'Rhime of the Ancient Mariner'

 'I Can See', online academy to enhance visual skills - chapter: AWARENESS, page: Rhime of the Ancient Mariner

a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner recounts the experiences of a sailor who has returned from a long sea voyage. The mariner stops a man who is on his way to a wedding ceremony and begins to narrate a story. The Wedding-Guest’s reaction turns from bemusement to impatience to fear to fascination as the mariner's story progresses, as can be seen in the language style: Coleridge uses narrative techniques such as personification and repetition to create a sense of danger, the supernatural, or serenity, depending on the mood in different parts of the poem.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (originally The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere) is the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written in 1797–1798 and published in 1798 in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. Some modern editions use a revised version printed in 1817 that featured a gloss. Along with other poems in Lyrical Ballads, it is often considered a signal shift to modern poetry and the beginning of British Romantic literature.

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Engraving 'the Ancient Mariner' is by Gustave Doré from an 1876 edition of the poem. Texts, links, illustration and audiofile are all from Wikipedia and Wikimedia

The poem begins with an old grey-bearded sailor, the Mariner, stopping a guest at a wedding ceremony to tell him a story of a sailing voyage he took long ago. The Wedding-Guest is at first reluctant to listen, as the ceremony is about to begin, but the mariner's glittering eye captivates him.

The mariner's tale begins with his ship departing on its journey. Despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven south by a storm and eventually reaches the icy waters of the Antarctic. An albatross appears and leads the ship out of the ice jam where it is stuck, but even as the albatross is fed and praised by the ship's crew, the mariner shoots the bird:

[...] With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.
— lines 81–82

The crew is angry with the mariner, believing the albatross brought the south wind that led them out of the Antarctic. However, the sailors change their minds when the weather becomes warmer and the mist disappears:

'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
— lines 101–102

They soon find that they made a grave mistake in supporting this crime, as it arouses the wrath of spirits who then pursue the ship "from the land of mist and snow"; the south wind that had initially blown them north now sends the ship into uncharted waters near the equator, where it is becalmed:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: Oh Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
— lines 115–126

The sailors change their minds again and blame the mariner for the torment of their thirst. In anger, the crew forces the mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck, perhaps to illustrate the burden he must suffer from killing it, or perhaps as a sign of regret:

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
— lines 139–142

After a "weary time", the ship encounters a ghostly hulk. On board are Death (a skeleton) and the "Night-mare Life-in-Death", a deathly pale woman, who are playing dice for the souls of the crew. With a roll of the dice, Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-Death the life of the mariner, a prize she considers more valuable. Her name is a clue to the mariner's fate: he will endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross. One by one, all of the crew members die, but the mariner lives on, seeing for seven days and nights the curse in the eyes of the crew's corpses, whose last expressions remain upon their faces:

Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

The souls did from their bodies fly,-
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!
— lines 216–223

Eventually, this stage of the mariner's curse is lifted after he begins to appreciate the many sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as "slimy things" earlier in the poem, he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them ("A spring of love gush'd from my heart, And I bless'd them unaware"). As he manages to pray, the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is partially expiated. It then starts to rain, and the bodies of the crew, possessed by good spirits, rise again and help steer the ship. In a trance, the mariner hears two spirits discussing his voyage and penance, and learns that the ship is being powered supernaturally:

The air is cut away before,
And closes from behind.
— lines 424–425

Finally the mariner wakes from his trance and comes in sight of his homeland, but is initially uncertain as to whether or not he is hallucinating:

Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?

We drifted o'er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray-
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.
— lines 464–471

The rotten remains of the ship sink in a whirlpool, leaving only the mariner behind. A hermit on the mainland who has spotted the approaching ship comes to meet it in a boat, rowed by a pilot and his boy. When they pull the mariner from the water, they think he is dead, but when he opens his mouth, the pilot shrieks with fright. The hermit prays, and the mariner picks up the oars to row. The pilot's boy laughs, thinking the mariner is the devil, and cries, "The Devil knows how to row". Back on land, the mariner is compelled by "a woful agony" to tell the hermit his story.

As penance for shooting the albatross, the mariner, driven by the agony of his guilt, is now forced to wander the earth, telling his story over and over, and teaching a lesson to those he meets:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
— lines 614–617

After finishing his story, the mariner leaves, and the wedding-guest returns home, waking the next morning "a sadder and a wiser man".