divine Physician is not administered, the tribulations of this age will persist and deepen. An attentive observer of the times will readily recognize the accelerated disintegration, fitful but relentless, of a world order lamentably defective.
The Bahá’í community clearly must not fail to pursue its attempts to implement the true spirit of Bahá’u'lláh’s message and work on tirelessly in the hope and belief that sufficient people across the world as a whole will inevitably respond, before it is too late, to what we believe is the spirit of the age and move in the same direction whether predominantly within their own traditions or by pooling their energies with ours.