Rime of the Ancient Mariner Summary

"Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in Prose


Three young men are walking together to a wedding, when one of them is detained by a grizzled old sailor. The young Wedding-Guest angrily demands that the Mariner let go of him, and the Mariner obeys. But the young man is transfixed by the ancient Mariner's "glittering eye" and can do nothing but sit on a stone and listen to his strange tale.

The Mariner says that he sailed on a ship out of his native harbor--"below the kirk, below the hill, / Below the lighthouse top"--and into a sunny and cheerful sea. Hearing bassoon music drifting from the direction of the wedding, the Wedding-Guest imagines that the bride has entered the hall, but he is still helpless to tear himself from the Mariner's story.

The Mariner recalls that the voyage quickly darkened, as a giant storm rose up in the sea and chased the ship southward. Quickly, the ship came to a frigid land "of mist and snow," where "ice, mast-high, came floating by"; the ship was hemmed inside this maze of ice. But then the sailors encountered an Albatross, a great sea bird. As it flew around the ship, the ice cracked and split, and a wind from the south propelled the ship out of the frigid regions, into a foggy stretch of water. The Albatross followed behind it, a symbol of good luck to the sailors. A pained look crosses the Mariner's face, and the Wedding-Guest asks him, "Why look'st thou so?" The Mariner confesses that he shot and killed the Albatross with his crossbow.

At first, the other sailors were furious with the Mariner for having killed the bird that made the breezes blow. But when the fog lifted soon afterward, the sailors decided that the bird had actually brought not the breezes but the fog; they now congratulated the Mariner on his deed. The wind pushed the ship into a silent sea where the sailors were quickly stranded; the winds died down, and the ship was "As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean." The ocean thickened, and the men had no water to drink; as if the sea were rotting, slimy creatures crawled out of it and walked across the surface.

At night, the water burned green, blue, and white with death fire. Some of the sailors dreamed that a spirit, nine fathoms deep, followed them beneath the ship from the land of mist and snow. The sailors blamed the Mariner for their plight and hung the corpse of the Albatross around his neck like a cross.

A weary time passed; the sailors became so parched, their mouths so dry, that they were unable to speak. But one day, gazing westward, the Mariner saw a tiny speck on the horizon. It resolved into a ship, moving toward them. Too dry-mouthed to speak out and inform the other sailors, the Mariner bit down on his arm; sucking the blood, he was able to moisten his tongue enough to cry out, "A sail! a sail!" The sailors smiled, believing they were saved.

But as the ship neared, they saw that it was a ghostly, skeletal hull of a ship and that its crew included two figures: Death and the Night-mare Life-in-Death, who takes the form of a pale woman with golden locks and red lips, and "thicks man's blood with cold." Death and Life-in-Death began to throw dice, and the woman won, whereupon she whistled three times, causing the sun to sink to the horizon, the stars to instantly emerge. As the moon rose, chased by a single star, the sailors dropped dead one by one--all except the Mariner, whom each sailor cursed "with his eye" before dying. The souls of the dead men leapt from their bodies and rushed by the Mariner.

The Wedding-Guest declares that he fears the Mariner, with his glittering eye and his skinny hand. The Mariner reassures the Wedding-Guest that there is no need for dread; he was not among the men who died, and he is a living man, not a ghost.

Alone on the ship, surrounded by two hundred corpses, the Mariner was surrounded by the slimy sea and the slimy creatures that crawled across its surface. He tried to pray but was deterred by a "wicked whisper" that made his heart "as dry as dust." He closed his eyes, unable to bear the sight of the dead men, each of who glared at him with the malice of their final curse. For seven days and seven nights the Mariner endured the sight, and yet he was unable to die.

At last the moon rose, casting the great shadow of the ship across the waters; where the ship's shadow touched the waters, they burned red. The great water snakes moved through the silvery moonlight, glittering; blue, green, and black, the snakes coiled and swam and became beautiful in the Mariner's eyes. He blessed the beautiful creatures in his heart; at that moment, he found himself able to pray, and the corpse of the Albatross fell from his neck, sinking "like lead into the sea."

The Mariner continues telling his story to the Wedding-Guest. Free of the curse of the Albatross, the Mariner was able to sleep, and as he did so, the rains came, drenching him. The moon broke through the clouds, and a host of spirits entered the dead men's bodies, which began to move about and perform their old sailors' tasks. The ship was propelled forward as the Mariner joined in the work.

The Wedding-Guest declares again that he is afraid of the Mariner, but the Mariner tells him that the men's bodies were inhabited by blessed spirits, not cursed souls. At dawn, the bodies clustered around the mast, and sweet sounds rose up from their mouths--the sounds of the spirits leaving their bodies. The spirits flew around the ship, singing. The ship continued to surge forward until noon , driven by the spirit from the land of mist and snow, nine fathoms deep in the sea.

At noon , however, the ship stopped, then began to move backward and forward as if it were trapped in a tug of war. Finally, it broke free, and the Mariner fell to the deck with the jolt of sudden acceleration. He heard two disembodied voices in the air; one asked if he was the man who had killed the Albatross, and the other declared softly that he had done penance for his crime and would do more penance before all was rectified.

In dialogue, the two voices discussed the situation. The moon overpowered the sea, they said, and enabled the ship to move; an angelic power moved the ship northward at an astonishingly rapid pace. When the Mariner awoke from his trance, he saw the dead men standing together, looking at him. But a breeze rose up and propelled the ship back to its native country, back to the Mariner's home; he recognized the kirk, the hill, and the lighthouse. As they neared the bay, seraphs--figures made of pure light--stepped out of the corpses of the sailors, which fell to the deck.

Each seraph waved at the Mariner, who was powerfully moved. Soon, he heard the sound of oars; the Pilot, the Pilot's son, and the holy Hermit were rowing out toward him. The Mariner hoped that the Hermit could shrive (absolve) him of his sin, washing the blood of the Albatross off his soul.

The Hermit, a holy man who lived in the woods and loved to talk to mariners from strange lands, had encouraged the Pilot and his son not to be afraid and to row out to the ship. But as they reached the Mariner's ship, it sank in a sudden whirlpool, leaving the Mariner afloat and the Pilot's rowboat spinning in the wake. The Mariner was loaded aboard the Pilot's ship, and the Pilot's boy, mad with terror, laughed hysterically and declared that the devil knows how to row.

On land, the Mariner begged the Hermit to shrive him, and the Hermit bade the Mariner tell his tale. Once it was told, the Mariner was free from the agony of his guilt. However, the guilt returned over time and persisted until the Mariner traveled to a new place and told his tale again. The moment he comes upon the man to whom he is destined to tell his tale, he knows it, and he has no choice but to relate the story then and there to his appointed audience; the Wedding-Guest is one such person.

The church doors burst open, and the wedding party streams outside. The Mariner declares to the Wedding-Guest that he who loves all God's creatures leads a happier, better life; he then takes his leave. The Wedding-Guest walks away from the party, stunned, and awakes the next morning "a sadder and a wiser man."
                                                --adapted from Spark Notes.com

English Romanticism

  • Romantic writers saw themselves as visionaries with the ability to look beyond the ordinary in life and contemplate man's ultimate fate in an uncertain world.
  • William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley asserted their belief in the innate goodness of man and his future promise.
  • Other writers of the period were less optimistic. Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, for example, questioned the likelihood of redemption through a spiritual union of the human consciousness with the supernatural. They were uncertain if man's knowledge and creativity would cause his salvation or his downfall
  • Romanticists also believed that retreats into nature provide the soul with a refreshing, a renewal.  Nature also provides the mind with the peaceful environment in which to think more clearly.
  • Dark Romanticism
    In works of dark Romanticism, the writers feature outcasts from society like themselves such as  Samuel Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, and Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein and his creature.
  • Suffering for offenses against God, man and Nature, the hero-villains wander the earth, alone and misunderstood. Their personal torment in a vast universe is emphasized by desolate settings of icebound seas, jagged mountains and bottomless abysses: imagery that would inspire artistic, literary, and musical compositions.
  • These Romantic writers explored the mysterious, the monstrous, and the supernatural, creating powerful and imaginative works of literature.






Study Guide

1.    What aspect of the mariner seems to cast a spell over the wedding guest?

2.    Why does the ship sail to "the land of ice and fearful sounds"?

3.    How does the coming of the albatross apparently affect the ship's course?

4.    Why do the mariner's shipmates first condemn his killing of the albatross, then approve of it?

5.    Later, why do they hang it on his neck?

6.    As the albatross begins to be avenged, what effects are seen in the natural world?

7.    What supernatural force is at work?

8.    As a ship nears, how does the mariner manage to cry out?  What details reveal it as a ghost ship?

9.    Describe the appearance of its crew and their effect on the mariner and his companions.

10.    At this point, why is the wedding gust suddenly fearful?  How does the mariner reassure him?

11.    How long does the mariner suffer "Alone on a wide, wide sea" and under whose curse?

12.    What act finally enables the mariner to pray?  Was it a spontaneous or a premeditated decision?

13.    How does nature reflect the change in the mariner?

14.    With the crew dead, how is the ship manned?  What spiritual agencies are involved?

15.    Now that he has dropped the guilty weight of the albatross, is the mariner forgiven and released from suffering?  Explain.

16.    At what point in the journey is the curse dispelled?

17.    What elements of the supernatural are described in this part of the poem?

18.    What finally happens to the ship, and how is the mariner saved?

19.    Why is the pilot's boy frightened?

20.    What service does the hermit perform?

21.    What is the mariner's final doom or sentence?

22.    What strange power does he have?

23.    How does the mariner's tale affect the wedding guest?

24.    What is the theme(s) of this poem?

25.    What might the albatross have symbolized in Coleridge's own life?


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