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.
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...
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