The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Study Guide

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Part 1 | Summary



An old man stops a younger man who is on his way to the wedding of his family member—he is kin to the groom. When the Wedding Guest tries to brush past the Mariner, the Mariner stops him, and with "his glittering eye" and "skinny hand" and strange manner he compels the Wedding Guest to listen to his story by beginning, "There was a ship."

As part of the crew of a ship, the Mariner sets off to sea. The ship sails southward, eventually arriving in the Antarctic where they see icebergs and are surrounded by the icy cold. The ship becomes trapped in the ice until an Albatross appears. When they feed it, the ice holding them fast breaks apart and the helmsman steers them away.

As they sail the Albatross follows behind, answering to the calls of the Mariner. The Wedding Guest comments on the look on the Mariner's face. The Mariner confesses that he shot the Albatross with his crossbow, giving no reason for the act.


The narrator sets up the frame story as the Wedding Guest is stopped by the Mariner. Readers are launched immediately into the Mariner's story with his line of "There was a ship," offering no introduction beyond that. The power of the Mariner's presence swamps the Wedding Guest's sense of urgency to attend the nuptials and compels him to listen. The Mariner is already associated with the supernatural with his "glittering eye" and the force of his will to speak his story.

The natural world plays a large part in both the poem and in Romanticism. The sea, the storm, and the ship's eventual arrival at the South Pole typify the grandeur of the natural world. This illustrates the sublime, one of the main themes of Romanticism. The sublime is thought of as the realm of experience beyond rational thought, which arises from the beauty and awe-inspiring phenomena of the natural world. Coleridge took a differing view of the sublime than his contemporaries, believing that the sublime could only be found in nature in the sky, the sea, and the desert because of their boundlessness. The beauty of the ocean, the storm (sky), and the ice and mist are all present in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The appearance of the Albatross in a land where living things are scarce appears magical or supernatural. Birds are often depicted as messengers from beyond, of being both a part of nature and beyond it. For sailors the albatross can be seen as a sign of good luck or a bad omen. Albatrosses were believed to carry the souls of dead sailors and would ensure good wind for the sails. However, they were also looked at as an omen of ill luck as they could be a warning of someone's imminent death.

When the Mariner shoots the Albatross, he commits a sin that he must serve penance in the hope of absolution. The cycle of the Mariner's penance is reminiscent of the Wandering Jew. Whether Coleridge meant the bird to represent the Mariner's crime against nature—the death of an innocent creature that trusted the Mariner and helped the crew—or a Christlike sacrifice is open to interpretation. Coleridge would certainly have been aware of the Wandering Jew narrative: a Jewish man is doomed to walk Earth because he taunted Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion. He cannot die until Jesus comes again, an eternal penance. The Mariner's penance works in a similar fashion only with the additional urge to share his story, a confession of sorts.

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