1. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: Introduction
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is one of the most significant and celebrated poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In fact, it’s Coleridge’s greatest poem that caused a sea change in English verse. It was published in 1798 as one of the Lyrical Ballads, a co-operative venture between Coleridge and William Wordsworth compiled with the avowed intention of conveying ‘natural thoughts with natural diction’ in clear counterpoint to the contrived ‘poetry of sensibility’ of the day. In effect, these poems launched Romanticism in literature, a moment still forcefully felt today.
Written in flowing ballad meter, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is an enduring enigma of moral philosophy paradoxically marked by a revolutionary plainness of phrasing, starkness of imagery and clarity of narrative. It is a tormented and salvific poem that, with its shape similar to that of a popular ballad, ranges in literary fields from travel books to medieval sea stories, from classical myths to Christian ritualism.
Even since its first publication in the Lyrical Ballads, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ has been the poem which could not be ignored. It is packed with Gothic elements, like the strange and frightening weather, the albatross as a bird of good omen, and the madness and deaths of the crew members. Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria gave an interesting account of the origin of the scheme of the Lyrical Ballads to which ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ constituted his major contribution. He wrote the poem, it appears, as an example of that type of poetry in which the supernatural is presented in such a way as to become acceptable. Coleridge doesn’t invent wonders or gruesome horrors but makes the supernatural as psychic phenomena, symbolizing the mystery of life.
- Role of the Wedding-Guest in The Ancient Mariner
- Kubla Khan by Coleridge: Summary & Analysis
- Supernaturalism in Coleridge’s Major Poems
- Marxist Analysis of William Wordsworth’s Poems
- Frost at Midnight by Coleridge: Summary & Analysis
2. What is ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ about?
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ deals with the experience of an individual who has called upon himself some supernatural vengeance by violating one of the simple human pieties—the bond of hospitality and companionship. The poem is, thus, essentially a poem of humanism, using the supernatural only as machinery.
The poem tells the tragic events of the sailor’s ship trapped near Antarctica by a terrible storm that puts the lives of the entire crew at risk. A great albatross, a good wish bird, lays on the ship’s tree indicating the way to salvation, but is seamlessly killed by the sailor with his crossbow, a gesture that will send a powerful evil to the ship. The whole ballad plays on the contrasting plans of the real world and the supernatural world, between rationality and irrationality and the eternal clash between good and evil.
Thus, in the poem, the protagonist seaman is punished for doing a free act of violence: the assassination of an albatross. He will, however, regenerate through the compulsive narrative of his own story to a privileged listener: the reader. The narrative is, therefore, his salvation.
3. Short Summary of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a superb narrative; terse, vigorous and inimitable. The perfectly ordered story moves on unchecked through a world of mystery and wonder. Here is the short summary of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:
3.1. The Ancient Mariner’s Shooting of the Albatross
In the poem, an ancient Mariner meets three giants on their way to a marriage feast and detains one of them to recount his story. He tells him how his ship drew towards the South Pole by a storm, and when it was all surrounded by ice, suddenly an Albatross—a huge sea-bird—comes through the snow-fag, and is received with joy and hospitality. The bird follows the ship for nine days. Almost at once the ship was able to break through the ice, a strong south wind sprang up and the ship made its way North.
Then, for no reason at all, the Mariner shoots the bird with his crossbow. His companions cry out against him for killing the bird that made the breeze to blow. But when the fog begins to clear and the sun shines warm and pleasant, the sailors change their tune and approve of the Mariner’s deed; for they now say that the Albatross had brought the fog.
3.2. The Atonement
Thus, by supporting the act of Mariner, the sailors share his crime. And for this act of wanton cruelty, a curse falls on the ship. She is driven North to the line and becomes motionless by lack of wind. Now, the crew suffer intense heat and thirst. They begin to blame the Mariner for their suffering, and accuse him of killing the bird of good omen. They hang the bird round his neck. Then, some of them dream that a spirit of the South Pole was pursuing their ship to avenge the killing of the Albatross.
The crew die of curse and the Mariner is left alone on the rotting deck to experience extremities of horror, anguish and remorse. His heart turns dry as dust and he can’t even pray for help. He is thus forsaken both by God and His creatures. For at least seven days and nights he dwells in this horror.
One night, by the light of the moon beholding the water-snakes playing in the sea and their beauty, he blesses them in his heart unawares. The spell breaks and the ship is brought back to his native shore. But the Mariner for penance is condemned ever to roam from land to land and to teach by his example love and reverence for all God’s creatures.
3.3. The Wedding-Guest
The Wedding-Guest had at first been very resentful when he had been detained by the ancient Mariner, but half way through the story he becomes engrossed in the strange tale and even began to sympathize with the Mariner. When the Mariner had told his story, the Wedding-Guest, instead of entering the house where the marriage festivities were being held, went home. He had been immensely affected by what he had heard. When he got up the next morning he had become a much wiser man, though at the same time a much sadder one.
4. Detailed Summary of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: Part I-VII
Absolutely simple in meter language, but weird in atmosphere, The Ancient Mariner is a triumph of ‘enchantment made real’. Here is the detailed summary of the poem:
4.1. Summary of Part-I of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
The Wedding-Guest and the Ancient Mariner
The ancient Mariner, with ‘long grey beard and glittering eye’ and a skinny hand, detains one of the three gallants hurrying to a wedding-feast. The guest protested that he was the nearest relation of the bridegroom and anxious that the other guests had all arrived and he must be awaited. He demanded that the Mariner should let go of his hold. Then suddenly the hand of the Mariner dropped, but the Wedding-Guest was dismayed to find that he still could not move away as the Mariner held him spell-bound with his glittering eyes.
The Strange Tale of the Ancient Mariner
The ancient Mariner held the Wedding-Guest as helplessly under his will as one might do a child only three years old. He sat on a stone to hear the ancient Mariner’s story, for he realized that he had no power of going away without hearing his story. Then, the ancient Mariner began to relate that once there was a ship which began its journey in a very fortunate manner. The Wedding-Guest could notice that the music had started and that most probably the bride and the minstrels had walked into the hall. He beat his breast with dismay but could not but hear the story to its conclusion.
Straightaway, the ancient Mariner plunges into his tale which the Wedding-Guest now listens like ‘a three years child’. It is an account of a southward voyage which the Mariner along with two hundred other sailors undertook in fair weather. Unfortunately, a mighty storm overtook the ship and drove them to the Antarctic, a terrible region of mist and snow. The storm was so powerful that it appeared to be a living creature that struck them with its huge wings and drove them in the southern direction. The ship fled the storm but the storm was always at the heels of the ship.
Additionally, the storm brought in its wake both mist and snow. The sun could only be dimly seen through the drifts of snow. And there was nothing but ice to be seen on all sides. For the further amazement of the ancient Mariner and his crew, this ice emitted hideous noises.
The Appearance of the Albatross
When the ship rounds Cape Horn, suddenly out of fog and mist there appears an Albatross, a large sea bird. The sailors began to hail the bird as if it were a Christian soul, and offer it food and hospitality. Everyday they would call out to the bird when they wanted to feed it or play with it and the bird would come. At night it used to sit on the mast or on some sail of the ship. The bird followed the ship for nine days and, in the meanwhile, ice split and a favorable south wind drove them northwards in the glimmering light of the moon.
The Hellish Crime of the Ancient Mariner: Shooting of Albatross
At this stage of the narrative, the terrified Wedding-Guest noticed that the Mariner’s face had undergone an unearthly change as if he was wrenched by a sudden agony. He thought that the Mariner was being tormented by some devils and prayed that he might be saved from this torture. However, the ancient Mariner told him that the change in his appearance had taken place due to his remembrance of the fact that he had committed a heinous crime of shooting the Albatross with his crossbow.
4.2. Summary of Part-II of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
The Ancient Mariner’s Companion Shared the Crime
Afterwards, the ancient Mariner related that at first his companions on the ship criticized his killing of the bird. They said he had done a wretched thing by killing this bird, because they thought it was responsible for the favorable wind which had sprung up. However, after some time, when the fog and the mist cleared, they adopted the view that it was a bird of ill omen and the ancient Mariner had done right in killing it. Thus, unknowingly they had become sharers in the crime of the ancient Mariner.
The Becalming of the Ship
All of a sudden, the favorable wind dropped down and the sails hung limply in the calm. It was so silent all around them that they spoke merely to break this frightening silence. Later on, it became unbearably hot, with the sky burning like copper. Their ship was absolutely becalmed and appeared just like the picture of a ship in the ocean.
The sailors were filled with loathing and horror, even some of them were assured in their dreams that the Polar Spirit is plaguing them for killing the harmless Albatross. It had followed the ship merely to avenge the death of the innocent bird. Also, it was the spirit that made the ship become becalmed. Due to extreme heat, their throats became parched with thirst and their tongues became dry. And the boards of the ship also began to shrink.
The sailors held the ancient Mariner to blame and they fixed the guilt symbolically on him by tying the dead body of the Albatross around his neck.
4.3. Summary of Part-III of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
The Appearance of the Spectre-Ship
The sailors had a weary time on the ship, with all eyes glazed and all throats parched. In this extreme state of weariness and torture, they suddenly perceived something in the distance, which seemed to be moving in their direction. It changed from a speck to a mist and then was seen to be the sail of a ship.
All the sailors shouted in joy at this sight and they drew in breath joyfully as if they were already drinking the water which they were sure this ship was having on board. The ship was moving in a zigzag manner, although there was neither wind nor a single tide in the sea. Soon, they saw that the ship had steadied itself.
The Crew of the Spectre-Ship
But, alas, it was not an ordinary ship. Rather, it was only the skeleton of a ship—a Spectre-ship—and it appeared more ghostly because the sun could be seen at its back like a prisoner peering through the bars of the prison. Two women were its only crew; one of them was Death while the other was the ghastly spirit Life-in-Death. They were playing dice, the stakes being the sailors on the ship.
The other sailors fell to the share of Death, while the ancient Mariner himself was claimed by Life-in-Death. After this the Spectre-ship shot into the distance with a low but far-echoing sound.
Death of the Sailors
After that came on the sudden tropical night. All hearts were gripped by fear. The moon could be seen chased by a single star, an omen of evil import. One by one the companions of the ancient Mariner fell dead at his feet, without emitting even a sigh or a groan. But every sailor fixed his looks on him before he died, looks that were full of reproach and curse. Each soul seemed to whiz past him creating a sound like that of the crossbow with which he had shot the Albatross.
4.4. Summary of Part-IV of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
The Only Survivor of the Ship
All the other two hundred sailors perished and the ancient Mariner was the lone survivor. He was aghast to see that thousands of ugly creatures lived on in the sea and his fellow-sailors, all handsome men, lay dead at his feet. He drew his eyes away from the sea in disgust. The ancient Mariner was horrified by the curse that he saw in the eyes of each of the dead sailors. He tried to pray but could not do so, because some evil spirit would make his heart hard and stifle the prayer before it could gush out of his heart.
Repentance of the Ancient Mariner
For seven days and night, the Mariner suffered life-in-death extremes of physical torture, the curse in the dead men’s eyes and the agony of loathing and self-loathing for a needless crime. The dead bodies laid scattered around him, he could neither close his eyes nor sleep or pray. Furthermore, his heart was turned as dry as dust.
Thus, the ancient Mariner underwent a spiritual death, isolated from both God and God’s creation. In fact, he felt that he was absolutely Godforsaken.
The Ancient Mariner and the Water Snakes
As the night approached, the moon came up in the sky. Its light was producing brilliant colors on the surface of the sea, except for the place where the shadow of the ship was falling. The Mariner looked at the water snakes, noted their brilliant colors and found that all hatred had left his heart. They now looked to him to be happy living creatures.
Without realizing what he was doing, the ancient Mariner blessed the water snakes. He thought that he must have done so because some saint had taken pity on him. He also found that he could pray now. The effect of this blessing was that the Albatross, which hung like a dead weight round his neck, fell off and sank heavily into the sea.
4.5. Summary of Part-V of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
Sleep and Rain as the Pacifiers
By the grace of Virgin Mary, the ancient Mariner was able to go to sleep and feel refreshed. It seemed that sleep had been sent to him from heaven and sank gently into his soul. In his sleep, however, the thirsty Mariner dreamed of water. He saw that the buckets on the ship, which had remained empty so long, were full of dew. And when he woke up, it rained heavily and he was drenched all over with it.
The ancient Mariner was sure that he had drunk water in his dream; and now in his walking state, his body was still quenching the thirst. He felt so refreshed and light that it appeared to him as if he was nobody, that is, he had died and become a ghost in his sleep.
The Supernatural Sights and Sounds
The ancient Mariner then heard the roaring of the wind, which though didn’t come near the ship, yet its effect could be seen on the sails which were trembling before it. The upper air seemed to have burst into life; hundreds of fire-flags were shining. They hurried to and fro, and in between them, the pale moon could be seen.
Furthermore, the wind became louder and the sails now began to emit a sound like that of grass. There was only one dark cloud from which the rain was pouring; and at the edge of this cloud was the moon. All at once, the cloud burst into two, and even then the moon could be seen at its edge.
The Rising of the Dead
Although the wind still didn’t reach the ship, it kept on moving. Suddenly, the dead bodies lying on the ship in the light of the moon emitted groans, stirred and then got up. All the members of the crew came to life and began to perform the functions which they discharged when they were alive. Yet they did not either look at the mariner or speak to him.
When the Wedding-Guest heard this part of the story, he began to show great signs of fear because he was afraid that the Mariner had lived with evil spirits. But the latter assured him that the spirits which animated the dead bodies of the sailors were not the guilty spirits which left the body in agony; but a troop of blessed spirits.
The Melodious Sounds of the Crew
At dawn, the members of the crew stopped working and clustered round the mast of the ship. Then, he heard some heavenly sounds issued from out of their lips. These harmonious sounds flew round and round and then went in the direction of the sun. After that, the sounds returned slowly, sometimes singly and at other times in groups. These sounds, sometimes, resembled the singing of the sky-lark, while at other times they were just like the chirping of many small sweet birds all at once. Furthermore, at certain times they also resembled the playing of many musical instruments, while at other times they sounded like a single lute being played. And sometimes the Mariner could hear the sound of an angel singing.
In the meanwhile, the sails also kept on emitting a pleasant sound like that of a brook flowing through the meadows in summer.
The Swooning of the Ancient Mariner
The ship was being moved from below. It was actually the Polar Spirit which had followed the ship nine fathoms below the sea and was causing it to move on although there was neither wind in the sky nor a tide in the sea. At noon, the sails left off their singing and the ship stood still.
The ship was fixed to the ocean by the sun, which was just above it. But after a very brief pause, the ship again began to move, this time with a short and uneasy movement. Then, all of a sudden, the ship shot forward creating a loud sound. The movement was so sudden that the Mariner was thrown backwards and fell down in a swoon.
The Unearthly Dialogue of the Spirits
In his swoon, the ancient Mariner heard an unearthly dialogue going on between two spirits. One of them was saying that the Mariner was the man who killed an innocent Albatross who was not only loved by the Polar Spirit, but loved the Mariner himself. It was a heinous crime of the Mariner to have killed a bird that loved him. The other voice, however, was gentler. It remarked that the ancient Mariner had already done some penance and would do more penance, which would wash all the guilt from his soul.
4.6. Summary of Part-VI of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
The Dialogue of the Spirits Continued
The dialogue between the two spirits still continued. One of them asked the other to say how the ship kept on moving in spite of the fact that there was neither a wind nor a wave, which could drive it. The other spirit replied that the ship was moving through the supernatural agency, because the wind in front of it was being cut into two and then it was rejoining at the back of the ship.
Additionally, the ocean was only the slave of its master, the moon, and in obedience to it had stilled all storms on its surface. The spirits then flew up swiftly as if they were getting late.
The Awakening of the Ancient Mariner
When the effect of the swoon was over, the ancient Mariner woke up. Upon waking, he found that the ship was still moving forward gently. The night was calm, the moon was shining high in the sky and the dead men stood on the deck as before. The ancient Mariner felt that the ship was fit to be a graveyard. The dead had their stony stare fixed on him, and he could read in their eyes the curse with which they had died.
The Breaking of the Spell
At last, the spell was broken. The ocean looked green once before; but in his heart of hearts he still felt afraid. In fact, he was very much like a man who is walking on a lonely road and does not dare to turn his head because he knows that a fearful fiend walks behind him.
Soon, a gentle wind began to blow. It fanned his cheek and lifted his hair. Although this wind mixed with his fears, it had a soothing effect also; for it seemed to him to be some sort of welcome. The ship kept on moving swiftly, yet gently. The invigorating wind kept on blowing and the ancient Mariner could see that it was blowing on him alone.
The Ancient Mariner’s Sight of the Land
As a gentle and invigorating breeze blew on the ancient Mariner, the curse in the dead men’s eyes gradually passed away. Besides, the Mariner was overjoyed to see that he was getting near the shores of his native country. He could see the top of the lighthouse, the rock with the church built at its top—all the sights he had seen when his ship left the harbor at the beginning of the voyage. As they cleared the sandbar in the harbor, the ancient Mariner was so overwhelmed with emotions that he began to sob and pray. He didn’t know whether he was awake or dreaming.
The harbor bay seemed smooth and bright just just like the surface of the mirror. The moonlight further illuminated the harbor, and the reflection of the moon could be seen in the clear water of the sea. The rock, the church, and even the weathercock were all steeped in moonlight.
The Departure of the Holy Spirits
Afterwards, the whiteness of the surface of the water was suddenly changed into crimson. It was due to the fact that the angelic spirits (the seraphs) which had entered the dead bodies of the sailors now left them. As a result, each dead body once again laid flat on the deck of the ship.
The seraphs now stood by their side shining like an embodiment of light, in all their native glory and waved their hands as signals to the shore. Although they didn’t utter the word, still the ancient Mariner felt that the very silence sank into his soul like music.
The Appearance of the Pilot Boat
Later on, the ancient Mariner heard the sound of moving oars and the cry of the Pilot. He could not help turning his head in that direction, and he could see a boat appear. Seeing the Pilot and his boy the mariner felt overjoyed. In fact, his joy was so great that even the thought that there were so many dead bodies lying on the ship couldn’t destroy this sense of happiness.
The ancient Mariner could also see a third man in the boat—it was the Hermit who lived in the wood. He was sure that the Hermit would shrive him and help lift the heavy guilt from his soul, the guilt of the killing of the innocent Albatross.
4.7. Summary of Part-VII of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
The Hermit lived in the woods which sloped towards the sea. He loved to speak to the sailors who came from far off lands. He was a pious man and used to say his prayers in the morning and at noon, kneeling on a thick cushion made by the moss which covered the slump of the dead oak tree, completely hiding it from view.
When the skiff-boat came near, the ancient Mariner could hear them talking. One of them was saying that it was strange that they could no longer see the lights which had signaled to them when they were on land. The Hermit said that another strange thing was the fact that no reply had come to their shouts from anyone in the ship. He also noticed that the planks of the ship were crooked and its sails were as thin as leaves in the forest which floated on the surface of the stream. Also, the Pilot’s boy remarked that the ship had a fiendish look and made him feel afraid. The Hermit assured him and asked him to row on.
The Sinking of the Mariner’s Ship
The boat now drew closer to the ship. As it did so, a sound could be heard under the water. It grew louder and more dreadful and it seemed as if the whole bay was being rented with this sound. When it reached the ship it made it sink into the sea like a piece of lead. This sound was terrible and seemed to strike the sky as well as the ocean.
The ancient Mariner lay floating on the water like a dead body which has been in the water for a week. But, in the twinkling of an eye, he found himself in the Pilot’s boat. The boat spun round and round in the whirlpool made by the sinking of the ship. And when the ancient Mariner tried to speak, the Pilot’s boy shrieked and fell down in a fit. The Hermit, at once, went down on his knees, lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed quietly.
The Ancient Mariner and the Hermit
Afterwards, the ancient Mariner took up the oars and began to row. When the Pilot’s boy noticed this, he went stark mad. He began to laugh aloud like a madman and his eyes began to roll. Then, he cried that he had now seen the proof of the fact that the devil knows how to row a boat; for he was sure that the ancient Mariner whom they had picked up out of the sea was no other than the devil himself.
When they reached the land, the Hermit stepped out of the boat but he seemed to have some difficulty in supporting himself on his feet. The ancient Mariner, now standing on the firm ground of his own country, earnestly pleaded with the Hermit to be shriven. The Hermit made a sign of the cross on his forehead and asked him to say which type of man he was.
The Agony of the Ancient Mariner
At this the body of the ancient Mariner suddenly underwent a convulsive agony. He poured out his strange tale into the ears of the Hermit. Since then this agony returns to him at irregular intervals and it is quietened only after he has narrated his tale of suffering to a suitable listener.
The ancient Mariner has now been endowed with strange miraculous powers of speech, because after he has selected a suitable listener, he relates the story to him and the listener has no power to move away until he has heard the full story. He now moves from land to land, as silently as the night, telling his strange tale of suffering to people.
The Advice of the Ancient Mariner to the Wedding-Guest
The ancient Mariner then advises the Wedding-Guest that he should regard the love of God’s creatures as the best form of prayer and worship. He himself thinks that the sounds of bells—summoning the people to the evening prayer—is sweeter than the sound of festivities going on at a wedding. He now likes to walk to the church in company with other devout Christians where they pray together to the Maker.
The Reaction of the Wedding-Guest
The Wedding-Guest is so powerfully affected by the story he has heard. He doesn’t enter the door of the bridegroom’s house, although he is now free to do so since the ancient Mariner has left. As he goes away, he feels like a person who has received a heavy blow which has taken away his senses.
And when he wakes up the next morning, he can see that the story of the ancient Mariner has worked to a great effect on him, because he feels that he has become both more serious and wiser than before.
5. Critical Analysis of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge deals with the supernatural punishment and penance of a seaman who deliberately killed an innocent Albatross. The dramatic climax of the poem is the falling off of the albatross when the Mariner blessed the water snakes. However, the moral of the poem is that of all-embracing love. Here’s the detailed critical analysis of the poem:
5.1. The Form of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is modelled on the old popular ballads, as the name of the volume, Lyrical Ballads, in which it first appeared clearly indicates.
5.1.1. What was the ‘Old Ballad Form’?
The old ballads were short narrative poems, dealing with simple, homely themes of perennial interest. These ballads were apparently artless and simplicity, directness, tune-fullness, were some of the characteristics features of these poems. They were written in a simple meter, known as the ballad meter, the ‘four-three, four-three’ stanza, with second fourth lines rhyming.
Additionally, these ballads dealt with a single situation or incident; a series of incidents, when introduced, was so closely connected that they seemed practically one. Their characterization was usually simple and little attempt was made to identify the characters or to draw them in any detail. Even the setting was refreshingly vague and time was defined simply to meet the requirements of the story. This lack of dependence on setting to create atmosphere was more striking in accounts of the supernatural.
However, Coleridge rose above all these limitations of the ballad form in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Along with the other Romantics, he turned to the Middle Ages for inspiration and to escape from the innate artificiality of 18th century poetry. Besides, the Romantics’ revival of interest in ballad poetry further helped to restore both passion and natural expression to English poetry.
5.1.2. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: A Literary Ballad
However, Coleridge, who was perhaps more perspective of the new possibilities of passion and mystery, specially seized upon the element of the supernatural which characterized many ballads. No wonder that, in his only contribution to their epoch-making venture, he fully exploited what pertained to the ballad, at the same time adding to it subtlety, enchantment and music which are altogether his own.
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is thus a literary ballad as opposed to the popular ballad form. ‘It has everything’, says Henry M. Battenhouse, ‘that poems of its kind should have: a vivid story, dramatic action, verbal music, a scenic setting, a unifying element of feeling, moral tone, and mystery’. Moreover, the magic of Coleridge’s genius transforms all these qualities into something far more subtle, haunting and varied.
5.1.3. Diction of the ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
The apparent simplicity of diction and narrative in the ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ became, by Coleridge’s subtle and unanalyzable art, the medium for conveying the effects of wonder and horror and an atmosphere at once magical and realistic. It’s haunting beauty is like the effect of enchantment, so little can one detect the sources and secret of it.
It is this compassing of sublime effects, by the simplest and most sparing means, that makes the poem the most successful illustration of Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction—according to which the best poetry would use simple, everyday language. Where Wordsworth often failed, falling from the sublime into the ridiculous when aiming at extreme simplicity of diction, Coleridge in this poem has astonishingly succeeded.
5.2. Meter and Versification of ‘The Ancient Mariner’
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is written in the traditional ballad meter. In the characteristic ballad stanza, the first and third lines are iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet), the second and fourth lines iambic trimeter (three metrical feet). Only the second and fourth lines rhyme. It has been conjectured that this stanza is actually a couplet composed of two 7-foot lines, the lines deriving from the septenary of medieval church poetry.
The conjecture is borne out to some extent by the musical phrasing of many ballad tunes, for many phrases round themselves over the seven feet of two lines, ignoring the 4/3/4/3/ arrangement of the text.
Additionally, there are so many exceptions to this musical pattern, however, that the conventional practice of printing the ballad stanza with four lines is still justified. The stanza is easily managed and is noted for its tunefulness. Folk singers and minstrels as well as the learned poets who have adopted the stanza vary the accentuation of the shorter lines, weighting the line by the spondees and lightening it with extra unaccented syllables.
5.2.1. Coleridge’s Variety in the Poem
Coleridge, in the poem, avoids the danger of too much uniformity and introduces variety in several ways. He varies the position of pauses and avoids too much coincidence of the end of a word with the end of a foot:
We list/ened and/looked side/ways up.
It mingle/ed strange/ly with/my fears.
Sometimes the pause at the end of the line is eliminated and it overflows into the next:
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
Again, the stresses are also varied by replacing the iamb by some other foot:
For all averred/I had killed/the bird
(An anapest, two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable).
Thus, for a skillful metrical artist like Coleridge, there are numerous ways open to achieving similar effects.
5.2.2. Unusual Arrangement of Stanzas in the Poem
In ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, we also see some unusual arrangement of stanzas. For instance, consider this stanza towards the close of Part III. Its arrangement is rather quite unusual:
We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersman’s face by his lamp gleamed white;
From the sails the dew did drip—
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.
This stanza, as it is clear, consists of nine lines in three sets of three: the first pair of each set being tetrameters rhyming with each other, but not with the tetrameters of any other set, while the last line of each set is a trimester, these three lines rhyming together. It illustrates the extent to which variations can be effected even in a simple measure like the ballad.
5.2.3. Coleridge’s Originality in the Poem
It has been recently pointed out that Coleridge set out to imitate the rude traditional ballad; but soon we find him extending its simple quatrain, to stanzas of five, six, and even nine lines; enriched with inner rhyme, alliteration and assonance. The result is all magic and music, magic with un-scaled springs of wonder that had not flowed since Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, and music such as had not been heard since Milton wrote Comus.
Thus, not a trace of artifice is visible in the poem, so complete is the triumph or art.
5.3. Coleridge’s Style in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
The vividness of the poem surpasses even that of the best ballads, and gives to its wholly fantastic and supernatural world, the impression of intense reality. The natural and credible are so powerfully interwoven with the supernatural as to form one harmonious and convincing experience.
Here, Coleridge has also reversed the achievement of such poems of Wordsworth as the Ode on Intimations of Immortality. Whereas the latter invests ordinary objects with an unearthly radiance—”a light that never was, on sea or land”—and shows us the mystery inherent in the common and the familiar, Coleridge, on the other hand, while letting his imagination riot in the world of supernatural fantasy, throws over the whole as air of utmost verisimilitude.
5.3.1. Realism in the Poem
However, this is partly due, not only to the directness, but to the realism of Coleridge’s narrative. He attends closely to the logic of his plan, and emphasizes just those points of detail that give the impression of personal observation.
Thus, he makes the objects on land disappear, not in the order in which the landsman would think of them, but in that in which the seaman would have observed them vanish:
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill.
Below the light-house top.
And on the return journey they reappear in reverse order, just as the ancient Mariner would have seen them:
Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? … the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
The ancient Mariner notes, as they set out southward, the position of the sun in relation to the ship:
The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
Moreover, the change of the ship’s direction after rounding Cape Horn in the beginning of Part II of the poem is indicated by the fact that the sun is now on the opposite side of the ship:
The Sun now rose upon the right:
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist, and on the left
Went down into the sea.
Thus, the exactitude of Coleridge’s descriptions of nature throughout the poem is as great as their beauty.
5.3.2. The Delicate Melody of the Poem
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, again, quite definitely surpasses the ballads in its rich and delicate melody, the exact music of which no other poet has ever succeeded in quite reproducing. An example of this may be cited in those wonderful lines in which the seraphic music seems to be heard as well as described:
Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!
And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.
Thus, in all these things—in its marvelous music, scenic descriptions, subtle delineation of mental experiences, atmosphere of wonder, haunting beauty of the whole, and spirit of high romance pervading it like an aroma—the poem reaches the high watermark of lyrical poetry.
5.3.3. Nature and Scenery in the Poem
Nor can the descriptions of nature in the poem be paralleled in the old ballads, which confined themselves mostly to events and the experiences derived from them. Nature in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is often as awesome and weird as the events, and such scenery is described with a power which makes it unforgettable:
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Also, consider these lines:
The Sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out;
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.
The poet is equally at home in painting scenes of quiet, innocent charm:
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
Furthermore, the calm beauty of some lines also serves to throw into stronger relief the horror and mystery of the experiences through which the ancient Mariner is passing.
5.3.4. Impersonal Narrative in the Poem
The effect of the ancient Mariner’s tale on the reader is that of an almost impersonal narrative.
The speaker tells nothing of who he is and little of what he does, he is a helpless soul passing through strange experiences. Consequently, we feel the events of the play very immediately, we do not watch the hero, we live his adventures with our innermost being.
5.5. Imaginative Power and Simplicity of the Poem
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ displays Coleridge’s imaginative power at its highest. In the narrative of events and in the description of nature, the poem conveys the most vivid impression by the simplest possible methods. The suffering of the ancient Mariner is depicted by objective description rather than by analysis of emotion.
The horror of the lonely man’s situation under his curse is brought home to us, with unsurpassable force, by the smallest touches in the most artless language:
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
The ancient Mariner’s equally awesome experience, when the ship is navigated by the lifeless corpses, is impresses upon us by emphasis on the mere physical nearness:
The body of my brother’s son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
Coleridge’s imaginative power in this long narrative poem can be further analyzed when the horror and mystery are suggested by an uncanny comparison:
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
Finally, the utter desolation and the sense of being abandoned by God is described in lines as simple as any in the poem, yet plumbing the depths of the soul of man, and haunting us with their melancholy:
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seemèd there to be.
Thus, despite its apparent artless simplicity, the poem is a highly finished work of art. In fact, it has a type of perfection which is the final reward of infinite care in execution and perfect mastery of the resources of a language.
5.6. Medieval Elements in ‘The Ancient Mariner’
Coleridge, like some other Romantic poets, has given in his poem the touch of Medievalism. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by casual hints and allusions seems to throw a door ajar on the vanished life of the Middle Ages; we get fitful glimpses of it in the poem. The whole atmosphere of the poem is medieval.
The Catholic idea of penance or expiation is the moral theme interwoven within the story. The Hermit who shrives the ancient Mariner and the little ‘vesper bell, which biddeth’ him to prayer are explicit Catholic touches, and so are the numerous pious oaths and ejaculations. The Albatross’ is hung around the ancient Mariner’s neck instead of the cross, and it drops off only when he blesses the water snakes. It shows the burden of his sin; the punishment or curse for killing an innocent, friendly bird. Furthermore, the crossbow with which the Mariner shoots the albatross is also a medieval property.
5.6.1. The Mariner belongs to the Ancient Times
The ancient Mariner is not only old but also belongs to olden times; there is a deliberate ambiguity about the word ‘Ancient’. It is intended perhaps to strike the key-note of the whole poem. The reader is thus warned at the outset to be ready to waft to the distant times.
Not only the ritual and ceremonial is connected with the medieval church, but so also are the ‘loud bassoon’, the ‘merry minstrelsy’, and ‘the blushing’ bride with a medieval wedding, when measures were danced and wine flowed in round and songs and ballads were sung with great enthusiasm and joy.
5.6.2. The Element of Adventure in the Poem
In the poem, the seamen, who have set on a voyage of adventure and discovery on unknown seas, similarly constitute a part of earlier history of English navigation. Furthermore, the ship, the masts, the oars, the sails, the pilot and the pilot’s boy, and the lighthouse in the poem also serve as pointers to the past.
The sailors in the poem are extremely superstitious and the slightest change in the sky-scape or the sea-scape fills them with ominous fears. The dread of the unknown and the mysterious comes quite naturally to them. The mark of the cross on the breast or the forehead is considered sufficient protection against evil power. Their panic-stricken action of hanging the Albatross around the neck of the ancient Mariner is a gesture in the same direction.
Thus, it is absolutely impossible to properly interpret ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ without accounting for its Medievalism. The reader has to put himself at the center of unknown and earlier modes of life through a deliberate effort of the will. Without the background of piety and superstition, much of the intensity and poignancy of the ancient Mariner’s horror and agony will be lost. Nor will it be possible to give credence to some of the events and the supernatural machinery employed. Additionally, in the poem, the ballad form and measure seem to be specifically intended to help the reader to attain the necessary perspective.
Medievalism is, thus, a part and parcel of the poem and not a mere token of the fact that the Romantics loved to write about the Middle Ages.
5.7. The Moral of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is distinguished from other poems of the supernatural, not only by the refinement which it brings to bear upon its treatment, but also by the moral it pronounces at its conclusion:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Thus, the moral of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, as it stands, is a discovery or an illumination of the human soul who passes through hell (Life-in-Death) and will ever carry his cross with him. The ancient Mariner is punished for shooting an Albatross; the curse passes away when he blesses the water snakes.
Structurally, the moral of the poem not only helps to round off the narrative and bring the hero of this harrowing series of weird adventures on the unknown sea back to the native shores and the world of everyday reality, but also gives it a centrality and added dimension. We move not only in time and space but also through depths and heights of the soul that dwells within us and the universe.
The moral of the poem is, thus, both powerful and reassuring. It has the force of a revelation, a revelation which travels from the soul of the Mariner to that of the reader of the poem. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is, thus, essentially a poem of humanism.
5.8. Supernaturalism in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
In the ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, the events are natural, but behind them lies a supernatural world. The ancient Mariner had killed the Albatross and thus provoked the supernatural powers against him. The series of supernatural incidents begins in the poem with the appearance of the spectre-ship and ends with the leaving of the corpses by the troops of the angelic spirits.
On the spectre-ship are a phantom woman (Life-in-Death) and her mate Death. They are seen throwing dice and Life-in-Death wins the ancient Mariner. The sailors who fall to the share of Death, drop down dead one by one and Life-in-Death begins her work on the ancient Mariner. Now, he has to do a lifelong penance.
The ancient Mariner atones for his crime when he admires the beauty and happiness of the water snakes and blesses them in his heart. This atonement raises the supernatural powers of mercy on his side and the spell begins to break. And by the grace of the Holy Mother, he is refreshed with rain. The ship moves on with the help of supernatural powers and a blessed troop of angelic spirits has entered their bodies.
Meanwhile, the Polar Spirit carries the ship as far as the Equator. The Spirit is not satisfied and wants further revenge. However, the ancient Mariner falls into a swoon and hears two voices, one is telling the other of the penance that the ancient Mariner has still to do. The Mariner’s penance begins anew and the sin is finally expiated.
Thus, the series of supernatural incidents, it would appear, revolves around the idea of vengeance and mercy. The supernatural in the poem is presented in such a way as to become acceptable. It’s actually a poem about humankind, using the supernatural only as machinery.
5.9. Significance of the Wedding-Guest
The preliminary action was necessary before the drama of the ancient Mariner’s unique experience could unfurl itself. The actor and the audience both have been put into a proper relationship and what follows, including the startled and horrified interruptions of the Wedding-Guest at the most critical moments, in the narrative assumes a vivid concreteness of a dramatic monologue. It is simple, impassioned when passion is necessary, but always compelling and irresistible in its profound humanity.
Thus, the Wedding-Guest becomes a mast convincing medium for credibilizing it for all the subsequent listeners of the poem, lending it the stamp of reality and conviction.
Read more about the ‘Significance of the Wedding-Guest in “The Rime of the Ancient-Mariner”
6. Major Themes in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ has two basic themes; both of them are very rich and provocative.
The primary theme, which is actually the outcome of the fable taken at its face value as a story of crime, punishment and reconciliation, is the theme of sacramental vision or the theme of ‘One Life’. The secondary theme, however, is concerned with the context of values in which the fable is presented i.e. the theme of imagination.
6.1. The Primary Theme: One Life
In the poem, Coleridge explores the theme of ‘One Life’ through incidents and agents, in part, at least supernatural. The color, solidity, and movement of the descriptions and the hypnotic power of the narrative make it possible for the reader to find complete satisfaction in the story alone. But, within the narrative frame-work, a complex vision of life is developed. At a deeper level than the purely narrative, at which it has all the appeal of an old minstrel’s song that ‘holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner’, it may be seen as a spiritual adventure. Moreover, the specific references to Christian doctrine invite us to some relationship between the Mariner’s crime of killing the Albatross, his punishment and subsequent expiation, and the Fall of Man.
Nevertheless, a search for deeper moral significance should not be at the expense of the rich complexity of the poem, and the idea that it embodies a dramatic tension, between Coleridge’s Christian belief and his fears that the universe was ruled by arbitrary laws might explain why may of the elements, like death of the crew cannot easily be brought within any simple moral interpretations. Whatever else it is, the poem is centrally concerned with the ‘one life’ and the redeeming power of imaginative love.
6.2. The Secondary Theme: Imagination
The most prominent secondary theme in the poem is its intense imaginative power that is superbly controlled by the poet’s unerring artistic sense. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a poem of pure imagination that explores the weird, the supernatural and the obscure. Nevertheless, such is the power of true imagination, it can produce what Coleridge calls, ‘ willing suspension of disbelief’, and for the moment compels us to believe it all.
The emotions of the poem are genuine and powerful enough to carry with ease and conviction even much cruder supernatural than that Coleridge employs here. Avenging spirits, death-fires, choirs of angels, the weird figures, Death and Life-in-Death and the like were a part of the common medieval heritage, and most of the readers accepted them with as little questioning as they did. The caption ‘Ancient Mariner’, the voyage in the south seas and the tropical parts in a medieval ship, the lighthouse, the kirk, and the shriving hoary headed holy Hermit, waft the imagination of the reader to times long ago and places far off where the affections have a stronger hold on the imagination than the meddling intellect.
With such mental distancing, the supernatural machinery becomes a means of an imaginative vision of life. The true value of the supernatural in Romantic poetry is that it becomes a way of escape into a wide vision of life itself. When the natural and supernatural are reconciled by imagination, the supernatural becomes, as Coleridge himself pointed out, ‘a way of giving the mind a love of the Great and the whole’.
Besides these basic themes, some other minor themes in the poem include: guilt and death, religion, duality, loneliness, imprisonment, mystery and the supernatural agency.
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is Coleridge’s chief contribution to the Lyrical Ballads of 1798, and undoubtedly is one of the world’s true masterpieces.
Although the poem introduces the reader to a supernatural realm, with a spectre-ship, the overhanging curse of the Albatross, a crew of dead men, the Polar Spirit, and the manic breeze, it nonetheless manages to create a sense of absolute reality regarding these manifest irrationalities.
All the mechanisms of the poem, for instance, its melody, meter, and rhyme are perfect, and some of its descriptions of the lonely sea are exceptional. Perhaps it is better to say suggestions, rather than descriptions; because Coleridge never describes things, but makes a suggestion, always brief and always exactly right, and our own imagination instantly supplies the details. Thus, Coleridge’s poem presents the culminations of Romanticism in its purest form.
7. Some FAQs about ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
- Write a note on Coleridge’s treatment of the ‘supernatural’ with special references to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
- How did Coleridge secure ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in ‘The Ancient Mariner’?
- Write a note on the medieval atmosphere of ‘The Ancient Mariner’.
- Comment on the ghostly and the human in the personality of the Ancient Mariner.
- What is the symbolic significance of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’? What is its moral?
- Discuss ‘The Ancient Mariner’ as a criticism of life.
- “The triumph of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is that it presents a series of incredible events in a way which makes them convincing and exciting.” Elucidate.
- Comment on the mingling of the natural and the supernatural in ‘The Ancient Mariner’.
- ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is not a mere glittering fairy tale, but an allegory of sin, punishment, and redemption.” Justify.
- Bring out the moral and allegorical significance of the Ballad stanza in the poem.
- Bring out Coleridge’s skill in the handling of the Ballad stanza in the poem.
- Critically analyze ‘The Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
- Comment on the significance of Wedding-Guest in ‘The Ancient Mariner’.
- Summarize all the parts of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and also highlight the role of Wedding-Guest in the poem.
- Critically analyze the significance of the character of Hermit in ‘The Ancient Mariner’.
Sources of the Article:
- Beer, J.: Coleridge, The Visionary. 1959
- Boulger, J.D.: Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. 1969
- Dyck, Sarah: “Perspective in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ 1973
- Harding, D.W.: ‘The Theme of the Ancient Mariner’. Scrutiny. IX, 1941
- Jones, Alun R. & Tydeman, William, ed.: Coleridge: The Ancient Mariner and other Poems. 1973
- Kenneth Burke and Nathaniel A. Rivers: Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke. 2010
- Oslon, Elder.: ‘A Symbolic Reading of The Ancient Mariner’, Modern Philology, XLV.
- Stallknecht, N.P.: ‘The Moral of The Ancient Mariner’, PMLA, XLVII. 1932
- Warren, Robert Penn: ‘A Poem of Pure Imagination. The Ancient Mariner’. The Kenyon Review, VIII, 1946.