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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(Redirected from Rime of the Ancient Mariner)
One of a set of engraved metal plate illustrations by Gustave Doré.
One of a set of engraved metal plate illustrations by Gustave Doré.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem written by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797-1799 and published in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1797). It is Coleridge's longest major poem. Along with other poems in Lyrical Ballads, it was a signal shift to modern poetry, and the beginnings of British romantic literature.

Plot summary

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner relates the supernatural events experienced by a mariner on a long sea voyage. The Mariner stops a man who is on the way to a wedding ceremony, and begins to recite his story. The Wedding-Guest's reaction turns from bemusement and impatience to fascination as the Mariner's story progresses.

The Mariner's tale begins with his ship leaving harbour; despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven off course by a storm and, driven south, eventually reaching Antarctica. An albatross, traditionally a good omen, appears and leads them out of the threatening land of ice; even as the albatross is praised by the ship's crew, however, the Mariner shoots it with a crossbow, for reasons unknown (with my cross-bow / I shot the albatross). The other sailors are angry with the Mariner, as they thought the albatross brought the South Wind that led them out of the Antarctic: (Ah, wretch, said they / the bird to slay / that made the breeze to blow). However, the sailors change their minds when the weather becomes warmer and the mist disappears: ('Twas right, said they, such birds to slay / that bring the fog and mist). The crime arouses the wrath of supernatural spirits who then pursue the ship "from the land of mist and snow"; the south wind which had initially led them from the land of ice now sends the ship into uncharted waters, where it is becalmed.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

Here, however, the sailors change their minds again and blame the Mariner for the torment of their thirst, and hang the albatross around the mariner's neck as a sign of his guilt: (Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks / Had I from old and young! / Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung). Eventually, in an eerie passage, the ship encounters a ghostly vessel. Onboard are Death (a skeleton) and the "Night-Mare" Life-In-Death (a pale, deathly-fair woman), who are playing dice for the souls of the crew. With a roll of the dice, Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-death the life of the mariner, a prize she considers more valuable. Her name is a clue as to the mariner's fate; he will endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross.

One by one all two hundred crew members die, but the Mariner lives on, seeing for seven days and nights the curse in the eyes of the crew's corpses, whose last expressions remain upon their faces. Eventually, the Mariner's curse is lifted when he sees sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as "slimy things" earlier in the poem, he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them (a spring of love gush'd from my heart and I bless'd them unaware); suddenly, as he manages to pray, the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is partially expiated. The bodies of the crew, possessed by good spirits, rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks in a whirlpool, leaving only the Mariner behind. As penance for his deed, the Mariner is forced to wander the earth and tell his story, and teach a lesson to those he meets:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.


The poem may have been inspired by James Cook's second voyage of exploration (1772-1775) of the South Seas and the Pacific Ocean; Coleridge's tutor, William Wales, was the astronomer on Cook's flagship and had a strong relationship with Cook. On his second voyage Cook plunged repeatedly below the Antarctic Circle to determine whether the fabled great southern continent existed.

The poem may also have been inspired by the legend of the Wandering Jew, who was forced to wander the Earth until Judgement Day, for taunting Jesus on the day of the Crucifixion.

According to William Wordsworth, the poem was inspired whilst Coleridge, Wordsworth and his wife Dorothy were on a walking tour through the Quantock Hills in Somerset. The journey started at about 4pm, on 13 November 1797. The discussion had turned to a book that Wordsworth was reading, "A Voyage Round The World by way of the Great South Sea(1726), by Captain George Shelvocke. In the book, a melancholy sailor shoots a black albatross. Wordsworth said to Coleridge "Suppose you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the south sea, and the tutelary spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime." By the time the trio finished their walk, the poem had taken shape.

Having shot the albatross the Mariner is forced to wear the bird about his neck as a symbol of guilt. "Instead of the cross, the Albatross // About my neck was hung." This is fitting with the idea of the Wandering Jew, who is branded with a cross as a symbol of guilt.

The idea of the mariner's shooting of the albatross came from Captain George Shelvocke's A Voyage round the World (1726):

We all observed, that we had not the sight of one fish of any kind, since we were come to the Southward of the streights of le Mair, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black Albatross, who accompanied us for several days (...), till Hattley, (my second Captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagin'd, from his colour, that it might be some ill omen. (...) He, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the Albitross, not doubting we shout have a fair wind after it.

When William Wordsworth and Coleridge planned the scheme for their joint collection Lyrical Ballads, it was agreed that Wordsworth would contribute poems describing common life and Coleridge would contribute poems on supernatural themes.

It is also thought that Coleridge, a known user of opium, could have been under the drug's effects when he wrote some of the more strange and weird parts of the poem, especially the Voices of The Spirits communicating with each other.

The poem received mixed reviews from critics, and Coleridge was once told by the publisher that most of the book's sales were to sailors who thought it was a naval songbook. Coleridge made several modifications to the poem over the years. In the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), he replaced many of the archaic words.


There are many different interpretations of the poem. Some critics believe that the poem is a metaphor of original sin in Eden with the subsequent regret of the mariner and the rain seen as a baptism. [citation needed]

Popular culture

A statue of the Ancient Mariner at Watchet Harbour, Somerset, England, unveiled in September 2003 as a tribute to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looksHad I from old and young !Instead of the cross, the AlbatrossAbout my neck was hung.
A statue of the Ancient Mariner at Watchet Harbour, Somerset, England, unveiled in September 2003 as a tribute to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
  • In Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice, Claudia is described with the following verse:
Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold
Her skin was as white as leprosy
The Night-mare Life-in-death was she
Who thicks man's blood with cold
  • The poem is extensively featured in the film Pandaemonium (film) (2000), which is based on the early lives of Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth and William Wordsworth.
  • In the film adaption of the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; the character Willy Wonka says "Bubbles, bubbles, everywhere, but not a drop to drink...yet"
  • The album cover of Australian singer Sarah Blasko's album "What the Sea Wants the Sea Will Have", was inspired by an illustration of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A song from the album Queen of Apology, features the line "Truth, truth, everywhere, but not a drop to drink." THe album also features a song titled The Albatross.
  • The theme song from Gilligan's Island shares the same rhyme scheme as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  • In Richard O'Brien's Shock Treatment, the character Betty Hapschatt recites the entire poem to Judge Oliver Wright who, along with an entire theater of people, has fallen asleep by its closing lines. The security guard Vance then presents to her a dead white bird threateningly when the lights are turned back on.
  • The poem features prominently in the plot of Douglas Adams's novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. It is also a large influence upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein [citation needed].
  • "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is also the title of a song by Iron Maiden from their 1984 album Powerslave, a 14-minute heavy metal epic based on Coleridge's poem and which quotes heavily from it. Singer Bruce Dickinson introduces the song on the live album Live After Death as "what not to do if a bird shits on you".
  • The song "Good Morning Captain" by American underground rock band (see also "math-rock" and "post-rock") Slint from the album Spiderland is an adaptation of this poem.
  • Baseball pitcher Diego Segui, who was pitching for the Seattle Mariners at the age of 40, was tagged by sportswriters as "The Ancient Mariner".
  • In the ITV/A&E nautical adventure series Hornblower Captain Sir Edward Pellew quotes "As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean" when his own frigate is becalmed in the episode "The Frogs and the Lobsters".
  • In The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard says to the Scarecrow, "Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain!"
  • Cecil F. Alexander wrote a hymn published in 1848 containing the following refrain which echoes the sentiment of the Ancient Mariner:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
  • In the season one episode of seaQuest DSV entitled "Hide and Seek", Captain Bridger quotes from the poem in order to convince Commander Ford that it is the correct course of action to allow an ex-dictator named Tezlof (as well as Tezlof's autistic son) safe passage on the seaQuest.
  • A portion of the poem was recited by Wonder Woman as the body and longship of the Viking Prince were sent into the Sun, during the Justice League Unlimited episode "To Another Shore".
  • The major themes of this epic poem are woven throughout the TV series Firefly and the film Serenity (2005) by Joss Whedon [citation needed]. The significance of the albatross in this setting becomes clear when a main character (Malcolm Reynolds) gives the line, "Way I remember it...albatross was a ship's good luck till some idiot killed it." Then, in typical Whedonesque fashion, he turns to Inara Serra and states, "Yes, I've read a poem. Try not to faint."
  • Since 1978, the U.S. Coast Guard has recognized the active duty member with the most accumulated time aboard its ships and an exemplary character as the "Ancient Mariner", as noted in the list of USCG Medals and Awards (pdf).
  • In the collectible/playable card game Magic: The Gathering, there is a card named and fashioned after the Will o' the Wisp described in the poem; the card even features flavor text with a pertinent excerpt from the poem:
About, about in reel and rout,
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white
  • Another card from Magic: The Gathering called Scathe Zombies features another quote from the epic poem:
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.
  • And yet another card from Magic: The Gathering called Wall of Ice features another quote:
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
  • In The Ice Dream, an irreverent Australian talk show covering the 2002 Winter Olympics, the hosts said that a curse had been put on Australia's Winter Olympic team after Cedric Sloane skewered a seagull in a cross-country skiing event at the Oslo Winter Olympics, which could only be lifted by the team winning a gold medal.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons, Boy-Scoutz N the Hood, Homer Simpson says "Don't you know the poem? 'Water, water, everywhere, so let's all have a drink.'"
  • In issue #36 ("Boy Loses Girl") of Y: The Last Man, Hero Brown, referring to her brother Yorick Brown, tells Beth Deville "...don't let him become an albatross, you know?"
  • In Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, the poem "Workshop" describes how the title of the work in question gets the author's attention--"like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve"
  • In "Lights Out" by Peter Abrahams, the protagonist Eddie Nye has memorized the poem during his 15 years in prison. He ponders many aspects of the poem as his own story unfolds. The plot of the novel reflects several aspects of the poem.
  • In the computer game Marathon Infinity, one of the levels is named "One thousand thousand slimy things", a line in the poem.
  • Snoop Dogg's 'Murder Was the Case' from the album 'Doggystyle' offers an ironic twist on the structure of the poem. The song begins with its protagonist getting shot multiple times and facing the prospect of "life in death" as a cripple. Through a demonic bargain, he recovers fully and enjoys success through a life of crime. When he ultimately repents and prays, he gets sent to prison for life. The song cleverly implicates alienation in the black community by turning the mores in Coleridge's poem upside down.
  • In Chapter 7 of Bram Stoker's Dracula, it is mentioned in reference to the arrival of the doomed Russian schooner The Demeter.
  • The cartoonist Hunt Emerson produced a graphic novel illustrating the poem, and featuring his usual quota of visual puns, gags and grotesque caricatures. The text, however, is essentially used verbatim.
  • There is a 1952 Looney Tunes short entitled Water, Water Every Hare.
  • The poem is referenced in a chapter titled 'Campus of interzone university' of William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch.
  • In the Super Trivia episode of the television show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Master Shake says to both Meatwad and Frylock that they're "Albacores around my neck," which Frylock corrects by replying "that's Albatross!"
  • In James Tiptree, Jr.'s short science fiction story, "Painwise", the protagonist says, "Her lips were red, her locks were free, her locks were yellow as gold. . .The Night-Mare Life-in-Death was she, who thicks man's blood with cold."
  • Comic book author Bill Everett based his most famous character, the Sub-Mariner , on this poem [citation needed]
  • In Carol Ann Duffy's "The World's Wife" the poem Thetis contains a verse with relation to Coleridge's original poem -

Then I did this: Shouldered the cross of an albatross up the hill of the sky, Why? To follow a ship. But I felt my wings clipped by the squint of a crossbow's eye.

  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, something happens that is quite comparable to 'playing dice for the souls of the crew'.

External links


Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, text of the 1798 version.
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, text of the 1817 version
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, audiobook (Jane Aker) from Project Gutenberg.
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, audiobook (Jane Aker) with accompanying text from LoudLit
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, audibook (Kristin Luoma) from LibriVox


  • Abstracts of literary criticism of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
  • GradeSaver study guide with background on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
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