Coleridge is one of the most influential poets of the Romantic Age, and many of his poems have become English literature classics. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a long ballad of one hundred and forty two stanzas which is divided into seven parts. The first part is presented here.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In his childhood and youth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was a pensive and somewhat precocious character. Like so many other writers and poets, he was more into self-studies than regular school work. He went for long walks in the countryside where he could feel the inspiration of nature and indulge in his dreams and fantasies. He made friends with William Wordsworth, which turned out to be a stormy, but also a very fruitful companionship. The two poets wrote together, inspired and criticised each other. Together they published the epoch-making little volume “Lyrical Ballads” (1789), which included “The Rime…” along with other well-known poems of the Romantic era.
But Coleridge had a difficult nature, and his shifty and impulsive personality defined his life negatively in more than one way. As a child, he went after one of his brothers with a knife, ran away from home and caught a fever that would trouble him for the rest of his life; he was headstrong and made many enemies, he ended up in a miserable marriage, neglected his wife and children, and he fell into drug abuse and slothfulness. However, his contribution to Romantic literature stands out; critics claim that Coleridge was the most versatile and abundant poet of his age.
*The theme of the poem is presented by the author as an introduction called “Argument”.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
How a ship having first sailed to the equator, was driven by storms to the cold country towards the South Pole; how the ancient mariner cruelly and in contempt of the laws of hospitality killed a sea-bird and how he was followed by many and strange judgements: and in what manner he came back to his own country.
It is an Ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
“By thy long grey 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.”
He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship”, quoth he.
“Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!”
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye -
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guests sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
Higher and higher every day,
Till over the mast at noon – “
The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast
For he heard the loud bassoon.
The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes
The merry minstrelsy.
The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast;
Yet cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
“And now the Storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.
With sloping pasts and dipping prow,
as who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous and cold:
And ice, mast high came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled
Like noises in a swound!
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us though”
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, though fog-smoke white
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.”
“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! -
Why look’st thou so” – “With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.”
This first part is the offense, where the mariner breaks the law of love and hospitality and kills the bird of good omen.
In the second and third parts, the Mariner is punished for his violation, and suffers isolation and loneliness. The bird is hung around his neck as a symbolic and physical reminder of his offense.
The next parts of the poem tell how the mariner must do penance to gain absolution (“The Albatross fell off my neck”).
But at the end, the deed of evil (breaking the laws of love) turns out to be an unforgivable act and the mariner must face the consequences of his fatal offence.
The message, as described in the “Argument”, is a commonly used theme in Romantic writing: He who breaks the idyll or turns against the good forces of God and nature must in some way pay the price.
A Closer Look at the Poem
Literature of the romantic era would often be inspired by medieval ballads and folk tales. Do you see any examples in this poem?
The narrator tells his story to a man on his way to a wedding. In what way do you think that is a point?
How does the mariner tell that the ship had passed the equator?
The albatross is, in old legends, referred to as “the pious bird of good omen”. What does that mean?
Discuss the symbolic meaning of the albatross, the killing, the ship and its voyage.
In what way do you think Coleridge’s unhappy life and shifty nature was typical of Romantic poets? Follow the links below and read about Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth and compare.
Find the poem on the net and read the full-length version. What do you think? Does this kind of poetry have any relevance today?