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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What do "Death" and "Life-in-Death" symbolize in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

Quick answer:

Death and Life-in-Death are allegorical figures who represent the potential fates of the men on board the ship. Death represents the straightforward physical termination of life, while Life-in-Death represents spiritual death.

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When Death wins the 200 men of the ship's crew, they all die a conventional death. The mariner describes this death as follows:

With heavy thump, a lifeless lump, They dropped down one by one. The souls did from their bodies fly,— They fled to bliss or woe!
In other words, the men fall down dead and their souls travel either to heaven or hell. They are released from the earth.
The mariner, however, suffers a different fate called Life-in-Death. He does not literally die, but he must linger on with his soul in "agony" and his "heart as dry as dust." He would prefer to be dead than living in this limbo of suffering, in which he can find no peace or joy.
At this point, the mariner becomes aware in a way that he was not before that his spirit is not truly alive. It wasn't when he carelessly killed the albatross, and it is not now. He does not feel connected to reality, which is all around him in God's creation. This is why he could kill the albatross and why he feels as if he is in:
a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
The mariner is divorced from nature, and because he is divorced from nature—because nature is just a "thing" to him, like a painting—he is divorced from God. It is not until he is able to feel the sudden oneness with nature that causes him to bless it—specifically, to respond gratefully to and bless the beautifully colored water snakes—that he is able to find relief from the torments of Life-in-Death.
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The figures of Death and Life-in-Death make their appearance in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner after the mariner kills the albatross and brings down a curse upon his fellow shipmates. The two enter on a ghostly ship and share a spectral, menacing appearance, though Life-in-Death has the added grotesquerie of somewhat resembling an attractive woman with her red lips, golden hair, and "free" looks. The two figures play dice for the fates of the men onboard: Death wins the crew while Life-in-Death wins the mariner.

What Death represents is straightforward: he is literally death itself. When he wins the men, they all die, their souls going "to bliss or woe." Life-in-Death is the far more sinister of the two because she represents a state of spiritual and physical anguish that persists in life. When she wins the mariner's soul, he is unable to pray or truly repent for what he has done, suggesting Life-in-Death has trapped him in a state of spiritual death. This spiritual death cuts him off from other living beings and love itself. Surrounded by the corpses of the fallen sailors, the mariner endures loneliness, terror, and guilt for a week. Only when he looks upon the sea creatures swimming alongside the boat and appreciates their beauty ("I bless'd them unaware") is the mariner able to be restored to spiritual life.

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The mariner kills the albatross and the crew eventually decides that the mariner is to blame for all their thirst, so they make him wear the albatross. (This is where the concept of “albatross as a burden” comes from).By killing the albatross, a symbol of purity and the Christian soul, the mariner has offended God and nature. In the Romantic and Transcendental philosophies, there was an inherent connection between nature and spirit; connected via the Imagination. On the surface, this sounds like an animal rights poem, but Coleridge was making a Christian/Romantic statement that harming nature is harming ourselves as all are interconnected.

So, all these supernatural events are caused by the mariner’s senseless killing of the albatross/symbol of Christian soul. They eventually pass a ship. This is right after they make the mariner wear the dead albatross around his neck; his cross to bear. On the ship they pass, Death (actually representing death) and Life-in-Death (representing suffering in life) are playing dice. They were betting for the lives or souls of the men. Death won all the men – they all dropped dead. Death-in-life won the mariner and he subsequently has led a life full of suffering because his killing of the albatross led to the death of his men. But the impression is that the death of the albatross is the initial crime and as offensive as the men’s deaths.  

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It is clear that these two spectres that appear on the ship and play a chilling game of dice for the life of the Mariner represent what their names say they are. Death represents complete death, and Life-in-Death represents a state of death that exists in life, that the Mariner has to suffer because Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, whereas Death wins the life of the sailors, resulting in their deaths. Note how they are described:

Are those her ribs through which the Sun

Did peer, as through a grate?

And is that Woman all her crew?

Is that a DEATH? and are there two?

Is DEATH that woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,

Her locks were yellow as gold:

Her skin was as white as leprosy,

The Nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,

Who thicks man's blood with cold.

Clearly focusing on their descriptions, and in particular the description of Life-in-Death, shows they are deeply suggestive of what these figures represent. The fact that Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, and the way that we are presented with how the Mariner lives--doomed to wander the world and share his story thanks to an uncontrollable compulsion--shows the life-in-death that he has to endure as his punishment.

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