Rime of Ancient Mariner Short Summary
Short summary: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a long poem written in loose ballad form. The poem is archaic in language, making it unusual for its time, standing apart from other contemporary Romantic poems.
The poem follows the Ancient Mariner as he travels at sea. In an act of selfishness and/or immorality, he kills an Albatross. Once this has happened, his crew and ship experience bad luck in which all the crewmembers die.
The Mariner finds that he cannot die and is only able to escape his curse when he is able to find an appreciation for the beauty of all living things in his heart. At this point, the dead Albatross that his crew hung around his neck before his death is finally able to fall off, symbolizing his freedom from shame and guilt.
Literary Elements of Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Type of Work: Poem
Published Date: 1798
Setting: Outside a wedding hall; at sea
Main Characters: The Ancient Mariner
Protagonist: The Ancient Mariner
Antagonist: The Ancient Mariner
Major Thematic Elements: The power of imagination; relationships between the concepts of piety, philosophy, and arts; nature’s role in individuality
Motifs: conversation; delight over the natural world; prayer
Exposition: Three young men are on their way to attend a wedding when one of them is stopped by an old sailor. The young wedding guest is transfixed by the old man and listens to his tale.
Conflict: The ancient mariner’s failure to recognize the beauty in all living things and kills the sacred albatross because of this.
Plot: This poem uses a frame narrative—a young wedding guest is transfixed by an ancient seaman who wants to tell his story. The ancient mariner is telling his tales for the majority of the poem.
Major Symbols: The sun; the moon; dreaming
Climax: The mariner begins to notice creatures of nature with admiration and praises their beauty. At this point, he is able to shed his mark of shame—the dead albatross which has been hung around his neck. This burden of guilt is only able to be removed when the mariner regains his ability to pray and acknowledge the beauty around him.
Literary Significance of Rime of the Ancient Mariner
This poem is different from other Romantic poetry of its time, being strangely philosophical and leaning heavily on a moral message. Some of the poem is rather complicated and uses archaic language to express intense philosophical quandaries. It is possible that this is meant to evoke satire of moral philosophies, but it is still debated by scholars today whether or not this is the case.
However, despite its differences from contemporary Romantic poetry, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner speaks deeply to the classic elements—the beauty of nature, the sacred connection to nature and beauty between the individual and the world outside himself, childlike wonder, etc. The idea that unity with nature is something that exists in a fragile way that can be easily destroyed is present throughout the poem, just as it comes up in much of the Romantic poets’ work. As such, this poem creates a unique, strange, and fascinating look into Romantic poetry and its contributions to the Western literary canon.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Synopsis and Overview
Ancient Mariner plot summary: The poem opens as three young men make their way to a wedding. Along the way, the encounter an old sailor, who stops on of the young men. The young wedding guest demands to be let go and the old man does so. However, the young wedding guest becomes transfixed by the Mariner’s strange, glittering eye and sits to listen to the Mariner’s tales. The Mariner begins by relaying that he once sailed a ship from his home out to a promising sea. The young wedding guest hears music coming from the wedding hall, but can do nothing but sit and listen to the Mariner’s tale.
The Mariner reveals that the voyage turned dark with storms that caused the ship off course. The ship ended up in a cold and icy location. The sailors encountered an Albatross, a sacred sea bird. It circled the ship, seemingly stirring a wind to guide the ship away from this icy maze. As the ship sailed northward, the Albatross followed, signaling good luck to the sailors. When the Mariner pauses his story, the young wedding guest asks him what causes his pain, to which the Mariner replies that he shot and killed the Albatross.
At first the sailors were angry at the Mariner for killing the Albatross, which they believed to be bringing good luck to the ship. However, when the fog lifted after the Albatross’s death, they changed their mind and decided that the Albatross was bad luck and congratulated the Mariner.
Before long, the ship had drifted into the doldrums and the sailors found themselves stranded with no wind. The men had no water to drink and the ocean seemed to thicken as slimy creatures emerged and walked the surface of the water, threatening the sailors. Some of the sailors believed that an evil spirit had followed the ship out of the icy land. The sailors blamed the Mariner for having killed the Albatross and hung its dead body around the Mariner’s neck.
Time passed on as the sailors became dreadfully thirsty. None on the ship could speak, their mouths were so dry. One day, the Mariner saw a tiny speck on the horizon and bit his harm to drink some of his own blood, allowing him to cry out that a ship was near. However, when the ship came near, it was a ghostly ship carrying the figures of Death and the Night-mare Life-in-Death who had the form of a woman with golden hair and bright red lips. Death and Life-in-Death throw dice. When Life-in-Death wins, she instantly turns day to night, causing all the sailors to drop dead except the Mariner. Before their deaths, each sailor cursed the Mariner with his eyes.
Startled, the wedding guest admits to the Mariner that he is afraid of his withered hand and glittering eye. The Mariner reassures him that he is no ghost and remains a living man to tell his tales. The Mariner recounts that surrounded by corpses, the Mariner had no company but the slimy sea creatures crawling around him. He could no longer pray. For seven days and seven nights, the Mariner endured his curse and found that he was unable to die. On the seventh night, the Mariner noticed some water snakes moving through the moonlight, glittering in a beautiful way. In that moment, he blessed the creatures with his heart and was suddenly able to pray again. The Albatross dropped from around his neck, sinking into the sea. The sailors come back to life under a rain and guide the ship back to its harbor. Once they arrive, the sailors once more curse the Mariner with their eyes, their souls leaving their bodies. The Mariner is cursed to carry on in a living death.