At a Glance

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge used many archaic spellings in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The word "rime" refers both to a "rhyme" or poem and to a kind of frost that the Mariner encountered on his journey to the Antarctic. On the most basic level, the rime is about the ancient Mariner. It's also an adventure story about a journey through the "rime" or frost of the South Pole.
  • The albatross itself is a symbol of innocence and beauty. When the seaman hang the dead albatross around the Mariner's neck, it becomes a symbol of his sin, which he bears like a mark of shame. Ultimately, the albatross' death leads the Mariner to a spiritual epiphany, allowing him to understand his relationship with God and nature.
  • Coleridge personifies the figures of both Death and Life-in-Death, depicting them as two supernatural beings playing dice in order to determine the Mariner's fate. Death takes the two hundred hired seaman on the Mariner's ship, but Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, whose "ancient" appearance suggests, if not immortality, then a wizened old age.

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Three young gallants on their way to a wedding are stopped by an old gray-headed sailor who detains one of them. The ancient Mariner holds with his gaze a young man whose next of kin is being married in the church nearby and forces him to listen, against his will, to the old seaman’s tale. The ancient Mariner tells how his ship left the home port and sailed southward to the equator. In a storm the vessel was blown to polar regions of snow and ice. When an albatross flew out of the frozen silence, the crew hailed it as a good omen. The sailors made a pet of the albatross and regarded it as a fellow creature. One day the ancient Mariner killed the bird with his crossbow. The superstitious sailors believed bad luck would follow.

Fair winds blew the ship northward until it reached the equator, where it was suddenly becalmed and lay for days without moving. The thirsty seamen blamed the ancient Mariner and hung the dead albatross about his neck as a sign of his guilt.

In the distance a ship appeared, a skeleton ship that moved on the still sea where no wind blew. On its deck Death and Life-in-Death were casting dice for the crew and the ancient Mariner. As a result of the cast, Death won the two hundred crew members, who dropped dead one by one. As the soul of each dead sailor rushed by, the ancient Mariner was reminded of the sound of the rushing bolt of his crossbow when he shot the albatross. Life-in-Death won the ancient Mariner, who lived on to expiate his sins. Furthermore, the curse lived on in the eyes of the men who died accusing him. One night the ancient Mariner, observing the beauty of the water snakes around the ship, blessed these creatures in his heart. The spell was broken. The albatross fell from his neck into the sea.

At last the ancient Mariner was able to sleep. Rain fell to quench his thirst. The warped vessel began to move, and the bodies of the dead crew rose to resume their regular duties as the ship sailed quietly on, moved by a spirit toward the South Pole. The ancient Mariner fell into a trance. He awoke to behold his own country, the very port from which he set sail. Then the angelic spirits left the dead bodies of the crew and appeared in their own forms of light. Meanwhile, the pilot on the beach saw the lights, and he rowed out with his son and a holy Hermit to bring the ship in to harbor. Suddenly the ship sank, but the pilot pulled the ancient Mariner into his boat. Once ashore, the old man asked the Hermit to hear his confession and give him penance. The ancient Mariner tells the Wedding Guest that at times since that moment, the agony of the seaman’s guilt returns and he has to tell the story of his voyage to one who must be taught love and reverence for all things God made and loved. The merry din of the wedding ceases, and the Wedding Guest returns home, a sadder and a wiser man.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Kirk. Unnamed church at which the poem opens and closes. This church, as well as other sites to which the Mariner alludes—such as a lighthouse, a hill, and a harbor bay—are evidently located in the Mariner’s native country. (“Kirk” is an old and once commonly used word for church in the British Isles, especially in Scotland.) The Mariner comes to understand his place within the universe as one of many creatures that deserve honor and respect, and the church imputes a moral tone to these ideas. Indeed, the Mariner is not simply a relativist, believing that whatever he wants to do is correct for a particular situation. His killing of the harmless albatross emerges from such an incorrect assessment. The church calls this assumption into question. Consequently, the Mariner is compelled to repeat his story to the Wedding-Guest, whom the Mariner believes to be in need of such a lesson.


Ship. Unnamed vessel on which the Mariner rides the waves of the sea, beginning in the third stanza of part 1. As his ship continues its voyage, the sea itself reflects the mood, the emotional intensity, of the ship’s sailors. The men have nowhere else to go so long as they remain at sea, and their ship thus becomes both home and prison to them. When the wind drops, and the ship is becalmed, the Mariner is reminded how confining the ship is. When the ship is trapped among ice floes, the Mariner allows himself to kill the albatross for sport. The Mariner’s ship becomes the stage for his great sin, as well as for the beginning of his redemption.

Other ships also play important parts in this poem. For example, the skeleton ship approaching from the direction of the westward sky, on a still sea where no wind blows, provides a stage for a dialogue that occurs between Specter-Woman and her Deathmate who cast dice for the lives of the sailors.

*South Pole

*South Pole. The southern tip of Earth’s axis is not mentioned by name in the poem, but it is the clear direction in which the Mariner is sent by a storm-blast that drives his ship toward certain judgment in the frigid south. The ice of the southern polar region seems alive, as its movements make noise that sound like wild beasts, frightening the Mariner. The Spirit from the pole embodies these characteristics in the mind of the Mariner, as the Spirit makes the becalmed ship move at the behest of an angelic troupe who still seek vengeance for the albatross.

High seas

High seas. Primary location through the poem. Two forms of water trap the ship—ice and water—thereby becoming its primary locus. Sailors learn to read the moods of the sea, based on the winds that propel its waves. The moon, as well, is reflected in the sea’s surface. Coleridge uses the sea, as well as other natural forms, as tools to instruct the Mariner on his moral lapse and lack of respect for all creation. The sun rises and sets several times in the poem, not simply to indicate the passage of time. When the sea gives back the sun’s face in reflection, the Mariner reacts as if all creation were watching and judging him.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

There are two settings in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In the first scene an ancient mariner stops a guest at a wedding party and...

(The entire section is 191 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In developing his themes in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge masterfully expresses concepts through the use of symbols and...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge focuses on humanity's relationship to the natural world. Coleridge makes it clear that the...

(The entire section is 291 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. A wedding guest who does not know the mariner is forced to listen to his tale. Is this device effective? Is the guest meant to guide the...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. It has been said that "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is about twice as long as it needs to be. What would be the effect of reducing the...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

While Coleridge did not write poetry specifically for young adults, "Kubla Kahn" is frequently read in schools as a companion piece to "The...

(The entire section is 155 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp. New York: Norton, 1958. A time honored examination of the theory of Romantic poetry. Useful for...

(The entire section is 307 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barfield, Owen. What Coleridge Thought. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971. Focuses on Coleridge’s theological and philosophical thought, including his self-proclaimed “passion for Christianity.”

Bloom, Harold, ed. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Introduction places the poem in the tradition of Cain and Wandering Jew stories, and essays include studies of the poem’s sources and symbolism.

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.

Falke, Cassandra. “The Sin of the Ancient Mariner.” Lamar Journal of the Humanities 29, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 5-11. Argues that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be fully appreciated only within the context of Coleridge’s Christianity, particularly his understanding and use of the concepts of Original Sin and the Cain story.

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.

McFarland, Thomas. Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969. Wide-ranging assessment of Coleridge’s coherence of thought, including his literary, theological, and philosophical ideas.

Newlyn, Lucy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Contains commissioned essays by modern critics reassessing Coleridge’s poetry and other writing as well as his philosophical and theological ideas.

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.