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Literary Analysis: Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Updated on September 29, 2014

Mood and Mode

The mode of the poem is in the oral tradition and offers scope for a phenomenological approach. The mystical ambiance of awe and inscrutability sets the apt atmosphere for crime and nemesis that follows. Internal rhyme and vivid imagery enhance the visual and aural effect of the poem.


Brainwaves for the poem have been traced to James Cook's second expedition of the South Seas and the Pacific Ocean (1772-1775).More significantly, Coleridge's teacher, William Wales, was the astronomer on Cook's flagship and had a close connection with Cook.

William Wordsworth claims that the germ of the poem was conceived when Coleridge, Wordsworth and Dorothy Wordsworth were crossing the Quantock Hills in Somerset(1798). The conversation ensued from a book that Wordsworth was engrossed in: Captain George’s A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726). This book also had a depressed sailor shoot at a black albatross:

“We all observed, that we had not the sight of one fish of any kind, since we were come to the Southward of the straits of le Mair, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black Albatross, who accompanied us for several days (...), till Hattley, (my second Captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagine'd, from his colour, that it might be some ill omen. (...) He, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the Albatross, not doubting we should have a fair wind after it.”

The inspiration for the same may have been derived also from the legend of the wandering Jew who was commanded to wander around the Earth till Doomsday for acerbic remarks at Jesus on Crucifixion day. He shots the albatross and the remorse of doing so compels him to wear it around his neck as an emblem of guilt: Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung. This underlines the theory of the wandering Jew who was assigned a cross as a sign of culpability.


At the outset of the poem, the ancient mariner encounters a wedding guest and persuades him to take note of his tale of guilt and compunction. The concept of marriage that ensures the union of two souls reflects the unification and concord of entities in the universe. However, as the ship reaches the destination of the 'land of mist and snow', these ideals do not suffice. The mariners are at ease at the emergence of the albatross, a sign of Jesus’s salvation and veneration. Nevertheless, the mariner in question by "mere non-feeling through non-thinking" kills the albatross with his cross-bow.

It does not occur to the mariner that the albatross is a vital element of God's universe; a reflection of the undivided harmony of life. Other mariners articulate condemnation of the butchery and term it as a 'helling thing" primarily as the bird functioned as a positive portent. To them, moral considerations were secondary. The others afterwards uphold the idea that "Twas right" to slay the bird and become equal accomplices to the misdeed. Their narrow understanding relegates the moral principle of ‘right’.

Only a dream makes them reflect on their misconduct .The phrase "such birds" mirror their callous disregard of the albatross’s individuality. The reverie may indicate the mariners’ collective unconscious. The mariner who tells the story is provided with true insight only in the form of mental pictures like 'swound', 'trance', 'dream' and 'sleep' The ghastliness of the spectacle of the phantom ship with its dreadful commuters, Death and life-in-Death has the mariner invoke 'Ave Maria' or extol Mary full of grace. This comprehension of grace functions as the crux of the poem.

As the mariner is a victim of life-in-Death , his comrades are subjugated by Death .They succumb to the same. With accusing eyes aimed at the mariner, they drop dead. The particular scene aims at dramatizing the mariner's consciousness and highlight the transgression on his apart. It drives home the horrendous fact that he is accountable for the death of not only the albatross but his fellow-beings as well.

The mariner’s "chalice" of dread does not possess the redemptive blood of Christ .It is colored with the culpable blood of his companions. His transgression is concretized in the outward appearance of the cross that the albatross makes. In spite of the powerful insignia round his neck, the philosophy of the poem is not only confined to the doctrinal theology of Christianity, but also verges on neo-platonism, daemonology and a number of other theories

The mariner is plagued by thirst. The bind around his neck and the scorching temperature of the sun add to the same. Nonetheless, he is filled with compassion only for his own self and "despiseth' the slimy water snakes. His sympathy does not go out to his companions or any animate form of life.

Nevertheless, the moonlight that the 'kindly saint" sparked on the water involuntarily fills him with an unconscious regard for the snakes; he blesses them for their enigmatic beauty. As the mariner finds himself in solitude, the poisonous creatures also function as a source of solace or amity to him. As he is estranged in a non-human world, the meanest form of living turns out to be charming to him. In due course, the bird falls off and the mariner embarks on personal reintegration with the world.

This assimilation is evident through the harmonious alliance of the spirits, the elements, and the human world in impelling the becalmed ship forward. The prominence of music is indeed suggestive. The 'sweet jargoning of the birds", the 'sweet" sounds of the angels, and the "pleasant" noise that the sail makes are emblematic of concord and the "One Life" in "Eolian Harp" and the 'Frost at Midnight". The point of difference between 'The Lime Tree Bower My Prison," Frost' and the prescribed poem is that the first two depict the shape objects assume when coloured by the imagination. In the latter, objects are conceived as they are mistuned to vision; and later to a spirit of munificence.

The Mariner is soon enlightened with a spiritual vision into the neutrality and oneness of the universe. By comprehending the same, his soul is absolved of transgression and sin. However, the mariner has to surrender himself to the penitence that the spirit of the North Pope commands of him. The wonder-evoking incidents that follow cannot be merely viewed as dramatic events but represent the infinite cosmic energy dormant everywhere. Time and space are endowed here with simply a spatial dimension and all other considerations are relegated to creating an awesome atmosphere.

The Mariner eventually comes within reach of his native land, and he opines: "Oh! Dream of joy." As he approaches his destination,he is irresolute here whether the sight before him is a reality or dream. The line dividing reality and illusion is blurred here by the poet by shuttling between the two. While Wordsworth possessed the talent of rendering the natural supernatural; nobody could equal Coleridge in his ability to render the supernatural natural.


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