Summary of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge


About the Poet:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born on October 21, 1772, was an English poet as well as a literary critic of modern English tradition. He was also a philosopher, a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. Energetic in the stir of the French Revolution as an unorthodox writer of controversial issues and unprofessional preacher, he inspired a brilliant generation of writers and engrossed the benefaction of progressive men of the rising middle class. As William Wordsworth’s coworker and persistent companion in the developmental era of their careers as poets, he was distinguished for the scope and influence of his thinking about literature as much as for his innovative verse. Coleridge participated in the sea change in English verse associated with Lyrical Ballads.

A reader, apparently by nature, Coleridge grew up surrounded by books at school and at home which eventually made his poems of this period, speculative, meditative, and strangely oracular. His works put off early readers but survived the doubts of Wordsworth and Robert Southey to become renowned classics of the romantic idiom. His critical work, especially on Shakespeare, was highly significant, and he helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking culture.

About The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem is about a man on an expedition by ship, who in one thoughtless and atrocious act, changes the course of his life and death.  The Mariner surfaces an inner struggle over the crime he has committed and must understand his actions and perform his repentance.  He must also learn to leave his negative views and openly accept all of Gods’ beings.  The journey becomes a flight of learning important lessons in responsibility, approval, compassion, and sorrow.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was first published as part of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, which thereby secured its position as one of the landmark poems of its age, despite its archaic ballad form. This was Coleridge’s masterpiece, which can be considered as an autobiographical portrait of Coleridge himself, comparing the mariner’s loneliness with Coleridge’s own feelings of loneliness expressed in his letters and journals.

The Setting of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

The poem is recited as a casing tale. A speaker initiates the poem by telling the reader about an ancient mariner who stops a man on the street to recite a story. After receiving the man’s attention, the mariner then tells his tale. Thus, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is like a framed portrait. The frame symbolizes one narrator telling about the mariner while the portrait signifies the mariner describing his story. The Mariner sometimes figures another person, such as the Pilot. However, the Pilot is not a narrator, since he is merely talking about an exchange of ideas and not telling a story.

Stanza-wise Summary of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

All through the first stanza, the sequential creation interrupts itself into the storytelling cloud in which the Ancient Mariner captures the Wedding Guest and reader. One can easily see that the temporal world with its trivial desires attracts the Wedding Guest. He is of that world, is next of kin to the bridegroom and therefore friendly with the festival’s worldly joy. In the meantime, the Ancient Mariner cannot enjoy the chronological world because he is destined to continuously recall the story of his past.

Coleridge introduces the idea of obligation in the second stanza. The seamen have an urge to pinch whatever happens to them on the Ancient Mariner since he killed the Albatross for no good reason. It seems more important to them to make him claim responsibility for their fate than what their fate actually is; first, they curse him for making the wind disappear, and then they praise him for making the mist disappear. By having the sailors switch from blame to praise and back to blame again, Coleridge ridicules those quick to judge.

In the next part, the poem becomes stranger as the spiritual world continues to punish the Ancient Mariner and his fellow sailors. Although later in the poem Coleridge reveals that a specific spirit is responsible for their demise, it seems as though the spiritual world as a whole is punishing the men, using the natural world as its weapon. For instance, the wind refuses to blow, the ocean shakes with dreadful creatures, and the sun’s relentless heat chars the men. The ghost ship, however, is distinct from the natural world. It navigates without the wind, and its residents are spirits. Death and Life-in-Death are metaphorical figures who become frighteningly real for the sailors, especially the Ancient Mariner, whose soul Life-in-Death wins. Even those sailors whose souls go to hell seem freer than the Ancient Mariner; while their souls fly unencumbered out of their bodies, he is destined to be trapped in his indefinitely – a living hell.

As the Ancient Mariner points on the ocean, the natural world becomes more aggressive. His surroundings namely, the ship, the ocean, and the creatures within it are rotting in the heat and sun, but he is the one who is unpleasant on the inside. Meanwhile the sailors’ corpses refuse to rot, and their open eyes swearword him continuously, giving the Ancient Mariner a visible display of the living death that awaits him.

Until the end of this stanza, it seems as though the Ancient Mariner is converted. Not only is he allowed to sleep, but it finally rains, and his thirst is extinguished. Since physical drought and thirst have characterized the Ancient Mariner’s ethical evil up until this point, it is implied that the profuse rain symbolizes his redemption. Even though terrifying things namely storm, lightning and thunder continue to happen all around him, the Ancient Mariner is overwhelmed by them, instead of being awful of them.

The next part also sees an end to the Ancient Mariner’s loneliness, as the sailors awaken to sail the ship. They and the ship itself sing beautiful music, and some spiritual force moves the ship along its course even though the air is still. Again, when the ship crosses the equator, confusion returns. The Ancient Mariner is banged insensible, and the reader begins to doubt whether he will actually be redeemed.

In the next part, the two voices offer a descriptive and formal break in the poem. The voices are also wise in that they know everything that has happened up until now, and are able to offer the Ancient Mariner a more complete justification of his situation. The manner in which the voices are presented provides a moralistic feel to their words. The voices leave because, like the Wedding Guest, they have to go somewhere.

Effects again go twisted for the Ancient Mariner despite his momentary relief. Though safe in the harbour, the ship is pulled under by a forceful undertow. But the Ancient Mariner cannot drown since he is destined to a living death. Just as he is compelled to tell the Wedding Guest his story, he is compelled to tell it to the Hermit.

After all, the Ancient Mariner seems dead when the rescuers pull him into the boat and rapidly comes to life to row the boat to shore. Instead of responding to the Hermit’s question directly, the Ancient Mariner is forced for the first time to tell his tale or be consumed by agony. As he narrates his story to the Wedding Guest, he does not seek out certain people to whom to relate his tale, but rather knows them when he sees them. Since both the Hermit and the Wedding Guest are enforced to pay attention to the anecdote, it is implicit that there must be some similarity between the two men even though they appear to come from entirely opposite worlds.

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