The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Three young gallants on their way to a wedding are stopped by an old gray-headed sailor who detains one of them. The ancient Mariner holds with his gaze a young man whose next of kin is being married in the church nearby and forces him to listen, against his will, to the old seaman’s tale. The ancient Mariner tells how his ship left the home port and sailed southward to the equator. In a storm the vessel was blown to polar regions of snow and ice. When an albatross flew out of the frozen silence, the crew hailed it as a good omen. The sailors made a pet of the albatross and regarded it as a fellow creature. One day the ancient Mariner killed the bird with his crossbow. The superstitious sailors believed bad luck would follow.
Fair winds blew the ship northward until it reached the equator, where it was suddenly becalmed and lay for days without moving. The thirsty seamen blamed the ancient Mariner and hung the dead albatross about his neck as a sign of his guilt.
In the distance a ship appeared, a skeleton ship that moved on the still sea where no wind blew. On its deck Death and Life-in-Death were casting dice for the crew and the ancient Mariner. As a result of the cast, Death won the two hundred crew members, who dropped dead one by one. As the soul of each dead sailor rushed by, the ancient Mariner was reminded of the sound of the rushing bolt of his crossbow when he shot the albatross. Life-in-Death won the ancient Mariner, who lived on...
(The entire section is 537 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Kirk. Unnamed church at which the poem opens and closes. This church, as well as other sites to which the Mariner alludes—such as a lighthouse, a hill, and a harbor bay—are evidently located in the Mariner’s native country. (“Kirk” is an old and once commonly used word for church in the British Isles, especially in Scotland.) The Mariner comes to understand his place within the universe as one of many creatures that deserve honor and respect, and the church imputes a moral tone to these ideas. Indeed, the Mariner is not simply a relativist, believing that whatever he wants to do is correct for a particular situation. His killing of the harmless albatross emerges from such an incorrect assessment. The church calls this assumption into question. Consequently, the Mariner is compelled to repeat his story to the Wedding-Guest, whom the Mariner believes to be in need of such a lesson.
Ship. Unnamed vessel on which the Mariner rides the waves of the sea, beginning in the third stanza of part 1. As his ship continues its voyage, the sea itself reflects the mood, the emotional intensity, of the ship’s sailors. The men have nowhere else to go so long as they remain at sea, and their ship thus becomes both home and prison to them. When the wind drops, and the ship is becalmed, the Mariner is reminded how confining the ship is. When the ship is trapped among ice floes, the Mariner allows himself to kill the...
(The entire section is 551 words.)
There are two settings in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In the first scene an ancient mariner stops a guest at a wedding party and begins to tell his tale. The mariner's words then transport the reader on a long ocean voyage, returning to the wedding at the end of the poem. The story is probably set in the late medieval period; the town in which the action occurs is never named, although it is likely that Coleridge's audience would have pictured a British seaport, possibly London.
The mariner describes a voyage he takes as a youth from an unnamed European country to the South Pole and back. The initial descriptions of the ship and its crew are fairly realistic, but as the ancient mariner undergoes his quest for understanding and redemption, the supernatural world increasingly engulfs him. His world becomes nightmarish when contrasted with the realistic world that he has left behind. At the same time, in the background, elements from the natural world are always present. For much of the poem, the mariner is adrift in the middle of the ocean, symbolically cut off from all human companionship.
(The entire section is 191 words.)
In developing his themes in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge masterfully expresses concepts through the use of symbols and imagery. Much of the imagery is breathtaking, and the poet's intense descriptions leave a lasting imprint on the reader. This skillful combination of intellectual content and vivid descriptions is not only aesthetically appealing, but also emotionally moving.
When Coleridge and Wordsworth developed the poetic theory that underlies Lyrical Ballads, they decided to use ordinary speech in their verses—what Wordsworth called "the language of real life." Embracing colloquial language was part of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's general break with neoclassical philosophies and traditions, which emphasized logic, structure, and formality. Wordsworth and Coleridge incorporated ballad forms, themes, and characters, and proposed to write poems about simple, natural characters.
In place of an overwhelming emphasis on society—as characterized the poetry of Alexander Pope—Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted to highlight the importance of the individual. They emphasized human emotions, and stressed the concept that imagination and creativity are forces within the individual that respond to the natural world.
A lyric typically is a short poem that expresses the speaker's thoughts and emotions; a ballad is a dramatic narrative, a poem that tells a story. Lyrical Ballads, therefore, was an attempt by...
(The entire section is 252 words.)
In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge focuses on humanity's relationship to the natural world. Coleridge makes it clear that the killing of the albatross brings dire consequences upon the mariner. In a larger sense, it is not his killing of the bird that is wrong, but the mariner's—and by extension humankind's—callous and destructive relationship with nature that is in error. Coleridge intends to confront this relationship and place it in a larger philosophical context. If the reader grasps the lesson that the ancient mariner learns from his experience, then there are social implications.
Although the mariner's killing of the albatross, the terrifying deaths of his shipmates, and the grotesque descriptions of the supernatural spirits are disturbing, these elements are intended to develop the story, to illustrate how the mariner's destructive act sets him apart, and to portray vividly the results of his act and the horrifying, repulsive world that he comes to inhabit because of it. The consequences are all the more terrible for having been set in motion by such a thoughtless act in the first place. Coleridge is working toward a goal—to portray the mariner's development into a sensitive, understanding, and compassionate human being. In so doing, he aims to persuade the reader to reconsider his or her attitudes toward the natural world.
Part of Coleridge's technique is to personify aspects of nature as supernatural spirits, yet he...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
Topics for Discussion
1. A wedding guest who does not know the mariner is forced to listen to his tale. Is this device effective? Is the guest meant to guide the reader's response to the mariner's tale?
2. A wedding is a social celebration of natural order and of new beginnings. Why is it significant that the mariner tells his story to a wedding guest? Would the moral of the story have been changed if the mariner told his tale to the groom or bride?
3. In later versions of the poem, Coleridge removed many archaic words and spellings that appeared in the original version. Among his revisions was the addition of the epigraph and the marginal glosses. How important are the glosses to your understanding of the poem? Does this suggest that Coleridge was successful or unsuccessful in conveying his meaning poetically?
4. Many Romantics believed that a writer could only write when inspired to do so. What do Coleridge's revisions of this poem indicate about the importance of editing in the writing process?
5. Why does the mariner kill the albatross? Is his action a typically human response or trait? Why does Coleridge spend comparatively little time describing the incident?
6. What is the significance of the albatross being hung around the mariner's neck?
7. The ancient mariner's shipmates all die fairly unpleasant deaths. Is it fair that they should suffer because of his actions?
8. At the beginning of part 4, the...
(The entire section is 295 words.)
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. It has been said that "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is about twice as long as it needs to be. What would be the effect of reducing the poem's length? Specifically what passages might you delete, and why?
2. Symbols are important in this poem. Traditionally, snakes have represented both good (as on the symbol for the medical profession, where they represent healing powers) and evil (as with the serpent in the Garden of Eden). After checking at the library for other examples of the symbolic use of snakes, explain why you think Coleridge involved a water snake in the poem's climax.
3. In literature and folklore the human eye is typically considered a mirror of the soul. Discuss Coleridge's use of this tradition, examining each of the incidents in which eyes are mentioned in the poem (including lines 3, 12, 139, 144, 215, 228, 251, 255, 260, 332, 416, 436, 440, 485, 560, 567, and 618).
4. In terms of the poem's theme, compare "The very deep did rot: O Christ!/ That ever this should be!/ Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea" (11. 123-126) with "O happy living things! no tongue/ Their beauty might declare" (11. 282-283). Consider the concept of the appreciation of life and the fact that "a spring of love gushed" from the mariner's heart as he blessed the snakes "unaware." He had killed the albatross in a thoughtless moment; why is it important that he bless the snakes unthinkingly?
(The entire section is 349 words.)
While Coleridge did not write poetry specifically for young adults, "Kubla Kahn" is frequently read in schools as a companion piece to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The two poems are different in that "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a finished narrative, whereas the incomplete "Kubla Kahn" is best described as a lyrical mood poem. Still, because these poems are Romantic in conception, both present foreign locales and deal with the past. Each is expressed in "natural" language and is concerned with mystical and supernatural events.
Literally dozens of recordings (both cassette tapes and phonograph records) have been made of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Many film versions of the poem have been produced as well. In 1982 an award-winning, sixty-minute-long film adaptation was directed by Raul de Silva. The first part of this color film covers the poet's life, while the second part features Sir Michael Redgrave's recitation of the poem.
(The entire section is 155 words.)
For Further Reference
Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp. New York: Norton, 1958. A time honored examination of the theory of Romantic poetry. Useful for background information.
Brown, C. M. The Romantic Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949. An insightful study of a complex subject. Useful for background information.
Doughty, Oswald. Perturbed Spirit: The Life and Personality of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981. A balanced and comprehensive presentation of the facts of Coleridge's life.
Hanson, Lawrence. The Life of S. T. Coleridge: The Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939. Covers the period of Coleridge's life leading up to the composition of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
Holmes, Richard. Coleridge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. A volume in the Past Masters Series, this is a recently published overview of Coleridge's life and works.
Lowes, John Livingston. The Road to Xanadu. New York: Vintage Books, 1959. A study of the sources for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is included in this indispensable book.
Muirhead, John H. Coleridge As Philosopher. New York: Macmillan, 1930. The only full-length study of Coleridge as a philosopher. Useful for background information.
Radley, Virginia L. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Boston: Twayne, 1966. A volume in the...
(The entire section is 307 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Barfield, Owen. What Coleridge Thought. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971. Focuses on Coleridge’s theological and philosophical thought, including his self-proclaimed “passion for Christianity.”
Bloom, Harold, ed. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Introduction places the poem in the tradition of Cain and Wandering Jew stories, and essays include studies of the poem’s sources and symbolism.
Boulanger, James D., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. A useful collection of scholarly articles dealing with the poem, including an introduction that attempts to reconcile some of the differences of critical opinion.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Annotated Ancient Mariner. Edited by Martin Gardner. Illustrated by Gustave Doré. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1967. Includes the last and the first versions of the poem, together with interpretive comments of varying utility. Doré’s illustrations (and those by other artists) remind readers how intensely visual the poem is.
Falke, Cassandra. “The Sin of the Ancient Mariner.” Lamar...
(The entire section is 439 words.)