Washing Away Michael Vick’s Sins

Gustave Dore, Rime of Ancient Mariner

Gustave Dore, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Spiritual Sunday

In a follow-up to yesterday’s post on football quarterback Michael Vick, I want to elaborate further on Coleridge’s argument for penance. Penance is not only the right thing to do. It also can make you feel very, very good. Coleridge gives us images in Rime of the Ancient Mariner that drive this point home.

First of all, of course, he must show how miserable it is to stand outside of God’s creation. He compares the situation to that of a man dying of thirst. Here is the mariner after he has shot the albatross:

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

Living a life-in-death and surrounded by his dead comrades, the mariner discovers that this dryness extends to his heart. He is unable to pray:

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie;
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came and made
My heart as dry as dust.

I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky,
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.

The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

The use of dryness to capture spiritual desolation shows up most famously in T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland (which itself invokes the legend of the Fisher King, whose impotence extends to his fertile kingdom, converting it into a barren desert). Note the agony in the following lines:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

And further on:


Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

This, I was suggesting yesterday, is what life feels like if we set ourselves against the beauty of God’s universe. It is, I suspect, what Vick’s life felt like when he was swept up in football and dog fighting and partying, only he used the adrenaline rush to numb him to his desperation. His recent comment that “my life was a lie from A to Z” suggests that there has been a change.

And now, look at how everything shifts when we open ourselves to the “water, water” that is “everywhere.” The ancient mariner looks upon the sea creatures that he had formerly regarded as slimy denizens of the rotting deep and now describes them instead as “blue, glossy green, and velvet black” and emitting flashes of “golden fire.” Think of the world that will open up to Vick if, instead of thrilling to the raw savagery of pit bulls trained to fight, he can look upon them as God’s holy creatures. Once he does so, Coleridge assures him, the leaden weight of his previous life will drop away:

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.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”

“Oh 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 that I had died in sleep,
And was a blessed ghost.

As I noted yesterday, the penance doesn’t end with the mariner blessing the sea creatures. In fact, we must always remain vigilant. It is easy to get lost again and again in the desert and we must keep reminding ourselves that we have access to healing waters. Poetry provides us with a vital reminder to take a look at our lives and figure out when we are straying.

This entry was posted in Coleridge (Samuel Taylor), Eliot (T.S.) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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