The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Study Guide

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Part 3 | Summary

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Summary

The Mariner spies something approaching from the west. It is a ship that seems to move without wind or current, and it comes toward them. He bites his own arm and sucks the blood to relieve his thirst so he can speak, crying out, "A sail!" It is a ghost ship, with tattered sails and cracked hull. The ship is sailed by Death and Life-in-Death.

The two are playing a game of dice for the Mariner's soul. Life-in-Death wins the game. The entire crew, save for the Mariner, drop dead. Their souls zip past him, leaving him alone on the ship with their bodies.

Analysis

The thirst continues, robbing the Mariner and crew of their voices. This could be seen as another form of punishment, a contrast to the penance the Mariner must perform later in the poem with his act of confession in this tale of woe to the Wedding Guest. The Mariner cannot even attempt absolution because he cannot even pray for forgiveness.

In fact the Mariner must bite his arm and drink his own blood in order to counter the thirst that has made him unable to speak. He pays a price in blood to regain his voice. This also reinforces the Christian references in the poem. Christ's blood turns into wine during the sacrament of the Eucharist via transubstantiation. The drinking of it is to imbibe in Christ's blood shed for salvation. The Mariner drinks his own blood to be able to hail the strange ship, thinking it will offer salvation to him and the crew.

The appearance of Life-in-Death's ship is a masterwork of imagination. Again Coleridge probably draws on maritime legends, this time of the Flying Dutchman. The tale of the Flying Dutchman was known to Dutch sailors. It involved a captain who had been condemned to sail eternally through the seas around the Cape of Storms (Cape of Good Hope) as penance for some unnamed sin. Other legends sprung up around a phantom ship: that the devil visited it to play dice for the sailor's soul, that a woman might spare the sailor from his fate, but the tale of a ghostly ship remained the same.

Hope for salvation is dashed when the Mariner perceives the ship's appearance as it approaches. He can make out the tattered, ghostly sails, and the ship's ribs show through the damaged hull. It is a horror, not a savior, made only worse when he sees Death and the woman beside him. Coleridge introduces the supernatural into his natural world, turning the whole scene otherworldly. Life-in-Death's description is, "Her lips were red, her looks were free, / Her locks were yellow as gold: / Her skin was as white as leprosy, / The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she." It straddles the line between natural and supernatural, just as she does and just as the Mariner will.

The natural order is overturned as Life-in-Death wins the dice game (for the Mariner's soul, much like in one version of the Flying Dutchman legend) and the sun disappears, night falls, and the moon rises. It's like the Mariner and his ship have crossed over into some strange world where nature no longer makes sense, where the rules have been reordered. The crewmen still can't speak, but they convey their anger at the Mariner with their eyes before they all fall down dead while he is still left alive.

Though it is strange that the crew should be punished for the death of the Albatross with death, it is greater punishment for the Mariner. He is left isolated, alone, and consumed with the guilt over the death of not just the Albatross but his own shipmates. He must make absolution for all of their souls too. His penance has become that much greater. The fact that he doesn't know if their souls ended up in heaven or hell must further upset his conscience.

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