Study Guide Excerpt: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Part I Analysis
The poem begins with a description of the Ancient Mariner, his eye and his ability to compel the Wedding Guest to listen to his story. Although human, there appears to be something spiritual about him. There is no introduction to his story, he simply begins to speak: “There was a ship, quoth he” (1). The temporal and mundane world tries to interject into the story of the natural and sublime world, throughout Part I. For example, the Wedding Guest cries out as he hears his friends enjoying the festivities but, he is transfixed and unable to move away from the Mariner and his tale.
The ideal of the sublime, and the essence of Romanticism, are expressed through the storm and the dangerous beauty which the Mariner and his crew encounter at the South Pole, “the land of mist and snow” (6). Although the ship is in a perilous position at the South Pole, the conditions are also beautiful and majestic. The Albatross comes out of the fog, and joins the ship in a place where there should be no life. It is, therefore, seen as both natural and supernatural, and an embodiment of the sublime. For the Sailors, it is a good omen and a means of connection with God and the natural world.
The Mariner’s unexplained killing of the Albatross begins a cycle of sin and punishment. He has committed a crime against nature, and against God. It is also another failed attempt for the mundane to overpower the sublime.
Part II Analysis
Although the Mariner and the Sailors think that killing the Albatross was the right thing to do, the natural world, ruled by the Sun and the Spirit, does not agree, and begins to punish them for the sins they have committed. The Mariner and the crew are tortured as they suffer from extreme heat and thirst, despite them being surrounded by water: “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink” (6).
As he is facing punishment at the hands of nature, the Mariner has not yet had the ‘Romantic’ realization that the slimy creatures he sees sliding about on the sea, are actually beautiful sea snakes. Due to the extreme thirst, the Mariner and the Sailors are unable to speak, but the Sailors are able to communicate through their eyes as they give the Mariner “evil looks” (7). They also hang the Albatross around the Mariner’s neck. The symbolism of the bird for Christ on the cross is made explicit here.
Part III Analysis
The Mariner and the Sailors are tortured as they are stuck in time on the sea. As well as the heat and thirst, and being unable to speak, part of their punishment is the lack of hope as time goes by. This lack of hope is given a brief reprieve when the Mariner spots the ship approaching. However, hope quickly turns to horror when the ship gets closer and the Mariner sees that it is actually a ‘ghostly’ ship. (The ghost ship is superimposed over the sun and the natural world, as the Mariner’s penance transfers into the supernatural realm.) Unable to communicate the ship’s approach to the Sailors, the Mariner drinks his own blood to lubricate his throat. This detail also functions within a Christian allegorical reading, as Christ’s blood has healing powers of salvation, and is drunk (literally or symbolically, depending on the interpretation) in the ritual of the Eucharist. Introducing Death and Life-in-Death into the poem is a move away from Christianity, towards the supernatural. The transitional nature of Life-in-Death symbolizes the next step in the Mariner’s punishment as he will be left to endure a living death. The Moon takes the place of the Sun and the torture (thirst) caused by the natural world is brought to its final stage by the supernatural Death under the moon. Still unable to speak, the Sailors communicate their final hatred towards the Mariner through their eyes. What happens to the Sailors challenges a Christian reading of the poem. Why do they die when the Mariner does not? Is their sin worse than his? And, what happens to their souls at the end of the poem? These questions remain open to interpretation.
Part IV Analysis
By interrupting the Mariner’s story, the Wedding Guest is bringing the readers back to the mundane. This makes the sublime experiences of the Mariner even more terrifying. And, terrified that the Mariner may himself be a zombie or a ghost, the Mariner reassures the Wedding Guest that he is alive, as his punishment is that he must travel far and wide to tell his tale. The Mariner continues with his story and explains the solitude he felt as he was left alone with the corpses of the dead Sailors on the deck - their eyes open and staring at him. As they are still unable to speak, the power of their eyes means that even by shutting his own the Mariner cannot escape the dead men’s stares. And, unable to recognize the beauty of the nature that surrounds him, he is unable to pray. After suffering from the week-long dead-eyed curse, the Mariner experiences an awakening and is able to harmonize the natural and the supernatural worlds. He now sees the slimy sea creatures as beautiful water snakes created by God. His embracing of the Romantic means he is partially absolved of his sin and is now able to pray.
Part V Analysis
Finally, the Mariner’s spiritual awakening has lifted the curse and partially absolved him. He is no longer denied water and sleep. It can be interpreted that the plentiful rain symbolises the Mariner’s redemption. He drinks and is finally able to fall asleep.
However, it is a short reprieve as the wind starts to rage again. The storm does not reach the ship but a supernatural occurrence takes place as the dead Sailors rise up and, without speaking or moving their eyes, begin working. The natural and the supernatural, angels and spirits, terror and awe within the context of the sublime, all become mixed together.
The end of night in part symbolizes a transition away from the supernatural, as the angels leave the Sailors’ bodies and offer a divine celebration. But the Lonesome Spirit continues to carry the ship, under the influence of the angels. Again, we see the supernatural and the natural tied together under the influence of the spiritual.
This fit of the Mariner’s is strange, in that it comes in the same section that he dreams, but is separated as a different kind of experience. The fit seems to be a combination of a supernatural state and a spiritual vision, in which the state of his redemption is revealed to the Mariner. As the Voices (who seem to be spirits of some kind) indicate, he has done penance, but still more is required of the Mariner. This proves to be the case for him in perpetuity; there is always still more penance, an idea which challenges the common Christian narrative of sin, penance, redemption, and salvation.
Part VI Analysis
In Part VI, First Voice and Second Voice offer a narrative and stylistic break in the poem. Their speech is structured like a play but, before, the text was unbroken. The Voices are also omniscient and know everything that has happened to the Mariner and Sailors. The Voices indicate that the Mariner is not wholly absolved and must face further punishment. He loses his ability to pray once more but, this lack of communication is healed again through the eyes and an observation of nature’s beauty. The Voices leave as, like the Wedding Guest, they have somewhere else to be; the Second Voice urges the First: "Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high! / Or we shall be belated” (19).
When the Mariner is out in the open ocean, Coleridge's imagery is heavily visual and tactile, but it also focuses on sound. Noises from the wedding interrupt the Mariner’s story, the terrible silence when thirst causes him and the Sailors to lose their ability to speak, and the angels singing like a choir. Sounds are particularly important in this part of the poem; the two Voices speak but have no visible presence. The Mariner also hears his rescuers in the Pilot’s boat before he sees them. Coleridge's focus on sound connects us to the fact that the Mariner is telling a story. Readers are viewing the story, but it is a tale meant to be spoken aloud.
The Mariner approaches his homeland, as two-hundred angels, one for each of the dead Sailors, guide the ship safely. The angels also attract the Mariner’s rescuers; the Pilot, Pilot’s Boy, and Hermit. When the angels leave the bodies of the dead Sailors, rather than singing, as they have before, they communicate only visually. Although, at the end of Part VI, the Mariner knows that he will soon be home and believes that the Hermit can absolve him of his sin, the reader can't help but suspect that more horror is in store.
Part VII Analysis
The final part includes new voices and characters, the Hermit, and the Pilot, in a narrative that has, up till now, been mainly just the Mariner. As expected, things do start to go wrong for the Mariner once more as his ship is pulled down by a powerful undertow. He begins to accept his fate as nature pulls him under the water. However, he is not able to die as he has been cursed to endure a living death, and so he is rescued by the Hermit and the Pilot. The Hermit does not ask him where he came from or how he got to the harbor but, rather, asks, "What manner man art thou?" as if to discern whether or not he is human (26). The Mariner does not answer the Hermit’s question but is forced to tell his story for the first time, just as he is forced to tell it to the Wedding Guest.
The Mariner has said he knows who he must tell his story to as soon as he sees them, which would make one believe that there are similarities between the Wedding Guest and the Hermit. But, the Hermit is a God-fearing man who lives a quiet, solitary life. Whereas the Wedding Guest is on his way to a party with two other men. If the Wedding Guest must hear the Mariner’s story, why is this not also the case for his companions?
The Mariner explains to the Wedding Guest that at random hours, agony takes over and his heart burns until he has told his story once more. This idea of eternal punishment is a break from traditional Christian allegories, in which a sinner will be fully absolved. Coleridge has claimed that his intention was not for the poem to have a moral, but yet the Mariner says in this final part: ”He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all” (28). These are the Mariner’s final lines and soon after the poem ends.