The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a famous narrative poem in seven parts by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was first published anonymously in September 1798 as The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere in Lyrical Ballads. The author was not publicly identified until 1817 when The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was included in Sibylline Leaves, a collection of Coleridge's poems.
The poem is written in the style of old English ballads using archaic language. It begins with an old sailor stopping a man walking to a wedding. The Mariner tells the man a strange tale of a disastrous voyage years ago when his ship became ice-bound in Antarctic waters. He describes how an albatross appeared accompanied by good wind which helped free the ship. Then a look of horror distorts the Mariner's face as he confesses that he shot the albatross with his crossbow.
There are three major versions of the poem; the original 1798 version, a shorter version published in 1800 in the revised edition of Lyrical Ballads, and the 1817 Sibylline Leaves revision. The original version was widely criticized for being incomprehensible, and as a result Coleridge removed many archaic words from the poem in addition to shortening it for the 1800 republication. The 1817 revision, slightly longer, added marginal gloss (explanatory notes in the side margin). Although critical opinions vary on the merits of the gloss, the last is the most commonly reprinted version today.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the most influential poems in the English language. An early example of Romantic poetry, it contains many elements that are associated with the movement such as intense emotions, vivid imagery, awe of nature, and the supernatural. The poem is often anthologized, and many analytical articles and essays have been written on it.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has been adapted to other media, and is frequently referenced in popular culture.
Three guests are about to walk into a wedding feast when an old sailor stops one of them. The Wedding Guest tells the Mariner to let go of him. The old man removes his hand, but the Wedding Guest finds himself mesmerized by the Mariner's glittering eyes. He has no choice but to listen as the Mariner begins to tell his tale.
The ship leaves the harbor and sails southward. As it reaches the Equator, a sudden storm rises. Strong winds drive the ship further south until it becomes ice-bound in Antarctic waters. The ship is surrounded by mist and snow, and the sounds of cracking and growling ice roar through the air. Then an albatross appears through the fog. The sailors welcome the only living creature they have seen in the land of ice. The bird brings with it a good south wind, and the ship reverses direction and heads northward. The sailors feed the albatross, and the bird follows the ship. It learns to come to the Mariner's call, and it rests on the ship in the evenings. After nine days of feeding and playing with it, the Mariner shoots the albatross with his crossbow.
At first, the Mariner's shipmates are angry at him for killing the bird of good omen. But when the fog clears, the sailors change their mind. They justify the killing, believing now that the albatross had brought the fog and the mist. The south wind continues to blow, and the ship continues to sail north. Once they reach the Equator, however, the wind suddenly dies down, leaving the ship stuck in the baking sun for many days. They are surrounded by water but there is none to drink. Slimy creatures cover the rotting sea, and death fires burn at night. The sailors blame the Mariner for their plight and hang the dead albatross around his neck.
The Mariner spots a ship in the distance approaching from the western horizon. He cannot speak because his throat is too dry. He bites his arm and moistens his throat with his own blood then cries out "A sail! a sail!" The sailors rejoice until they realize that the strange ship is moving without any breeze or tide. As the ship approaches, the sailors are horrified to see that it is a skeleton of a ship, its planks looking like ribs against the sinking sun. Aboard the skeleton ship are two ghastly figures, Death and Life-in-Death, playing dice for the ship's crew. Life-in-Death wins the Mariner while Death gets the rest of the crew. Night falls quickly. In the moonlight, the sailors drop down one by one, turning their faces to the Mariner and cursing him with their dying eyes. Their souls leave their bodies and fly by the Mariner.
Everyone on the ship dies except for the Mariner. Surrounded by dead men and the rotting sea with slimy creatures, he tries to pray but is unable to do so. For seven days he suffers, seeing the curse in the dead men's eyes. Then the Mariner notices water snakes shining white in the moonlight. And in the shadow of the ship, their rich colors can be seen as they swim around. The Mariner is struck by their beauty and their happiness. Unknowingly he blesses the creatures. His heart having been awakened to love, the Mariner finds he is now able to pray. The curse begins to lift and the albatross falls off his neck into the water.
The Mariner falls into peaceful sleep. He wakes to refreshing rain and quenches his thirst. Soon he hears strong winds roaring somewhere afar. Rain pours down from a black cloud, yet the moon shines to its side. Although the winds never come near, the ship begins to move. Then the Mariner sees his dead shipmates rise. Their bodies taken over by angelic spirits, the sailors begin to steer the ship and work the ropes. At dawn, the spirits depart from the sailors' bodies, filling the air with sweet music. Even after they have gone, the ship keeps moving. It is now being carried by an underwater spirit which followed from the South Pole. When the ship reaches the Equator, the Polar Spirit angrily releases it causing it to shake violently. The Mariner falls down and loses consciousness. When he finally comes to, he hears two voices in the air. The voices discuss how the Mariner cruelly killed the albatross that the Polar Spirit had loved. The softer of the voices declares that the Mariner has more penance to do.
The Mariner is cast into a trance while the spirits drive the ship northward at an unnatural speed. When the Mariner wakes, the ship has slowed and is now sailing gently in the moonlight. He finds his dead shipmates standing together, their stony glittering eyes fixed on him. The Mariner is spellbound and unable to look away. Then suddenly the spell breaks. The Mariner turns away and looks at the ocean. At first, his fear prevents him from seeing the familiar sight in the distance. But soon a sweet breeze blows on him, and the Mariner sobs as he recognizes his native land. The angelic spirits leave the dead bodies and take luminous forms. They stand silently above the corpses and wave in a heavenly sight, signaling to the land. The harbor pilot's boat comes out in response to meet the ship. It carries the pilot, his boy, and the wise Hermit.
As they approach the ship, the men wonder where the lights have gone. They are puzzled by the silence and alarmed by the horrible condition of the ship. As the boat pulls up next to the ship, a loud and dreadful sound shakes the sea. The ship is hit by the rumbling sound and suddenly sinks into a whirlpool. Stunned by the sound, the Mariner falls overboard. The men pull his floating body into the boat. He is so corpse-like that he gives the pilot and his boy a terrible scare when he begins to move. Even the calm Hermit utters a prayer. As soon as they reach the shore, the Mariner, in terrible agony, begs the holy Hermit to hear his confession and absolve him. Once the tale is told, the Mariner is freed of his pain.
The Mariner closes his tale with the explanation that the agony still returns and burns his heart until he tells his tale again. He tells the Wedding Guest that he always knows when he sees the next person who must hear him. For his penance, the Mariner is compelled to wander from land to land, teaching by his example the lesson he learned; that we must love all things great and small made by God and loved by Him. The Wedding Guest is so affected by the tale that he is unable to join the festivities after the Mariner leaves. He goes home and wakes the following morning "a sadder and a wiser man."
The 1925 silent American film The Ancient Mariner is a loose adaptation of the poem. The film is now believed lost.
The poem was adapted as an educational film by Raúl daSilva in 1975. Narrated by Sir Michael Redgrave, Rime of the Ancient Mariner combines animation and live action and incorporates Coleridge's biography.
In the 1977 short film Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Larry Jordan, Orson Welles reads the poem as animation based on Gustave Doré's illustrations play out the story.
A BBC adaptation of the poem starring Paul McGann was broadcast in the United Kingdom in 1998.
The 1984 album Powerslave by the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden features a song based on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The adaptation is quite faithful, and the lyrics include many direct quotations.
- Sound files of public domain audiobooks of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from LibriVox:
- ↑ Ghostly lights supposed to be seen in graveyards, around corpses, and also reported on ocean surfaces. Decaying organic substances do in fact emit phosphorescent light.