Samuel Taylor Coleridge
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ relates the events experienced by a mariner who has returned from a long sea voyage. The Mariner stops a man who is on the way to a wedding ceremony and begins to recite a story. The Wedding-Guest’s reaction turns from bemusement to impatience and fear to fascination as the Mariner’s story progresses, as can be seen in the language style: for example, Coleridge uses narrative techniques such as personification and repetition to create either a sense of danger, of the supernatural or of serenity, depending on the mood of each of the different parts of the poem.
The Mariner’s tale begins with his ship departing on its journey. Despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven south off course by a storm and eventually reaches Antarctica. An albatross (compared as Christian soul) appears and leads them out of the Antarctic, but, even as the albatross is praised by the ship’s crew, the Mariner shoots the bird (“with my cross-bow / I shot the albatross”). The crew is angry with the Mariner, believing the albatross brought the south wind that led them out of the Antarctic. However, the sailors change their minds when the weather becomes warmer and the mist disappears (“‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay / that bring the fog and mist”). The crime arouses the wrath of spirits who then pursue the ship “from the land of mist and snow”; the south wind that had initially led them from the land of ice now sends the ship into uncharted waters, where it is becalmed.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Here, however, the sailors change their minds again and blame the Mariner for the torment of their thirst. In anger, the crew forces the Mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck, perhaps to illustrate the burden he must suffer from killing it, or perhaps as a sign of regret (“Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks / Had I from old and young! / Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung”). Eventually, in an eerie passage, the ship encounters a ghostly vessel. On board are Death (a skeleton) and the “Night-mare Life-in-Death” (a deathly-pale woman), who are playing dice for the souls of the crew. With a roll of the dice, Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-Death the life of the Mariner, a prize she considers more valuable. Her name is a clue as to the Mariner’s fate; he will endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross.
One by one, all of the crew members die, but the Mariner lives on, seeing for seven days and nights the curse in the eyes of the crew’s corpses, whose last expressions remain upon their faces. Eventually, the Mariner’s curse is lifted when he sees sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as “slimy things” earlier in the poem (“Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / upon the slimy sea”), he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them (“a spring of love gush’d from my heart and I bless’d them unaware”); suddenly, as he manages to pray, the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is partially expiated. The bodies of the crew, possessed by good spirits, rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks in a whirlpool, leaving only the Mariner behind. A hermit on the mainland had seen the approaching ship and had come to meet it with a pilot and the pilot’s boy in a boat. This hermit may have been a priest who took a vow of isolation. When they pull him from the water, they think he is dead, but when he opens his mouth, the pilot has a fit. The hermit prays, and the Mariner picks up the oars to row. The pilot’s boy goes crazy and laughs, thinking the Mariner is the devil, and says, “The Devil knows how to row.” As penance for shooting the albatross, the Mariner, driven by guilt, is forced to wander the earth, tell his story, and teach a lesson to those he meets:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
After relating the story, the Mariner leaves, and the Wedding Guest returns home, and wakes the next morning “a sadder and a wiser man”.