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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Supernatural elements and occult themes in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."


In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," supernatural elements and occult themes are prominent. The mariner encounters ghostly figures like Death and Life-in-Death, and the crew is cursed by a spectral force after he kills the albatross. These elements heighten the poem's eerie atmosphere and illustrate the consequences of disrupting the natural order.

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What are the supernatural elements in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

The supernatural elements actually appear with the albatross, which has arrived in order to help guide the Mariner's ship through a fog bank.  When the Ancient Mariner kills the albatross, he has not only violated concepts of gratitude and hospitality, he has, on a whim, killed a living being that has come to same him and his ship.  I believe we are meant to see the albatross, in part, in a Christian context--like Christ, who came to earth to save us, the albatross arrives to save the mariners and their ship, and the reward for this generosity is his execution.

Nature itself becomes relentlessly supernatural after the killing of the albatross: the wind stops, temperatures climb, drinking water runs out.  These are not merely problems for a ship at sea; they are all life-threatening.  The crew, sensing its own complicity in the Mariner's action, decide to hang the albatross around his neck, an allusion to the concept of the Judeo-Christian scapegoat, who wears an amulet representing the sins of the people and is sent into the desert to die for everyone's sins.

As we know, several horrific supernatural elements seal the fate of the ship and crew--slimy snakes from the bottom of the ocean come to the ship; a ghost-ship, with the figures of Death and Death-in-Life, arrives and the entire crew dies (Death) but the Mariner remains alive (Death-in-Life).

The Mariner's salvation comes when he, unconsciously and full of pity, blesses the slimy sea snakes, and the albatross falls from his neck, an indication that Nature and/or God has forgiven his original sin of killing the albatross.  His penance, however, is not complete, for he has to keep telling his story, first to the hermit on the pilot boat and then to the Wedding Guest.  It's only after the repeated telling of this awful tale that the Ancient Mariner achieves some peace.  Unfortunately, the Wedding Guest is negatively affected by the tale, avoids the wedding, and wakes up the next day "a sadder and wiser man."

The supernatural elements, then, themselves contain elements of Nature's wrath at wanton cruelty, as well as implicitly Christian elements, that together create the retribution the Mariner suffers and the salvation he is offered at the end.

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What are the supernatural elements in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

The ancient mariner's encounter with the supernatural begins soon after he, for no discernible reason, kills the albatross that helped his crew free themselves from entrapment in the ice.

The sailors believe that the winds that send the ship into equatorial waters are under the control of spirits bent on punishing them for the killing of the bird. The ship is becalmed, and the men die torturous deaths from thirst as they watch two spirits on a ghost ship gamble for their souls. The mariner's punishment is to outlive them and be trapped with their corpses for a time, knowing that he has caused their suffering.

Eventually, the mariner sees the beauty and purpose of nature. When he experiences this epiphany, the dead sailors are reanimated and sail the ship close to the mariner's home.  His troubles, however, do not end there; he nearly loses his life in a whirlpool that claims the remnants of the ship. The mariner faces a protracted punishment: he must confess his sin over and over to anyone he meets to communicate what he has learned:

He prayeth well, who loveth well 
Both man and bird and beast. 
He prayeth best, who loveth best 
All things both great and small; 
For the dear God who loveth us, 
He made and loveth all. 
Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses supernatural elements of animated winds, spirits, and corpses to explore themes of sin, punishment, atonement, and redemption.
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What are the supernatural elements in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

This literary ballad clearly contains many fantastical elements that are obviously supernatural. Important to note is the way that Coleridge in this poem creates a spirit that embodies Nature itself, called the Polar Spirit, that pursues the ship and rains down suffering and punishment on the vessel because of the thoughtless act of the Mariner in killing the albatross. However, arguably these supernatural elements are used as a way of presenting the torments that guilt can inflict on the human soul and the terrible expiation necessary for those who sin against nature in such a shocking fashion.

Of course, the pain and guilt experienced by the Mariner are a product of the pain and guilt of Coleridge himself, as suffered through his opium addiction, and so we are left to wonder if the fantastical elements that feature so strongly in this poem are dreamt up out of the opium-fevered imagination of its author. Either way, the supernatural elements show the force of The Polar Spirit, representing Nature, and the danger of taking Nature for granted.

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What are the supernatural elements in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a first-generation Romantic poet. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is filled with many of the characteristics of Romantic writing, including a respect for nature (the sin of killing the albatross), melancholy (as seen with the mariner's state of mind), and especially the supernatural—anything beyond the natural world. While today's reader might consider witches and vampires to be supernatural, Coleridge incorporates spirits, angels, and ghosts; he also includes supernatural powers.

The poem is filled with the supernatural. When the ship is becalmed (a punishment for killing of the albatross), the crew is dying of thirst:

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink. (118-119)

Initially the reader might think that the mariner is delirious because of his terrible thirst, but he is not. First he notes strange lights shining in the water.  Then he reports that a spirit is following the ship:

And some in dreams assured were

Of the spirit that plagued us so:

Nine fathom deep he had followed us... (128-130)

Side notes indicate that some of the crew members have dreamt of this spirit—it is that of the dead albatross. Next, the mariner sees ships approaching:

A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist! ...

It plunged and tacked and veered […] (150, 153)

[I] cried, A sail! a sail! (156-157)

Initially it seems as if the crew may be saved, but as the ship gets closer, what they see brings no relief. The first hint that this is not a normal ship is that it is sailing without the wind, for the sea is still becalmed. Then as the ship grows closer, the mariner sees that as it passes in front of the setting sun, the sun's rays shine through the boards of the ship: for what approaches is "the skeleton of a ship." Using personification, the sun is described as looking through the ship:

As if through a dungeon-grate he peered... (176)

As the ghost ship approaches, the mariner can see that the sails are like cobwebs; then he observes the ghost ship's crew—a woman and her mate:

And is that Woman all her crew?

Is that a DEATH? and are there two?

Is DEATH that woman's mate? (184-186)

The woman is described with amazing imagery.

Her skin was as white as leprosy... (189)

The mariner notes:

The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she... (190)

These two supernatural beings have come to the dying crew. And as the mariner watches, the two gamble for the souls of the crew members. Life-in-Death raises a triumphant cry that she has won, and the "spectre-bark" (ghost ship) leaves in a flash. Two hundred crew members drop dead on the deck (souls that Death won), leaving only the mariner alive.

For days he feels the curse of the eyes of the dead men. Finally the mariner praises nature and is blessed. It rains; the wind returns. In that moment, the dead men stand (inhabited by "angelic spirits") to sail the ship. Then two spirits speak as the mariner rests in a daze. Ultimately the ship returns to the mariner's "native country." When it suddenly sinks, the mariner is thrown into the water and is rescued by a small boat in which travels a holy man ("hermit"), who pardons him.

The supernatural comes to the mariner once more on land—as part of his penance...

...till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns. (581-582)

The lesson the mariner has learned during his journey and supernatural encounters is:

He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast. (609-610)

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What are the supernatural elements in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," although men attempt to act as free agents, they are at the mercy of both natural and supernatural forces. The men in the tale begin their voyage cheerfully, although the purpose of their journey is not clear. Still, they sail under their own volition. Soon, however, a "tyrannous" wind blows them into frozen waters. The men, even though stuck in the ice, find pleasure in the albatross and befriend it of their own free will. However, the mariner, for no good reason, kills the bird. The men's reaction to his act shows that the men base their emotions and beliefs on the state of the natural world. When the breeze stops blowing, they blame the mariner for killing the albatross, "the bird that made the breeze to blow." But when the fog clears, they change their minds and say that it was right to kill the bird "that brings the fog and mist." Thus they allow their moral choices to hinge on the vagaries of the weather. 

At line 131 the supernatural realm is introduced; the ship being stuck in the doldrums is attributed to "the spirit that plagued us so." In Part 3 the ghost ship appears; the men instinctively know that they will be at the mercy of the unearthly duo aboard the ship. To make their dominance clear, Life-in-Death shouts as they cast dice: "The game is done! I've won! I've won!" Thus the spirit world is shown as a realm that plays games with the lives of men. Indeed, "four times fifty living men" drop down dead as a result of this "win." 

Only the mariner lives on. He is able to exercise some glimmer of free will at last, but even that is more instinctive and completely intertwined with the supernatural world and nature. As he watches the beautiful water snakes,

"A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware."  

The spirit world, in the form of the mariner's "kind saint," influences the mariner to "choose" to bless the snakes rather than curse them, even though that blessing is subconscious, and he is then freed to pray--and the albatross falls from his neck, indicating his redemption. His journey home is still controlled by spirits as the dead men rise to sail the ship and the voice of the Polar Spirit and his fellow demons discuss the penance the mariner must pay. The Pilot and his son are moved to a fit and madness, respectively, indicating they have no free will regarding their response to the mariner. Only the Hermit seems able to withstand any negative effect from the mariner, but he is a "holy man," so he no doubt has spiritual protection. The mariner himself must live on under the direction of the supernatural "agony" that seizes him when he finds the person who needs to hear his tale, such as the "Wedding-Guest."

Thus Coleridge's poem presents man as fully subservient to both nature and, more importantly, the supernatural realm.

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What are the supernatural elements in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

First thing is to be sure you understand the structure of the poem. I've included a link to the enotes study guide on "Ancient Mariner" that will definitely help you. Knowing that the mariner is telling a story to a wedding guest about a journey he has taken to the South Pole, which is the bulk of the poem, and then is destined to find individuals to continue telling his tale to, is crucial. The journey south is crucial, since this is symbolic of a journey toward the unknown, a place a of magic and dreams, a place of unreality, even Hell, in come cases. So it makes sense that the supernatural elements occur on this journey to the south. 

The other thing for you to consider is before writing your response is to choose what supernatural elements you want, then explain their significance. That's an important piece to your prompt: "how they add to the events that take place". Basically, you're explaining what the mariner learns from witnessing these supernatural forces and elements.

So write a topic sentence to your response, introducing the title, the author, and the concept you will be discussing ("supernatural elements"). Then give a quick 1-2 sentence summary of the poem that will get you to a moment where you can explain / describe / quote an example of a supernatural power. In the sentence following your example / quote, then immediately explain its significance (how this affects the mariner or what he learns). To develop your response well, use another, different example of a supernatural element; use a quote from the poem as an example of that element, and then explain, again, how this moment affects the mariner or what he learns from this. The final 1-2 sentences of your paragraph should tie this altogether, coming back to mention the author and what Coleridge's mariner learns from the entire journey and how important these supernatural elements are to his journey.

Possible supernatural ideas: "slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea" (watersnakes and their colors); the crew who drops dead and then return to life; the "seraph-men" who light the way toward the north (angels); the "strange shape" with a woman and DEATH in part III; the constant power of the moon and wind and its effect and descriptions.

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How does "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" convey a sense of occult powers and unknown modes of being?

One way in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge evokes an atmosphere of the occult in the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is through color. He uses the color black very effectively, to create images of fear and horror such as the effects of thirst, sunburn or disease as in "black lips baked." He also paints the sea and its scapes in unnatural colors and has it appear boiling and writhing. The idea of a curse also has connotations with witches spells and charms. There are weird unearthly creatures such as sea snakes and a ship which appears to sail unmanned. An albatross has been killed unthinkingly, and the poet tries to show us what unnatural forces can be unleashed when we fail to respect the beauty and simple truth of Nature.

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