A dream by Coleridge’s friend, John Cruikshank, was the inspiration for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Coleridge and poet William Wordsworth discussed Cruikshank’s dream, with Wordsworth suggesting that Coleridge incorporate elements of the dream into a poem based on a crime committed on a ship at sea. The crime, Wordsworth suggested, should be the heart of the narrative, driving the development of plot, character, and theme. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” reflects Wordsworth’s suggestions, but the poem is more complex than a tale of crime and punishment. The Mariner’s crime is committed against God, not man, and the narrative develops as an examination of sin, penance, and redemption. Moreover, the nature of the Mariner’s crime underscores the darkest aspect of human nature—the desire to destroy simply for the love of destruction.
The Mariner’s killing the albatross serves no apparent purpose. The bird poses no threat to him or to his shipmates; the albatross, in fact, seems to have brought the men luck after a violent storm had driven their ship off course, sending it into the icy realm of the South Pole. Coming out of the snow and fog, the bird escorts the ship away from the South Pole and flies nearby as it follows the ship north into fair weather. The albatross comes when the men call it “for food or play,” and it rests on the ship at night, perching on the mast and rigging. The “sweet bird” remains with the ship day after day, a faithful companion, until the Mariner shoots it with his crossbow, committing a deliberate act of destruction with no purpose at all, except to exercise his will.
Much suffering ensues before the Mariner realizes that in destroying the albatross, he has committed a grievous sin against God; recalling the act many years later, he tells the wedding guest, “I had done a hellish thing.” It is only when he finds himself alone on the ship, surrounded by the dead, becalmed on a “rotting sea,” and unable to pray that his selfish pride is broken and he recognizes his place in creation. Looking beyond the shadow of the ship, he sees in the moonlight the beauty of God’s handiwork in the water snakes that “coiled and swam” in the sea, “every track … a flash of golden fire.” Overwhelmed with love for the “happy living things” too beautiful to describe, he blesses them and takes a first step on a long road toward redemption.
When the wedding guest encounters the Mariner, now so old he is “ancient,” the Mariner will not be denied the opportunity to tell his story yet again, reliving the experience while sharing the truth it imparted to him. Many years after killing the albatross, the gravity of his sin still haunts him; when the “agony returns,” he must confess his sin once more by telling his “ghastly tale.” He continues to do penance for his sin by traveling “from land to land” to find men who most need to learn what he has to teach them, the spiritual truth summarized at the poem’s conclusion:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Through great suffering, the ancient Mariner had learned the true nature of mankind’s relationship to God and to God’s creation. He understands that senseless destruction is born of pride, humility is born of suffering, love is born of humility, and only in love can salvation be found.