The tale narrated within this poem is actually framed on either side by a framing narrative, which takes the form of a wedding guest who is going to a wedding and is accosted by a strange mariner, who insists on telling the wedding guest his tale. The wedding guest, who is transfixed by the "glittering eye" of the mariner, seems strangely powerless to continue and stays and listens to the mariner's tale.
The mariner begins by explaining how he was on a ship which became trapped in ice. An albatross followed the ship and was seen by the sailors as a symbol of fortune. Eventually the ice cracked open and the ship went into a patch of foggy sea, followed by the albatross. At this stage, the mariner admits the he shot and killed the albatross with his crossbow. The sailors blame the mariner for his deed, and the ship progresses to a patch of sea where it is unmoving as their is no breeze and strange creatures surround the ship in the sea. In a famous description, the lack of movement leads to the use of a simile in the description of the ship, as it was "As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean." The other sailors make the mariner where the albatross around his neck for punishment.
Eventually, another ship comes, with two fantastical figures named Death and Life-in-Death who play dice for the lives of the sailors. Life-in-Death wins, and each of the sailors in turn dies. The mariner is distraught, and tries to pray, but is unable to. Eventually, however, he is able to bless beautiful water snakes that he sees. At this point he is able to pray again and the albatross falls from his neck into the sea. Spirits enter the bodies of the dead sailors and the mariner joins them to work the ship again as he travels back home. Eventually, he reaches shore, but the ship disappears in a whirlpool and the mariner tells his tale to a hermit. The mariner is told that he will be destined to tell his tale to those he instinctively recognises he needs to tell his tale to. He ends with a final moral concerning nature and man's relationship with it:
He prayeth best, who loveth bestAll things both great and small;For the dear God who loveth us,He made and loveth all.