The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
On his way to a wedding, a young man is stopped by an Ancient Mariner who insists on relating a strange tale of adventure at sea. The Mariner reveals that years ago he had sailed from his home to the South Pole and beyond. While the ship lay becalmed near the Pole, he shot an albatross which had been following the vessel. Initially praised by his shipmates, the Mariner is eventually reviled because the deed seems to being bad luck; the albatross is hung about his neck. A spectral ship, carrying two figures, approaches the Mariner’s vessel; Death and Death-in-Life play dice for the Mariner, and the latter wins. The other crew members aboard the ship die, but the Mariner lives on. Alone, he contemplates the heinous crime he has committed. Noticing the beauty of the sea creatures following the boat, he blesses them. Almost immediately, the wind picks up, the ship sails forward, and a band of spirits descend to inhabit the dead crew, aiding the Mariner to return to his homeland, where his ship goes down. He is rescued, but is compelled to tell his story to others as penance for his deed.
Coleridge’s poem is characteristically Romantic: Set in a strange locale, containing accounts of the supernatural, it uses the elements of the fantastic to highlight a universal human problem. The Mariner commits a motiveless crime, but it becomes an occasion for the poet to explore the notion of guilt and repentance. Fittingly, the act of contrition involves a recognition of the beauty of nature, another Romantic axiom. Further, the Mariner is forced to share his experience with others; this, too, characterizes Romantic poetry, whose practitioners felt that poetry was a vehicle for sharing experience as well as conveying ideas. Like many Romantic heroes, the Mariner is exiled from society by his crime, and returns to it only when he feels within himself a brotherhood with other creatures of nature.
Boulanger, James D., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. A useful collection of scholarly articles dealing with the poem, including an introduction that attempts to reconcile some of the differences of critical opinion.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Annotated Ancient Mariner. Edited by Martin Gardner. Illustrated by Gustave Doré. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1967. Includes the last and the first versions of the poem, together with interpretive comments of varying utility. Doré’s illustrations (and those by other artists) remind readers how intensely visual the poem is.
House, Humphry. Coleridge: The Clark Lectures, 1951-52. London: Hart-Davis, 1953. This book of fewer than 170 pages maintains its reputation as a sound introduction to the poet and his works. A thirty-page chapter on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is sensible and straightforward.
Lowes, John Livingston. The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931. In this classic work of literary scholarship, Lowes attempts to illuminate The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by a seemingly exhaustive examination of the poet’s reading, which was wide. Captivating as the source hunt is, Lowes tells readers little about what the poem might actually mean.
Piper, H. W. The Active Universe: Pantheism and the Concept of Imagination in the English Romantic Poets. London: Athlone Press, 1962. Proposes the influence of various scientific and philosophical ideas upon Coleridge, with several chapters on the poet’s intellectual development and one devoted entirely to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.