Spirit-Bird, Bowshot, Water-Snake, Corpses, Cosmic Love: Reshaping the Coleridge Legacy in Dickey's 'Deliverance.'

By Bidney, Martin | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Spirit-Bird, Bowshot, Water-Snake, Corpses, Cosmic Love: Reshaping the Coleridge Legacy in Dickey's 'Deliverance.'


Bidney, Martin, Papers on Language & Literature


I'd like to be some sort of bird, a migratory seabird like a

tern or a wandering albatross. But. . . I'll have to keep trying

to do it, to die and fly, by words.

--James Dickey, Self-Interviews 79

"I like to work my mind, such as it is," said James Dickey to Francis Roberts in 1968, "to see what I can get out of it and put into it. As John Livingston Lowes revealed in that wonderful book on Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu, if these things are in your mind, Lord knows what amalgams you can get out of it" (Baughman, Voiced 44). Two years later, in his 1970 novel Deliverance, Dickey demonstrated his capacity to produce not only a visionary "amalgam" of the sort he found laid out in Lowes but, more surprisingly, a richly suggestive pattern of allusions to the work of Coleridge himself. In what follows I would like to offer a brief "Road to Deliverance, "exploring that neo-Coleridgean pattern and its (re)visionary implications.

Dickey has elsewhere made clear his fondness for Coleridge. It has been noted (Baughman, Understanding 84) that the last line of the war poem "Bread" ("I ate the food I ne'er had eat" [Dickey, Poems 266]) varies "It ate the bread it ne'er had eat" from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1.67 [text in Poetical Works 2: 186-209; hereafter AM referenced by line number]). And in 1965 Dickey expressed to an interviewer from Eclipse the ambition to produce in his own verse "a sense such as if you stumbled on the village idiot, and he began to mutter amazing things to you, and, like in `The Ancient Mariner,' you could not help but hear. . ." (Baughman, Voiced 23).(1) Deliverance, as the title of my essay implies, is firmly anchored in the thematic pattern of "Mariner." But "The Eolian Harp" and "Dejection" and "Kubla Khan" will be seen to play a role as well; Dickey has done many and varied things with the legacy of his wise but troubled mentor.

Daniel B. Marin, the one critic who refers explicitly to "Ancient Mariner" in the context of Deliverance,(2) writes that the tone at the book's conclusion is "quiet and maybe even melancholy. I am reminded of Coleridge's Wedding Guest: `A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn,' though not exactly. Is it that the note of `pure abandon' Dickey reaches so wonderfully in the poetry can never be sung here in the darklight, in the `darkness visible' of Deliverance?" (Calhoun 116-17). My own feeling about the contrast between the endings of "Mariner" and Deliverance is rather the opposite of Marin's: I find Dickey more disposed to conclude on a note of comradely reassurance. Coleridge's aged sailor must endlessly retell the tale of his crime in an immortal repetition compulsion that is rightly styled "Life-in-Death" (AM 193). By contrast, Dickey's narrator Ed Gentry is not possessed by the vision of his narrative; the story is his possession--not something he owns up to guiltily, but something he owns proudly: "The river and everything I remembered about it became a possession to me, a personal, private possession, as nothing else in my life ever had. Now it ran nowhere but in my head, but there it ran as though immortally" (Deliverance [hereafter D] 281).

This is no Life-in-Death but a far pleasanter kind of immortality. Ed Gentry tells us that his hero-friend, Medlock Lewis--likewise no guilt-ridden intrusive presence but comfortingly called "a human being, and a good one"--refers to Ed confidentially as "U. C., which means--to him and me--`Unorganized Crime,' and this has become a kind of minor conversation piece at parties, and at lunch in the city with strangers" (D 283). Unorganized Crime of this smoothed-over sort, when juxtaposed to the Mariner's paranoid guilt obsession, seems a fraternal joke, or a whimsical authorial wink at the visionary tradition: "U. C." = "You (and I) see."

Yet the sad wisdom invoked by Marin is deep-rooted in Dickey's book as well; indeed, the entire conflictual structure of the work is Coleridgean. …

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