Theme of the Sacredness of Nature: Highlight how Coleridge describes the albatross as an innocent creature who saves the sailors from the ice. Contrast this to the description of the Mariner. Ask students to compare descriptions of the natural settings presented in the poem:
Part The First: The sea is covered in ice and mist, but the albatross guides the sailors to safety, where the night glimmers with “white Moon-shine.” Part The Second: The wind drops, the sea is silent and “slimy”, the sun is “bloody” and there is no water to drink. Highlight how Coleridge’s repetition becomes a solemn drumbeat in his famous lines “Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink.” Part The Third: A boat carrying Death and Life-In-Death (two figures playing dice) drives between the sun and the stranded sailors, causing “thick” night to fall. Part The Fourth: Point to description of the “rotting sea” and the “still and awful red” water as further imagery of decay and death. Note the description of the water-snakes: while previously described as “slimy,” here they are “happy living things!” This moment marks a turning-point for the Mariner as he has gained respect for the natural world and all its creatures. Part The Fifth: The rain falls as a symbolic ‘washing away’ of the Mariner’s sin. Emphasize the joyful and beautiful imagery the Mariner now uses to describe the natural world and its creatures. Part The Sixth: The joyful imagery continues as the Mariner spies land ahead. Part The Seventh: Direct attention to the key lines: “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.” These lines serve not only to address the theme of nature, but also to demonstrate how Coleridge viewed the natural and spiritual/religious worlds as intertwined with one another.
- For discussion: How does Coleridge’s natural language change throughout the poem? What do these differences say about the Mariner’s changing attitude towards the natural world? What lessons from Coleridge’s descriptions of the natural world can we learn about our own relationships with Nature?
Theme of Sin and Absolution: These major themes inevitably create allusions to biblical tales. It may be useful to outline the parallels and the differences between the traditional Christian story of sin and redemption and that of the Mariner’s story. One difference to point to is the manner of redemption. While Christ died for the sins of others, was reborn, and then ascended to heaven, the Mariner suffers for his own foolish actions and is doomed to wander the earth forever. Despite the natural world’s offering the Mariner some kind of redemption, he must continue to pay penance through storytelling and is cursed with pain and agony if he fails to do so. Consider highlighting the dice game between Death and Life-In-Death to discuss the rationale behind this: Life-In-Death won, so the Mariner is doomed never to die but to endure the agony of death in eternal life.
- For discussion: What are some of the major biblical allusions in Coleridge’s poem? What are the key similarities and differences between the Mariner’s tale and the traditional Christian allegory of sin and redemption?
Theme of the Redemptive Power of Storytelling: Coleridge’s poem is a frame story, meaning that it is a story-within-a-story. The external frame is that of the wedding-guest, who comes across the ancient Mariner and is drawn into conversation. The internal story is the Mariner’s tale, which is imbued with...
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a number of supernatural elements. At the conclusion, we learn that the Mariner finds (temporary) relief from pain through storytelling. The Mariner is doomed to wander the land telling his story and imparting the lessons he has since learned. In this way, Coleridge’s poem is about the power of poetry and stories themselves.
- For discussion: How does Coleridge intertwine the story of the wedding-guest with the story of the Mariner? What effects does this story-within-a-story structure have on readers?
Supernatural Elements: Coleridge was fascinated with the supernatural. Along with other Romantic poets of his time, Coleridge believed that traditional poetry had become lifeless and lacked imagination. Coleridge uses spirits, demons, and visions to create new, imaginative imagery and evoke a feeling of “unreality” in the reader. Have students highlight passages where supernatural events occur. These may include the appearance of Death or the temporary re-animation of the corpses of the sailors.
- For discussion: Who do the First Voice and Second Voice belong to in Part The Fifth and Part The Sixth? What is the purpose of Coleridge’s supernatural elements? How does Coleridge intertwine the supernatural with spirituality, religion, and morality?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Consider using students’ experiences with water and the ocean to help them to connect to the subject matter. While reading the poem, play audio recordings of noises typical of the ocean. The sound of waves, birds and sea creatures will help Coleridge’s words come to life. How does Coleridge’s language mimic the sounds of the ocean? What particular lines are the most evocative? Why?
- Coleridge writes about loneliness. Perhaps students have never been stranded alone on the ocean, but have they ever felt isolated or even figuratively “lost at sea”? What was a time when they felt ““Alone, alone, all, all alone / Alone on a wide wide sea”? Use the description of the Mariner stranded at sea amongst the lifeless bodies of his crew to reflect further on Coleridge’s treatment of loneliness and alienation.
- Vivid imagery exists throughout the poem. Which of the many images do you find especially memorable or particularly striking? Why do they appeal to you?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Coleridge’s Writing Sometimes Uses Strange Syntax and Language: The primary sticking point for many students is the combination of Coleridge’s style and strange diction. Students may find it difficult to follow the narrative arc of the story and in turn have issues with understanding the overall moral message.
- What to do: Assign a version of the text that comes accompanied with a glossary. This should help students comprehend unfamiliar words.
- What to do: Consider assigning students sections that they can translate into other, more familiar genres. This is a useful tool to spur comprehension prior to engaging ideas on a more critical plane. By working on comprehending a stanza or short sequence of stanzas, students can feel less intimidated about the whole poem.
Coleridge’s Language May Be Deceptively Simple: On the other end of the scale, certain moments in Coleridge’s poem may seem simple and repetitive. However, these moments can hold certain meaning not readily apparent at first glance.
- What to do: Resist the temptation to discuss the ideas without close attention to their stylistic expression. Deceptively simple sentences become profitable occasions for close reading while students work through the relationships between language, literary devices, and themes.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Explore Understanding Through Creative Rhetorical Choices: Have students create graphic or artistic representations of different scenes of Coleridge’s poem. Ask them to turn in a written reflection that points to specific passages that support their choices of graphics and text. What images are the most evocative? Does Coleridge keep coming back to similar images throughout his poem?
Focus Less on Analysis and More on Personal Reflection: Ask students to reflect on a time they did something they later regretted. Did they feel guilty afterwards? What did they do to make things better? Now have students imagine what it would feel like to be cursed to tell and retell the story of their mistake to everyone they met, for all eternity. Did the Mariner deserve his punishment? Would they have given him a different punishment for the killing of the albatross?
Identify Coleridge’s Repetition: Highlight the importance of repetition in Coleridge’s language. A few examples to work with:
- “As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean.”
- “Water, water, every where / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink.”
- “Alone, alone, all, all alone / Alone on a wide wide sea!”
For an effective dramatic reading of the poem, choose to show students readings by Orson Welles or Ian McKellen (both found online). Ask students what they think is the effect of repeating words or phrases in poetry. Have them identify lines with repetition and then say them out loud or tap the rhythm out on a desk. What rhythm does it create? What does the repetition emphasize?
Mix Up Quotations for Advanced Comprehension: Readers of this poem will easily turn to some of its best-known lines, which include: “Water, water, every where . . .” and “He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.” These statements can fuel plenty of interesting conversation, but you can also mix things up by turning to the following, which will test students’ comprehension beyond the top hits they will find looking up the poem online. Consider having students expand their comprehension by tying one of the above quotations to one of these lesser-known ones, and consider encouraging them to discuss these quotations with examples from current popular culture to further minimize plagiarism:
- “He holds him with his glittering eye— / The Wedding-Guest stood still, / And listens like a three years child: / The Mariner hath his will.”
- “a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on; and so did I.”
- “For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky / Lay like a load on my weary eye, / And the dead were at my feet.”
- “Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse, / And yet I could not die.”
- “Quoth he, ‘The man hath penance done, / And penance more will do.’ ”
- “That agony returns; / And till my ghastly tale is told, / This heart within me burns.”