Study Guide

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Coleridge’s masterpiece, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was first published as part of the Lyrical Ballads (1798), which thereby secured its position as one of the landmark poems of its age, despite its archaic ballad form. Structured as a frame narrative, the poem begins with the Mariner’s detaining a guest on his way to a wedding with the spellbinding account of a most strange ocean voyage. The Mariner tells of a southbound voyage to the Antarctic. He describes how the ship, as it clears the horizon, ominously dips below the church and below all of civilized and conventional authority, descending toward the unknown, the wild, and the hellish. Reaching the frozen, seemingly blank, polar world, the sailors call to and feed a white albatross, a large seabird, as an apparent friend or messenger from another realm. The Mariner inexplicably shoots it, sacrificing it, innocent and pure, with his crossbow (echoing Easter imagery). Thereupon, the ship idles without wind to move it while the superstitious crew grows increasingly thirsty and hangs the dead bird around the Mariner’s neck to punish him for his cruelty, which they feel in some way has stalled their trip.

At last, a ship is sighted, but it is a skeleton ship, carrying the Spectre-Woman, “Life-in-Death,” and her mate Death, who are types of avenging spirits of the albatross. The two of them toss dice to determine who will decide the fate of the Mariner’s ship, and the Woman wins. She imposes a penance on the Mariner, which begins with the death of the crew while the Mariner lives on, unable to die, unable even to sleep. Watching the now-beautiful phosphorescent water snakes, which earlier looked monstrous to him, the Mariner is impelled to bless them, and at once the albatross slides off his neck into the sea. His unconscious action restores a balance upset by his murder of the albatross, although his penance is not finished, as disembodied spirit voices assert.

The Mariner is now able to sleep, and he dreams while the ship sails home, manned by spirits animating the crew’s corpses. At length, the ship escapes the haunted universe to return to home port, but then it suddenly sinks, while the Mariner is rescued and immediately absolved of his sins, if only for a time, by the Hermit of the Wood. Nonetheless, his need for penance remains, for the Mariner must wander endlessly and solitarily, until an agony seizes him, and he in turn seizes one whom he knows must hear his tale. The Wedding Guest misses the marriage ceremony, but he has been irrevocably changed by the Mariner’s words.

The poem has given rise to a multitude of interpretations, stressing the existential, meaningless murder of the albatross in an incomprehensible world; the Christian pattern of sin, confession, and penance within a sacramental universe; the functioning of the symbolic or nightmare imagination as the Mariner’s fate unfolds; and the necessity, even the desperation, of narration. Coleridge himself after the first publication appended marginalia that recapitulated the poem in an effort to clarify, although what it actually did was to retell the plot at a slant and thereby distance the author, as well as the frame, from the poem’s peculiar and disturbing nature, relinquishing responsibility for interpretation to each reader.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins with one of three wedding guests being accosted by the Ancient Mariner and kept from attending the wedding first by the Mariner’s grasp and then by his hypnotic gaze as the Mariner begins to tell the story of his fateful voyage. The Mariner gives no reason for the voyage, saying that they sailed south until they reached the South Pole, where they became icebound and enshrouded in fog. They see and hear nothing but the ice

The ice was here, the ice was there,The ice was all around:It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,Like noises in a swound

Then an albatross flies into view through the fog. Happy to see another living creature, the men aboard the ship treat it “As if it had been a Christian soul” and they hail it “in God’s name.” It circles the ship, accepting the crew’s hospitable offerings of food, and then the ice splits and a wind begins to blow, allowing the ship to move again.

For nine days the bird follows the ship, coming when the men call and occasionally perching on or near the mast. Then, for no reason, the Mariner shoots it with his crossbow. His shipmates’ initial responses are horror and anger. They blame him for killing the creature responsible for the wind that helped free them from the ice and fear that something bad will happen. However, shortly after the bird’s death, the fog clears and the shipmates change their mind, claiming now that the bird was responsible for the fog and saying that the Mariner was right to kill the bird. As soon as they have gone around Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean, the wind stops, and the ship comes to a standstill beneath the blazing sun, now at the other extreme from the earlier cold and ice, though parallel in immobility, as highlighted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s paralleling of word choice and order:

Water, water every where,And all the boards did shrink;Water, water, every where,Nor any drop to drink.

The crew now again changes its mind and hangs the dead albatross around the Mariner’s neck. Shortly thereafter the Mariner spots a ship approaching. In initial joy, the desperate Mariner bites his arm and drinks his own blood to get enough moisture in his mouth to announce what he sees. However, as the ship draws closer it occurs to him to wonder how the other ship can be moving when theirs is not. The ghost ship draws close enough to reveal Life-in-Death and Death gambling for the Mariner. Life-in-Death wins the Mariner and Death takes his consolation prize, the two hundred other men on the ship.

A week passes with the Mariner alone with the dead bodies, whose eyes curse him, and guilty but unable to pray. One night as he watches water snakes swimming in the moonlight, he is so struck by their life and beauty that he loves them and blesses them.

Now that he has repented, the journey homeward begins: The albatross drops from his neck, rain begins to fall, and a strange wind begins to blow above the ship, mysteriously moving it along. The Mariner falls into a trance as the ship speeds faster than mortal endurance, driven by the spirit of the South Pole and manned by spirits who assume the bodies of the fallen crew. While in this trance, the Mariner hears two voices discussing his crime/sin, the fact that he will have to continue to do penance, and the manner by which the ship is moving. When he revives from his trance, he again witnesses the curse on him visible in the dead men’s eyes, which prevents him from looking away from them and from praying. Then the spell snaps, “the curse is expiated,” Coleridge explains, and the Mariner feels a gentle breeze just as he spies the familiar landscape of home.

As his ship enters the harbor, it is approached by a boat containing a Pilot, the Pilot’s boy, and a Hermit. All but the Hermit are afraid of the appearance of the Mariner’s ship. As the Pilot’s boat draws close, the sea rumbles, and the Mariner’s ship suddenly breaks in two and sinks. The Pilot collapses in a fit and the Pilot’s boy goes mad, leaving the Hermit to fish the Mariner from the water and the Mariner to row the boat to shore. Once on land, the Mariner begs the Hermit to shrive him, which the Hermit does by having the Mariner answer his question concerning what manner of man the Mariner is. The Mariner responds by feeling a terrible agony that forces him to tell his story; only after he has finished does he feel free. From that point on the Mariner periodically and unexpectedly feels the same agony and travels “from land to land” until he spots the face of the person that he somehow knows must hear his tale.

The poem draws to a close just as the bridal party is leaving the church. The Mariner tells the Wedding Guest that far better for him than any wedding is a walk in good company toward a church to pray and that the best way to pray is to love all things. With that the Mariner bids the Wedding Guest farewell, and the Wedding Guest is left to wake up the following morning a “sadder and a wiser man.”

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Overview

On a superficial level, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" can be read as a tale of horror in which a mariner is hounded by disaster and...

(The entire section is 135 words.)