The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Even though Samuel Taylor Coleridge 's Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the most influential poems in the English language, it's still a doozy of a confusing read. It's about an old sailor who stops a wedding guest from entering a wedding celebration, and says, essentially, "I know you want to get your drink and your dance on, but now I'm going to tell you a really long story about how I got my entire crew killed and almost died myself because I acted like a jerk while sailing the far reaches of the globe."
Chances are that this poem is unlike anything you've read before. It will probably leave you with a bunch of questions: Why does Coleridge speak in such an old-fashioned voice? Why does the poem sound so corny? Did Coleridge think this poem was a big joke? Why is the Mariner saved after committing such an atrocious act? And, our favorite: Why on earth did the Mariner shoot the albatross!? None of these questions are stupid or silly. Depending on your tolerance for ghost stories that are filled with strange images and questions that never get answered, you'll either be fascinated by the Mariner and his crazy exploits, or you'll be completely frustrated by him. Either way, have patience, and the poem will seem richer the more time you spend with it.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was published in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems that essentially launched the movement known as British Romanticism. The book contained works by Coleridge and his equally talented pal William Wordsworth. In terms of the density of classic works contained in Lyrical Ballads, you could compare it to The Beatles's The White Album. For people who love poetry, every page is like, "Oh, I can't believe that one is in here, too!"
A lyrical ballad is a poem that combines two different genres: story-telling (a ballad) and intense expressions of subjective and emotional experience (a lyric). The collection marked a pretty radical departure from the standard poetry of the time, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has several hallmarks that would later become associated with Romanticism: elements of the supernatural, a deep sense of history, lots of dramatic images of nature, formal experimentation, and an interest in conversational language, among others. After this poem, Coleridge went on to write more famous poems and publish some important works of literary criticism.
Why Should I Care?
If there's one phrase to take away from this poem, it's "albatross around the neck." Let us explain:
Have you ever done something stupid and known it was stupid at the time? It's one thing to mess up because you haven't thought through the consequences of your action. It's quite another to think, "Yeah, if I do this, it's going to cause huge problems for me, and I'm going to wish I hadn't done it, but I'm going to do it anyway."
Maybe your parents said that if you went out a certain night you'd be grounded for a month, but you decide to do it anyway, knowing full well that your parents will find out, and it totally won't be worth it. That's a trivial example. How about if a close friend or family member tries to help you, and for no apparent reason, you do something nasty that drives them away? That's more like it.
The Mariner's act of shooting the albatross (that had once brought good luck to his ship) is the mother of irrational, self-defeating acts. He never offers a good explanation for why he does it, and his crewmates get so upset that they hang the dead albatross around his neck as a burden, so he won't forget what he did. To have an albatross around your neck is to have a constant reminder of a big mistake you made. Instead of the gift that keeps on giving, it's the blunder that keeps on taking. As in, "I spent all my money on that motorcycle because I thought it would be cool, but now I can't sell it, and it's too expensive to maintain. That thing is just an albatross around my neck."