The Rime of the Ancient
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(1772 - 1834)
Type of Work:
Lyrical fantasy ballad
A sailing ship traveling the seas; late
The Ancient Mariner, a sailor -storyteller
The Wedding Guest, a listener
The Ship's Crew
The Allbatross, a symbolic representation
of God's creatures - and Man's guilt
The Hermit, a rescuer representing God
(Coleridge introduces his tale by describing
an old gray-headed sailor who approaches three young men headed for a wedding
celebration and compels one of them, the groom's next-of-kin, to hear his
O Wedding-Guest! this sent both been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
At first the intrusion is resented, but
the stor is remarkable indeed, and the listener - who, of course, represents
you, the reader - soon falls captive to the building suspense, responding
at first with fear and then with horror as the tale unfolds.)
There was little apprehension among the
ship's crew as they sailed clear of the harbor, bound for the open sea.
Several days out, however, a storm arose and the vessel was driven before
the wind in a constant southerly direction, headed toward the South Pole.
As it entered the "land of ice, and of fearful sounds, where no living
thing was to be seen," a feeling of foreboding came over the helpless inmates;
and so it was with great relief that the crew eventually greeted the sight
of an albatross - a huge seabird - flying through the fog toward them.
("As if it had been a Christian soul,"
the Ancient Mariner tells his listener, "We hailed it in God's name.")
Everyone took this as a good omen, and
the bird followed the ship faithfully as it returned northward. Then, one
day, weary of the bird's incessant and now unnerving presence, the Mariner
shot the albatross with his crossbow - and brought the curse down upon
The south wind continued to propel them
northward, but somehow the old sailor realized he had done "a hellish thing";
retribution would soon follow, in the form of loneliness and spiritual
anguish, like that of Adam when he fell from God's grace.
The crew at first berated their mate for
killing the bird that had brought the change in the breeze. But as the
ship made its way out of the fog and mist and continued on, they decided
it must be the bird that had brought the mist. Perhaps their shipmate had
rightfully killed it after all.
The vessel sailed on northward until it
reached the equator, where the breeze ceased and the craft became becalmed.
After days without a breath of wind, it was decided by all that an avenging
spirit had followed them from the land of mist and snow, leaving them surrounded
only by foul water. With the unabsolved curse thus restored, the thirsting
crew angrily hung the dead albatross around the Mariner's neck, as a symbol
of his guilt. Time lost all meaning. The lips of the men baked and their
eyes glazed over for want of water.
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
Then the old sailor saw a speck on the
horizon, which, as it wafted towards them, became a sail. The men waited
in silent dread. This could be no earthly ship - it moved along the water
without the slightest breeze.
Wide-eyed and trembling, the crew looked
on as this skeleton ship came alongside their own. On its deck the Mariner
saw two spectres: a Woman, Life-in-Death; and her mate, Death himself.
They were casting dice to see which of them would take control of the drifting
ship. Death won the entire ship's crew - all but the Ancient Mariner, who
was won by the Woman; he alone would live on, to expiate his sin against
There followed a ghastly scene as the sun
dropped into the sea and night came over the silent waters. One by one
the two hundred men on board turned toward the Mariner, denounced him with
a soulful stare - for they could not speak - and dropped dead upon the
deck. As their souls flew from their bodies and sped past the old seaman,
the sound was "like the whizz of my crossbow" when he shot the albatross.
(The Wedding Guest by this time is terrified
of the Ancient Mariner, who he thinks must be a ghost ; but assuring him
he is indeed mortal, the old man proceeds with his story.)
The Ancient Mariner was by