And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners' hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white moon-shine."
"God save thee, ancient mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! –
Why lookst thou so?" "With my crossbow
I shot the albatross. (I.18-20)
When the Mariner shoots the albatross, the question isn't whether the albatross was bringing the ship good luck, although the poem suggests that it does. The question is: what did the albatross ever do to him? The answer seems to be "nothing," so the Mariner shoots it only because he can. Pride is inherently irrational.
And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
Nor dim nor red, like an angel's head,
The glorious sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist. (II.23-24)
The sailors misinterpret why killing the albatross is such a bad thing. They only care about their own self-interest, and as soon as the fog goes away, they are no longer angry with the Mariner. Maybe that's why they get whacked by Death later on.
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gushed,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust. (IV.57)
The "wicked whisper" sounds like the Mariner's pride, which prevents him from doing something so degrading as to ask for help and forgiveness. In this poem, the setting – here, dryness – often mirrors the spiritual condition of the Mariner.
'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless albatross.
The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.'
The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honeydew:
Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.' (V.90-92)
The two voices play a kind of good cop/bad cop routine. The bad cop is like, "Is this the guy who thought the innocent albatross wasn't worth a second thought? Lemme at him!" And the good cop holds him back, saying, "He'll be able to earn forgiveness – as long as he plays ball and does the penance we require. You'll play ball, right, Mariner?" It's Law and Order, Coleridge-style.
Oh sweeter than the marriage feast,
'Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company! –
To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou wedding-guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast. (VII.138-40)
The Mariner has abandoned his prideful ways, and now he just wants to be a member of the community and, especially, to pray a lot. The guy loves his prayers. However, does Coleridge divert from traditional Christian doctrine when he suggests that people and animals deserve the same love? Maybe avoiding pride means avoiding species pride, as well.
And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot. (II.33)
The Mariner undergoes several stages of suffering after he kills the albatross. In the first stage, extreme drought and thirst, he shares this punishment with the crew. Also, remember how extreme thirst was also one of the curses suffered by the ghost crew in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean? We think the writers of that movie knew their Coleridge.
With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drouth all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!
With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in,
As they were drinking all. (III.38-39)
OK, so we're still talking about the same dry thirst, but this description is so nasty that we couldn't resist mentioning it. Their lips are as "black" as a piece of charred wood, and the only liquid close at hand is their own blood. Also, these lines suggest a new dimension of psychological suffering: false hope.
One after one, by the star-dogged moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye. (III.49)
Even though the sailors reacted poorly to the death of the albatross, they were not ultimately responsible for it. The Mariner has their blood on his hands – all 200 of them – and he has to live with their curse until he repents.
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I. (IV.54-55)
Oh, poor Mariner: no one takes pity on you. Maybe you should just admit you were wrong! Sorry. We just get so frustrated with him. The poem implicitly compares him with one of the slimy creatures and sea snakes wriggling around. You can now add "extreme solitude" to the list of things he suffers. By the way, do the sea-snakes remind you of the story of Adam and Eve?
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns. (VII.133-134)
The Mariner's sin was such that he can never fully atone for it. As the two voices suggest earlier in the poem, he must perform the ritual of penitence every so often, probably for the rest of his life. For him, this ritual involves telling the story to other troubled souls like himself. His desire to tell the story is a physical pain, not just a mental one.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken –
The ice was all between. (I.14)
The ship is driven down to the Antarctic, and the poem suggests that this still might be early enough in the Age of Exploration that these are uncharted waters. Actually, Coleridge had never been to the Antarctic, he could only read the few accounts that were available describing it. He just knew there was a lot of ice and no people.
Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down,
'Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea! (II.26)
When the sailors lose the wind that would carry them home, there's nothing they can do but wait it out. Speaking will only make them more depressed. This isn't just unusual weather: they are being punished for killing the albatross.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
Till the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet. (IV.58)
When the sailors are killed by Death, the Mariner remains in the state of Life-in-Death. The world is so large around him, but it all feels like dead weight pushing down on his eyes. He is incredibly lonely, and the lingering curse on the eyes of the crew makes him want to just shut out the world.
They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.
The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools –
We were a ghastly crew. (V.76-77)
The bodies of the crew come back to life, but their souls are long gone, so the Mariner can't communicate with them. However, he does get to enjoy some angelic singing later on, so he's less isolated in that sense.
O wedding-guest! This soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
Aha! This being literature, you just knew there had to be some big metaphor lurking somewhere. And here it is: the spiritual condition of the Wedding Guest parallels the physical (and spiritual) condition of the Mariner when he was separated from both God and humanity out on the ocean, with only the curses of the other sailors to keep him company. Not having had a chance to get to know the Wedding Guest very well (because someone has been gabbing for the entire poem), we have no way to verify this statement.
Ah! wel-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung. (II.34)
The albatross becomes a symbol of the Mariner's sin and pride. He thought they could do just fine without the silly bird, and now he's chained to the thing like Steve Martin to John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. This is probably the most well-known image in the poem, and the phrase "albatross around my/your/his/her neck" has entered English the language as an idiom.
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.
The naked hulk alongside came, And the twain were casting dice; 'The game is done! I've won! I've won!' Quoth she, and whistles thrice. (II.45-46)
The Mariner's fate is appropriately decided by chance: he will either die, or he'll live a life that will be a lot like death. "Life-in-Death" is one of the poem's original mythological creations. Gustav Doré's famous drawing sums up our ambivalent feelings about this handsome dame. One question: does the Mariner continue to live in the state of Life-in-Death even after the sailors' curse is broken?
O happy living things! No tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea. (IV.65-66)
The Mariner's big moment of conversion is when he realizes that even the grossest, slimiest creatures deserve love and blessing. He's not even aware of blessing them, otherwise his pride would have put a stop to it, but he does, and the curse of the albatross is broken. The albatross falls into the sea, symbolizing the end of his heaviest burden.
The pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never passed away:
I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.
And now this spell was snapped: once more
I viewed the ocean green,
And looked far forth, yet little saw
Of what had else been seen— (VI.101-102)
We're not exactly sure why the sailors' curse is broken at this exact moment, but it relates somehow to his earlier blessing of the sea snakes. Immediately the ocean turns from a sickly blood red to its normal color, bright green.
I saw a third – I heard his voice:
It is the hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns
That he makes in the wood.
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away
The albatross's blood. (VI.118)
Even though the direct curse of the albatross has been lifted, its blood remains on its conscience. He can never truly wipe away the consequences of his actions, and he must constantly reaffirm his transformation into a humble soul. He desperately wants the hermit to make him confess his deed.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn. (VII.143)
The Wedding Guest undergoes a transformation after listening to the entire story. He realizes that life isn't all about getting down and being the life of the party. Other than that, we're not exactly sure what he learns that makes him wiser – it's one of the mysteries of the poem.
He holds him with his glittering eye –
The wedding-guest stood still,
And listens like a three-years' child:
The mariner hath his will. (I.4)
One moment, the Wedding Guest is calling the old man a loon and trying to squirm free. The next moment he's listening like a grade-school kid at story time. What gives? Clearly the Mariner has some kind of unusual and magnetic power, symbolized by his bright, "glittering" eyes.
And some in dreams assured were
Of the spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow. (II.31-32)
Weird stuff starts to happen after the boat has been sitting idly on the water for a while. The water is filled with colors that witches might produce in their potions, and the crew members start dreaming about a supernatural "spirit" that lives deep under the ocean but which now haunts their ship. There are quite a few different supernatural elements to keep track of in this poem.
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun,
Like restless gossameres?
Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
The arrival of Death and Life-in-Death is a symbolic event described as a supernatural one. A ship would not normally travel with tattered sails and a skeleton-like hull, but we're not in "normal" territory, either. How does the Mariner identify Death and his mate so quickly?
"I fear thee, ancient mariner!"
"Be calm, thou wedding-guest!
'Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blessed. (V.79)
The realms of the supernatural, the spiritual, and the religious blur together in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Angels belong to the religious sphere, but they seem supernatural when they turn the sailors' bodies into zombies. Also, they are described as good "spirits," in contrast to the angry spirit that lives under the ocean.
'Still as a slave before his lord,
The ocean hath no blast;
His great bright eye most silently
Up to the moon is cast –
If he may know which way to go;
For she guides him smooth or grim.
See, brother, see! how graciously
She looketh down on him.' (VI.94-95)
This quote is taken from the conversation of the two voices in Part VI. The second voice explains that the ocean doesn't really have its own free will; it does whatever the moon wants. And who is the moon? We're not sure, but she might be associated with the Virgin Mary or another religious figure. The moon is personified as a female, as in most classical mythology. She doesn't stay mad forever and is capable of showing pity toward the Mariner.