Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:11 Romantic Themes
  • 4:13 Poem Begins
  • 5:48 South Pole & Albatross
  • 8:57 Death Sails In
  • 12:51 Zombies!
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

What do you like in a great story? Zombies? Mystery at sea? Ghosts? Large birds? What if you could have them all? You can! In this lesson, we're going to explore the famed Romantic poem ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,'' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Romantic Themes

So in 1798, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a little poem called 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.' It's a pretty great poem. It's got awesome adventure, horror, and mystery. It's also got zombies. You know those books, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, that kind of get updated to include horror stuff? Coleridge doesn't need to do that; 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Zombies' would be redundant because they're already in there. So that's pretty cool.

It's also got a famous little quote embedded in there: 'Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.' That's from 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.' We'll find out where that comes from and what they're talking about. It's basically just a reference to the fact that there's lots of salt water around but you can't drink any of it because it will make you die faster than if you just don't drink anything at all.

Kind of like all the best poetry, I think, it either has a very powerful message or it kind of might be meaningless. It's sort of ambiguous about what it really signifies, but it is a great poem.

It's pretty Romantic in style and concern, except at times when it really isn't; it's sort of ambiguous in that sense, too. And it's very, very long. It's divided into seven sections and it's got about 600 lines, which is a really long poem. But don't worry; the lines are really short, so there's not really all that may words in them.

And that should make you really excited to learn about this, so let's do it!

But before we jump in, we're going to look a little bit at some Romantic themes that come up in the poem or are subverted by the poem. What we're going to look at is nature (the idea of the natural world), supernatural forces (zombies might come in there), strong human emotions, and the idea of sin and restoration (you do something bad but you can be redeemed for it).

If you know Romantic poetry by now, then you also know that one of the major facets of Romantic poems tends to be that they use accessible, modern language (modern for them; it might seem a little antiquated to us). But 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' actually doesn't do that. It actually uses fairly antiquated language deliberately. It deliberately violates this particular trend of Romantic poetry.

This was actually an issue when the poem debuted. It was the first poem in collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth called Lyrical Ballads. It's the first poem in the book, and Wordsworth went on record complaining that it used this archaic language and he called the poem an 'injury to the volume' that discourages people from reading the rest.

It's kind of like if you bought Now!...whatever number they're on now (back when I was buying them it was like Now! 5...now it's like Now! 45) and because you like Top 40 music, you buy that CD or download it (whatever the kids are doing these days). Then, the first track is actually a 10-minute Tom Waits song. If you don't know who that is, all you have to do is Google and see that a YouTube genius posted one of his songs onto a video of Cookie Monster singing - he sounds like Cookie Monster. Anyway you get an idea of who Tom Waits is and how it would be quite different than the other things on the Now! CD. The point is that there would be a major shift in tone and that's what's going on in Lyrical Ballads, or at least what Wordsworth is worried about in Lyrical Ballads with 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.'

The Poem Begins

As the title might suggest, this poem is about a tale told about and/or by an ancient mariner, who is just somebody who sails. It's not someone who plays baseball for Seattle.

It starts with a bunch of dudes who are all heading to a wedding. The Mariner shows up and stops one of the men. The man says to the Mariner:

'By thy long beard and glittering eye,

Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,

And I am next of kin;

The guests are met, the feast is set:

May'st hear the merry din.'

I warned you that the language is kind of archaic. You might be able to see why Wordsworth was a little bit bothered by it. But all the guy is saying here is, 'Dude, you look kind of crazy. Why'd you stop me? The wedding is about to start. I gotta go.'

And the Mariner says back to him,

'There was a ship'

Let this be a warning to you. If a long-bearded, glittery-eyed stranger accosts you and says, 'There was a ship,' you might as well sit down. It's going to be a long story.

And that's exactly what happens in the poem. The Wedding-Guest is spellbound and sits to listen, like a 'three years' child...' who 'cannot choose but hear.' He's totally going to miss the wedding.

The Mariner proceeds to tell a long and amazing story that I'm going to try to summarize in just a few minutes. So here we go!

The South Pole and the Albatross

Basically, the Mariner is describing this journey he was on a long time ago. They were heading south towards the South Pole. In 1798, nobody actually knew if Antarctica existed. People would try to get down there but there'd be crashing waves and rough seas and they wouldn't be able to get very far; it gets rough down there. Today, you could take a cruise ship down there and go look at it, which is kind of cool; but, back then, it was more difficult.

For the Mariner, things were going well. Then:

'...the Storm-blast came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong'

You should note there that the weather is personified. He was tyrannous and strong. Not only that, but Coleridge is highlighting this awesome power of nature, which is one of those Romantic themes that we talked about in the beginning.

As they get closer to Antarctica, they encounter ice. The description of that is:

'The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It crack'd and growl'd, and roar'd and howl'd'

Again, nature is seen as a powerful and threatening thing. It's also definitely a character in the story along with the Mariner and the other people on the ship. Nature is kind of a person in this thing.

But just as nature punishes, it also gives back. The men see an albatross appear in the fog. It's just a giant bird; its wingspan is over 10 feet wide. Actually, in the Disney classic The Rescuers Down Under, that big, white bird that tries to land on the runway but the runway is too small for it - that's an albatross. Fun fact.

Things were looking up; they think they're going to be able to get home even though there were all the storms and ice and stuff that was bad.

Things keep looking up for a while and then the Mariner decides to shoot the albatross with his crossbow. And we're really not told why, it just kind of happens. This is a little troubling. It doesn't really seem like a great idea to shoot this bird that brought the fair wind, but he just does it anyway.

But then it still seems like it might be okay; there's still a good wind and the fog has cleared. For a little bit, the other sailors thought maybe the albatross was actually a bad omen and it brought the fog with it. They start to think it was a good thing it got shot.

But no, it was not a good thing it got shot, as you could predict. The ship ends up near to the equator and it gets becalmed - there was no wind and they can't get anywhere. As they sit idly, baking in the sun, we get those famous lines:

'Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.'

They are thirsty; they can't get anywhere. It really seems like they are in trouble, like it's not going to be okay. They decide that the albatross was their good luck charm and the Mariner needs to be punished for shooting it. So what they decide to do is literally hang the dead albatross around the Mariner's neck and have him wander around like that. I really don't know how they think this is going to help, but they do and so they do that.

Death Sails In

So everyone is almost dead from thirst. Totally out of water and can't drink the seawater - looking bad. They're probably drinking their own pee by this point, which is never a good thing.

The Mariner spots a ship approaching. They all think, 'Oh, this is good news! We're going to be rescued!' He's too parched to yell out, so, as he says:

'I bit my arm, I suck'd the blood,

And cried, A sail! a sail!'

As in the line about the water, we have a representation of strong human emotion, which the Romantics prized, if you remember. They're not stoic and somber. They're real, dramatic and excitable. They'll bite their arms and suck on their own blood to quench their dry mouths.

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