The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Study Guide

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Symbols

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Albatross

The Albatross symbolizes many things in Coleridge's poem. In maritime lore these birds were seen by sailors both as a sign of good luck and as a bad omen. Sailors often thought the albatross carried the souls of dead sailors that would protect the ship or bring good winds, but just as often they thought the bird to be a death omen—a sign that a sailor would soon die. It is this conflicted belief in what the albatross represents that causes the crewmen to be angry with the Mariner, then be happy that he killed it.

The Albatross represents the sublime. It is a natural creature with a spiritual connection (the spirit that loved the bird and seeks penance for the wrong done to the both of them). It links the two worlds since its death is the inciting incident that sets the Mariner on his path to both Romantic enlightenment and hopeful absolution. Because the Mariner did not appreciate the sublime (the Albatross), he was punished by being unable to connect to the spiritual world through prayer. When he finally recognizes the power and beauty of the sublime in the form of the sea snakes, the Mariner regains the power of prayer and the Albatross drops from around his neck to sink into the sea. Because the Mariner learned to appreciate the sublime—which he didn't with his senseless killing of the bird—the Albatross's job is done.

The Albatross also functions as a Christlike figure in the poem. It is innocent of any wrongdoing; in fact it came when the Mariner called for it. Based on the text we are led to believe the bird broke the ice that had trapped the ship. Having saved the crewmen and befriending the Mariner, it is all the more shocking when the Mariner kills it for no apparent reason. The Albatross is the innocent Christ, having committed no crime to deserve death, and the Mariner is his betrayer, Judas. The Albatross is usually mentioned in conjunction with Christian references: "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," and "Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung." The Mariner's story also dovetails nicely with the tale of the Wandering Jew. The man was punished to live until Christ's second coming for striking Jesus; the Mariner is punished for striking and killing the Albatross, reinforcing the Christlike imagery for the bird.

The Gaze

Eyes and stares play an important part of the narrative. The Wedding Guest notices the Mariner's "glittering eye" as the sailor first stops him. The Wedding Guest is held by the power of his stare, unable to break away. The Mariner's stare seems almost supernatural in the way it affects the Wedding Guest. Not only is the story compelling the young man to listen, but the Mariner's gaze also compels him to listen as well.

The eyes become the only means of communication when speech is denied. When the Mariner's crew suffers from thirst and can't speak, they shoot him "evil looks" as they blame him for their circumstances. In addition, the Mariner mentions how glazed the crew's eyes are to convey their weariness even when they can't talk. After they encounter the ghostly ship of Life-in-Death, the crew turns to the Mariner and "Each turned his face with a ghastly pang, / And cursed me with his eye."

The silent communication continues even after the death of the crew. The curse never fades from their eyes, and for seven days and nights their stares are now a supernatural manifestation after their death. It continues when they rise and begin to sail the Mariner home: "All fixed on me their stony eyes, / That in the Moon did glitter. / The pang, the curse, with which they died, / Had never passed away: / I could not draw my eyes from theirs, / Nor turn them up to pray." The Mariner realizes that he is still laboring under the effects of the curse through the gazes of the dead crew, even though he seems to be on his way to forgiveness. It is a foreshadowing that he still has more penance to perform.

The Sun and Moon

The Sun and Moon are symbols for the forces opposing the Mariner's journey. The Sun and Moon clash, the symbols of the supernatural and the natural world. When the Mariner and his crew are in trouble after he has shot the Albatross, the imagery is entirely of the Sun and sunlight. The sailors fear deadly circumstances such as heat, thirst, and drought. The Sun is a part of the natural world, something awesome and terrifying, an instance of the sublime. When Life-in-Death's mystery ship appears, the images associated with that scene are replete with mentions of the Sun.

The Moon is often associated with the supernatural and the mysterious bond between it and the oceans. The Moon controls the tides, and its influence helps the Mariner get back home. When the Mariner's penance truly begins, the Moon has risen and the language changes from harsh imagery to almost soothing passages. When the Mariner swoons and hears the two Voices, one makes mention of the Moon looking down on him, almost like it is watching out for the Mariner as it helps to guide him home. He arrives in the harbor beneath the shadow of the Moon, fitting since the journey began under the light of the Sun. The cycle is complete.

If the Sun shows what is obvious, the Moon shows what is hidden. The Sun and the Moon are opposing forces, but they must coexist. They rise and fall in a daily cycle, in unity if not necessarily in harmony. The Mariner's cycle of sin and penance mirror this cycle as well.

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