What is the symbolism of the ice in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In lines 41-44, the Mariner tells the guest that a storm began to blow the ship south, toward the South Pole. They encounter mist, snow, and icebergs. Eventually, they are surrounded by ice.

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around: 

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, 

Like noise in a swound! 

A "swound" is a "swoon," meaning that the noise and cold are so extreme as to induce fainting. This is a dire predicament and had they become permanently stuck in this icy world, it is probable that they would have died then and there. This is when the albatross arrives and they welcome it "As if it had been a Christian soul, / We hailed it in God's name." They feed the bird and it flies around. The ice breaks up and a south wind begins to blow them north.

The ice symbolizes potential death. The cold weather and being stuck in the ice is enough to end their lives. There is also the added symbolism of the coldness of death, the coldness of a corpse, and the frozen image of lifeless bodies. Being freed of the ice, the sailors regain hope.

The sailors regard the albatross as a sign from God because its arrival corresponds with their escape from the ice (their escape from death). Then the Mariner shoots the albatross for no reason. The others blame him for killing the good omen, but then they blame the albatross for the subsequent fog and consider that it might have been a bad omen. They reinterpret things once again when they become stranded with no wind. They then hang the albatross around the Mariner's neck. 

The ice literally threatens death. It therefore symbolizes death for that reason as well as for its associations with the images of lifelessness and frozen bodies. Following these events, the sailors cannot make up their minds about the meaning of the albatross, but they eventually lay all blame upon the Mariner for his senseless act. 

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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