What is the theme of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?
Sin and repentance are the central themes of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Mariner commits a terrible sin when he kills the albatross, one of God's beloved creatures. He spends the rest of his life trying to atone for his sin through his suffering and humility. He devotes his life to warning people about the dangers of sin, using his own life as a cautionary tale.
When he carelessly kills the albatross, the Mariner sins against God and nature. He sins against nature because God loves all of creation, not just humankind. The poem states:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The theme or underlying meaning of the poem, therefore, is to show how one gets out from under a sin against God. The poem shows that this happens through the redemptive power of the imagination, an important Romantic theme.
The Mariner is guilty of killing the albatross. However, for a long time, he doesn't understand that he has done anything wrong. He can't see the beauty and wonder of God's creation. Therefore, he and his shipmates remain under a curse. It is impossible for the Mariner to achieve forgiveness until he is able to confess he has done something wrong.
Finally, when the Mariner sees and is able to respond to the beauty of the sea snakes, he shows he has developed the imagination and empathy to understand all of creation as blessed. Then the curse is lifted.
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The overt story of the poem is the rather terrifying tale of a sailor beset by troubles at sea. The underlying themes and the real subjects of the poem are christianity and the supernatural. The mariner, who evetually becomes "ancient," decides on a whim to shoot the albatross that is following the boat. He knows this is apparently considered bad luck, but what can be the harm.
He eventually pays the price for his foolishness and is redeemed as he learns the beauty of the life of the sea and the animals within and above it and spends the remainder of his life telling others his cautionary tale.