This is a very famous example of a literary ballad, and is also a disturbing exploration of the torments that guilt can cause on the human psyche and the horrific penance required by those who sin against nature. The principal character is a weather-beaten sailor who apprehends a Wedding Guest and narrates his tale.
The Mariner describes how his ship left harbour with good weather, voyaging towards the South Pole. However, on this journey, he commits a stupid crime with no reason--he kills an albatross that the sailors believe to be a good omen. As a result of this catastrophic event, the Polar Spirit, which seems to represent the spirit of Nature itself, haunts the ship and causes punishment and suffering as retribution. Two grisly spectres, who are called Death and Life-in-Death, play dice for the crew and all of them die except for the Mariner, who has been won by Life-in-Death.
Only when the Mariner sees a group of water snakes and recognises how beautiful they are does the curse he has brought on himself and the boat end. The albatross, which has been hung around his neck, then falls. He falls into a deep sleep and awakens to see the ship being manned by the resurrected corpses of the dead sailors. The Mariner realises that the ship is being controlled by a group of angels and falls into a trance, during which the ship arrives back in his own country. Although the curse has ended, the ship sinks forever in a violent whirlpool. The Mariner rows to shore and reaches land, where he confesses his sin and for penance is told he must wander the earth for the remainder of his days, sharing his tale with those he meets.