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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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Themes

The main themes in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are sin and penance, the power of prayer, and mystery and the supernatural.

  • Sin and penance: After sinning by killing the albatross, the mariner must atone through suffering. As such, he is condemned to wander the world, telling his story of woe.
  • The power of prayer: Prayer—which Coleridge links to love—is presented as vital, even in the midst of despair.
  • Mystery and the supernatural: The supernatural elements of the poem underscore its urgency as a story of sin and belief.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sin and Penance

The poem is primarily concerned with the sin of the ancient mariner in shooting the albatross, as well as the sufferings he has to endure in order to atone for this sin. Even at the end of the poem, the ancient mariner seems to be in the midst of his penance. He is doomed to wander the world—much like the mythical figure of the Wandering Jew, a popular trope in Romantic literature—and seek out men to listen to his story.

The mariner feels light and free after telling his story to the hermit, but this seems to have been a temporary effect of relief, rather than permanent absolution. However, he seems to have gained some wisdom in telling and retelling his story. He has learned about love, prayer, and God, and there is some indication that this has brought him a modicum of peace.

The mariner’s choice to shoot the albatross is abrupt, apparently motiveless, and never explained, reflecting Coleridge’s view of the arbitrary and mysterious nature of sin. Although the ancient mariner never tries to explain his motives for shooting the albatross, the fickle crew changes their minds on the issue—first condemning the ancient mariner, then praising him, and finally cursing him. The curse survives their deaths, as the mariner continues to see it in the eyes of their corpses throughout his time on the ship.

The mariner commits his sin at the end of part 1, meaning that most of the poem is a recital of ordeal after ordeal in the course of a long, drawn-out penance. Just before the mariner announces that he shot the albatross, the wedding guest, doubtless thinking that he has escaped rather easily, assumes that the story is at an end. The same effect is achieved at the end of part 5, when the soft voice the mariner hears says,

The man hath penance done
And penance more will do.

The expiation of sin, then, is a harrowing business that appears to bear little relation to the magnitude of the sin itself. Even as the poem concludes, there is no clear end in sight.

The Power of Prayer

The ability to pray is an indication of the state of the mariner’s mind and soul—and how dire his situation is—at any given point in the poem. In part 4, when he looks around him and sees nothing but corruption, both at sea and on deck, the mariner says,

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.

This is a pattern: whenever the mariner is at his lowest ebb, he cannot even take comfort in prayer. In part 4, it is his blessing of the sea snakes, as his heart fills with love for their beauty, that restores to him the power of prayer. As he prays, the weight of the albatross falls from his neck, and the ability to sleep rapidly follows. Then it rains, giving the mariner the drinkable water he so desperately craves. All good things, it seems, follow prayer. However, there is no indication that the prayer itself is petitionary. The mariner does not seem to have prayed for sleep or water. The power of prayer lies in the way it quiets the soul, and the good things that follow seem to do so naturally.

The curse in the dead men’s eyes later robs the mariner of his ability to pray again, but he manages to regain it, and he ends his tale by telling the wedding guest of the comfort it gives him to go to church and pray among his fellow men. The mariner’s final maxim, “He prayeth best that loveth best,” suggests that prayer, like love, must be constantly renewed and expressed. The comfort it brings is temporary, yet powerful—which is why the mariner, like the hermit, becomes a man who prays often.

Mystery and the Supernatural

William Morris disparagingly referred to Coleridge as a “muddle-headed metaphysician.” A more sympathetic way to describe the metaphysical aspect of Coleridge’s work would be to say that Coleridge read a great deal of recondite and esoteric literature, with a particular focus on spiritual subjects, and that he used the concepts he found there in a way that has often confused even the most scholarly readers. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to work out what is happening in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” When the mariner refers to the slimy things, or the “fire-flags,” or the fires upon the sea, how literally is the reader supposed to take these words? It is arguable that to attempt to pin down the meaning of Coleridge’s images with any precision is to miss the point of the poem, which is intended to remain somewhat mysterious.

The mystery is increased by all the uncertainty that surrounds the ancient mariner and his fate. Readers know nothing of who he was before the voyage. Like the poem’s other characters, he does not have a personal name or a past. He seems to have achieved some kind of resolution, if not absolution, in his understanding of God’s love, but he is nonetheless fated to wander the earth telling his story.

The mystery of the poem is increased by the frequent appearance (and equally abrupt disappearance) of angels and other supernatural beings. The mariner reassures the wedding guest by telling him that the reanimated corpses of the crew were not simply dead bodies returned to life, but were inhabited by angels, as though this is somehow less frightening. Later in his story, when the mariner is in sight of home, the bodies lie still, but each one has a glowing angel standing on it, to guide the pilot to the ship with their lights. The two voices the mariner hears in his stupor, which discuss his sin and penance, appear to be similar celestial beings. Even the sea snakes take on a supernatural significance, magically restoring to the mariner his ability to pray.

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