Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a narrative poem in which a seaman tells
another man a strange and terrifying tale.
poem was published in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads, then revised and
published in 1817 in the version that is popular today. Coleridge received
help from the poet William Wordsworth. The editors of Major British
Writers, a literature anthology, explain Wordsworth's contribution:
Originally, Coleridge and
Wordsworth intended to write this poem in collaboration. Wordsworth’s manner
proved unsuited for the purpose, however, and after contributing half a
dozen lines [Part II, Lines 13-16 and Lines 226-227] and suggesting the
shooting of the albatross and “the reanimation of the dead bodies to work
the ship," Wordsworth withdrew, and Coleridge proceeded alone.—G.B.
Harrison, general ed. Major British Writers. Shorter edition. New
York: Harcourt, 1967, Page 592.
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
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'
Zealand: University of Otago Press, 2009).
sources used by Coleridge include superstitions and folk tales.
action takes place in the following locales several hundred years ago:
(1) a street or byway in a locale with a hall in which a wedding reception
is being held; (2) a sailing ship with 201 crew members, including the
ancient mariner; (3) the Atlantic Ocean; (4) the South Pole; (4) the Pacific
Ocean; (5) the mariner’s native country (undisclosed). The atmosphere is
ghostly, preternatural, mysterious.
Old sailor who roams from country to country to tell a strange tale.
Wedding Guest: Man
on the way to a wedding reception with two other men. The mariner singles
out the wedding guest to hear his tale.
Two Hundred Crewmen:
Ill-fated members of the ship carrying the mariner.
Pilot: Boatman who
rescues the mariner. (A pilot is an official who guides ships into and
out of a harbor.)
Pilot’s Boy: Pilot’s
Hermit: Holy man
who absolves the mariner and hears his story.
web-footed sea bird with a hooked bill. Most species of albatrosses
wander the southern seas, from tropical regions down to Antarctica, drinking
sea water and feeding on squid, cuttlefish, and other small sea creatures.
Sometimes, they follow ships to feed on their garbage. Albatrosses have
an astonishing ability to glide in the wind, sometimes for hours, but have
difficulty staying aloft without a wind. In the latter case, they sit on
the water to rest or sleep. When it is time to breed, they go ashore. An
old superstition says killing an albatross brings bad luck, although sailors
have been known to kill and eat them. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
has helped make this superstition common knowledge throughout the world
among landlubbers as well as sailors. In modern parlance, a person or an
event that brings bad luck is often referred to as an albatross.
Poem as a Frame Tale
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.
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.
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:
of the Poem
Michael J. Cummings...©
The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner begins with a one-paragraph summary called an "Argument." The
poem then begins.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
mariner then walks on. So does the wedding guest, as if stunned. But he
is a “sadder and wiser man."
is a sinful creature, but redemption awaits him if he repents his wrongdoing
and performs penance. This theme manifests itself as follows: After the
ancient mariner commits a sin by killing the albatross, guilt hounds him
in the form of strange natural and supernatural phenomena. During one terrifying
experience, he has a change of heart and repents his wrongdoing. After
confessing to the Hermit, he carries out a penance, which is to travel
the world to tell his tale to strangers.
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
but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth
Both man and bird and beast.
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,
listen'd and look'd sideways up!
even frightens the wedding guest when he tells him that all the crewmen
fell dead one by one. The wedding guest says,
at my heart, as at a cup,
life-blood seem'd to sip! (lines 204-206)
fear thee, ancient Mariner!
plainly makes the point that beyond the boundaries of the known world are
many strange and fearful sights that explorers will encounter.
fear thy skinny hand!
thou art long, and lank, and brown,
is the ribbed sea-sand. (lines 225-228)
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.
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
climax of the poem occurs when the mariner has a change of heart and the
albatross falls from his neck.
end rhyme, Coleridge also frequently uses internal rhyme. Following are
guests are met,
the feast is set (line
ship drove fast,
loud roared the blast (line
through the drifts
the snowy clifts (line
ice did split
with a thunder-fit (line
mist or cloud,
on mast or shroud (line
fair breeze blew,
the white foam flew (line
poetic effect, Coleridge inverts the word order from time to time, as the
following lines demonstrate.
of the cross, the Albatross
my neck was hung. (lines 141-142)
The normal word order
would be "was hung about my neck."
utter drought all dumb we stood! (line 159)
The normal word order
would be "we stood all dumb."
naked hulk alongside came (line 195)
The normal word order
would be "came alongside."
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:
now the storm-blast came, and he
tyrannous and strong (lines 41-42)
We could not speak, no more
had been choked with soot. (lines 137-138)
Instead of the cross, the
my neck was hung. (lines 141-142)
'There passed a weary time.
parch'd, and glazed each eye. (lines 143-144)
The poem is rich in figures
of speech. Here are examples:
thy long grey beard
and glittering eye (line 3)
with his skinny hand
The Wedding-Guest here
the loud bassoon. (lines 31-32)
ice was here, the ice was
ice was all around. (line 59-60)
throats unslaked, with black lips baked
a breeze, without a tide (line 169)
lips were red, her looks were free,
locks were yellow as gold:
skin was as white as leprosy (lines 190-192)
groan'd, they stirr'd, they
Water, water, every
And all the boards did shrink
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink. (lines
Water is everywhere,
but there is none to drink.
Each turned his
face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.
Comparison of the appearance
of the eye to a curse
They coil'd and swam; and
Was a flash of golden fire.
Comparison of the wake
left by the sea snakes to fire
and growl'd, and roar'd
and howl'd (line 61)Personification
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.
Comparison of the sun
to a person
[E]very soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my crossbow!
Comparison of the passing
of a soul to the sound of a shot arrow
sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary
eye (lines 251-252)
Comparison of the sky
and sea to a weight on the eye
Her beams bemocked the sultry
Like April hoar-frost spread
Comparison of reflected
sunbeams to frost
The bride hath paced into
Red as a rose is she (lines
Comparison of the bride
to a rose
The water, like a witch's
Burnt green, and blue and
white. (lines 129-130)
Comparison of water to
Day after day, day after
We stuck, nor breath nor
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean. (lines
Comparison of the motionless
ship and ocean to paintings
The western wave
was all a-flame (line 171)
Wave refers to the ocean.
Words From the Poem
(line 436): A charnel is a place that contains corpses; a dungeon
is a dark prison beneath a medieval castle. Hence, a charnel-dungeon is
an underground place for the dead.
(line 55): Cliffs.
(line 349, 489, 492): Corpse; dead body.
128): St. Elmo’s fire, which 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.
(line 12): Immediately; now; at once.
(line 133): Depth measurement equaling 6 feet (1.8288 meters).
164): Expression of thanks or surprise
336): Crewman who steers a ship.
363): Chattering; singing.
comments at line 25): Equator, the imaginary circle around the earth that
divides the Northern and Southern Hemispheres
30):Tall structure rising from a ship to support sails, ropes, booms, etc.
36): Group of musicians.
502): Boatman who guides ships into and out of harbors.
490): Old English word for cross, referring to the cross on which Christ
was crucified; crucifix at the entrance of a chancel, the space around
an altar that is reserved for clergymen or choir members.
491): Member of the highest-ranking order of angels, the Seraphim.
513): Shrive, which means to hear the confession of a sinner.
75): Ropes or wires connected to a mast on both sides to keep in from swaying
524): Small boat propelled with oars.
62): Swoon; fainting spell.
line 156): Changed course.
536): Bush of ivy or some other plant
152): Past tense of wit, meaning know; hence, wist means
Study Questions and Essay
The poem does not say why the
mariner shot the albatross. In your opinion, what was his motive? Explain
Why did the crewmen hang the
albatross around the mariner's neck?
Write a short poem that contains
end rhyme and internal rhyme. The topic is open.
The mariner told his tale to
what other person besides the wedding guest?
What would Coleridge say about
modern man's treatment of nature and its creatures? Give your answer in
an essay supported by quotations from the poem, as well as by library and