The backbone of Coleridge’s poem is formed by the supernatural. His simple choice of assigning the Mariner the role of storyteller and main character lends the entire text an air of mystery. At the beginning of the poem, the reader is not given any background regarding the Mariner’s origin, how he got to this particular spot outside a wedding reception, what he is doing in this spot, or why he would choose just “one of three” guests to tell his tale (Line 2). Furthermore, the Mariner exercises his apparently supernatural influence over his unassuming subject: “He holds him with his glittering eye - / The wedding-guest stood still, / And listens like a three years’ child: / The Mariner hath his will” (13-16). The Mariner’s will is understood to be his taking possession not only of the wedding guest’s attention, but also of his mind; the man has been hypnotized by the Mariner’s imperceptible powers. The muting of the Wedding-Guest is just one example of several unexplained events that lend the poem great complexity, which ultimately makes it the most difficult of Coleridge’s works to interpret.
Adding to the Mariner’s mystique is that he seems to have had a kinship with the elements while at sea. In his story, he addresses both the Sun and a storm as “he,” as if he shares a brotherly bond with both. A bit later, he treats the Albatross in much the same way, recalling, “As if it had been a Christian soul, / We hailed it in God’s name” (65-6). This time, though, he takes his demonstration of his deep bond control over nature even further. He remembers that, under his direction, “It ate the food it ne’er had eat, / And round and round it flew” (67-8). Just as he induces the Albatross to grant his ship good fortune, breaking the ice to continue its journey, he unwittingly wields the power to bring great suffering upon him and his crew, killing the bird that served as God’s avatar on Earth. The albatross incident establishes the tone of the rest of the poem, one of supernatural events tinged by melancholy.
The lines that follow the albatross’ killing are curiously devoid of any context accounting for the Mariner’s actions. Here is a bird that faithfully follows his ship and does no harm, indeed only helping its progress by spurring on the wind and breaking thick shelves of ice. What, then, caused the Mariner’s composure to snap, leading him to commit this gratuitous and, as his men seem to believe, sacrilegious act? Coleridge provides little aid in understanding this incident, merely directing his Mariner to repeat his account: “I had done a hellish thing / And it would work ‘em woe: / For all averred, I had killed the bird / That made the breeze to blow” (91-94). Without any explanation for his deed, it then becomes difficult to sympathize with his growing plight which is revealed soon afterward. At the same time, it allows Coleridge to establish the Mariner’s character as fallible and thus mortal – making his otherworldly qualities all the more mysterious.
Even stranger is the crew’s encounter with the ship of Death, or what may be thought as Death, since the question of the ship’s identity is left open by the Mariner. Strangely, Coleridge devotes several lines to describing the woman who travels alongside Death, whose appearance is left completely to the reader’s imagination. The ship and its crew disappear as quickly as they came, and are never seen again, leaving the reader to puzzle over their exact role in the deaths of the Mariner’s crew, and how this catastrophe relates to the killing of the albatross. From this point on, the reader is required to suspend any disbelief, as he or she is only now entering into the most bizarre and confusing section of the poem.
At several points throughout the poem, the reader is gripped by a sense of foreboding, only heightened by Coleridge’s desire to draw out the suspense as the Mariner’s dread grows steadily. Immediately after, as the author’s gloss explains, “Death and Life-in-death have diced for the ship’s crew, and she (the latter) winneth the ancient Mariner” (195-98), the surrounding environment is plunged into star-illuminated night: “At one stride comes the dark; / With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea, / Off shot the spectre-bark” (199-202). This is accompanied by the puzzling gloss, “No twilight within the courts of the sun,” which apparently suggests that the sun and moon can never co-exist, and are therefore locked in the same struggle for ownership of the Mariner and his crew as “the twain” of the other ship.
With its sudden appearance, “The horned Moon, with one bright star / Within the nether tip” is judged to be the winner by forces that are never seen nor explained by Coleridge (210-11). The sickle-like appearance of the crescent moon implies a hidden violence it has carried out against the sun. Furthermore, the star in the tip is explained in a footnote as “An omen of impending evil,” an allusion made obvious by the death of the ship’s crew (Footnote 8, page 1585). Abruptly, “Four times fifty living men…dropped down one by one,” an event made even more significant by the fact that it happens at night, not long after the life-giving light and warmth provided by the Sun has been rapidly extinguished (ll. 216, 219).
Parts IV & V
The Mariner’s first response to the terrifying mass death of his crew is to turn his entreaties upward, to the same sky that contains the blistering sun and the murderous moon: “I looked to heaven, and tried to pray; / But or ever a prayer had gusht, / A wicked whisper came, and made / My heart as dry as dust” (244-47). This is Coleridge’s clearest hint that the Mariner has been forsaken by God, that his killing of the albatross has possessed God to use the moon’s imperceptible powers to punish the crew, and to punish him the most. Now God will not entertain any of the Mariner’s pleas for absolution, giving him thirst and taking his voice.
The first lines of Part 5 further develop the Mariner’s spiritual character, establishing his unwavering faith in his creator even in the face of mounting woe. He cries jubilantly, “To Mary Queen the praise be given! / She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven, / That slid into my soul” (292-96). Immediately afterward, his pious fortitude is rewarded by the slaking of his thirst; his praise for Mary is explained by the gloss thus: “By grace of the holy Mother, the ancient Mariner is refreshed with rain.” God’s forgiving of the Mariner’s sin is the only plausible explanation for these events – if there are other forces at work, Coleridge does not allude to them, choosing instead to revisit the language of a pious Christian and supplying the reader with vivid religious imagery.
Shortly afterward, the Mariner perceives “a roaring wind” that “did not come anear,” another indication that signifies the arrival of a force that eludes his comprehension (309-10). He reports, “The loud wind never reached the ship, / Yet now the ship moved on” (327-28). Coleridge glosses these lines, “The bodies of the ship’s crew are inspired, and the ship moves on.” Why does the ship move without the aid of the wind, which is only ever heard and not sensed? What inspires the crew, which is now composed entirely of “bodies” and not men? Coleridge’s implication is that there are supernatural forces or beings at work on the Mariner’s ship, creating phenomena that even the author himself cannot (or, more accurately and rather playfully, will not) account for. He impresses this point, over and over, often choosing to give it a Christian flavor. One example of his Christianizing of the narrative is contained in a later, subtler couplet that describes birds’ warbling above the ship as “an angel’s song, / That makes the heavens be mute” (365-66). Indeed, by this point, the crew has been resurrected (not to life, but to life-in-death) and the sun has come out again, leaving none of the turmoil that besieges the ship by the light of the moon.
Examining the arrival of the strong wind, Abe Delson holds that “the effect here dispels the joyful mood” that develops from the Mariner’s compulsion to be “integrated with nature and God” (Delson 716). He elaborates:
Socially, the Mariner is still estranged, and this social estrangement breaks the harmony with the natural and divine. In lines 329-330 nature is used to underscore the shock of the auditory image. In the ship’s being moved from beneath, in the crew’s failure to speak, and in their needless labor in working the ship that moves without a wind – the Mariner’s bewilderment becomes horrifying. (716)
Here a kind of see-saw effect can be observed in the poem for the first time: the wind and the ensuing revival of the ship’s crew makes it difficult for the reader to get bearings on the tone of the poem: one asks, is this a moment of triumph, or will there be other strange tragedies to befall the hapless Mariner? The “horrifying” aspect pinpointed by Delson is that the reader is just as helpless to prepare for what comes next, and must be just as bewildered as the Mariner.
The sun flies swiftly down from the sky, bringing the Mariner down “in a swound,” and any optimistic momentum created by the previous lines is lost by the end of Part 5 (Coleridge l. 392). Delson argues that “the sun at the Line suddenly assumes a malevolent role by fixing the ship and causing it, with the apparent aid of the spirit, to sway ‘with a short uneasy motion’,” pointing out that this is the last specific representation of the sun in the poem – the lasting image of the sun is one of turmoil and absolute power over the Mariner, merely one of the many forces, observable or not, that begin to completely deprive him of his agency (Delson 717).
Oddly, the poem seems to take a sudden turn away from a purely Christian conception of God when the Mariner reports, “Slowly and smoothly went the ship, / Moved onward from beneath” (375-76). This new force lies “Under the keel nine fathom deep, / From the land of mist and snow, / The spirit slid: and it was he / That made the ship to go” (377-80). Coleridge supplies this with the vague note, “The lonesome spirit from the south pole carries on the ship as far as the line, in obedience to the angelic troop, but will requireth vengeance.” Many of the other glosses are so ambiguous or redundant as to be essentially useless – but here the obvious foreshadowing that this force, for some unknown reason, will require vengeance, must be noted. Furthermore, Coleridge’s reference to the “angelic troop” reveals that he is not actually referring to another God at all, but to some unseen, undersea servant of God.
In contrast to the unusually upbeat tone that permeates much of Part 5, it closes with the lines, “The man hath penance done, / And penance more will do,” exemplifying the ever more dreadful trials that the Mariner will face in Part 6 (408-09). His nightmare begins anew when he realizes that “The pang, the curse, with which [the crew] died, / Had never passed away: / I could not draw my eyes from theirs, / Nor turn them up to pray” (438-41). The Mariner’s sense of dread – and, by extension, that of the reader – finally reaches a fever pitch, as “he knows, a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread” (450-51).
He feels a pleasant wind that touches only him and soon lays eyes on the harbor, representing, according to the gloss, “his native country,” and he exclaims, “Oh! dream of joy!” (464). Once more Coleridge emphasizes that the Mariner’s piety has never left him all this time, as he prays, “O let me be awake, my God! / Or let me sleep alway” (470-71). Delson reads this statement as a reflection of the Mariner’s fear “from his experience that his mounting joy may be once more abruptly terminated” (Delson 718). Once again, Coleridge shows that the Mariner’s prayers go unheard or ignored by the heavens, and once again, his dread at not being able to control his environment or fate seeps into the narrative.
Heavenly figures come to the Mariner as if in a dream, but he is fully conscious: “the bay was white with silent light, / Till rising from the same, / Full many shapes, that shadows were, / In crimson colours came….Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat, / And, by the holy [cross]! / A man all light, a seraph-man, / On every corse there stood” (Coleridge l. 480-490). The seraph-man is explained as “A shining celestial being, highest in the ranks of the angels” (Footnote 7, page 1592). This further reinforces the Christian imagery that Coleridge employs throughout the piece, particularly in this section, but also serves to illuminate the contrast between that imagery and the pagan supernatural language that is ever present in the early part of the poem.
Toward the beginning of Part 7, the Mariner’s ship sinks suddenly and inexplicably: “And straight a sound was heard / Under the water it rumbled on…It reached the ship, it split the bay; / The ship went down like lead…But swift as dreams, myself I found / Within the Pilot’s boat….Upon the whirl, where sank the ship, / The boat spun round and round” (ll. 545-57). Coleridge once again refuses to reveal anything that is not absolutely necessary for a basic understanding of the poem, leaving the reader in the dark about whether the underwater sound comes from the same source as the “lonesome spirit from the south pole” mentioned in an earlier gloss. The glosses accompanying these lines are of no help. Curiously, little is made of the ultimate fate of the Mariner’s crew, and it is unknown what happens to their bodies when the ship sinks. These facts provide evidence for interpreting that much of the Mariner’s tale is merely a recollection of a hallucination or dream – and it is undeniable that the characteristics of either a hallucination or dream can be easily applied to much of the imagery used in Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as well as in Kubla Khan.
A bit more of the Mariner’s true character is illuminated shortly afterward, when he has met the Hermit, the Pilot, and the Pilot’s son. The Mariner speaks to them for the first time:
the Pilot shrieked / And fell down in a fit; / The holy Hermit raised his eyes, / And prayed where he did sit. / I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy, / Who now doth crazy go, / Laughed loud and long, and all the while / His eyes went to and fro. / “Ha! Ha!” quoth he, “full plain I see, / The Devil knows how to row….The Hermit crossed his brow. / “Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say - / What manner of man art thou?” (560-77)
It becomes clear that the Mariner is not an ordinary person, that at some point on his journey he has been given the appearance or abilities of the supernatural by the ambiguous forces that propel him along the grim way to the harbor. But what of his appearance or manner would cause the three people he encounters – the last three people with whom he interacts before beginning the wanderings that lead him to the Wedding-Guest – to react with such horror and panic? The reader is left to answer these questions alone and imprecisely.
In the end, Coleridge characterizes the Mariner as a fundamentally religious man; the old man laments:
Alone on a wide wide sea: / So lonely ‘twas, that God himself / Scared seemed there to be. / O 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 altogether pray…He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast. / He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all. (598-617)
“He prayeth well, who loveth well” is glossed as, “And to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.” Thus the moral of this piece, if Coleridge desires for there to be one, becomes that throughout the trials and turmoil set upon the Mariner’s journey, he never once lost his reverence, not only to God’s creations, but to God himself. Praying gives him his greatest joy, and, indeed, it is the only thing that seems to bring him joy, as “till my ghastly tale is told, / This heart within me burns” (584-85). This raises the question of whether the Mariner’s faith in God is justified, as it is strongly implied that the Mariner has been cursed and is destitute and frail, barely clinging to life.
The implication is that, despite the Mariner’s dire condition, the reader is meant to trust in him just as he has trusted in God. The Wedding-Guest demonstrates this when, “A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn” (624-25). It is never revealed whether the Mariner’s tale and his parting lesson forsake the Wedding-Guest and subject him to a life of miserable wandering, as were the effects of God’s trials on the Mariner.
For the most part, the Wedding-Guest does not play a very significant role in the unfolding of the narrative. Throughout the long-winded tale, his only contributions are interjections of fear at believing the Mariner to be a ghost, fears quickly assuaged by simple denials from the Mariner. The Wedding-Guest’s presence is so small that it is quite easy to completely forget about him as the Mariner recounts being battered by sinister forces. The Wedding-Guest does not even raise any protests when the Mariner comments, “What loud uproar burst from that door! / The wedding-guests are there: / But in the garden-bower the bride / And bride-maids singing are: / And hark the little vesper bell, / Which biddeth me to prayer,” signaling that the Mariner’s detainment of the Wedding-Guest has caused the latter to miss the entire wedding (591-96).
Throughout the course of the poem, the reader is subject to the same lack of agency that is imposed on first the Wedding-Guest and then on the Mariner. It is as if the reader is experiencing the events of the tale alongside its central characters, and is just as powerless to effect change on the environment as they are. Sarah Dyck argues, “In this manner the reader becomes totally involved in the creation and re-creation of the fable and is expected, or challenged, to draw his own conclusions” (Dyck 591). In this way, the poem’s ambiguity can actually be viewed as a strong point, since no two readers can be expected to glean the exact same significance from the exact same passages, leading to a wealth of academic and amateur perspectives.
Where Dyck errs, however, is in her rather weak assertion that, “possibly, Coleridge shared Keats’s conviction that we dislike any poetry that has a palpable design on us,” implying that while Coleridge is not trying to argue any particular point to his audience, he does wish for them to be affected by it in some way (592). The presence of his mostly useless glosses contradicts this view, instead indicating that he wishes for the reader to share his view that poetry is not inherently meaningful, or at least not as meaningful as other poets would have them believe. He values redundancy and overwrought complexity and shuns simple, clear language. The boldness of this approach is surely what has allowed the Rime to endure as a prime example of nineteenth-century poetry, but it makes attempts to interpret the poem needlessly confusing.
The Wedding-Guest gives no verbal response to the tale, and when the Mariner essentially vanishes into thin air, he merely turns and leaves “like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn,” (622-623). Through some powerful magic, perhaps a skill that has been imparted to him by the strange forces he encountered on his journey, the Mariner has hypnotized, stunned and muted the Wedding-Guest, and it is not until he disappears that the spell is broken. This adds a fairy-tale element to the piece that would ordinarily be viewed as cliché in modern literature, but here serves only to heighten the acute sense that the Mariner and Wedding-Guest have spent the tale not in normal consciousness, but rather in a suspended, dreamlike state.
This view is bolstered by the fact that, despite their presence outside a large wedding ceremony, the Mariner and his captive listener are never once interrupted by any of the other guests. Nor does there seem to be any other creature walking the street where they are standing. Finally, the Wedding-Guest’s relationship with the bride or groom is never revealed, but it is also strange to note that his presence at the ceremony is never missed. After the tale has ended, after the spell is broken and the Wedding-Guest has returned to normal consciousness, he makes no indication that he remembers anything about what has just transpired; his sudden amnesia leaves him with an unsettling feeling of melancholy and a sense that he has learned an important lesson. He cannot account for what has caused his sadness or his greater wisdom. The reader can never know what power the Mariner used to hypnotize the Wedding-Guest, nor how he acquired that power – yet another reflection of the closely-guarded ambiguity that pervades the poem and ultimately leaves the reader unsatisfied.
Reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a confusing and ultimately unsettling experience, compounded by rampant ambiguity in the Mariner’s telling of his tale, as well as by the sense at the end of the poem that the entire piece has taken place in some alternate, dreamlike world. The Rime is distinguished by its reliance on vivid imagery of the religious and supernatural. Its moral, and the methods used by the Mariner to impart that moral, are murky and not easily grasped, even on further re-readings. The hypnosis of the Wedding-Guest by the Mariner is the only event that can be clearly perceived, as it is explored at the beginning of the piece and revisited at its end.