illustration of the Ancient Mariner in the ocean with an albatross tied around his neck

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Start Free Trial

How are the themes of crime, punishment, and redemption developed in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The albatross represents all three of these concepts: crime, punishment, and redemption.

The mariner's crime is the slaying of the beautiful albatross. The mariner has no reason to do this violent deed, yet he kill the bird anyway. The albatross had been a source of comfort and joy to the crew up until this point, so the murder was unwarranted.

This is how the mariner describes the albatross initially:

As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

Until the albatross' death, the crew had treated it with kindness and given it food.

The albatross also is key in the punishment of the mariner. The bird is tied around the mariner's neck to remind him of his guilt. Death comes on a ship to take the entirety of the crew, except the mariner. This leaves him alone with the dead bodies of his shipmates and the body of the albatross. The mariner's shame is so thick, that he likens himself to the slimy things in life and is not able to pray.

And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
He spends seven days with this shame. Finally, he looks out into nature and sees beauty. He finds that he is able to bless the beauty that he sees.
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
This is the moment of redemption. It is demonstrated by the albatross falling from the mariner's neck into the sea. His ability to pray is restored when he can see and bless the beauty around him.

Later, the mariner falls into a trance and hears a conversation between two spirits about his crime, punishment, and restoration.
His crime is the killing of the albatross.
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.
The punishment is the penance he is required to do.
Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.'
This penance is also the mariner's redemption because he is saved and given another chance to live life better.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The mariner's journey is a spiritual one, as well as a fantastic sea voyage, and the profound nature of his experience is the force that drives him to share his story, long after it occurred. The mariner's crime is that he killed the albatross, for no other reason than that he could and chose to exercise his selfish will. The symbolism of the albatross can be interpreted in many ways. It lived as a part of God's natural world and had served as a loyal guide and good omen for the sailors. The ship's crew had "hailed it in God's name," according to the old mariner, "[a]s if it had been a Christian soul." 

Although the mariner's crew at first condemns him for killing the bird, they soon approve of his actions, and the mariner's punishment for slaying the albatross falls then not only on himself, but on them, as well. Much of the poem is subsequently devoted to detailing the terrible and supernatural ordeals experienced by the men, until the mariner is left to suffer alone, filled with bitterness and hatred.

The mariner's redemption occurs only when his heart changes. Alone under the moon and a few stars, only then does he truly observe the beauty of the natural world around him, and when he does, "A spring of love gushed from [his] heart." 

The poem continues at length to complete the mariner's physical and spiritual journeys, but his lesson has been learned. At the conclusion of the poem, he leaves the Wedding Guest with these words:

He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things both great and small;

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.

Selfish pride and selfish will no longer live within the mariner. His redemption is complete.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team