Publication History: Coleridge began writing his poem in 1797 and it was published in 1798. Modern editions used a revised version published in 1817 that features a glossary. Understanding the poem’s context can inform a historically based lesson plan or inspire conversations about the periodization of literature and media today.
The Beginning of British Romanticism: British Romanticism was an artistic movement that pervaded the worlds of art, music, literature, and intellectual thought at the turn of the 19th century. Predominant concerns with logic and reasoning of the Enlightenment gave way to heightened interest in emotion and sentimentality, while structured verse was replaced with a looser, less rigid poetic form. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was published in Lyrical Ballads, a collaborative collection between Coleridge and William Wordsworth, now published under Wordsworth’s name. This collection directly grappled with concepts of nature, sentimentality, imagination and spiritual redemption. As such, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” along with other poems in Lyrical Ballads, is one of the earliest texts in British Romanticism, signaling a shift towards modern poetry.
Working with Wordsworth: Coleridge had a famously close working relationship with fellow British poet William Wordsworth. For a time the two poets both lived in the Lake District in northern England, earning them the name “the Lake poets.” Both men became very close around 1797, leading to the publication of Lyrical Ballads. However, despite being classified as Romantic poets, the two possessed distinctly different poetic styles. While Wordsworth’s poetry is primarily concerned with detailing the everyday world, Coleridge’s poetry is often preoccupied with spirituality and the supernatural. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Wordsworth was critical of Coleridge’s passages of in-depth description, describing the imagery as “laboriously accumulated.” These poetic differences, alongside major personal difficulties such as Coleridge’s addiction to opium, led to the slow deterioration of a once great poetic partnership.
Biblical and Christian Allusions: Coleridge employs a number of biblical allusions throughout his lengthy poem. At first glance, the most obvious example is the albatross that the sailors force the Mariner to wear about his neck. In doing so, the sailors hope the Mariner will be continually reminded of his sin. This imagery conflates the Mariner with a Christ figure by connecting the albatross to the crucifix. Coleridge makes this biblical allusion unmistakable when he writes “Instead of the cross, the Albatross.” Whereas Christ suffered for the sins of mankind, the Mariner must suffer for his own sin: the killing of the innocent albatross.
While this example may be the most obvious initially, Coleridge also includes a number of further religious allusions throughout the poem. Early on, the Mariner describes the albatross as a “Christian soul” to which the sailors greet “in God’s name.” In the following stanza, the Mariner describes how the albatross helps the sailors navigate to safety through the ice. This alludes to the biblical story of Noah’s ark where the dove leads Noah to dry land. These are but two of many biblical allusions littered throughout Coleridge’s poem. Indeed, the narrative arc of the poem itself may be seen as an allusion to religious allegories of sin, guilt, and absolution.