illustration of the Ancient Mariner in the ocean with an albatross tied around his neck

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Christian Themes

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Although heavily influenced by William Wordsworth and the pantheist tradition, Coleridge diverged from Wordsworth on the source of inspiration for life and poetry: Where Wordsworth believed nature was his source of inspiration, Coleridge believed love was the source of inspiration. Drawing from Christ’s instruction that the greatest commandment is love, Coleridge develops a story that illustrates the importance of love not only for the individual soul but also for the balance and harmony among all living things.

The senseless shooting of the albatross, a bird lured to follow the ship by the men’s initially friendly treatment, serves as the point of illustration for a parable about right behavior. Even as the hospitality and friendliness toward the albatross and the common sense and decency with which the ship members treated it dried up, the men on the ship are dried to the point that their tongues turn black. Their rottenness causes the sea to rot.

The crew is angry and afraid but unaware of its complicity in the sin, hanging the albatross around the Mariner’s neck. For their complicity and unwillingness to take responsibility, they are punished with death. However, the Mariner, because he is directly responsible for killing the bird and showing no mercy, is fated to remain alive like the Wandering Jew who refused Christ the mercy of a cup of water.

Initially, the Mariner does not fully understand his responsibility for what is occurring and blames others: “And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony.” Because he refuses responsibility, he feels guilt, hearing the departing souls of his shipmates pass by “[l]ike the whizz of [his] crossbow!” and seeing himself as one of the slimy things that lives on, but he cannot repent. Until blessed with an overwhelming sense of love for the beauty of the sea snakes, the “wicked whisper” of both despair and desire to blame others for his predicament prevents him from praying and moving toward atonement, which consists of repeating his story to those who need to hear it that they might learn,

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Social Sensitivity

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In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge focuses on humanity's relationship to the natural world. Coleridge makes it clear that the killing of the albatross brings dire consequences upon the mariner. In a larger sense, it is not his killing of the bird that is wrong, but the mariner's—and by extension humankind's—callous and destructive relationship with nature that is in error. Coleridge intends to confront this relationship and place it in a larger philosophical context. If the reader grasps the lesson that the ancient mariner learns from his experience, then there are social implications.

Although the mariner's killing of the albatross, the terrifying deaths of his shipmates, and the grotesque descriptions of the supernatural spirits are disturbing, these elements are intended to develop the story, to illustrate how the mariner's destructive act sets him apart, and to portray vividly the results of his act and the horrifying, repulsive world that he comes to inhabit because of it. The consequences are all the more terrible for having been set in motion by such a thoughtless act in the first place. Coleridge is working toward a goal—to portray the mariner's development into a sensitive, understanding, and compassionate human being. In so doing, he aims to persuade the reader to reconsider his or her attitudes toward the natural world.

Part of Coleridge's technique is to personify aspects of nature as supernatural spirits, yet he does not develop an argument for pantheism on any level. A great deal of Christian symbolism and some allegory are present—particularly at the end of part 4, where connections are made between suffering, repentance, redemption, and penance. These elements combine to form a rich texture of both natural and religious symbolism that can be profoundly moving.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading