What is the chief appeal of the poem: its narrative, thought, language, mood, or something else?
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" has stood the test of time, remaining a beloved classic more than 200 years after it was written. Yet William Wordsworth and even Coleridge himself seemed to be somewhat dissatisfied with it. Its shortcomings are its narrative and its theme, but those are outweighed by the beauty of the language and imagery and the pervading Gothic mood.
William Wordsworth criticized the poem's plot, and he was certainly correct. The poem never gives a reason for the mariner's crime that would "work 'em woe," the shooting of the albatross. And although the mariner's redemption occurs at the end of Part 4, he has much "penance more to do," which takes three more parts of the poem. Furthermore, Wordsworth noted that the mariner doesn't have a strong character—the reader isn't particularly drawn to like him for any reason. The theme of love for all God's creatures seems somewhat contrived given the Gothic nature of the poem. Coleridge said he thought the moral was too blatant, and Anna Letitia Barbauld, one of his contemporary poets, thought there wasn't a strong enough moral.
However, Wordsworth himself noted the superiority of the language, imagery, and "passion" of the poem. The figurative language, such as the poem's plentiful similes, the consistent iambic rhythm, the strong masculine rhyme in the short lines and stanzas, and the frequent use of parallelism and sound devices all combine to make the poem a treat to the ear. The imagery of the cracking ice, the souls departing like the whizz of the cross-bow, the appearance of the ghost ship, the description of the sailors' parched tongues, the "slimy things" upon the "rotting sea," and the "blue, glossy green, and velvet black" water snakes that "coiled and swam [in a] ... flash of golden fire"—such descriptions bring the reader into the story and sear the poem into one's memory.
Perhaps the ultimate draw of the poem, however, is its Gothic enchantment. Since the Romantic Era, the supernatural stories of the Gothic have hooked readers, making them as helpless to stop reading as the poem's wedding guest was to stop listening. This poem features a ghost ship and a zombie crew, and one need look no further than recent Disney movies or popular television programming to know that such things capture the imaginations of both old and young.
These stanzas on their own are enough to make this poem forever memorable:
An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.
They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.
The lasting appeal of Coleridge's poem lies not in its narrative or theme, but in its beautiful language and imagery, and above all, in its irresistible Gothic enchantment.