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Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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 Arctic, 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?!