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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Discussion Topic

Symbolism and allusions in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Summary:

In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," symbolism and allusions play significant roles. The albatross symbolizes nature and the burden of sin, while the Mariner’s journey alludes to Christian themes of redemption and penance. The poem also references Biblical elements, such as the cross and the idea of suffering, to enhance its moral and spiritual messages.

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What allusions are found in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

There are several allusions in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." An allusion is an indirect reference to something outside of the work. Writers tend to allude to things that are historically or culturally significant. For instance, in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge uses biblical allusions—allusions to the Christian Bible. Consider how the mariner explains:

At length did cross an Albatross,

Through the fog it came;

As if it had been a Christian soul,

We hailed it in God's name.

Here the mariner alludes to the Christian story of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God who was sent to Earth to save humanity from sin. By comparing the albatross to a Christian soul that came through the fog, the mariner is alluding to the story of Jesus coming to save humanity. Also, recall how the albatross brings a favorable wind, but the mariner kills it anyway. This is also an allusion to the story of Jesus Christ, because Christians believe that Jesus was killed on a cross in an event called the crucifixion.

At the end of part 2, there is a specific allusion to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. The mariner says:

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

The cross has come to symbolize the weight of one's sins. Christians believe that just like Jesus carried the heavy cross, humans must carry the weight of their sins. By alluding to this story, the mariner emphasizes the weight of guilt placed upon him for killing the albatross.

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What is the symbolism and its meaning in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

Whenever a journey is part of a narrative in a story, poem, or novel, it is safe to assume that the journey is symbolic, and this holds true in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The mariner's journey is symbolic of a human's journey through life. His inexplicable and cruel killing of the albatross is something that he will carry the rest of his life and serves as a warning against impetuous actions that cannot be reversed.

The "glittering eye" of the mariner compels the Wedding-Guest to pause and listen to his story. Looking into another person's eyes has long had the symbolism of honesty: the eyes are viewed as a window into the human soul. It is important to the mariner that he tell his story, because he believes that it is his penance for killing the friendly albatross that had followed his ship. He needs to tell the Wedding-Guest about a truth that he has learned the hard way: to wantonly kill anything that God has created is a wrong and ruinous act that will lead to a cascade of destructive consequences.

The albatross itself is a symbol in the poem. It is a manifestation of the natural world that God has created. The sporting and companionable behavior that it displays to the crew is meant to be a gift from God, and squandering it is an affront that will exact a steep price. This becomes clear when the winds die and the men begin to succumb to thirst.

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What does the ice symbolize in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

In lines 41-44, the Mariner tells the guest that a storm began to blow the ship south, toward the South Pole. They encounter mist, snow, and icebergs. Eventually, they are surrounded by ice.

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around: 

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, 

Like noise in a swound! 

A "swound" is a "swoon," meaning that the noise and cold are so extreme as to induce fainting. This is a dire predicament and had they become permanently stuck in this icy world, it is probable that they would have died then and there. This is when the albatross arrives and they welcome it "As if it had been a Christian soul, / We hailed it in God's name." They feed the bird and it flies around. The ice breaks up and a south wind begins to blow them north.

The ice symbolizes potential death. The cold weather and being stuck in the ice is enough to end their lives. There is also the added symbolism of the coldness of death, the coldness of a corpse, and the frozen image of lifeless bodies. Being freed of the ice, the sailors regain hope.

The sailors regard the albatross as a sign from God because its arrival corresponds with their escape from the ice (their escape from death). Then the Mariner shoots the albatross for no reason. The others blame him for killing the good omen, but then they blame the albatross for the subsequent fog and consider that it might have been a bad omen. They reinterpret things once again when they become stranded with no wind. They then hang the albatross around the Mariner's neck. 

The ice literally threatens death. It therefore symbolizes death for that reason as well as for its associations with the images of lifelessness and frozen bodies. Following these events, the sailors cannot make up their minds about the meaning of the albatross, but they eventually lay all blame upon the Mariner for his senseless act. 

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What do nature images symbolize in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

Imagery can be a difficult kind of figurative language to discuss because it is varied and encompasses a lot of other types of figurative language. Basically any kind of figurative language that helps create an image in the reader's mind is imagery. This image can be visual (what you see), auditory (what you hear), tactile (what you feel), gustatory (what you taste), olfactory (what you smell), kinesthetic (describing movement), or organic (creating a feeling or emotion). 

The first striking and memorable use of imagery is that describing the Ancient Mariner himself, in the third line of the first stanza: "'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye," which tells the reader that the mariner is old (grey), unkempt (long... beard), and intense (glittering eye.) The mariner's "glittering eye" is mentioned again in the fourth stanza, and in the fifth stanza he is described as "The bright-eyed mariner." This repetition makes the mariner's eye his most striking feature. The word "glittering" shows that the mariner, although old, has a quick intelligence and a mesmerizing story to tell. His bright, glittering gaze seems almost hypnotic, which helps the reader to feel what the character of the wedding guest feels when the mariner stops him.

That brings us to the story. The mariner begins by describing how the ship crossed the horizon line, obscuring the view of civilization, and then how the sun rose and fell, going higher and higher each day, as the ship sailed southward. In this part of the poem, Coleridge used personification to describe the sun:

The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

Personification is a kind of imagery. It ascribes human qualities to an inanimate object. Coleridge makes the sun seem like a character by referring to it using the pronoun 'he.' This is the first instance of the strong imagery of nature in the poem, and it also foreshadows the supernatural elements that will be introduced later in the poem.

The storm is also personified:

And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

This makes the storm also seem to be part of a sentient force of nature that surrounds them, and makes the ship and the mariners seem small and powerless in comparison.

The next stanza has another kind of imagery, a simile: "As who pursued with yell and blow / Still treads the shadow of his foe, / And forward bends his head," which compares the ship to a man running from a huge predator, the storm.

The next several stanzas are filled with imagery describing the Antarctic sea filled with ice. For example, "The ice was here, the ice was there, / The ice was all around:" uses repetition to highlight the sheer amount of ice surrounding them, and "It cracked and growled, and roared and howled," uses aural imagery to show the sound the ice makes.

The most famous lines from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are excellent examples of striking imagery:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

The repetition of "day after day" highlights the long period of time during which the ship is stuck on the still sea and gives the reader a feeling of the passage of time; and the simile, "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean" creates a visual image of the stillness of a ship in a painting.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

More repetition creates an image of the small ship stranded in the wide, endless sea, while "and all the boards did shrink" means that the wooden boards constructing the ship dried out so much that they shrank, another visual image of the ship's idle state in the calm sea with absolutely no precipitation. When you read these lines, you can feel the thirst of the stranded mariners!

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is absolutely filled with striking imagery like this. You can read the poem in its entirety on eNotes here and find out more information about it here.

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What is Samuel Taylor Coleridge trying to convey through his epic poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

Much is wrapped up in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The obvious is that there are consequences to every action. When the sailor killed the albatross, suffering and death were inflicted on the entire crew. The mariner was the only one from the crew who lived, and his punishment was to tell his story over and over. He was sentenced to a life where he is trapped between life and death.

Coleridge also had a fascination with the natural world and the power that it contains. Man, no matter how hard he tries, cannot control the power of the ocean or the weather. The mariner learns how very important it is to respect nature and the spiritual world as well.

That spiritual world also exists in this poem. The dead sailors come back to life for a time, inhabited by some sort of spirit, and the albatross is also connected to the other side.

Coleridge conveys much more in his poem--themes of being imprisoned, religion, and punishment. He tells a story through poetry that is beautiful, but also makes his readers think.

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