The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Summary and Critical Analysis

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a typical ballad by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It deals with a single situation or incident, and though there are many incidents, they are also introduced so as to look like parts of the one major event. The situation is presented dramatically. The poet makes use of striking dialogues, and the effect is enhanced by repetitions, known as ‘refrains’. Another typical ballad element, the supernatural is also introduced to give the effect of horror and mystery.

S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834)

Coleridge, like many other romantic poets, turned to the Middle Ages for inspiration because he was dissatisfied by the excessive ‘reasoning’ in content and ‘rules’ in the form of poetry. The medieval oral ballads give a sense of reality to the supernatural and therefore Coleridge took up this form of poetry with great interest. The present ballad has all the elements that typical ballads should have: a vivid story, dramatic action, verbal music, a scenic setting, a unifying element of feeling, moral, and mystery. Like most folk ballads, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” contains a single incident that makes up an eventful and striking story which in itself is enough to hold the attention of the audience.

It ends with the lifelong punishment of its main character for the violation of the law binding human beings with the invisible beings of the nature. This ballad has the oral quality of typical folk ballads. It is a short narrative poem with dramatic elements like dialogue, quick and unexpected development of action, tension and a dramatic end. Another important feature of this ballad is the typical form. The poem is written in four line stanzas (quatrains) with the usual ballad rhyme scheme abcb. Each stanza is written in more or less the traditional ballad meter: the first and third lines are in iambic tetrameter, and the second and fourth lines are in iambic trimester. The language is simple and the narrative is straightforward. The order of events is chronological: the narrator tells what had happened in the order in which the events had taken place.

The first thing we notice in this poem is the simplicity of language. There are lines in the poem which make use of very simple and homely words and expressions. “The sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he”. But like the old ballads, the poem has a serious aim and purpose of implicitly conveying a message. It is more than a mere poem of the supernatural, describing some adventurous and exciting events. The poem narrates certain horrible and unusual incidents that lead to the refining and purifying of our emotions and sentiments as well as conveying a lesson for practical life. It tells us, more or less directly, that the violation of the fundamental laws of the nature will result in terrible disasters in the well-being of men, especially their mental health.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in some way illustrates the theory of love between the creatures, between human beings and the visible and invisible beings of the nature. The old (ancient) sailor (mariner) commits a crime against the divine law of love and as a result there is an upheaval both in the internal world of his mind and in the external world of nature. The bird that he kills on his voyage (the Albatross) is not a mere bird; but is a symbolic spirit as indicated by the very the manner of its arrival at the place form nowhere out of “fog and mist”. The mariners are also very happy and receive the bird warmly, thinking it a good soul which has come to help them “as if it had been a Christian soul.” But the leader mariner’s reckless act of killing the bird is a great crime, a violation of the sanctity of life. The other mariners also suffer because they unknowingly make themselves accomplices in his sin by justifying his act and saying that it was right to kill the bird which brought the fog and mist (though they sometimes say that it was wrong). Those other sailors who did not realize the sin died, but the main mariner who appreciated the dirty-looking snakes in the sea was atoned by the spirits that came to rush him to the shore. However, the mariner is obsessed by his consciousness of guilt, which he can alleviate only by telling the story of crime to someone who looks appropriate. The teaching of the story pacifies his soul from the burning guilt that he is made to carry along throughout life. The mariner’s regeneration began when he blessed the water snakes and his heart is in harmony with the universal law of love, and his life continues only if he confesses and teaches that inviolable law to others.

Coleridge was influenced by medievalism and "The Ancient Mariner" is formed with the colors and glamour of the middle Ages. Supernaturalism and sentimentalism were the chief features of the poetry of the medieval time. Besides having a love of adventure and romance, the people of the middle ages had a faith in religious ceremonials, rituals and superstitions.

The basic idea of "The Ancient Mariner" is 'medieval' from this point of view. The crime and penance of the mariner and its final expiation is a Catholic idea which is the central point round which the story moves. The active intervention of the supernatural machinery has been used by the poet to the same effect. The poet makes use of superstitious beliefs to heighten the old-world atmosphere of the poem. The description of the voyage and the ship is also in conformity with the early history of English navigation. And lastly, the moral comes at the close of the poem as a final pronouncement of life. The natural, the supernatural and sustains the other. Its theme involves remorse, suffering relief, hatred, forgiveness, grief and joy.

In terms of the spiritual truth Coleridge succeeds in making the poem an organic whole. The whole story has a powerful impact on us, and it convinces us about the mystery of life, which is made up of the natural and the supernatural, the known and the unknown. The mariner is successful in conveying effectively his spiritual crisis to us and finally we come to share his faith in-the nature.

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Shrestha, Roma. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 18 Nov. 2013,