Summary of the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins with one of three wedding guests being accosted by the Ancient Mariner and kept from attending the wedding first by the Mariner’s grasp and then by his hypnotic gaze as the Mariner begins to tell the story of his fateful voyage. The Mariner gives no reason for the voyage, saying that they sailed south until they reached the South Pole, where they became icebound and enshrouded in fog. They see and hear nothing but the ice
The ice was here, the ice was there,The ice was all around:It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,Like noises in a swound
Then an albatross flies into view through the fog. Happy to see another living creature, the men aboard the ship treat it “As if it had been a Christian soul” and they hail it “in God’s name.” It circles the ship, accepting the crew’s hospitable offerings of food, and then the ice splits and a wind begins to blow, allowing the ship to move again.
For nine days the bird follows the ship, coming when the men call and occasionally perching on or near the mast. Then, for no reason, the Mariner shoots it with his crossbow. His shipmates’ initial responses are horror and anger. They blame him for killing the creature responsible for the wind that helped free them from the ice and fear that something bad will happen. However, shortly after the bird’s death, the fog clears and the shipmates change their mind, claiming now that the bird was responsible for the fog and saying that the Mariner was right to kill the bird. As soon as they have gone around Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean, the wind stops, and the ship comes to a standstill beneath the blazing sun, now at the other extreme from the earlier cold and ice, though parallel in immobility, as highlighted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s paralleling of word choice and order:
Water, water every where,And all the boards did shrink;Water, water, every where,Nor any drop to drink.
The crew now again changes its mind and hangs the dead albatross around the Mariner’s neck. Shortly thereafter the Mariner spots a ship approaching. In initial joy, the desperate Mariner bites his arm and drinks his own blood to get enough moisture in his mouth to announce what he sees. However, as the ship draws closer it occurs to him to wonder how the other ship can be moving when theirs is not. The ghost ship draws close enough to reveal Life-in-Death and Death gambling for the Mariner. Life-in-Death wins the Mariner and Death takes his consolation prize, the two hundred other men on the ship.
A week passes with the Mariner alone with the dead bodies, whose eyes curse him, and guilty but unable to pray. One night as he watches water snakes swimming in the moonlight, he is so struck by their life and beauty that he loves them and blesses them.
Now that he has repented, the journey homeward begins: The albatross drops from his neck, rain begins to fall, and a strange wind begins to blow above the ship, mysteriously moving it along. The Mariner falls into a trance as the ship speeds faster than mortal endurance, driven by the spirit of the South Pole and manned by spirits who assume the bodies of the fallen crew. While in this trance, the Mariner hears two voices discussing his crime/sin, the fact that he will have to continue to do penance, and the manner by which the ship is moving. When he revives from his trance, he again witnesses the curse on him visible in the dead men’s eyes, which prevents him from looking away from them and from praying. Then the spell snaps, “the curse is expiated,” Coleridge explains, and the Mariner feels a gentle breeze just as he spies the familiar landscape of home.
As his ship enters the harbor, it is approached by a boat containing a Pilot, the Pilot’s boy, and a Hermit. All but the Hermit are afraid of the appearance of the Mariner’s ship. As the Pilot’s boat draws close, the sea rumbles, and the Mariner’s ship suddenly breaks in two and sinks. The Pilot collapses in a fit and the Pilot’s boy goes mad, leaving the Hermit to fish the Mariner from the water and the Mariner to row the boat to shore. Once on land, the Mariner begs the Hermit to shrive him, which the Hermit does by having the Mariner answer his question concerning what manner of man the Mariner is. The Mariner responds by feeling a terrible agony that forces him to tell his story; only after he has finished does he feel free. From that point on the Mariner periodically and unexpectedly feels the same agony and travels “from land to land” until he spots the face of the person that he somehow knows must hear his tale.
The poem draws to a close just as the bridal party is leaving the church. The Mariner tells the Wedding Guest that far better for him than any wedding is a walk in good company toward a church to pray and that the best way to pray is to love all things. With that the Mariner bids the Wedding Guest farewell, and the Wedding Guest is left to wake up the following morning a “sadder and a wiser man.”
Synopsis of the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Line to line Analysis of the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Imagine that this poem starts out like the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson buddy comedy Wedding Crashers. Three scruffy-looking bachelors are getting ready to go into this wedding, hoping to party, meet some girls, and generally have a good time. They’re laughing and swaggering as they approach the door to the party.
But standing outside the door you’ve got this old bearded mariner who suddenly grabs one of the guys. The other two guys enter the wedding feast, and they’re like, “See ya in there.”
The Mariner starts to tell a story as if it were programmed into his brain, and the Wedding Guest is understandably impatient, but also kind of rude. He says something like, “Gross. You’re old and crazy. Let me go.”
The Mariner immediately (“eftsoons”) lets go of the guest, but the magnetic draw of his eyes is even more powerful than his grip.
The Wedding Guest has no hope of escape. He sits on a rock and listens like a little boy (“three-years’ child”) at story time. It’s going to be a long night.
The Mariner starts his story:
When the Mariner’s ship left port, everyone was in a good mood. They sailed out and watched the church (“kirk”), the hill, and finally, the town lighthouse disappear from sight as the ship “dropped” below the horizon.
Days went by, and the sun rose on the “left” and set on the “right.” Every day the sun seemed to rise “higher,” signaling that they were approaching the equator. Finally the sun was directly over the ship’s mast at noon, meaning they had reached the equator.
Suddenly the Wedding Guest has second thoughts as he realizes just how long this story is going to be.
They started playing the music! The bride is led to the dance hall by the entertainers (“merry minstrelsy”)! The wine! The women! He’s missing out!
The guest “beats his breast” in a sign of distress.
But, as we said, there’s something about that mariner that gives him power over the Wedding Guest. Something about his eyes…
The Mariner continues his story:
Near the equator, a storm strikes. The storm is compared to a huge flying creature that chases the ship southward. It drives them all the way down to the Antarctic, where they start to see huge icebergs that look green in the clear water.
The sailors find themselves in the middle of an ice field with ice “here,” “there,” everywhere! Obviously there are no people or animals in sight. The giant icebergs making loud cracking, groaning sounds, like noises you might hear in a trance (“swound”).
At this point, everyone on the boat is convinced that they’re done for.
Everyone is happy to see another living thing fly past the ship: an albatross! You know, the bird with huge, white wings that can fly long distances across the ocean? Yeah, that one.
The albatross seems particularly friendly, almost as if it were a person. And not just a person, but a good “Christian soul.” Somehow the bird seems related to God and peace.
The sailors feed the bird, and naturally it sticks around. Soon enough, the ice that had trapped them splits wide enough apart for the ship to sail through.
More good things happen to the ship.
A south wind that will take them back up north again starts to blow. The albatross continues to follow the boat in good fortune, and everyone treats it like their pet.
The albatross follows them around for nine nights, or “vespers.” It’s still pretty foggy outside, and the moon glows through the fog at night.
Then people start to notice that the Mariner has this sickly look on his face. They try to cheer up him: “What’s wrong, man? Don’t let the fiends get you down!”
And the mariner essentially says, “Remember that albatross that seemed so mysteriously connected to all our good fortune?” Gulp. Uh-huh? “Well, I kind of took my crossbow and shot it.” YOU DID WHAT?!
At least time doesn’t stop after he kills the albatross. The sun keeps rising and setting just as before, and the weather remains misty. Since the sailors are now traveling north instead of south, the sun rises on the right and sets on the left, instead of the other way around, as in Part I, Stanza 6.
But, leave not doubt, that bird is as dead as a doornail. The sailors’ favorite pet is gone. If you have ever read any other literature about sailors, like Melville’s Moby-Dick, you might know that they take their good luck charms very seriously.
The sailors are convinced that the bird brought them the good winds, and they all agree (“averred”) that the Mariner has done a bad, bad thing.
But then the mist goes away, and the sailors change their minds. Instead of bringing the good winds (hooray!), the sailors decide that the bird was responsible for the fog that was making it so hard to see (boo!). They now blame the bird for bad luck. Those fickle sailors.
Everything is going along quite well for the crew. They carve the mounds or “furrows” of the waves with the wind at their back. They make their way into uncharted territory.
One tip for reading this poem: conditions change really fast. It only took a stanza for the sailors to decide that the albatross was really a bad luck charm instead of a good one. Here, it only takes a stanza for the weather to turn from delightful to dreadful.
In short, they lose the good breeze at their backs, and without a breeze to fill the sails, the ship can’t move. Suddenly, the “silence” of the uncharted waters sounds very ominous.
The sun is small and “blood-red”: it looks very far away. The sky has a strange fiery color, but their main problem is a lack of water. If they don’t find some kind of land (or, heck, ice), they will all die of thirst.
There’s no wind. Literally. Not even a tiny gust. The ocean looks like glass, and the scene is so motionless that it could be a painting.
Without any water, even the “boards” – the wood planks of the ship – start to dry up and “shrink.” So…thirsty!
Um, so, sailors, what was that you were saying about being glad that the albatross was dead?
When the world gets dry, the ocean starts to “rot” from the dryness. Think of a pond that is drying up, and how it turns brackish (extra-salty) and starts growing nasty algae. The ocean around the ship is undergoing a similar transformation. Its surface turns “slimy” and gross, slimy creatures start to appear.
These creatures aren’t fish: they have “legs.” Are they walking on the water, or what? Hard to tell what’s going on here, but the poem is beginning to turn strange.
Crazy, disturbing lights start to appear at night, and the water “burns” green, blue, and white. If you wanted to be scientific about it, you might guess that the Mariner is seeing the phenomenon of “phosphorescence.” Some kinds of algae and tiny animals can literally “glow” in the water in certain times of year.
But Coleridge isn’t being scientific, he’s being supernatural. Some of the sailors start to dream that a spirit deep under the ocean has been following the ship ever since they left the Antarctic. Needless to say, it’s not a happy, fuzzy spirit.
The crew becomes so thirsty that they stop producing saliva and cannot talk. But they can still give the stink-eye to the Mariner. “This is all your fault.”
In one of the poem’s most famous images, they hang the dead albatross around his neck.
Side note: First, when did they pick up the albatross? We never heard about that one. Second, that albatross must really stink to high heavens.
They have spent a long time drifting on the ocean with no wind or water, and everyone is sick of it. Then one day, the Mariner sees something coming from the west; as in, the opposite direction as the Mariner’s sweet home England.
He can’t decide whether the thing is a small “speck” or a more spread-out “mist.” The shape starts to come into focus and he became aware (“wist”) of what looked like. It moves around in zigzag fashion as if escaping supernatural forces. Hey, join the club.
The speaker finally realizes what it is, and he wants to shout, but his mouth is too dry. His lips are sunburned and caked with dried blood. When you’re as talkative as the Mariner, you know its trouble when you’re so dehydrated that you can’t speak.
Fortunately, he has a solution that would make the guy from the Survivor Man TV show proud. He bites his arm to wet his lips with his own blood, just enough so that he can shout
He shouts that he sees a sail.
His crewmates are so happy that they shout “gramercy!” meaning, “Thank heavens!”
The ship is coming their way. Maybe their crew will have water.
The sun is setting in the west, and the ship is approaching from the west. Here Coleridge provides a complicated image to illustrate how the ship is really – get ready for it – a Ghost Ship!
Here’s the image: the mysterious ship sails in front of the setting sun, and rather than blocking out part of the sun completely, it just looks like the sun has bars in front of it. In other words, the ship looks like a skeleton.
The ship’s sails aren’t normal sails – you know, the kind that can hold wind. Instead, they look like tattered spider webs, or “gossamers.” Its hull looks like ribs. Worst of all, he can now see that the crew consists of only two people: Death and Life-in-Death.
We imagine death as the hooded guy with the sickle, or something like that, while Life-in-Death is a woman who appears relatively normal except for her pale, diseased-looking skin.
When the ship approaches, Death and Life-in-Death are playing a game. (Please be Parcheesi, please be Parcheesi.) They are playing dice (no!) to decide who will gain the upper hand.
We have the feeling that the fate of the Mariner and his friends rests on this dice game.
We have a winner: Life-in-Death! She’s just won power over a bunch of raggedy, thirsty sailors. She’s probably wishing she had gone on The Price is Right instead – that dinette set is looking pretty good right about now.
But nothing happens…yet.
Night falls, and the mysterious Ghost Ship (“spectre bark”) sails away.
Everyone is waiting to see what will happen. Coleridge plays the scene like a suspense movie, complete with dew going drip-drip from the sails. The partial moon rises, and it looks like a “horn,” or, if you prefer, a smiley face. One of the “horns” of the moon has a star next to it. This seems to be a bad sign, for some reason.
Suddenly, everyone on the ship begins to die. They don’t make a fuss but kind of just slump over. However, they do make sure to curse the Mariner with their eyes before they go.
There are 200 men on the boat besides the Mariner, and they all die. Their souls escape their dead bodies and shoot past the Mariner like the crossbow with which he shot the Albatross.
OK, so Coleridge isn’t super-obvious about it, but at this point the Wedding Guest (remember him?) interrupts the story to make another futile attempt at escape.
After the Mariner tells this ghost story, the Wedding Guest notices that the Mariner looks a bit like a ghost himself: skinny, bony, with eerily bright eyes. Yup, all ghost-like features. Putting two and two together, the Wedding Guest freaks out.
But the Mariner reassures him that he’s no ghost. He was the only one on the ship who didn’t die. He doesn’t exactly give the Wedding Guest a lot of comfort, but just goes on with his story.
The Mariner’s story continues:
So now he’s by himself on this ship with a lot of dead people, all of whom have just cursed him. He wishes that the spirit of some dead saint would take pity on him.
At least the slimy creatures are still there. He thinks what a shame it is that all these nice men have died, and he and the slimy things are still living.
He tries to say a prayer to save his soul, but then he hears an evil voice like a little devil on his shoulder that saps his enthusiasm for praying.
He closes his eyes to avoid looking at all the miserable sights around him. He has noticed that the bodies of all the dead sailors don’t rot. Also, they’re still cursing him with their looks. Let it go, guys.
Their curses are worse than the curse of a poor little orphan. And that’s really bad, because an orphan could drag an angel down to Hell. For a full week, the eyes of the dead sailors emanate this terrible curse.
At night, the moon rises again, and the moonlight falls on the ship like frost.
He still sees all kinds of strange bright colors, like a red on the water, and a bright, “elfish” white light in the trail of the water snakes.
Wait, when were there water snakes? Oh, yeah, the “slimy things.” Wait, we thought those had legs. OK, just go with it.
He looks at the water snakes swimming in the shadow of his ship. It’s like a creepy version of Dr. Seuss: One Snake, Two Snake, Red Snake, Blue Snake. They are all different colors, and they make crazy phosphorescent patterns in the water.
He kind of gets excited watching the snakes. Look at the colors! He realizes that these hideous snakes are kind of beautiful. Without knowing it, he blesses the wriggly little creatures in his heart.
This blessing for fellow creatures is all it takes to remove the horrible curse that the Mariner gained from killing the albatross. He has been wearing that darn albatross around his neck this whole time, but suddenly it falls off and sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
He can pray again without being stopped by evil whispers. As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing.”
Not only can he pray again, but he can also sleep again. Exhausted from all the endless cursing and dying of thirst, he falls asleep. He credits Mary, the mother of Christ, for this sleep.
Naturally, he dreams about drinking water. But his dream actually comes true: it rains when he wakes up. Sailors are really good at collecting rainwater from their sails and in buckets, and the Mariner has all the water he needs.
(In reality, a severely dehydrated person like that would probably die from drinking too much water too fast, but we won’t quibble with Coleridge on this one.)
He feels as light as if he had died and was now a ghost. But a happy ghost.
Now that the curse has been lifted, more good news follows. He hears a loud wind in the distance. The sound of the wind rattles the dried out (“sere”) sails. But it’s important to remember that the wind hasn’t reached the ship yet.
He sees new activity in the sky. More stars return, and he sees things he calls “fire-flags.” We have to think he’s either talking about weird lightning flashes – but without clouds to block the stars – or the Aurora (in this case, the Southern Lights).
He sees a black cloud, the partial moon and lightning falling in perfectly vertical fashion. We’re not sure exactly what’s going on, except that these are wild descriptions.
OK, so what was the point of the wind if it “never reached the ship”? The wind was supposed make the ship sail again, but it does no good at a distance. Except if you have a mysterious force moving your ship: score!
Like a scene from Frankenstein, the dead sailors rise up amid the thunder and lightning. They look like zombies and don’t say a word. But they all do the jobs they are supposed to do, helping to sail the ship.
If you’re starting to suspect that the movie Pirates of the Caribbean borrowed a lot of material from Coleridge, we’re right there with you.
The Mariner goes with the flow, and he basically says, “I don’t care if these guys are just bodies with no souls, as long as we get moving again, I’ll help out.”
The Wedding Guest interrupts the story again. He’s not the bravest Wedding Guest we’ve ever heard of. He’s afraid that the Mariner is now telling a zombie story.
The Mariner reassures the frightened Wedding Guest that the bodies of the sailors were possessed not by their original owners, but by a bunch of good spirits, like angels. Oh, that helps.
The Mariner continues his story.
He knew that spirits were angels because, when dawn comes, they all escape from the bodies and break out into song.
The spirits float around the ship and sing like birds. They are like an entire symphony of voices. They stop singing after dawn, but the sails continue to make a pleasant sound like a stream following through a forest.
The ship keeps moving, but there’s no wind. What gives? The Mariner is sticking with his theory that someone or something is moving the boat from underneath the ocean.
The Mariner explains his theory in more detail. The same spirit “nine fathoms deep” that earlier caused such problems near the Antarctic has now decided to play nice and guide the ship up to the equator. At noon the sun is again directly above the mast, which means that we’re back at the equator.
The ship stops and remains motionless for a bit. Then, all of a sudden, the ship takes off as if someone has just released a really fast horse or, to use a more modern metaphor, as if someone has put the gas pedal to the floor.
The force of this movement knocks out the Mariner, and he loses consciousness. While in a stupor, he hears two mysterious voices talking. We’re back in supernatural territory, here.
One of the voices wants to know if the Mariner is the guy who shot the nice albatross. He sounds judgmental.
The other voice sounds gentler and says that the Mariner has done a lot of penance for his mistake, and he’ll do more penance in the future.
We’ve got a bit of a good cop/bad cop routine here.
The two voices continue their dialogue, and Coleridge helps us figure out who is talking by adding stage directions: “First Voice” and “Second Voice.”
The first voice is curious and the second voice is knowledgeable.
The first voice asks how the ocean has made the ship move, and the second voice replies that the ocean is just following orders from the moon, personified as a woman. The moon is happy with the Mariner, but she wasn’t before.
The first voice isn’t satisfied and wants to know how the ship is moving so fast. The second voice explains that the air is creating a vacuum in front of the ship and then pushing it forward from the behind. Physics students, we’ll leave this one to you.
The second voice urges the ship to move faster. They have a lot of ground to cover before the Mariner wakes up.
The Mariner awakes from his trance and finds all the dead sailors still hanging around on the ship’s deck. He thinks that a slaughterhouse would be a more appropriate place to see a sight like that.
But the sailors’ curse has been lifted, and the ocean returns to its normal color. The Mariner tries not to look back on the past horrors he has seen. He’s still pretty frightened that they will catch up with him again.
He feels a pleasant wind on his body, but the wind seems to be located only around him and not the ocean outside the ship.
The strange wind is localized just around the boat, but it means that the Mariner can sail again, even as the boat is still being pushed from beneath.
The Mariner ends up back at the port he left from so, so long ago. He sees the lighthouse, hill, and church come back into view.
It’s a beautiful sight, and naturally, the Mariner is overjoyed.
The moonlight shines across the bay, but another set of lights soon appears. He sees shapes in “crimson” or red colors. These turn out to be angels (“seraphs”). All the dead men who came back to life to sail the ship go back to being dead, and the angels are standing beside their bodies.
These must be the angels that took over the sailors’ bodies. They wave at the Mariner as if to say, “Our work is done. We’re gonna peace out.”
They don’t speak to the Mariner, but he feels delighted anyway.
The Mariner hears a boat coming toward the ship. A “pilot” or oarsman and his young crewmate are coming to rescue him.
There’s another man on the boat, too: the nice old “hermit.” A hermit is someone, often very religious, who lives his or her life in solitude. This particular hermit lives in the forest.
The Mariner looks forward to the hermit clearing away his sins by asking him questions, by “shrieving” his soul, like a confession.
A Short Synopsis of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Part I: The Wedding guest, the voyage, stuck in ice, he kills the albatross.
The Mariner stops a wedding guest and forces him, spellbound, to listen to his story.
The ship sails south to equator.
Wedding guest hears music of wedding beginning.
A storm hits the ship and impels it south. They are stuck in ice.
An albatross appears and is befriended by the shipmates. A south wind springs up and takes them northward.
He kills it with his crossbow.
Part II: They suffer punishment for his crime and are becalmed.
The crew at first cry out against him, but then commend him when the fog clears off.
They sail north and become becalmed at the equator. They suffer from thirst. Slimy things are on the surface, and lights are on the water and masts at night.
A spirit follows them under the ship nine fathoms down.
They hang the bird around his neck.
Part III: A skeleton ship comes, and its ghastly crew gambles for their souls. The crew dies.
He sees a ship far off. They rejoice thinking they are saved, but then despair when they wonder how a ship can sail without wind.
It is a skeleton ship with only a woman, Life-in-Death, and a mate, Death, for crew.
They play dice for the crew and she wins. The sun sets and the skeleton ship departs.
The crew dies, one by one, and their souls fly out.
Part IV: He is left alone for seven days. He blesses the water snakes, and the spell is broken.
The wedding guest is afraid that he is speaking to a ghost, but the Mariner assures him that he did not die.
He is left alone and tries to pray but cannot. For seven days he looks at the dead men and cannot die.
He sees the water snakes by the light of the moon. He blesses them and is able to pray. The albatross falls from his neck.
Part V: It rains. The ship is moved north, its crew reanimated by spirits. He swoons and hears two voices.
He sleeps and awakens to find it raining. A roaring wind and storm comes, and the dead crew rises and mans the ship.
The wedding guest is afraid, but is reassured that it is not the souls of the dead men that reanimate them, but a troop of spirits blest. They sing around the mast at dawn till noon, continuing to sail moved on from beneath.
The spirit from the snow and ice moves them to the equator again, and the ship stands still. It moves back and forth then makes a sudden bound. He swoons.
He hears two voices in his sleep tell of his crime and trials.
Part VI: The two voices talk. He wakes up in his native land. The spirits signal the shore, and a boat appears.
The two voices talk back and forth as the ship is impelled northward faster than any human could endure.
He wakes up and the ship sails slowly now. The crew is still up, and their eyes curse him still.
The spell is broken and a sweet breeze blows on him alone. He sees his native country.
The spirits leave the dead bodies and each appears in its own form, full of light. They stand as signals to the land, but make no sound.
A boat is heard coming to him. The Pilot, his boy, and the Hermit are in the boat. He hopes that the Hermit will shrieve his soul to wash away the blood of the albatross.
Part VII: The ship sinks but he is saved. He is compelled to wander and tell his tale.
The Hermit who lives in the woods there loves to talk to mariners from far off.
The lights of the signal have disappeared, and the boat appears warped, the sails like skeletons.
As they approach a rumble is heard under the water. The ship splits and sinks.
His body floats and is found and dragged aboard the boat. When he moves his lips they scream. He rows the boat.
When they reach land he begs the Hermit to shrieve him. The Mariner is overcome by a fit which forces him to tell his tale. Since then, he has had to travel from land to land and tell his tale. He has powers of speech and knows the men to whom he must tell his tale.
The sounds of merriment come from the wedding party within. He tells how sweet it is for him to have company after being alone on the sea and tells the wedding guest to love all thing both great and small.
The wedding guest leaves and rose the next morn wiser and sadder.
Analysis of The Theme in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
The Theme of the Natural World: The Physical
While it can be beautiful and frightening (often simultaneously), the natural world’s power in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is unquestionable. In a move typical of Romantic poets both preceding and following Coleridge, and especially typical of his colleague, William Wordsworth, Coleridge emphasizes the way in which the natural world dwarfs and asserts its awesome power over man. Especially in the 1817 text, in which Coleridge includes marginal glosses, it is clear that the spiritual world controls and utilizes the natural world. At times the natural world seems to be a character itself, based on the way it interacts with the Ancient Mariner. From the moment the Ancient Mariner offends the spirit of the “rime,” retribution comes in the form of natural phenomena. The wind dies, the sun intensifies, and it will not rain. The ocean becomes revolting, “rotting” and thrashing with “slimy” creatures and sizzling with strange fires. Only when the Ancient Mariner expresses love for the natural world-the water-snakes-does his punishment abate even slightly. It rains, but the storm is unusually awesome, with a thick stream of fire pouring from one huge cloud. A spirit, whether God or a pagan one, dominates the physical world in order to punish and inspire reverence in the Ancient Mariner. At the poem’s end, the Ancient Mariner preaches respect for the natural world as a way to remain in good standing with the spiritual world, because in order to respect God, one must respect all of his creations. This is why he valorizes the Hermit, who sets the example of both prayer and living in harmony with nature. In his final advice to the Wedding Guest, the Ancient Mariner affirms that one can access the sublime, “the image of a greater and better world,” only by seeing the value of the mundane, “the petty things of daily life.”
The Theme of The Transformative Power of the Imagination
Coleridge believed that a strong, active imagination could become a vehicle for transcending unpleasant circumstances. Many of his poems are powered exclusively by imaginative flights, wherein the speaker temporarily abandons his immediate surroundings, exchanging them for an entirely new and completely fabricated experience. Using the imagination in this way is both empowering and surprising because it encourages a total and complete disrespect for the confines of time and place. These mental and emotional jumps are often well rewarded. Perhaps Coleridge’s most famous use of imagination occurs in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (1797), in which the speaker employs a keen poetic mind that allows him to take part in a journey that he cannot physically make. When he “returns” to the bower, after having imagined himself on a fantastic stroll through the countryside, the speaker discovers, as a reward, plenty of things to enjoy from inside the bower itself, including the leaves, the trees, and the shadows. The power of imagination transforms the prison into a perfectly pleasant spot.
The Theme of The Spiritual World: The Metaphysical
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” occurs in the natural, physical world-the land and ocean. However, the work has popularly been interpreted as an allegory of man’s connection to the spiritual, metaphysical world. In the epigraph, Burnet speaks of man’s urge to “classify” things since Adam named the animals. The Ancient Mariner shoots the Albatross as if to prove that it is not an airy spirit, but rather a mortal creature; in a symbolic way, he tries to “classify” the Albatross. Like all natural things, the Albatross is intimately tied to the spiritual world, and thus begins the Ancient Mariner’s punishment by the spiritual world by means of the natural world. Rather than address him directly; the supernatural communicates through the natural. The ocean, sun, and lack of wind and rain punish the Ancient Mariner and his shipmates. When the dead men come alive to curse the Ancient Mariner with their eyes, things that are natural-their corpses-are inhabited by a powerful spirit. Men (like Adam) feel the urge to define things, and the Ancient Mariner seems to feel this urge when he suddenly and inexplicably kills the Albatross, shooting it from the sky as though he needs to bring it into the physical, definable realm. It is mortal, but closely tied to the metaphysical, spiritual world-it even flies like a spirit because it is a bird.
The Ancient Mariner detects spirits in their pure form several times in the poem. Even then, they talk only about him, and not to him. When the ghost ship carrying Death and Life-in-Death sails by, the Ancient Mariner overhears them gambling. Then when he lies unconscious on the deck, he hears the First Voice and Second Voice discussing his fate. When angels appear over the sailors’ corpses near the shore, they do not talk to the Ancient Mariner, but only guide his ship. In all these instances, it is unclear whether the spirits are real or figments of his imagination. The Ancient Mariner-and we the reader-being mortal beings, require physical affirmation of the spiritual. Coleridge’s spiritual world in the poem balances between the religious and the purely fantastical. The Ancient Mariner’s prayers do have an effect, as when he blesses the water-snakes and is relieved of his thirst. At the poem’s end, he valorizes the holy Hermit and the act of praying with others. However, the spirit that follows the sailors from the “rime”, Death, Life-in-Death, the voices, and the angels, are not necessarily Christian archetypes. In a move typical of both Romantic writers and painters, Coleridge locates the spiritual and/or holy in the natural world in order to emphasize man’s connection to it. Society can distance man from the sublime by championing worldly pleasures and abandoning reverence for the otherworld. In this way, the wedding reception represents man’s alienation from the holy – even in a religious tradition like marriage. However, society can also bring man closer to the sublime, such as when people gather together in prayer.
The theme of The Interplay of Philosophy, Piety, and Poetry
Coleridge used his poetry to explore conflicting issues in philosophy and religious piety. Some critics argue that Coleridge’s interest in philosophy was simply his attempt to understand the imaginative and intellectual impulses that fueled his poetry. To support the claim that his imaginative and intellectual forces were, in fact, organic and derived from the natural world, Coleridge linked them to God, spirituality, and worship. In his work, however, poetry, philosophy, and piety clashed, creating friction and disorder for Coleridge, both on and off the page. In “The Eolian Harp” (1795), Coleridge struggles to reconcile the three forces. Here, the speaker’s philosophical tendencies, particularly the belief that an “intellectual breeze” (47) brushes by and inhabits all living things with consciousness, collide with those of his orthodox wife, who disapproves of his unconventional ideas and urges him to Christ. While his wife lies untroubled, the speaker agonizes over his spiritual conflict, caught between Christianity and a unique, individual spirituality that equates nature with God. The poem ends by discounting the pantheist spirit, and the speaker concludes by privileging God and Christ over nature and praising them for having healed him from the spiritual wounds inflicted by these unorthodox views.
The Theme of Liminality
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” typifies the Romantic fascination with liminal spaces. A liminal space is defined as a place on the edge of a realm or between two realms, whether a forest and a field, or reason and imagination. A liminal space often signifies a liminal state of mind, such as the threshold of the imagination’s wonders. Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Keats valorize the liminal space and state as places where one can experience the sublime. For this reason they are often – and especially in the case of Coleridge’s poems – associated with drug-induced euphoria. Following from this, liminal spaces and states are those in which pain and pleasure are inextricable. Romantic poets frequently had their protagonists enter liminal spaces and become irreversibly changed. Starting in the epigraph to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Coleridge expresses a fascination with the liminal state between the spiritual and natural, or the mundane and the divine. Recall that this is what Burnet calls the “certain [and] uncertain” and “day [and] night.”
In the Ancient Mariner’s story, liminal spaces are bewildering and cause pain. The first liminal space the sailors encounter is the equator, which is in a sense about as liminal a location as exists; after all, it is the threshold between the Earth’s hemispheres. No sooner has the ship crossed the equator than a terrible storm ensues and drives it into the poem’s ultimate symbolic liminal space, the icy world of the “rime.” It is liminal by its very physical makeup; there, water exists not in one a single, definitive state, but in all three forms: liquid (water), solid (ice), and gas (mist). They are still most definitely in the ocean, but surrounding them are mountainous icebergs reminiscent of the land. The “rime” fits the archetype of the Romantic liminal space in that it is simultaneously terrifying and beautiful, and in that the sailors do not navigate there purposely, but are rather transported there by some other force. Whereas the open ocean is a wild territory representing the mysteries of the mind and the sublime, the “rime” exists just on its edge. As a liminal space it holds great power, and indeed a powerful spirit inhabits the
As punishment for his crime of killing the Albatross, the Ancient Mariner is sentenced to Life-in-Death, condemned to be trapped in a limbo-like state where his “glittering eye” tells of both powerful genius and pain. He can compel others to listen to his story from beginning to end, but is forced to do so to relieve his pain. The Ancient Mariner is caught in a liminal state that, as in much of Romantic poetry, is comparable to addiction. He can relieve his suffering temporarily by sharing his story, but must do so continually. The Ancient Mariner suffers because of his experience in the “rime” and afterwards, but has also been extremely close to the divine and sublime because of it. Therefore his curse is somewhat of a blessing; great and unusual knowledge accompanies his pain. The Wedding Guest, the Hermit, and all others to whom he relates his tale enter into a momentary liminal state themselves where they have a distinct sensation of being stunned or mesmerized.
The Theme of Nature and the Development of the Individual
Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other romantic poets praised the unencumbered, imaginative soul of youth, finding images in nature with which to describe it. According to their formulation, experiencing nature was an integral part of the development of a complete soul and sense of personhood. The death of his father forced Coleridge to attend school in London, far away from the rural idylls of his youth, and he lamented the missed opportunities of his sheltered, city-bound adolescence in many poems, including “Frost at Midnight” (1798). Here, the speaker sits quietly by a fire, musing on his life, while his infant son sleeps nearby. He recalls his boarding school days, during which he would both daydream and lull himself to sleep by remembering his home far away from the city, and he tells his son that he shall never be removed from nature, the way the speaker once was. Unlike the speaker, the son shall experience the seasons and shall learn about God by discovering the beauty and bounty of the natural world. The son shall be given the opportunity to develop a relationship with God and with nature, an opportunity denied to both the speaker and Coleridge himself. For Coleridge, nature had the capacity to teach joy, love, freedom, and piety, crucial characteristics for a worthy, developed individual.
The Theme of Christian Allegory
Many read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as containing explicit Christian allegory. Despite the fact that Coleridge himself said that the poem had no explicit moral, such a reading is difficult to ignore given the overt Christian lesson that the Mariner teaches at the end of the poem. He says that he takes immense joy in prayer, and instructs an appreciation and respect for God, God’s creatures, and all of nature. Further, his killing of the Albatross, a great sin and crime, can be seen as an allegorical representation of one or more Christian stories. The sin can be a parallel to Adam and Eve’s original sin, where the act of killing the bird instigates a break with nature, bringing the Mariner out of harmony with the natural world and causing punishment akin to the Fall of man. More obvious is the parallel to Judas’ betrayal of Christ, in which the albatross is a symbol for Christ and the Mariner’s sin is a betrayal. This parallel can be drawn with both Judas’ betrayal, and the proverbial sinner’s betrayal in committing any sin. The Judas allegory is strengthened by the fact that the Mariner is then forced to wear the albatross in place of a traditional cross around his neck.
However, the text is not quite so neat as to allow for only a straightforward, Christian allegorical reading. The supernatural elements and the Mariner’s own path through sin and penance break the typical mold of a Christian allegory, and the poem also contains various pagan elements that exist side-by-side with Christian ideas. Ultimately, it might be more fruitful to view the poem not as a Christian allegory, but as encompassing Christian symbols as part of an effort to portray a universal whole that at once includes the truths of Christianity, but is not solely limited to those truths or the particularly Christian way of seeing those truths. Nonetheless, recognizing the way that the poem captures and fuses multiple aspects of Christian symbolism can help as a lens to think about it.
The Theme of Imprisonment
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is in many ways a portrait of imprisonment and its inherent loneliness and torment. The first instance of imprisonment occurs when the sailors are swept by a storm into the “rime.” The ice is “mast-high”, and the captain cannot steer the ship through it. The sailors’ confinement in the disorienting “rime” foreshadows the Ancient Mariner’s later imprisonment within a bewildered limbo-like existence. In the beginning of the poem, the ship is a vehicle of adventure, and the sailors set out in one another’s happy company. However, once the Ancient Mariner shoots the Albatross, it quickly becomes a prison. Without wind to sail the ship, the sailors lose all control over their fate. They are cut off from civilization, even though they have each other’s company. They are imprisoned further by thirst, which silences them and effectively puts them in isolation; they are denied the basic human ability to communicate. When the other sailors drop dead, the ship becomes a private prison for the
The Theme of Ancient Mariner.
Even more dramatically, the ghost ship seems to imprison the sun: “And straight the sun was flecked with bars, / (Heaven’s Mother send us grace!) / As if through a dungeon-grate he peered / With broad and burning face.” The ghost ship has such power that it can imprison even the epitome of the natural world’s power, the sun. These lines symbolize the spiritual world’s power over the natural and physical; spirits can control not only mortals, but the very planets themselves. After he is rescued from the prison that is the ship, the Ancient Mariner is subject to the indefinite imprisonment of his soul within his physical body. His “glittering” eye represents his frenzied soul, eager to escape from his ravaged body. He is imprisoned by the addiction to his own story, as though trapped in the “rime” forever. In a sense, the Ancient Mariner imprisons others by compelling them to listen to his story; they are physically compelled to join him in his torment until he releases them.
The Theme of Retribution
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a tale of retribution, since the Ancient Mariner spends most of the poem paying for his one, impulsive error of killing the Albatross. The spiritual world avenges the Albatross’s death by wreaking physical and psychological havoc on the Ancient Mariner and his shipmates. Even before the sailors die, their punishment is extensive; they become delirious from a debilitating state of thirst, their lips bake black in the sun, and they must endure the torment of seeing water all around them while being unable to drink it for its saltiness. Eventually the sailors all die, their souls flying either to heaven or hell. There are at least two ways to interpret the fact that the sailors suffer with the Ancient Mariner although they themselves have not erred. The first is that retribution is blind; inspired by anger and the desire to punish others, even a spirit may hurt the wrong people. The second is that the sailors are implicated in the Ancient Mariner’s crime. If the Ancient Mariner represents the universal sinner, then each sailor, as a human, is guilty of having at some point disrespected one of God’s creatures-or if not, he would have in the future. But the eternal punishment called Life-in
-Death is reserved for the Ancient Mariner. Presumably the spirit, being immortal, must endure eternal grief over the murder of its beloved Albatross. In retribution, it forces the Ancient Mariner to endure eternal torment as well, in the form of his curse. Though he never dies – and may never, in a sense – the Ancient Mariner speaks from beyond the grave to warn others about the harsh, permanent consequences of momentary foolishness, selfishness, and disrespect of the natural world.
The Theme of Sin and Penance
In the context of the spirituality that pervades the poem, the Mariner’s story can be seen as one of Sin and Penance. In shooting the innocent albatross he commits a sin (against both nature and God, since one is the expression of the other). The Mariner is then punished: he suffers deprivations and horrors until he learns to appreciate and love the natural and supernatural world that the albatross symbolized, and then he is absolved of his crime. Such a story of sin and penance, of punishment and absolution is common across many cultures and belief systems, including Christianity. And yet, at the same time, the poem’s treatment of the story isn’t quite so simple.
For one thing, the Mariner is only partially saved. Once his penance is complete and he learns to appreciate nature, his overtly supernatural torments are ended and he can enjoy the beauty of nature and the blessing of prayer. But, at the same time, he is compelled to continue telling his story indefinitely, or else suffer a kind of agony. There is no indication that he will ever be truly forgiven or absolved of his duty to share his experience, and in a way, this itself is another punishment. And yet, it too can be viewed as a blessing, since through telling his story he is given the gift of being able to save others, as, implied at the end of the poem, he saves the Wedding Guest.
The Act of Storytelling
In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge draws our attention not only to the Ancient Mariner’s story, but to the act of storytelling itself. The Ancient Mariner’s tale comprises so much of the poem that moments that occur outside of it often seem like interruptions. We are not only Coleridge’s audience, but the Ancient Mariner’s. Therefore, the messages that the protagonist delivers to his audience apply to us, as well. Storytelling is a preventative measure in the poem, used to dissuade those who favor the pleasures of society (like the Wedding Guest and, presumably, ourselves) from disregarding the natural and spiritual worlds. The poem can also be seen as an allegory for the writer’s task. Coleridge uses the word “teach” to describe the Ancient Mariner’s storytelling, and says that he has “strange power of speech.” In this way, he compares the protagonist to himself: both are gifted storytellers who impart their wisdom unto others. By associating himself with the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge implies that he, and by extension all writers, are not only inspired but compelled to write. Their gift is equally a curse; the pleasure of writing is marred with torment. According to this interpretation, the writer writes not to please himself or others, but to sate a painful urge. Inherent in the writer’s task is communication with others, whom he must warn lest they suffer a similar fate. Just as the Ancient Mariner is forced to balance in a painful limbo between life and death, the writer is compelled and even condemned to balance in the liminal space of the imagination “until [his] tale is told.” Like a writer, he is equally enthralled and pained by his imagination. Both are addicts, and storytelling is their drug; it provides only momentary relief until the urge to tell returns. In modern psychological terms, the Ancient Mariner as well as the writer relies on “the talking cure” to relieve himself of his psychological burden. But for the Ancient Mariner, the cure – reliving the experience that started with the “rime” by repeating his “rhyme” – is part of the torture. Coleridge paints an equally powerful and pathetic image of the writer. The Ancient Mariner is able to inspire the Wedding Guest so that he awakes the next day a new man, yet he is also the constant victim of his own talent – a curse that torments, but never destroys.
Characters of “The Ancient Mariner”
Analysis and Role of Characters in “The Ancient Mariner”
The Ancient Mariner
The Ancient Mariner, a somewhat mysterious figure. The poem deals with two separate times, the time of the voyage and the time of the Mariner’s retelling. Facts helping to date the time of the voyage are that the Mariner uses a crossbow rather than a firearm and that his ship is the first ever to sail into the Pacific Ocean, thereby preceding Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage of 1520. He is evidently a Catholic, because he twice calls on the Virgin Mary and also invokes other saints. As for the time of the retelling, there is only a general sense that the Mariner is perceived as belonging to an earlier generation. There is not enough information about the wedding to know whether it was Catholic or Protestant, and the vesper bell toward the end of the poem could belong to either faith. The bassoon mentioned toward the beginning, however, would not have been possible before the sixteenth century. In a fragment of conversation recovered in the twentieth century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge once remarked that the Mariner was in fact a young man while on board the ship and that he was retelling the story fifty years later.
The Wandering Jew
The Wandering Jew, a traditional figure in European literature. He is a blasphemer condemned to wander the earth until the second coming of Christ because he had mocked Christ while He was bearing the Cross on his way to Calvary. The legend was believed in late medieval Europe, and several accounts of supposed meetings with the Wandering Jew were published, beginning in the sixteenth century. Several writers of the Romantic period then took up the idea, making it central to their theme of social and spiritual alienation, a burden felt by Coleridge also. Coleridge was himself known to be an incessant talker.
The Wedding Guest
The Wedding Guest, one of three “gallants,” or fashionable young men particularly attentive to women, whom the Mariner accosts while they are on their way to the wedding. He is apparently the bride’s brother. Throughout the poem, the Wedding Guest (when allowed to speak) represents a normal but naïve view of reality. Eventually, he is decisively influenced by the Mariner’s extraordinary revelations. Members of the wedding include the bride, the bridegroom, the guests, and the musicians.
The ship’s crew
The ship’s crew, at the beginning numbering some two hundred men, including a helmsman and the Mariner’s nephew. The crew is later joined by an albatross of uncertain dimensions and color who is obviously more than just a bird. The poem does not say so, but there was a common superstition among sailors at this time that albatrosses were reincarnations of sailors who had died at sea. If so, then it was in fact “a Christian soul”; if not, then it was (like the water snakes) to be cherished simply because it was a living thing and therefore an example of God’s creative power. By wantonly killing the albatross, the Mariner affronts God.
The spirits, who include the mysterious Pole Spirit. The spirits resemble angels in being wholly immaterial but have no regular place in Christian cosmology. These are the “invisible beings” referred to in the poem’s epigraph. They illustrate that however much one may come to know about the material world, the spiritual one is far more varied and more significant; it remains unknowable and elusive.
The Ghost Ship’s crew
The Ghost Ship’s crew, two hideous characters, Death and Life-in-Death (of whom additional details are given in the 1798 version of the poem). They play at dice for the ship’s crew, and Death wins all of them except the Mariner. He is won by Life-in-Death and thereby condemned to the eternal wanderings that follow. It is important to note that the Mariner’s fate is decided by a vehicle of random chance, not by any kind of divine judgment. Having denied God’s continuous governance of the world by blaspheming against His chief manifestation, life, the crew and Mariner find themselves in a world without Providence, exemplified by the failure of the winds, which are not simply forces of nature but part of the divine plan to sustain life on Earth. Before he is allowed to leave the ship, the Mariner must learn that life in all forms is sacred.
the Pilot’s Boy
the Pilot’s Boy, and
the Hermit, who rescue the Mariner in a small boat. The crew are dead, the Ghost Ship and the angelic spirits have disappeared, and the ship has gone down like lead. It is not clear how they fit into the poem, and few critics are able to say more about them than that the Hermit in part resembles poet William Wordsworth. Though the Mariner asks the Hermit for spiritual cleansing, it is the judgment of Life-in-Death that prevails
Motifs of The Rime of the Ancient Marine
Coleridge wanted to mimic the patterns and cadences of everyday speech in his poetry. Many of his poems openly address a single figure—the speaker’s wife, son, friend, and so on—who listens silently to the simple, straightforward language of the speaker. Unlike the descriptive, long, digressive poems of Coleridge’s classicist predecessors, Coleridge’s so-called conversation poems are short, self-contained, and often without a discernable poetic form. Colloquial, spontaneous, and friendly, Coleridge’s conversation poetry is also highly personal, frequently incorporating events and details of his domestic life in an effort to widen the scope of possible poetic content. Although he sometimes wrote in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, he adapted this metrical form to suit a more colloquial rhythm. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge believed that everyday language and speech rhythms would help broaden poetry’s audience to include the middle and lower classes, who might have felt excluded or put off by the form and content of neoclassicists, such as Alexander Pope, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and John Dryden.
Delight in the Natural World
Like the other romantics, Coleridge worshiped nature and recognized poetry’s capacity to describe the beauty of the natural world. Nearly all of Coleridge’s poems express a respect for and delight in natural beauty. Close observation, great attention to detail, and precise descriptions of color aptly demonstrate Coleridge’s respect and delight. Some poems, such as “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” “Youth and Age” (1834), and “Frost at Midnight,” mourn the speakers’ physical isolation from the outside world. Others, including “The Eolian Harp,” use images of nature to explore philosophical and analytical ideas. Still other poems, including “The Nightingale” (ca. 1798), simply praise nature’s beauty. Even poems that don’t directly deal with nature, including “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” derive some symbols and images from nature. Nevertheless, Coleridge guarded against the pathetic fallacy, or the attribution of human feeling to the natural world. To Coleridge, nature contained an innate, constant joyousness wholly separate from the ups and downs of human experience.
Although Coleridge’s prose reveals more of his religious philosophizing than his poetry, God, Christianity, and the act of prayer appear in some form in nearly all of his poems. The son of an Anglican vicar, Coleridge vacillated from supporting to criticizing Christian tenets and the Church of England. Despite his criticisms, Coleridge remained defiantly supportive of prayer, praising it in his notebooks and repeatedly referencing it in his poems. He once told the novelist Thomas de Quincey that prayer demanded such close attention that it was the one of the hardest actions of which human hearts were capable. The conclusion to Part 1 of Christabel portrays Christabel in prayer, “a lovely sight to see” (279). In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the mariner is stripped of his ability to speak as part of his extreme punishment and, consequently, left incapable of praying. “The Pains of Sleep” (1803) contrasts the speaker at restful prayer, in which he prays silently, with the speaker at passionate prayer, in which he battles imaginary demons to pray aloud. In the sad poem, “Epitaph” (1833), Coleridge composes an epitaph for himself, which urges people to pray for him after he dies. Rather than recommend a manner or method of prayer, Coleridge’s poems reflect a wide variety, which emphasizes his belief in the importance of individuality.
Coleridge believed that symbolic language was the only acceptable way of expressing deep religious truths and consistently employed the sun as a symbol of God. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge compares the sun to “God’s own head” (97) and, later, attributes the first phase of the mariner’s punishment to the sun, as it dehydrates the crew. All told, this poem contains eleven references to the sun, many of which signify the Christian conception of a wrathful, vengeful God. Bad, troubling things happen to the crew during the day, while smooth sailing and calm weather occur at night, by the light of the moon. Frequently, the sun stands in for God’s influence and power, as well as a symbol of his authority. The setting sun spurs philosophical musings, as in “The Eolian Harp,” and the dancing rays of sunlight represent a pinnacle of nature’s beauty, as in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.”
Like the sun, the moon often symbolizes God, but the moon has more positive connotations than the sun. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the sun and the moon represent two sides of the Christian God: the sun represents the angry, wrathful God, whereas the moon represents the benevolent, repentant God. All told, the moon appears fourteen times in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and generally favorable things occur during night, in contrast to the horrors that occur during the day. For example, the mariner’s curse lifts and he returns home by moonlight. “Dejection: An Ode” (1802) begins with an epitaph about the new moon and goes on to describe the beauty of a moonlit night, contrasting its beauty with the speaker’s sorrowful soul. Similarly, “Frost at Midnight” also praises the moon as it illuminates icicles on a winter evening and spurs the speaker to great thought.
Dreams and Dreaming
Coleridge explores dreams and dreaming in his poetry to communicate the power of the imagination, as well as the inaccessible clarity of vision. “Kubla Khan” is subtitled “A Vision in a Dream.” According to Coleridge, he fell asleep while reading and dreamed of a marvelous pleasure palace for the next few hours. Upon awakening, he began transcribing the dream-vision but was soon called away; when he returned, he wrote out the fragments that now comprise “Kubla Khan.” Some critics doubt Coleridge’s story, attributing it to an attempt at increasing the poem’s dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the poem speaks to the imaginative possibilities of the subconscious. Dreams usually have a pleasurable connotation, as in “Frost at Midnight.” There, the speaker, lonely and insomniac as a child at boarding school, comforts himself by imagining and then dreaming of his rural home. In his real life, however, Coleridge suffered from nightmares so terrible that sometimes his own screams would wake him, a phenomenon he details in “The Pains of Sleep.” Opium probably gave Coleridge a sense of well-being that allowed him to sleep without the threat of nightmares.