The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Study Guide

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Themes

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Sin, Punishment, and Penance

The Mariner's penance is what drives the story—if he wasn't compelled to share his experience and what he's learned, he would never have stopped the Wedding Guest in the first place. When he shoots the Albatross, the Mariner sins against both nature and God. He did not appreciate the innocent beauty found in the Albatross so he kills it without even knowing why he did so. This act leads to his punishment—thirst and starvation, the death of his crew members, deprivation and isolation—until he realizes and appreciates the grandeur of the natural and supernatural world that the Albatross embodied.

He is not fully absolved of his crime though, as he is still called upon to do penance by relating his story to a person who seems to be magically chosen as needing to hear his tale. His deprivations and torment may be ended temporarily while on the ship, but his drive to confess is compelled by some otherworldly urge (spiritual or supernatural is up to interpretation). With Life-in-Death having won his soul, we can assume that the Mariner is doomed to live forever telling his story without respite or face unbearable agony.

In addition, the idea of never-ending penance is not a new one. There are many stories that deal with punishment and absolution, including that of the Wandering Jew, who reportedly taunts Jesus on the way to his crucifixion and then must wander Earth until the second coming, and the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that sails forever and is never able to dock in a port. Coleridge draws upon the common theme to lend his Ancient Mariner the pain and gravitas present in literary and folklore history. The Mariner's sin was the work of a moment, but his penance is eternal.

The Sublime

The idea of the sublime is one of the tenets of the Romantic Period. When we think of a thing as sublime, we believe it to be of great excellence or beauty, but the Romantics had a different definition. To Coleridge and his contemporaries, the sublime represents something both magnificent and terrible, something awe-inspiring and majestic usually associated with nature. Coleridge possessed an even narrower view of what constituted sublime spaces, believing that the limitlessness of the sea and sky and desert to be the only natural landscapes to truly fit this ideal.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is full of these instances. The storm that drives the ship to the South Pole, and the glaciers, ice, and mist that surround the ship once they get there, are described as being beautiful, powerful, dangerous, and terrifying. They inspire awe as much as they inspire fear. The sea serpents they view when the ship is calmed are all described negatively. The Mariner and his crew only seem to see the storms, ice, and creatures of the deep in negative ways, forgetting that they too are created by God and are part of the natural world. These things may be awful, but they are also awe-full. By only focusing on the one and not the other, the Mariner detaches himself from the natural world and God's creation, leaving him open to the sin of unnecessarily killing the Albatross.

When the Mariner finally does see and accept the beauty of the sea snakes that surround the ship, he is accepting the sublime. It is in that moment of clarity that he both accepts the beauty of nature and God's hand in creating them. He understands his place in the natural and spiritual order, beginning to understand the connections between. The Mariner is suddenly able to pray and, for a time, the curse is broken. When he next feels unable to pray after seeing the dead men once again staring at him, he remembers the sublime beauty of God's hand in nature, and the feeling passes. As long as he remembers to accept the presence of the sublime, the Mariner reaffirms his connection to both nature and God.

Nature and Spirit

The Romantic period is defined by an appreciation and glorification of nature, something we see in Coleridge's poem. But The Rime of the Ancient Mariner walks a balanced line between the natural world and the spiritual one. The Wedding Guest is supposed to attend the marriage of his kinsman, a spiritual bonding beneath the eyes of God, but he's interrupted by the Mariner, a seafarer with a closer bond with the natural world.

The story the Mariner tells blends aspects of the natural world and the spiritual. The power of the storms, the eerie beauty of the ice, and the physical presence of the serpents are all dangers of the natural world. The elements that buffet the ship, the lack of wind that strands it, and the lack of water that threatens their lives are all natural in their origin. But the spirit that follows them from the South Pole, the dead men rising to pilot the ship, and the ghostly ship are elements of the spiritual and supernatural worlds. The Albatross flies between them, linking the Mariner's natural world with the supernatural.

The Mariner shooting and killing the Albatross is the inciting incident of the poem. For whatever reason (the Mariner never gives one for why he killed the bird), the Mariner's actions bring about the spiritual consequences of his actions. He could have been demonstrating man's power over nature, and as such, God's own creations. Regardless of why, the Mariner illustrates that this is not the proper way to engage the natural world.

He loses the ability to pray and to interact with the spiritual world on his own behalf. Instead he and the crew are at the mercy of the spirit of the South Pole and Death and Life-in-Death. He cannot communicate with these beings or with God because he's lost the power of speech and prayer. It is only when he begins to value the natural world that he regains his ability to communicate and to confess, and this manifests in the help of the Moon and the angelic possession of the crew to sail him home. Even the spirit of the South Pole, so angry at the death of the Albatross, is helping guide the ship. The natural world and the spiritual work in harmony because the Mariner realizes his ties to both and that they are never truly separate.

The Mariner's first audience is the Hermit, a holy man who sits, prays, and thinks on God. The Mariner is confessing his sin, not just to God but to appease the natural order that he upset when he killed the Albatross. The spiritual and the natural world combine in the character of the Hermit: "He kneels at morn and noon and eve— / He hath a cushion plump: / It is the moss that wholly hides / The rotted old oak stump." He prays to God, but he is removed from mankind, choosing to do so in a natural setting. He is the man that the Mariner believes can give him absolution, being in touch with both worlds.

The Mariner leaves the Wedding Guest with a moral and a warning for how to behave in order to avoid the Mariner's fate. He counsels to both love God and His creatures, to be one with the sublime and the Divine, and to accept the power of both for greater happiness. Coleridge's belief that these two ideas are bound together, that one can reach a deeper spiritual feeling through the interaction and appreciation of the natural world, is expressed to us as much as to the Wedding Guest via the Mariner's story.

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