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 Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is written in loose, short ballad stanzas usually either four or six lines long but, occasionally, as many as nine lines long. The meter is also somewhat loose, but odd lines are generally tetrameter, while even lines are generally trimeter. (There are exceptions: In a five-line stanza, for instance, lines one, three, and four are likely to have four accented syllables—tetrameter—while lines two and five have three accented syllables.) The rhymes generally alternate in an ABAB or ABABAB scheme, though again there are many exceptions; the nine-line stanza in Part III, for instance, rhymes AABCCBDDB. Many stanzas include couplets in this way—five-line stanzas, for example, are rhymed ABCCB, often with an internal rhyme in the first line, or ABAAB, without the internal rhyme.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is unique among Coleridge’s important works— unique in its intentionally archaic language (“Eftsoons his hand drops he”), its length, its bizarre moral narrative, its strange scholarly notes printed in small type in the margins, its thematic ambiguity, and the long Latin epigraph that begins it, concerning the multitude of unclassifiable “invisible creatures” that inhabit the world. Its peculiarities make it quite atypical of its era; it has little in common with other Romantic works. Rather, the scholarly notes, the epigraph, and the archaic language combine to produce the impression (intended by Coleridge, no doubt) that the “Rime” is a ballad of ancient times (like “Sir Patrick Spence,” which appears in “Dejection: An Ode”), reprinted with explanatory notes for a new audience.
But the explanatory notes complicate, rather than clarify, the poem as a whole; while there are times that they explain some unarticulated action, there are also times that they interpret the material of the poem in a way that seems at odds with, or irrelevant to, the poem itself. For instance, in Part II, we find a note regarding the spirit that followed the ship nine fathoms deep: “one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted.” What might Coleridge mean by introducing such figures as “the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus,” into the poem, as marginalia, and by implying that the verse itself should be interpreted through him?
This is a question that has puzzled scholars since the first publication of the poem in this form. (Interestingly, the original version of the “Rime,” in the 1797 edition of Lyrical Ballads, did not include the side notes.) There is certainly an element of humor in Coleridge’s scholarly glosses—a bit of parody aimed at the writers of serious glosses of this type; such phrases as “Platonic Constantinopolitan” seem consciously silly. It can be argued that the glosses are simply an amusing irrelevancy designed to make the poem seem archaic and that the truly important text is the poem itself—in its complicated, often Christian symbolism, in its moral lesson (that “all creatures great and small” were created by God and should be loved, from the Albatross to the slimy snakes in the rotting ocean) and in its characters.
If one accepts this argument, one is faced with the task of discovering the key to Coleridge’s symbolism: what does the Albatross represent, what do the spirits represent, and so forth. Critics have made many ingenious attempts to do just that and have found in the “Rime” a number of interesting readings, ranging from Christian parable to political allegory. But these interpretations are dampened by the fact that none of them (with the possible exception of the Christian reading, much of which is certainly intended by the poem) seems essential to the story itself. One can accept these interpretations of the poem only if one disregards the glosses almost completely.
A more interesting, though still questionable, reading of the poem maintains that Coleridge intended it as a commentary on the ways in which people interpret the lessons of the past and the ways in which the past is, to a large extent, simply unknowable. By filling his archaic ballad with elaborate symbolism that cannot be deciphered in any single, definitive way and then framing that symbolism with side notes that pick at it and offer a highly theoretical spiritual-scientific interpretation of its classifications, Coleridge creates tension between the ambiguous poem and the unambiguous-but-ridiculous notes, exposing a gulf between the “old” poem and the “new” attempt to understand it. The message would be that, though certain moral lessons from the past are still comprehensible—”he liveth best who loveth best” is not hard to understand— other aspects of its narratives are less easily grasped.
In any event, this first segment of the poem takes the Mariner through the worst of his trials and shows, in action, the lesson that will be explicitly articulated in the second segment. The Mariner kills the Albatross in bad faith, subjecting himself to the hostility of the forces that govern the universe (the very un-Christian-seeming spirit beneath the sea and the horrible Life-in-Death). It is unclear how these forces are meant to relate to one another—whether the Life-in-Death is in league with the submerged spirit or whether their simultaneous appearance is simply a coincidence.
After earning his curse, the Mariner is able to gain access to the favor of God—able to regain his ability to pray—only by realizing that the monsters around him are beautiful in God’s eyes and that he should love them as he should have loved the Albatross. In the final three books of the poem, the Mariner’s encounter with a Hermit will spell out this message explicitly, and the reader will learn why the Mariner has stopped the Wedding-Guest to tell him this story.