The rime of the ancient mariner



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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)
Type of Work:
Lyrical fantasy ballad
A sailing ship travelling the seas; late Medieval period
Principal Characters
The Ancient Mariner, a sailor-storyteller
The Wedding Guest, a listener
The Ship's Crew
The Albatross, a symbolic representation of God's creatures - and Man's guilt
The Hermit, a rescuer representing God
Story Overview
(Coleridge introduces his tale by describing an old grey-headed sailor who approaches three young men who were invited to a wedding celebration and calls up one of them, the groom's next-of-kin, to hear his story.

O Wedding-Guest! this sent both been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
At first the young man doesn’t want to listen to him, but the story is remarkable indeed, and the listener - who, of course, represents you, the reader - soon falls captured by the building suspense, responding at first with fear and then with horror as the tale goes on.)
There was little apprehension among the ship's crew as they sailed away from the harbour, heading to the open sea. Several days out, however, a storm arose and the ship was driven before the wind in a constant southerly direction, headed toward the South Pole. As it entered the "land of ice, and of fearful sounds, where no living thing was to be seen," a feeling of foreboding came over the helpless shipmates; and so it was with great relief that the crew eventually greeted the sight of an albatross - a huge seabird - flying through the fog toward them.
("As if it had been a Christian soul," the Ancient Mariner tells his listener, "We hailed it in God's name.")
Everyone took this as a good omen, and the bird followed the ship faithfully as it returned northward. Then, one day, weary of the bird's incessant and now unnerving presence, the Mariner shot the albatross with his crossbow - and brought the curse down upon them all.
The south wind continued to propel them northward, but somehow the old sailor realized he had done "a hellish thing"; consequences would soon follow, in the form of loneliness and spiritual anguish.
The crew at first blamed their mate for killing the bird that had brought the change in the breeze. But as the ship made its way out of the fog and mist and continued on, they decided it must be the bird that had brought the mist. Perhaps their shipmate had rightfully killed it after all.
The vessel sailed on northward until it reached the equator, where the breeze ceased and the ship became becalmed. After days without a breath of wind, it was decided by all that an avenging spirit had followed them from the land of mist and snow, leaving them surrounded only by foul water. With the unobserved curse thus restored, the thirsting crew angrily hung the dead albatross around the Mariner's neck, as a symbol of his guilt. Time lost all meaning. The lips of the men baked and their eyes glazed over for need of water.
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.
Then the old sailor saw a speck on the horizon, which, as it got closer, became a sail. The men waited in silent dread. This could be no earthly ship - it moved along the water without the slightest breeze.
Wide-eyed and trembling, the crew looked on as this skeleton ship came alongside their own. On its deck the Mariner saw two spectres: a Woman, Life-in-Death; and her mate, Death himself. They were casting dice to see which of them would take control of the drifting ship. Death won the entire ship's crew - all but the Ancient Mariner, who was won by the Woman; he alone would live on, to expiate his sin against Nature.
There followed a horrifying scene as the sun dropped into the sea and night came over the silent waters. One by one the two hundred men on board turned toward the Mariner, denounced him with a dreadful stare - for they could not speak - and dropped dead upon the deck. As their souls flew from their bodies and passed past the old seaman, the sound was "like the whizz of my crossbow" when he shot the albatross.
(The Wedding Guest by this time is terrified of the Ancient Mariner, who he thinks must be a ghost; but assuring him he is mortal, the old man goes on with his story.)
The Ancient Mariner was by now in agony, as he looked upon all those who Death had taken:
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
This, the Mariner's heartsick and acknowledged disgust for non-human life, showed that he had not yet learned his lesson nor completed the punishment that Life-in-Death had prepared for him.
For seven days and seven nights the wretched survivor was forced to live with the open, accusing eyes of his dead shipmates.
The pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never passed away:
I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.
Finally, suspended in complete loneliness, the horrified sailor stood watching out over the moonlit water. Sea snakes were swimming nearby. He was amazed to be watching their beauty, and at once felt a rush of love for these creatures, blessing them as the only other living things in his damnable world. "O happy living things!", he cried. And with those few words, the spell was broken. The Ancient Mariner could pray at last, and the albatross fell from his neck and sank "like lead into the sea." With welcome release he fell into a deep sleep. When he awakened later, it was raining - and his body drank in the moisture.
Now gazing into the heavens, the seaman witnessed strange, never-before-seen sights. And stranger still, on the bloody deck of the ship, the bodies of his dead companions arose and went mutely about their tasks of sailing, no longer transfixing him with their dead stares.
(Here the Mariner quickly reassure the Wedding Guest that the spirits animating the crew's bodies were not those souls which had fled them at death, but "a blessed troop of angelic spirits" called down by his guardian saint.) At dawn the spirits left; but still the ship sailed on, with no help from any breeze. It was moved now by a spirit from the land of mist and snow - the Polar Spirit, still seeking cleansing penitence from the Mariner for having killed the albatross.
At noon the ship suddenly stood still, and then began moving back and forth. Was Death again trying to win the Ancient Mariner? Suddenly the ship leaped free of the unseen grapplers with such force that the sailor fell into a trance. He knew little of what transpired until he heard the voices of two spirits. Their conversation revealed that the ship was now being powered by angelic forces and travelling northward at such speed he could not have stood it in full consciousness.
When the dazed and astonished sailor again awoke, it was night, and the dead men stood together on the deck, with the curse blazing again in their eyes. What joy came to him when that spell finally broke and the ship went fastly homeward. At last he was among the known and familiar places he had thought never to view again.
Soon the angelic spirits departed from the bodies of the Mariner's dead comrades, and standing on top of each lifeless form was a "man all light, a seraph man," shining as a rescue signal to the land. But just as a small rescue boat came alongside the ship, a terrible noise rumbled through the water, splitting and sinking the vessel and throwing the sailor overboard. He was quickly pulled into the boat - but his gruesome adventure had taken its toll; the sight of the ravaged Mariner terrified everyone onboard. Once ashore, the penitent old sailor begged the holy Hermit of the Wood to bless him and cast off his sin. "What manner of man art thou?" asked the man of God, crossing himself. At this question, an agony of spirit prompted the Ancient Mariner to recount his story, freeing himself for a brief hour from the curse of remembrance.
(And so the Mariner concludes his story once again. He tells the Wedding Guest that ever since the Hermit's blessing, he has been forced to travel from land to land, never knowing when the agony of remembrance might return. But whenever the curse again tortures his soul, he recognizes the face of a man with whom he must share his message of love and reverence for God's creation:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The Wedding Guest, never does go to the wedding. He is so moved by the story of the Mariner, that when the old man vanishes, he also departs, "a sadder and a wiser man.")
The ballad has only one central figure: the Mariner. His trip to the tropics through the South pole then back was dangerous as any trip on the ocean is, but this ship encounters another danger: supernatural events. Now, for a better understanding of the ballad, I must mention that for Coleridge supernatural is a mystery behind the world of appearances, and as he insisted a lot on the human interest in supernatural and the resemblance of truth, all that shows he didn’t expect his readers to believe in supernatural events. So the supernatural becomes a metaphor for a deep human experience, which the material world alone can’t represent and the means by which this metaphor is expressed is the language of images. This interest in the supernatural came from nature (cause there are very detailed natural descriptions), but the contemplation of nature is always accompanied by the awareness of the presence of the ideal in the real, natural images always carry an abstract meaning.
Getting back on the theme of the trip, it is the means to reveal many aspects of human life. Coleridge’s use of symbolism makes this work a complex web of representations.
Since I said that the trip is human life, the ship is possibly our body, which carries us through our life in this world. As we get sick also the ship gets many “diseases”, like storms, mist or ice. The ship is a perfect solution as a metaphor, because one can steer a ship to an exact direction (human decisions), yet its fate lies in the hands of the winds and the currents (unpredictability of the consequences of our decisions).
The main symbol is without any doubt the albatross, as it has many different interpretations. The first one, which is suggested even by Coleridge himself, is the one that wants the bird to be seen as a Christian soul, this interpretation is also connected with the use of the crossbow, and as we all know the cross is a strong Christian value
Secondly, the albatross symbolizes Christ. Just as the Mariner senselessly murders the bird, man crucifies Christ whose perfection is unchallenged. Even though Christ represents mankind's one chance at achieving Heaven, man continues to persecute Him. The albatross symbolizes the sailors' one chance at deliverance from icy death and the Mariner shoots him, and another hint is that the mariner hung the bird on his neck like Jesus on his cross.
Another interpretation wants the killing of the albatross to be the killing of imagination too, looking at it in romantic terms, the attempt to get to a power that leads to a new knowledge that goes beyond natural levels. Somebody thought that the animal could also be Coleridge’s wife. Another point of view wants the killing to be the original sin, because the expiation that follows goes beyond the animal.
The killing could just be a unifying agent, it just doesn’t mean anything, it joins together the voyage, supernatural events and punishments.
In a way the killing could also be seen as the unpredictability of human actions, since he had no reason to kill it, it was pointless.
The crew was mad at him at first but then they praised him, becoming guilty with him.
The sailor is aware of his crime, for he feels worthy of hell when the ship is stopped and stood still for days. This stillness is the lack of reality, the presence of suffering, because there’s the paradox of being thirsty with all that water around the ship. The consequence of the killing, as a reminder, is the dead bird itself, which is hung on the mariner’s neck, and in that stanza there’s also a traditional description of hell, making his reality very dreadful.
Then there’s the skeleton ship that plays dice, and the allegorical figures, death and life in death, reminds us of the medieval theater and the sublime. Death wins the crew and they all die, one by one. They were 200 people. Life in death wins the mariner. Playing dice is a key idea, it represents the lack of order in our world.
Part four is a turning point, because the blessing is unaware, the explanation of this act comes from the outside not from the inside, because he tried to pray before, but he could not. He tried to pray when he saw his crew dying, calling those men beautiful, but he had to understand that even ugly creature are to be called beautiful, just for the fact that they are part of nature, and above all God’s creations. He realizes that everything that is alive on earth is beautiful when a spring of love made him bless a bunch of water snakes, calling them happy living things and off course blessing them. This the climax of the ballad, for he killed a beautiful animal, the albatross, and then he blesses some ugly creatures, like the water snakes. But he had been forgiven for that action, which is an unpredictable one. All this situation is a typical Christian context, because the story looks like and tastes like a lesson, because the wedding guest, who was listening becomes wiser after he heard the story. All these actions with causes and effects are not linked, the only final point was to teach to other people to love all God’s creatures. This could be the perfect Christian story that gives an order to this universe. The problem is that these actions are done without any link of cause and effect that point out the lack of order in the universe, it all depends on your point of view.
The survival makes the mariner a different person from the others, he’s destined to loneliness and solitude forever, the others fear him, nobody wants to be with him, he’s dreadful. The worst punishment he received is the incapability of communication with other people, he can only tell his story but he cannot communicate with anyone on earth. He’s isolated, alienated.

In romantic terms there are also the presence of the sun that is seen as the light of bad actions, and the moon that is seen as the light of good actions. Obviously the sun is the light of reason, the negative reason, instead moon stands for night so imagination, and the blessing took place in presence of the moon.
Part five and part six are like a Christian code. Here are the reasons. After the blessing it rains, it stands for baptism, son since the marines had been freed from the sin, the angelic spirits can enter the crew’s bodies and steer the ship to the native town. Just before the ship enters the harbour the angelic spirits leave, and the ship sinks, just like I said before, this ship being like our body, it has to die before entering heaven (England), so it sinks, after it has finished its trip, which is like anybody’s course of life. Then the pilot of the little boat saves the mariner, and with him there are the pilot’s son and an hermit, and they all understand that something supernatural happened to the sailor, the boy goes crazy and the hermit shrives his young soul, just like a Christian priest.
Part seven, is the final one, where the wedding guest understands the lesson. The religious interpretation of this part, says that it abolishes hierarchies, like God loves all creatures. But the Christian meaning is contradicted by the striking images of solitude. Coleridge seems to reassure everyone but his poetic imagination contradicts this attempt of reassuring readers. He, using the language of visual impression, expresses desolation. He’s more powerful as a poet.
There are some critics to the figure of the ancient mariner.
Wordsworth said that he is no character. The real protagonists are the elements: earth, air, water and fire, cause the mariner doesn’t really do anything on purpose, he’s acted upon, he’s passive, he doesn’t decide his destiny. He’s representative on men sinning, being punished and redeemed.
Another possibility is looking at the mariner as if he were a poet: the poet speaks, doesn’t act he has only power of speech. The mariner is what he’s not because he’s involved with human beings, but he really wants to be alone.
The final meaning is that if the poem is about anything, it is mainly about the lack of freedom in our will, because any God’s creature, specially mankind, has not enough control over himself to love God’s creation, but in an intellectual way he wanted to love them, he just didn’t have enough power of will, and this brings to another point, the dimension of darkness in any human soul, it swallows up the intention (no matter if it’s good or bad, it just swallows it up). We have something dark which fights the bright side sometimes.
Numbers are a very interesting aspect, since they are similar the ones in lord Randall.
The mariner meets 3 gallants at the wedding fest. 3 is a magic number: earth, sun and moon (Indo-European tradition linked to agriculture). Other religions turned it into a holy number, so supernatural stay for number 3 in the beginning, so something supernatural is expected. The albatross has never been killed by sailors because it’s considered the reincarnation of who died at sea. Celtic cultures thought it was a messenger. Killing the albatross is just like breaking the taboo, it can’t be forgiven.
Number nine is another one, because the spirit is nine phatoms deep below the ship. The spirit is divine, because the albatross stays for nine vespers like Jesus Christ, so the spirit has power on the ship’s crew.
Number seven: in part four when he’s alone he sees the curse in the eyes of the crew for 7 days, so seven is death in folklore. He meets the hermit, the hermit in the tarocs is the figure number 9, and he holds a lamp the lamp that produces the light of consciousness that he couldn’t see before. The ballad is divided in 7 parts, 7 was the number that Coleridge thought could follow the folkloristic culture of common people, and 7 is usually associated with death and ghosts, if a man comes back after 7 years then he’s become a ghost or some sort of a devil (that’s what the wedding guest thought). The mariner could have been symbolically away for 7 years because he has magic powers. This trip that the mariner experienced, could also represent the divine power, divine knowledge, that any artist is always searching after, but any human being who reaches this level of art, or of knowledge has to pay a price. The price is the difference, the chasm that the special one himself creates when he gets to the power he was searching for. In this case is the incapability of communication and so loneliness, but it could be even worse. This happens all the time that a human being attempts to reach an higher level, any time we try to act as if we were gods.