In general, the poems of Coleridge resemble the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Most of them were left unfinished. Nevertheless, Leonardo finished the Mona Lisa, and Coleridge completed The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Imagine that your older sister is about to get married. You happily approach the church door when suddenly a wild man with a long gray beard and a glittering eye prevents you from entering and begins to tell a long story. You vociferously object, but the glittering eye of the stranger holds you spellbound. You have to listen to him, even though you are not interested in hearing a tale, in view of the circumstances.
Such is the setting of Coleridge’s famous poem. An ancient mariner tells a wedding guest about a tragic sea voyage and concludes with an edifying moral.
The ancient mariner did not identify the port from which his ship sailed. Since the sun rose to the left of the ship and rose higher every day, they were sailing southward.
Suddenly a storm arose. It blew the ship farther south than the sailors wished to go. They entered the cold Antarctic waters, and ice began to float past their ship. Eventually ice surrounded the ship on every side.
While trapped in the ice, the hearts of the sailors were cheered by the arrival of an albatross. They treated it like a pet.
Finally the ice broke, and the ship escaped from its icy prison. The albatross followed the ship, and the sailors kept feeding it.
At this point, the ancient mariner was compelled to confess the evil that he had done. He shot the albatross with his crossbow.
His fellow sailors reproached him. They thought that the presence of the albatross had made the breezes blow, so when the wind no longer filled their sails, they blamed the ancient mariner.
As days past and the ship did not move, the sailors ran out of water. This predicament was the setting of the famous line: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Everyone cast sinister glances at the ancient mariner. As a punishment for his wicked act, they hung the body of the albatross around his neck.
One day, a ship swiftly approached them, even though there was no wind or current. The sailors thought that the ship would help them, but it proved to be a sort of ghost ship. As this strange vessel passed between the sun and their ship, the sun became flecked with bars. The hull of the ship had no boards, but only its framework, so that the sun shined right through the hull. In spite of this, the ship did not sink, but glided on top of the water.
Two ghastly figures were the ship’s only passengers. One of them was a lady called Life-in-Death. Her companion was Death. They were casting dice. The ancient mariner would belong to whoever won. Since Life-in-Death won, the ancient mariner would not die, but death would surround him on every side.
After the specter-ship left the scene, the sailors began to die one by one. As each of his companions died, he looked at the ancient mariner with a curse in his eye. As the soul left a dying sailor’s body, it whizzed past the ancient mariner like a missile shot from a crossbow.
The ancient mariner eventually was surrounded by the bodies of all his companions. They did not decay, and the curse in their eyes never passed away. In addition, the ancient mariner still had the albatross hanging about his neck. He tried to pray, but was not able to do so.
One night, water-snakes were swimming near the ship. As he watched their antics in the moonlight, his heart was filled with love for them, and he blessed them unaware. He was then able to pray, and the albatross fell from his neck. In addition, the mariner enjoyed a blessed sleep.
There were buckets on the deck of the ship. They were designed to catch water whenever it rained. As the ancient mariner slept, he dreamed that these buckets were filled with dew. Then, when he awoke, it started raining. It poured down from one black cloud, while the moon was at its edge. The ancient mariner heard a loud wind, but it did not reach the ship. Nevertheless, the ship began to move without the assistance of any breeze.
That night, the dead sailors rose and began to man the ship. The ancient mariner worked with them. This ghastly crew was not as horrible as it seemed. The dead bodies were not animated by the souls that had departed from them, but angels had entered the corpses and became the vital force that moved them.
In the morning, the angels left the bodies that they had inhabited during the night. The ancient mariners heard their celestial songs as they left.
Without a breeze and without a crew, the ship continued to move. A spirit under the ship made it go. It moved smoothly on the waters till noon; then it temporarily stopped.
When it began to move again, it lunged swiftly forward, so that the ancient mariner swooned. As he lay unconscious, he heard the sound of voices. They discussed the plight of the ancient mariner. One of them said: “The man hath penance done, and penance more will do.”
A voice also explained why the ship moved so fast, saying: “The air is cut away before, and closes from behind.”
When the ancient mariner awoke, the ship slowed down. Eventually the ancient mariner felt a welcome breeze on his cheek.
To the delight of the ancient mariner, the ship approached a harbor that belonged to his own country. A seraph stood on each of the dead sailors, and their lights served as a signal to the shore. A pilot and the pilot’s boy approached in a boat, accompanied by a hermit.
Because of the ominous appearance of the ship, the pilot was afraid to approach; but the hermit encouraged him.
When the pilot’s boat was close to the ship, the ship went down like lead, and the ancient mariner floated on the water. He soon found himself in the boat of the pilot.
The ghastly appearance of the ancient mariner caused the pilot to fall down in a fit, and the pilot’s boy became crazy. As the ancient mariner took the oars, the pilot’s boy laughed and said: “The devil knows how to row.”
The ancient mariner asked the hermit to shrive him, i.e., to hear his confession and grant absolution. He told the hermit all that had happened during the voyage.
Since that time, the ancient mariner has traveled from country, telling his story to many people. He always knows who is supposed to hear it, just by looking at his face.
The ancient mariner then expresses the moral of his story: “He prayeth well who loveth well both man and bird and beast” because God, who loves us, has made them all, and He loves every one of them.
When the wedding guest awoke the next morning, he was a sadder and a wiser man.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be read online. It is presented by Page by Page Books.