What happened when the mariner tried to pray?

When the mariner tried to pray, he heard a "wicked whisper" and his heart was "as dry as dust," meaning that he was unable to pray. However, when he later felt love for the water snakes, he was able to pray again.

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Prayer and the connection to God that it symbolizes are major themes in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In part 4 of the poem, the mariner looks around him at all the dead bodies, then turns his eyes upwards in despair:

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
The mariner is now cursed, separated from God, and consequently prevented from praying. It is this, more than any of his physical sufferings, that plagues him most on his journey, and his quest for the remainder of the poem is a search for God's grace. The ability to pray returns to him relatively quickly, and in an unexpected manner. At the end of part 4, he sees some water snakes, and is elated by their beauty. He is filled with love and blesses the snakes. As soon as he does so, he says,
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
This does not mean that the mariner's quest and penance are over. The angels make it quite clear in part 5 that he still has a long way to go. However, this is true of everyone, and the restoration of the ability to pray is a vital step in the mariner's journey. Its symbolic importance is emphasized by the way in which the possibility of prayer is linked with his sudden loss of the albatross as a physical burden.
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