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 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.
(The entire section is 1,697 words.)