Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Summary and Analysis

What do you like in a great story? Zombies? Mystery at sea? Ghosts? Large birds? What if you could have them all? You can! In this lesson, we’re going to explore the famed Romantic poem ”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Romantic Themes

So in 1798, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a little poem called ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ It’s a pretty great poem. It’s got awesome adventure, horror, and mystery. It’s also got zombies. You know those books, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, that kind of get updated to include horror stuff? Coleridge doesn’t need to do that; ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Zombies’ would be redundant because they’re already in there. So that’s pretty cool.

It’s also got a famous little quote embedded in there: ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.‘ That’s from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ We’ll find out where that comes from and what they’re talking about. It’s basically just a reference to the fact that there’s lots of salt water around but you can’t drink any of it because it will make you die faster than if you just don’t drink anything at all.

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Kind of like all the best poetry, I think, it either has a very powerful message or it kind of might be meaningless. It’s sort of ambiguous about what it really signifies, but it is a great poem.

It’s pretty Romantic in style and concern, except at times when it really isn’t; it’s sort of ambiguous in that sense, too. And it’s very, very long. It’s divided into seven sections and it’s got about 600 lines, which is a really long poem. But don’t worry; the lines are really short, so there’s not really all that may words in them.

And that should make you really excited to learn about this, so let’s do it!

But before we jump in, we’re going to look a little bit at some Romantic themes that come up in the poem or are subverted by the poem. What we’re going to look at is nature (the idea of the natural world), supernatural forces (zombies might come in there), strong human emotions, and the idea of sin and restoration (you do something bad but you can be redeemed for it).

If you know Romantic poetry by now, then you also know that one of the major facets of Romantic poems tends to be that they use accessible, modern language (modern for them; it might seem a little antiquated to us). But ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ actually doesn’t do that. It actually uses fairly antiquated language deliberately. It deliberately violates this particular trend of Romantic poetry.

This was actually an issue when the poem debuted. It was the first poem in collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth called Lyrical Ballads. It’s the first poem in the book, and Wordsworth went on record complaining that it used this archaic language and he called the poem an ‘injury to the volume’ that discourages people from reading the rest.

It’s kind of like if you bought Now!…whatever number they’re on now (back when I was buying them it was like Now! 5…now it’s like Now! 45) and because you like Top 40 music, you buy that CD or download it (whatever the kids are doing these days). Then, the first track is actually a 10-minute Tom Waits song. If you don’t know who that is, all you have to do is Google and see that a YouTube genius posted one of his songs onto a video of Cookie Monster singing – he sounds like Cookie Monster. Anyway you get an idea of who Tom Waits is and how it would be quite different than the other things on the Now! CD. The point is that there would be a major shift in tone and that’s what’s going on in Lyrical Ballads, or at least what Wordsworth is worried about in Lyrical Ballads with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’

The Poem Begins

As the title might suggest, this poem is about a tale told about and/or by an ancient mariner, who is just somebody who sails. It’s not someone who plays baseball for Seattle.

It starts with a bunch of dudes who are all heading to a wedding. The Mariner shows up and stops one of the men. The man says to the Mariner:

‘By thy long beard and glittering eye,

Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,

And I am next of kin;

The guests are met, the feast is set:

May’st hear the merry din.

I warned you that the language is kind of archaic. You might be able to see why Wordsworth was a little bit bothered by it. But all the guy is saying here is, ‘Dude, you look kind of crazy. Why’d you stop me? The wedding is about to start. I gotta go.’

And the Mariner says back to him,

‘There was a ship

Let this be a warning to you. If a long-bearded, glittery-eyed stranger accosts you and says, ‘There was a ship,’ you might as well sit down. It’s going to be a long story.

And that’s exactly what happens in the poem. The Wedding-Guest is spellbound and sits to listen, like a ‘three years’ child…‘ who ‘cannot choose but hear.‘ He’s totally going to miss the wedding.

The Mariner proceeds to tell a long and amazing story that I’m going to try to summarize in just a few minutes. So here we go!

The South Pole and the Albatross

Basically, the Mariner is describing this journey he was on a long time ago. They were heading south towards the South Pole. In 1798, nobody actually knew if Antarctica existed. People would try to get down there but there’d be crashing waves and rough seas and they wouldn’t be able to get very far; it gets rough down there. Today, you could take a cruise ship down there and go look at it, which is kind of cool; but, back then, it was more difficult.

For the Mariner, things were going well. Then:

‘…the Storm-blast came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong

You should note there that the weather is personified. He was tyrannous and strong. Not only that, but Coleridge is highlighting this awesome power of nature, which is one of those Romantic themes that we talked about in the beginning.

As they get closer to Antarctica, they encounter ice. The description of that is:

‘The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d

Again, nature is seen as a powerful and threatening thing. It’s also definitely a character in the story along with the Mariner and the other people on the ship. Nature is kind of a person in this thing.

But just as nature punishes, it also gives back. The men see an albatross appear in the fog. It’s just a giant bird; its wingspan is over 10 feet wide. Actually, in the Disney classic The Rescuers Down Under, that big, white bird that tries to land on the runway but the runway is too small for it – that’s an albatross. Fun fact.

Things were looking up; they think they’re going to be able to get home even though there were all the storms and ice and stuff that was bad.

Things keep looking up for a while and then the Mariner decides to shoot the albatross with his crossbow. And we’re really not told why, it just kind of happens. This is a little troubling. It doesn’t really seem like a great idea to shoot this bird that brought the fair wind, but he just does it anyway.

But then it still seems like it might be okay; there’s still a good wind and the fog has cleared. For a little bit, the other sailors thought maybe the albatross was actually a bad omen and it brought the fog with it. They start to think it was a good thing it got shot.

But no, it was not a good thing it got shot, as you could predict. The ship ends up near to the equator and it gets becalmed – there was no wind and they can’t get anywhere. As they sit idly, baking in the sun, we get those famous lines:

‘Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

They are thirsty; they can’t get anywhere. It really seems like they are in trouble, like it’s not going to be okay. They decide that the albatross was their good luck charm and the Mariner needs to be punished for shooting it. So what they decide to do is literally hang the dead albatross around the Mariner’s neck and have him wander around like that. I really don’t know how they think this is going to help, but they do and so they do that.

Death Sails In

So everyone is almost dead from thirst. Totally out of water and can’t drink the seawater – looking bad. They’re probably drinking their own pee by this point, which is never a good thing.

The Mariner spots a ship approaching. They all think, ‘Oh, this is good news! We’re going to be rescued!’ He’s too parched to yell out, so, as he says:

‘I bit my arm, I suck’d the blood,

And cried, A sail! a sail!

As in the line about the water, we have a representation of strong human emotion, which the Romantics prized, if you remember. They’re not stoic and somber. They’re real, dramatic and excitable. They’ll bite their arms and suck on their own blood to quench their dry mouths.

They get excited about a ship sailing towards them. But then it occurs to them that the sea is really calm and they’re stuck. How can that ship be sailing towards them in such weather? The sailors realize this and this is where it gets to be the horror movie part. It’s where the supernatural comes in. As the ship gets closer, they realize it’s a ghost ship.

Little did you know that the Pirates of the Caribbean movie was based on this poem, in addition to the theme park ride. It really wasn’t, but it’s the same kind of idea – the ship full of skeleton people – is basically what turns up.

And they begin to freak out. When it gets close enough they can see what’s on it and it’s described as:

‘And is that Woman all her crew?

Is that a Death? and are there two?

So it’s two people: Death and a woman. You’d think these guys would be over the moon to see a lady because they’ve been at sea all this time, but they’re not. They described the woman as:

‘Her lips were red, her looks were free,

Her locks were yellow as gold:

Her skin was as white as leprosy,

The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,

Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

She’s terrifying! I mean, skin as white as leprosy does not sound good.

And that’s not all. The Woman and Death are playing dice. She wins and then things get a whole lot worse. She makes the sun go down and then she takes care of those sailors:

‘One after one, by the star-dogg’d Moon,

Too quick for groan or sigh,

Each turn’d his face with a ghastly pang,

And cursed me with his eye.

Four time fifty living men

(And I heard nor sigh nor groan),

With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,

They dropp’d down one by one.

The souls did from their bodies fly-

They fled to bliss or woe!

And every soul, it pass’d me by

Like the whizz of my crossbow!

So you can see, the other sailors are not happy with the Mariner because he brought all this upon him by killing the albatross with his crossbow, which he’s reminded of by the end.

The Mariner is the only one who doesn’t get killed in this. He spends about a week on the boat with these 200 dead bodies, which must have smelled great.

Finally, he’s able to pray, which actually causes the albatross to drop from his neck. And this begins the restoration part of the sin and restoration theme of the Romantics. He starts to repent a bit for this sin of mindlessly killing this bird.

With the albatross off his neck, things start to improve a little bit. He’s able to sleep; it rains, so he’s able to drink and quench his thirst and he doesn’t have to bite into his arm anymore. When the moon appears, the ship actually begins to move. Again, nature is seen as a force that’s this time helping the Mariner, rather than hurting him.

Zombies Guide Us Home

Then we get to the best part. I promised you that there were going to be zombies and there totally are. It’s time for the zombies at this point when the moon comes and it’s time to pick up:

‘The dead men gave a groan.

They groan’d, they stirr’d, they all uprose,

Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;

It had been strange, even in a dream,

To have seen those dead men rise.

These aren’t your usual flesh-eating, Walking Dead zombies; they don’t want braiiiiiins. They’re actually helpful zombies. They raise the sails and steer the ship. They may even know the Thriller dance.

While the ship sails along, there’s an odd little sequence in which the Mariner hears two voices. One notes that the ship is sailing without wind, and really, really fast. He wonders why this Mariner is getting this luxury zombie cruise.

The other voice notes:

‘The man hath penance done,

And penance more will do.

While the other voice thinks the whole thing is a little far-fetched, the first voice basically says that the moon fought the sea and won. So the moon wins and is now able to guide him home and raise the zombies. So nature is controlling the Mariner once again.

As for the zombies, they are pretty good sailors. The ship eventually returns home. Before it reaches port, the spirits that had reanimated the zombies fly away again and the Mariner is once again alone.

A hermit rows out to the ship and rescues him and the ship sinks. The Mariner gets off and he returns to land.

Now we’re back to the beginning where he was telling the wedding guest all this stuff. So the wedding guest totally missed the wedding but he did learn why the Mariner bothered him in the first place. It’s kind of interesting. The Mariner says:

‘Since then, at an uncertain hour,

That agony returns:

And till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns.

I pass like night, from land to land;

I have strange power of speech;

That moment that his face I see,

I know the man that must hear me:

To him my tale I teach.

He’s basically compelled to tell his story forever more as part of his additional penance for killing the albatross. And that’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ That’s what happens.

Lesson Summary

Just to sum it all up again, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ explores a lot of the major themes in Romantic poetry. We have language that’s often archaic – that’s a little bit less normal; they tended to go toward more naturalistic, modern language. But there is a huge focus on nature and its power, which is a huge Romantic thing. They loved that. It’s also really emotion laden; there’s people crying out and people biting into their arms, and there’s this dramatic central figure in the Mariner. It’s also got supernatural elements, from the ghost ship to the reanimated dead sailors or zombies. And, finally, the poem incorporates a story of sin and restoration – this idea that you can repent for what you’ve done wrong. The Mariner suffers for his killing of the albatross and then makes it home but still continues to suffer even after he has returned, which is why he has to tell the story to the wedding guest and why we hear it. So that’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify and describe the major plot and themes of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
  • Understand how the poem does and does not fit the Romantic style

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