"The Wedding Guest beat his breast” is repeated in lines 31 & 36 in "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner." Why is this important?

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The Wedding Guest beats his breast because he has come to attend a wedding, not hear the Mariner's story. The Wedding Guest is torn between the story and the wedding. The first time he beats his breast, it is because he hears the wedding music starting:

For he heard the loud bassoon.

He beats his breast again after the wedding procession begins:

The bride hath paced into the hall,

Red as a rose is she;

Nodding their heads before her goes

The merry minstrelsy.

The Wedding Guest realizes at this point that he will miss the joyous wedding ceremony to hear the Mariner's tale. The breast beating occurring twice is important because it emphasizes both his anguish at missing the wedding and his inability to leave the Mariner. It is as if he is under a spell, riveted to the spot. At the same time, the text makes clear that it is his choice to stay where he is, even at the sacrifice of the wedding:

Yet he cannot chuse [choose] but hear

The story seems important to him and riveting. Despite twice wanting to pull away, he never does.

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Repetition in poetry is used for emphasis.  These lines appear at the beginning of the poem.  The Wedding Guest has been detained by the ancient mariner for reasons he does not yet understand.  The mariner's tale begins, and the Wedding Guest can simultaneously hear the music and envision the guests moving into the hall. 

The key to the line you mention is that the Wedding Guest is extremely frustrated.  He is going to be late to the wedding or miss it altogether because of this mariner.  Why doesn't he just leave?  He cannot.   Consider the following stanza:

He holds him with his glittering eye -
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.

For some reason the Wedding Guest is compelled to remain and hear the story.  Thus, the beating of his breast, his frustration at being powerless is emphasized in the lines you mention.

 

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