Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
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Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 923 words.)
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 supernatural forces after murdering an albatross. But it is much more than that. Coleridge clearly tries to make the supernatural elements of the poem appear as integral parts of the natural world. His underlying theme is that all things that inhabit the natural world have an inherent value and beauty, and that it is necessary for humanity to recognize and respect these qualities. The simple action of the plot, initiated by the mariner's unthinking, destructive act, leads to his tribulations and consequent maturation. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is an excellent example of Romantic poetry and is often read to understand the characteristics of this poetic genre.
(The entire section is 135 words.)