The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Summary
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a narrative poem in which a mariner tells a wedding guest about a harrowing voyage he once endured.
- The mariner’s ship sailed toward the South Pole amid “mist and snow.”
- An albatross appeared, and the mariner shot it with a crossbow, thus cursing the crew.
- Deathly spirits arrive and kill all of the crew but the mariner.
- After drifting alone without food or water, the mariner finds the ship mysteriously borne back to land.
- The mariner now wanders the world, telling his tale.
Last Updated on April 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311
An ancient mariner stops a man who is on his way to a wedding. The wedding guest is eager to get to the feast, but the ancient mariner “holds him with his skinny hand” and insists on telling him a story. Something in the mariner’s eyes holds the wedding guest transfixed, and the guest sits down and listens as the mariner tells his tale.
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The mariner begins by saying that his ship left harbor in fine weather. However, a storm soon blew up, with strong winds, mist, and snow. Huge emerald-green icebergs came floating past the ship, which was soon surrounded by ice. At length, an albatross came flying through the fog. The crew greeted the bird in God’s name, and it seemed to have brought them good luck, for the ship broke safely through the ice, and a favorable wind sprang up.
The wedding guest, thinking this is the end of the story, congratulates the ancient mariner on his lucky escape. However, the ancient mariner sadly tells the wedding guest that he shot the albatross with his crossbow.
The mariner’s shipmates were angry with him for killing the albatross, since they believed it had brought the favorable wind with it. However, when the sun rose, they changed their minds, saying that the albatross had brought the fog and mist, and the mariner was right to slay it.
At first, the ship sailed on at a good pace, but then the ocean became calm. For day after day, there was no wind, and the ship remained still under the fiercely hot sun. There was water all around them, yet none the crew could drink. The surrounding ocean seemed to rot, and the crew thought themselves plagued by an evil spirit. They could not even speak. The rest of the crew looked angrily at the ancient mariner and hung the albatross around his neck to mark his shame.
It was a “weary time” for all the sailors. Looking westward, the ancient mariner finally saw something on the horizon, no bigger than a speck. The shape “plunged and tacked and veered” across the water, until the ancient mariner could finally see what it was, yet his mouth was too dry for him to speak. He bit his arm and sucked out the blood, to enable him to cry that he had seen a sail. The ship stopped tacking and headed towards them.
The ship was sailing in front of the setting sun. The mariner realized that he could see the sun through the ship, as though it were a skeleton. The sails were like spiders’ webs, and there were only two sailors: Death and Life-in-Death. Death was a skeleton, while Life-in-Death was a terrifying figure of a woman with red lips, golden hair, and skin “as white as leprosy.” The two were playing dice as the ghostly ship came alongside them, and Life-in-Death won the life of the ancient mariner, while Death claimed the other sailors.
As night fell, the mysterious ship sailed away. Suddenly, everyone on the mariner’s ship began to die. There were two hundred of them, and all of their souls flew from their bodies—just as the arrow had flown from the mariner’s crossbow to kill the albatross.
The wedding guest interrupts the ancient mariner, expressing fear that he seems unearthly and may be a ghost. The mariner reassures him that he alone did not die. He stayed alone on the ship after everyone else was dead. He did not know where to turn his eyes: all he could see was the putrid sea and the corpses rotting on deck. He tried to pray, but his heart turned dry as dust when he did so. He was oppressed by the presence of the dead men, who still looked at him as balefully as they had when alive. The mariner saw that curse in their eyes for seven days and nights, yet he could not die, for he had been claimed by Life-in-Death.
By moonlight, the mariner watched the water around him burning red and saw water snakes—blue, green, and black—flashing with golden fire. The mariner, struck by the beauty of these living things, unconsciously loved and blessed them. The moment he did so, he was able to pray. The albatross fell from the mariner’s neck and sank into the sea.
The mariner was finally able to sleep. When he awoke, it was raining, and he could drink the water. His body felt so light that he almost thought he had died in his sleep and was “a blessed ghost.” He saw stars and flashes of fire, the moon and dark clouds. The wind roared loudly, yet never reached the ship; mysteriously, though, the ship moved. The dead men on the deck groaned and arose, then began to work and sail the ship in silence.
The wedding guest again says that he is afraid, but the mariner reassures him that these corpses were possessed not by the spirits of the dead sailors but by angels. He knows this because, at dawn, the angels sang and left the sailors’ bodies. The ship sailed on without a breeze, guided by a spirit. It then stopped, and suddenly bounded off “like a pawing horse.” The suddenness of the motion caused the mariner to lose consciousness for some time.
In his stupor, the mariner heard two voices. One asked if this was the man who cruelly shot the albatross. The other replied, with a softer voice, that the mariner had done his penance and would do still more.
The mariner describes the dialogue between the two voices he heard. They said that the ship was sailing fast but would be slow when the mariner awoke from his trance. The mariner did wake sometime in the night, and he was again disturbed by the “stony eyes” of the corpses on deck. He could not forget their curse, or look away from them, or pray. A wind sprang up, and the ship sailed swiftly.
The mariner was delighted to see his own country—the lighthouse, hill, and church he recognized—come into view. When he turned away to look at the deck, he saw an angel standing on the corpse of each of the dead sailors, emitting light. The mariner then heard the sound of oars and saw a boat in which a pilot had come to guide him into the harbor. With the pilot was a hermit, and the mariner immediately thought that this holy man would be able to absolve him of his sin.
The mariner describes the hermit, a good and pious man who enjoys talking to sailors. As the pilot’s boat came alongside the ship, the ship suddenly sank with a terrible commotion. The mariner lay floating on the surface, and he soon found himself in the rowboat. He grabbed the oars and rowed until they reached the shore.
As soon as they were on dry land, the mariner begged the hermit for absolution from his sins. He told his tale to the hermit, and though the mariner experienced agony as he spoke, telling the tale left him free.
The agony, however, still returns from time to time, and then the mariner must tell his tale, as he has just done to the wedding guest. The mariner says that certain faces impel him to tell his story. It eases his soul to pray in church, surrounded by others praying. His parting message to the wedding guest is that a man who loves well also prays well (and he who loves best also prays best). Love and prayer are closely connected, because God loves all things and people. The wedding guest is stunned by the mariner’s revelations and rises the next day both sadder and wiser.