By Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2010.©
.......The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a narrative poem in which a seaman tells another man a strange and terrifying tale.
.......When Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, accounts of the daring sea voyages of the British explorer Captain James Cook (1728-1779) had caught the public's fancy. Cook had made three exploratory voyages in the Pacific between 1768 and 1779, traveling as far north as the Bering Strait (between Alaska and Russia) and as far south as the ice fields of Antarctica. One of his crewmen, astronomer William Wales, later taught mathematics to Coleridge at Christ's Hospital School in London after Coleridge enrolled upon the death of his father in 1781. Australian Bernard Smith maintains that Coleridge likely used a journal kept by Wales as a source of information for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, according to Bill Whelen, author of Captain Cook's Navigator and Coleridge's Poem: William Wales, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago Press, 2009).
.......Other sources used by Coleridge include superstitions and folk tales.
Narration: Poem as a Frame Tale
.......A narrator begins the poem by telling the reader about an ancient mariner who stops a man on the street to recite a story. After getting the man’s attention, the mariner then tells his tale. Thus, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is like a framed painting. The frame represents one narrator telling about the mariner; the painting represents the mariner narrating his story. The mariner sometimes quotes another person, such as the Pilot. However, the Pilot is not a narrator, since he is merely speaking dialogue and not telling a story.
.......Coleridge divides the poem into seven parts. Most of the stanzas in the poem have four lines; several have five or six lines. In the four-line stanzas, the second and fourth lines usually rhyme. In the five- and six-line stanzas, the second or third line usually rhymes with the final line.
The meter alternates between iambic tetrameter (with four feet per line) and iambic trimeter (with three feet per line). Following is an example (the first four lines of Part II) of a stanza with this pattern:
Summary of the Poem
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins with a one-paragraph summary called an "Argument." The poem then begins.
.......Three men are on their way to a wedding reception when an old sailor stops one of them to tell him a story. So eager is the old fellow to tell his tale that he raises on hand to prevent the wedding guest from moving on. The mariner then begins the story—“There was a ship" (line 10)—but is unable to continue because the wedding guest angrily orders the mariner to cease blocking his way.
.......But after the old man lowers his hand, the guest cannot continue on, for he is hypnotized by the mariner’s “glittering eye" (line 3). Like a three-year-old child eager for a wonderful story, the guest sits on a rock and listens.
.......The mariner says the ship sailed southward on the Atlantic Ocean with a fair wind. The sun rose from the sea, crossed the sky, and sank in the west in its daily ritual as all went well while the ship sailed onward day after day. Even though the wedding guest hears music from the nearby wedding celebration, he keeps his attention riveted on the old mariner and his tale.
.......Alas, a great storm came, the mariner says, driving the ship farther south as it passed through mist and snow to a land of ice, Antarctica. Everywhere the crewmen looked they saw ice. Then, out of the fog, a great sea bird appeared—an albatross. And, wonder of wonders, the ice around the ship cracked, and the ship picked up a wind and sailed north. The albatross, therefore, was a good omen. It came to the ship every day, answering the mariner's “hollo!" (line 74).It played. It ate of the crewmen’s food. During the evening religious services, called vespers, it perched on a mast or a rope.
.......Then one day, the mariner shot the bird with his crossbow. The rest of the crew condemned his cruel act, saying he had “killed the bird / That made the breeze to blow." However, when the fog disappeared and the sun shone gloriously, they approved the act, saying he “had kill'd the bird / That brought the fog and mist" (99-100).And so, the crew became partners in his crime.
.......But not long afterward, the sails fell as the air grew still. Day after day, under a boiling sun, the ship hardly moved. It was “As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean" (lines 117-118). And the men thirsted—in the middle of an ocean with water everywhere. They saw slimy creatures crawling on the sea, and at night they beheld a fire dancing on the ropes and chains that control the masts—an ill omen. (Sailors at sea often saw this phenomenon, known as St. Elmo’s fire. It is electricity discharged from pointed objects, such as masts, during storms. The phenomenon can also be seen on land on trees or towers that rise to a point. Today, it can also be seen in the air on wings and propellers of aircraft.) Blaming the mariner for their woes, the crewmen hung the dead albatross around his neck.
.......As each man weakened with thirst and fatigue, the mariner beheld a sign in the sky—a mere speck that grew into a mist and took shape upon its approach. It appeared to be a ship. The men were heartened. But what kind of ship moves without a wind? When the sun was setting, the vessel drew near and revealed itself as a ghostly “skeleton of a ship" (line 177) with only two crew members. One was a specter woman—“Life-in-Death" (line 193)—with red lips, yellow hair, and white skin. The other was her mate, Death. They rolled dice for the crewmen, and Death won everyone except the ancient mariner. He was the prize of Life-in-Death.
.......All the crew—200 men—then dropped dead one by one, all except the mariner. Their souls flew by him, to heaven or hell, like arrows shot from a crossbow. The wedding guest interrupts the narrative at this point to express his fear of the mariner. After all, the old man could also be a departed soul, a ghost. But the mariner assures him that he is flesh and blood, then continues his tale.
.......Now he was alone on the ocean with only slimy sea creatures to keep him company. He tried to pray but failed. The lifeless crewmen, meanwhile, looked up at him with a never-changing gaze, fixed by death. For seven days and nights, he endured their gaze. During this time, at night in the moonlight, he watched the water snakes—“blue, glossy green, and velvet black" (line 280)—swim and coil. Their sleek beauty touched him, and he found himself blessing them. He also found that he was able to pray; in short, he was beginning to regret shooting the albatross. Suddenly, the albatross fell from his neck and sank into the sea. And then the mariner slipped into a gentle sleep, for which he thanked Mary, the holy Mother who is Queen of heaven. When he awakened, rain was falling and wind was roaring. Although the wind did not reach the ship, the ship began to move—and the dead crewmen rose to man the ship—steering, tugging the ropes. The body of his brother’s son helped him pull on a rope, though he spoke no words.
.......The wedding guest again interrupts to express his fear. But the mariner again calms him and resumes the story, as follows. At dawn, the ghostly crewmen let loose the ropes and made “sweet sounds" (line 353) mingled with the songs of birds. It was an angelic symphony. The ship sailed on. A spirit, it seemed, was moving the ship. Then the ship began to rock and bob—and suddenly lurched forward, causing the mariner to fall in a faint. When he came to, he heard two spirit voices. One asked whether this was the man who shot the albatross. The other, confirming that it was, said the mariner had done penance for his wrongdoing but still had more penance to do.
.......The ship began to sail northward at such a great speed that the mariner went into a trance. When the mariner woke up, the ship was sailing gently onward. All the dead crewmen were standing together, staring at the mariner. A wind—like a gale across a meadow in the spring—began to blow, tousling the mariner’s hair and cooling his cheek. The ship picked up speed and soon the mariner saw a lighthouse, a hill, and a church. It was his native land at long last.
.......The water in the harbor bay was calm, reflecting the light of the moon. On the ship, the corpses were no longer standing but lying “lifeless and flat" (line 489). Over each body was a seraph (an angel), giving off a heavenly light that could be seen on the shore. Soon a boat came rowing forth carrying a Pilot, the Pilot’s boy, and a Hermit singing hymns. The Hermit, who lived in woods near the sea and knelt on moss to pray, loved to talk with sailors from afar. When the boat drew close, the mariner heard them say that the ship looked strange. “It hath a fiendish look" (line 539), the Pilot said. Suddenly, the ship sank, rumbling down and leaving the mariner floating helplessly. But in a moment he was in the Pilot’s boat, which whirled round and round. When seeing the mariner’s face, the Pilot fell down in a fit and the Hermit prayed. The mariner took up oars and began rowing. At that, the boy laughed, observing that “the Devil knows how to row" (line 570).
.......After the boat reached land, the mariner begged the Hermit to hear his confession and absolve him of his sins. “What manner of man art thou?" (line 578) the Hermit said. And the mariner told him his tale. Since that the time, the mariner says, he has felt a compulsion to travel from land to land. It is his penance. Whenever he remembers his experience at sea—the terror of it all—he must stop someone to tell him his story in order to relieve his agony. He knows at a mere glance which man he must single out to listen to the tale.
.......The wedding celebration continues while the mariner hears a vesper bell calling him to prayer. It is far sweeter to him to pray to God, he says, than it would be to enjoy the pleasure of a wedding celebration. The mariner notes that a man prays best “who loveth best / All things both great and small" (lines 615-616)—that is, who loves all of the things that God created.
.......The mariner then walks on. So does the wedding guest, as if stunned. But he is a “sadder and wiser man."
Respect for Nature
.......Human beings should respect all of God’s creation and all of His creatures, including the albatross and even sea snakes. In doing so, people indicate their respect for the Creator Himself. In his parting words to the wedding guest, the narrator says,
Farewell, farewell! but this I tellTerror
.......The mariner undergoes terrifying experiences as he confronts supernatural wonders, in particular the female figure known as Life-in-Death. When the mariner sees her rolling dice with death, he says,
We listen'd and look'd sideways up!The mariner even frightens the wedding guest when he tells him that all the crewmen fell dead one by one. The wedding guest says,
"I fear thee, ancient Mariner!Coleridge plainly makes the point that beyond the boundaries of the known world are many strange and fearful sights that explorers will encounter.
The Ancient Mariner as Adam: Adam committed the original sin that brought woe upon mankind. The original sin in this context is the killing of the albatross. The crewmen are inheritors of the mariner’s original sin, just as Christians are inheritors of Adam’s original sin. As the mariner says, "And I had done an hellish thing, And it would work 'em woe."
The Ancient Mariner as Christian Sinner: When the ancient mariner kills the albatross (described in the poem as a holy thing “hailed in God’s name"), he is like the Christian who commits sins for which Christ died on the cross.
Ghost Ship as Wages of Sin: The ghostly skeleton ship carries Death and Life-in-Death. Death, of course, is a consequence of original sin. Life-in-Death is the loneliness, the separation from God, that a sinner encounters before dying.
Pilot: The boat Pilot rescues the mariner after the ship sinks, representing the saving grace of a merciful God.
Hermit: The Hermit represents redemption. He hears the mariner's confession and pronounces a penance, requiring the mariner to tell his tale the world over to warn others of the consequences of sin.
Wedding Celebration: Everyday life that continues merrily without its participants' full knowledge and respect of the higher rules of the universe. As part of his penance, the mariner educates one of the wedding guests about the importance of abiding by the laws of God. The scene of a wedding celebration is, of course, an excellent place for the mariner to tell his story. After all, a marriage is a beginning, and new life will come from it. Will the newlyweds and their children abide by God's laws? Or will they thoughtlessly shoot albatrosses? Perhaps the wedding guest who walks on at the end of the poem will pass on his new insights to the bride, the groom, and others at the wedding feast.
.......The climax of the poem occurs when the mariner has a change of heart and the albatross falls from his neck.
Besides end rhyme, Coleridge also frequently uses internal rhyme. Following are examples.
The guests are met, the feast is set (line 7)Inversion
.......For poetic effect, Coleridge inverts the word order from time to time, as the following lines demonstrate.
of the cross, the Albatross
utter drought all dumb we stood! (line 159)
naked hulk alongside came (line 195)
.......Coleridge occasionally uses enjambment, the practice of carrying the sense of one line of verse over to the next line without a pause. Here are examples:
And now the storm-blast came, and heFigures of Speech
The poem is rich in figures of speech. Here are examples:
He holds him with his skinny hand (line 9)
The Wedding-Guest here
The merry minstrelsy (line 36)
The furrow followed free (line 104)
The ice was here, the ice was there,Irony
Water, water, every where,Metaphor
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,Onomatopoeia
It crack'd and growl'd, and roar'd and howl'd (line 61)Personification
The Sun came up upon the left,Simile
[E]very soul, it passed me by,Synecdoche
The western wave was all a-flame (line 171)
Study Questions and Essay Topics