Coleridge’s masterpiece, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was first published as part of the Lyrical Ballads (1798), which thereby secured its position as one of the landmark poems of its age, despite its archaic ballad form. Structured as a frame narrative, the poem begins with the Mariner’s detaining a guest on his way to a wedding with the spellbinding account of a most strange ocean voyage. The Mariner tells of a southbound voyage to the Antarctic. He describes how the ship, as it clears the horizon, ominously dips below the church and below all of civilized and conventional authority, descending toward the unknown, the wild, and the hellish. Reaching the frozen, seemingly blank, polar world, the sailors call to and feed a white albatross, a large seabird, as an apparent friend or messenger from another realm. The Mariner inexplicably shoots it, sacrificing it, innocent and pure, with his crossbow (echoing Easter imagery). Thereupon, the ship idles without wind to move it while the superstitious crew grows increasingly thirsty and hangs the dead bird around the Mariner’s neck to punish him for his cruelty, which they feel in some way has stalled their trip.
At last, a ship is sighted, but it is a skeleton ship, carrying the Spectre-Woman, “Life-in-Death,” and her mate Death, who are types of avenging spirits of the albatross. The two of them toss dice to determine who will decide the fate of the Mariner’s ship, and the Woman wins. She imposes a penance on the Mariner, which begins with the death of the crew while the Mariner lives on, unable to die, unable even to sleep. Watching the now-beautiful phosphorescent water snakes, which earlier looked monstrous to him, the Mariner is impelled to bless them, and at once the albatross slides off his neck into the sea. His unconscious action restores a balance upset by his murder of the albatross, although his penance is not finished, as disembodied spirit voices assert.
The Mariner is now able to sleep, and he dreams while the ship sails home, manned by spirits animating the crew’s corpses. At length, the ship escapes the haunted universe to return to home port, but then it suddenly sinks, while the Mariner is rescued and immediately absolved of his sins, if only for a time, by the Hermit of the Wood. Nonetheless, his need for penance remains, for the Mariner must wander endlessly and solitarily, until an agony seizes him, and he in turn seizes one whom he knows must hear his tale. The Wedding Guest misses the marriage ceremony, but he has been irrevocably changed by the Mariner’s words.
The poem has given rise to a multitude of interpretations, stressing the existential, meaningless murder of the albatross in an incomprehensible world; the Christian pattern of sin, confession, and penance within a sacramental universe; the functioning of the symbolic or nightmare imagination as the Mariner’s fate unfolds; and the necessity, even the desperation, of narration. Coleridge himself after the first publication appended marginalia that recapitulated the poem in an effort to clarify, although what it actually did was to retell the plot at a slant and thereby distance the author, as well as the frame, from the poem’s peculiar and disturbing nature, relinquishing responsibility for interpretation to each reader.