The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S. T. Coleridge
How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.
The argument summarizes the poem as the tale of a ship which was driven by storms to the south pole and how it managed to make its way into the Pacific Ocean. The poem is about the strange things that occurred surrounding the ship and how the ancient mariner on the ship managed to survive and return to his homeland. The Argument in literature is a brief summary of the events in a poem especially in prose form. It can be compared to the modern-day synopsis at the back of a Novel; only an argument is generally inside the book and at the start of the poem and gives an idea about the subject matter of the text.
Part one: The mariner’s tale starts with his ship
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
We are following the story from an omniscient perspective. The scene shows a Mariner who stops a person from a group of three individuals who are going about their business. The man, who is later on in the poem called a wedding guest, is surprised at being stopped by this old bearded and bright-eyed man. The wedding guest asks the bearded man why he is stopping him.
The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
The wedding is just about to start. All the wedding guests are gathered at the venue and are awaiting the soon-to-start ceremony. The bridegroom is ready and is heading out. The Wedding guest is a close relative of the bridegroom and is a little worried standing next to the old bearded man of a stranger instead of being next to the bridegroom. All the other guests are already in their place. The feast is ready. The wedding might start any second now and the wedding guest is still stuck with the mariner.
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
The Wedding guest naturally rushes to get to the wedding, but he is stopped by the mariner. The mariner holds him with his ‘skinny hand,’ and as if everything is perfect in the world and there is no rush whatsoever, begins with his tale. He starts by saying that there was a ship, and all the while we have the poor wedding guest who is completely bewildered and a little annoyed. Just imagine, what would you do if you were going somewhere and some random old man stops you in your way and starts telling you a story? You would probably be repulsed and would think the person is lunatic. We see the same reaction here by the wedding guest, who tries to shoo the old man away. He tells him to let go of him and calls him a grey-beard loon. The mariner lets go of his hand.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The Mariner lets go of the wedding guest but holds him with his eyes. What the poet means by this is that the mariner invokes a sense of curiosity in the wedding guest. The mariner has a characteristic spark in his eyes, this is what the ‘glittering’ refers to. The wedding guest stands still as he looks at the mariner and is at once driven by a sense of inquisitiveness we normally see in children. The wedding guest stood like a three-year old child before the mariner, eager to listen to his story. The mariner, in turn, got his will as he now had an eager audience in the wedding guest.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
The wedding guest who was only moments ago in a hurry to attend the wedding ceremony, was so transfixed that he sat down on a rock and wanted to hear what the old mariner had to say. The poet here says ‘The wedding guest cannot choose but hear.’ This tells us early on how good a storyteller the mariner is, and the tale which the poet spins for him certainly does justice to his character. So, we have a wedding-guest who is altogether too excited to hear the story and an ancient mariner who is eager to relate his tale. And so the story begins.
‘The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
The Mariner had previously said that there was a ship and now he starts his story with the scene of the ship embarking on a journey. As the ship moved out of the harbour people cheered for the brave sailors who were going to the vast deep. Everyone was cheerful and happy as they sailed through the waters going farther and farther. They went ahead and the places they went through, the church, the hill and the lighthouse were now mere speckles. They had embarked on their journey.
The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
Have you ever wondered how traveling through the seas in ships is like? Today if we desire to go somewhere, however far it may be, we just board an airplane and, in a few hours, or a day at most, we are at our destination. In the olden times, however, it took sailors months and sometimes even years to get to their destination! They would see nothing but water stretched everywhere as far as the eye could see for days on end. Sunrise and sunset every day were just simple events in a very long journey. The mariner here conveys this experience. He tries to relate the mundane and arduous nature of sea travel to the wedding guest. Each morning the sun would come from the left, looking as if it had come out of the sea and would come evening once again go down into the sea. It is interesting to note here how the poet says the sun came up from the ‘left.’ It suggests that the ship was moving due southward. This is somewhat of a small detail and comes up in the poem later. The sole reason we mention this is that we can observe from this how the poet spins a convincing tale.
Higher and higher every day,
Till over the mast at noon—’
The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.
The mariner continues recounting his story. He say ‘the sun would rise higher and higher each day till it would come over the mast at noon time.’ Here the mariner is interrupted. The Wedding-guest beats his chest as he hears the loud bassoon playing. It means the wedding has started. The Wedding-guest is getting anxious.
The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes
The merry minstrelsy.
The wedding has started. The bride comes into the hall and walks down the aisle towards the altar. The wedding guest observes that she looks very pretty. The poet compares her beauty to that of a rose. It is her wedding, so the bride is naturally bashful. She has a grand entrance. She is preceded by a host of people all very happy and in the ‘wedding mood’ as she walks down the aisle.
The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
The wedding guest once again beat his breast. He was conscious that he was late for the wedding and should at once go inside the hall before the officiating started, but he could not go. He was too immersed in the mariner’s tale. He could not help but stay and listen to the old mariner continue speaking. And so, the mariner continued his tale after the small interruption from the wedding-guest. His eyes were bright and he continued with his narration in full vigour.
And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.
The mariner continues with his tale. The ship was progressing further day after day until the weather turned and the ship was caught in a storm. The storm, as the mariner recounts was strong and terrific. The ship was caught in the storm and was fighting the strong wind, but it was too powerful and it hurled the ship away in a southward direction. The poet here uses natural causes as a part of the hurdle to colour the story. Also notice how the word storm-blast is capitalized. It is done to add emphasis.
With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.
The storm was so terrific that the masts were sloping and instead of being upright they were inclined. What the poet means by this is that the storm was tossing the ship up and down so that it looked as though the masts were sloping. Here Coleridge uses a metaphor to explain the predicament of the ship even further. He says it was like when someone being chased by the threat of harm and destruction (yell and blow) runs ahead with their head bend forward (ducking), but still not escaping. The storm roared and rumbled and the strong winds drove the ship towards south at a great speed.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
As they approached south and went further still the scenes changed. The atmosphere was misty here and the rains from the storm were replaced by snow. It grew very cold as they went deeper in south. We see certain indications here that the mariner and his crew had floated and reached the glaciers that are a common sight in Antarctic waters. It a hard to visualize the kind of environment the mariner experienced. For reference we can try imagining walking between the lanes of two to three story apartments and picturing them as made up of solid ice to get an idea. Although the ship had survived the storm, they weren’t still out of danger.
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.
The ship passed through the drifts of ice in between the tall glaciers. As they would pass through the icebergs the cliffs of the glaciers would shine and radiate from the little sunlight that passed through them. It may sound strange that ice could shine, and so, it is important to keep in mind that the poet here is talking about solid glacial ice which does shine, and this shine is much like that of gemstones which is why the poet compares the ice to an emerald in the previous stanza. The surroundings are all shiny but the mariner calls them dismal because the place they were in was lifeless. The mariner couldn’t see a single human or even an animal there. They were stranded. Such kind of environment has an impact on people’s morale, and we see the same later on in the poem.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
There was ice everywhere as far as the eye could see. The mariner’s ship had passed into the glacial waters. Notice here that the poet says there was ‘Ice.’ He doesn’t mean snow or loose layers of ice, but strong blocks forming cliffs. Although they were made up of water, the ice mountains were strong like rock. The ice crackled as they ventured further and further. The poet here uses various words to describe the sound of the ice. It crackled, growled, roared and howled. Each of these words is significant as it paints the picture in the mind of the reader. The cracking and growling represent the ship moving through the water, breaking the ice as it moved forward, the roaring signifies the breaking and falling of huge boulder-like masses of ice in the water below with a thump, whereas the howling gives us a sense of the chilly atmosphere with frosty winds blowing. The poet further says that the noise was like someone fainting. The use of the word ‘swound’ in the last line of the stanza has a comical effect along with introducing a sense of urgency.
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
The mariner and his crew has hitherto been alone in their perilous journey. In the fourteenth stanza we hear the mariner saying that there was no man or beast to be seen in this new and strange landscape. After some time, an Albatross which is a seas-bird crossed over the sky above the mariner’s vessel. It was the only other life form in the place except the sailors. The Albatross here is represented as a symbol of hope. It is shown to uplift the morale of the men on the ship. The Albatross came through the dense fog that surrounded the ship and was seen by the mariner and the crew of the ship as a good omen. They considered it a sign from the divine placed there to help them steer into safety.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
The Albatross are sea-birds and although they are found in the Antarctic waters, they do not venture so further south as the Mariner’s location. There was nothing to eat where the Ship and the Albatross were as everything was frozen to thick ice. The Shipmen would feed the Albatross human food for their own use. This is why the poet says that it ate food it had never eaten. Since it was offered food on the barge, the Albatross tagged along with the mariner’s ship. As it accompanied the ship the weather seemed to change for the better. The ice split and made passage for the ship. The ship’s crew linked this good fortune to the presence of bird. Throughout history Sailors are known to be a superstitious lot. We see an example of these superstitious beliefs here in the poem.
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
Up to this point the ship was having a difficult passage, but with the entry of the Albatross things started changing. A good south wind began to blow from behind the ship. This was a great relief for the Mariner and the shipmen and they regarded the Albatross as the harbinger of this good fortune. The Albatross followed the ship wherever to it went. It would come by every day looking for food that the sailors would gladly offer or it would just fly about the ship in a playful manner. We see here that both the ship and the Albatross depended on each other, one for food and the other for hope and good luck. Both the sailors and the albatross grew so accustomed to each other that the Sailors would call out to the bird and the Albatross would answer to their call.
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.’
The Albatross would come to the ship every day. It would perch upon the Mast or the shroud each day as if it had called the ship its home. The poet here say that the Albatross would “(perch)ed for Vespers nine.” This is a reference made to the time spent in Church in devotion. Thus, what the poet means is that the Albatross would return to the ship everyday like a devout Christian would visit the Church regularly. The Albatross would be present throughout the day on the Ship and in the night the Moon-shine would glimmer through the white fog.
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! —
Why look’st thou so?’—With my crossbow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
Up until now we were listening to the old mariner’s tale as it was recited to the wedding guest. We saw the Ship pass into difficult phases and also saw the coming of the Albatross. At this point in the story the Mariner abruptly stops his narration. The wedding guest is still inquisitive about what happened next but is all of a sudden concerned for the Mariner. He offers his kind greetings and warm wishes to the Mariner saying “May god save you from all of your enemies and all your troubles, Ancient Mariner.” He further asks the mariner why his looks so sad and troubled, to which the Mariner confesses that he shot the Albatross with his crossbow. We don’t know why the Mariner shot the Albatross. It’s an often-debated question. We can only conjecture as the Mariner never provides an explanation as to why he shot the bird. Perhaps he killed him out of superstition, believing either that the bird was responsible for past travails or that by killing it the further journey will be much more suitable. Or it might even be that the mariner was just ignorant of nature or was scared that a simple bird had such power to disperse clouds and control the wind and killed the bird out of ignorance or fear; we may never know.