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.
It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three. "By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, Now wherefore stoppst thou me? 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". 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 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 Wedding-Guest sat on a stone: He cannot choose but hear And thus spake on that ancient man, The bright-eyed Mariner. "The Ship was cheered, the harbour cleared, Merrily did we drop Below the kirk, below the hill, Below the lighthouse top. 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. 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 bride hath paced into the hall, Red as a rose is she; Nodding their heads before her goes The merry minstrelsy. The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast, Yet he cannot choose but hear; And thus spake on that ancient man The bright-eyed mariner. And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he Was tyrannous and strong: He struck with his o'er taking wings And chased us south along. 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. And now there came both mist and snow, And it grew wondrous cold: And ice, mast-high came floating by, As green as emerald. 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 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! 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. It ate the food it ne'er had eat, And round and round it flew. The ice did split with thunder- fit; The helmsman steered us through! 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! 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 look'st thou so"- With my cross-bow I shot the Albatross.
We follow the ship on its passage south down to the Antarctic with its ice-fields. I doubt if there is any poem with more graphic, or vivid description. No wonder it has had so many distinguished illustrators like Gustav Dore (see illustration above), David Jones and Melvyn Peake.
In emphasising the “STORM-BLAST” (capitalised for emphasis) the Mariner gives the impression of a driven ship as if the force of the force of the wind has a malign will to it. Certainly this is suggested by the longer six line stanza comparing the ship’s movement as that of one pursued by a foe. This is added to when the sailors find themselves trapped in the claustrophobic and threatening sounding ice-field “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.” (“swound” is a deiberately chosen mystery word of uncertain meaning to give the effect-perhaps of the mixture of sound evoking nightmare trance-like experience: if you want to explore further see essay on the phrase “Noises in a swound” by Philip Cardinale in the Coleridge Bulletin 17 2001)).
The effect of this build-up of threatening imagery is to make the appearance of the albatross one of special blessing. Notice the curious phrasing : “At length did cross an albatross” . The internal-rhyme of “cross” and “albatross” is to be repeated throughout the poem and is obviously central to the theme and this is reinforced by the phrasing giving the arrival of the bird a sense of portent. It is thus seen as a sign of Christian grace with the bird identified as a visitor from God to be welcomed and received as a blessing. That is reinforced by the ice breaking and the ship finding a way through. The religious assocations are added to by the connecting the bird with the “vespers nine” -ie evensong-in these times a captain of the Established Church would have ensured the rituals being properly followed.
There comes the climax of the final stanza which reflects in the anguished expression of the ancient, as seen by the Wedding-Guest, the agonised re-living of the deed. “Why did he do this?” No rational explanation is given which indicates that for the poet such would be beside the point. It is-among other things a poem about human evil, its consequences and the possibility of release from a burdened conscience.
Interestingly one of the inspirations for the poem was -among others -laid by the subject of a book Wordsworth spoke to Coleridge of reading A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726) by Captain George Shelvocke in which a melancholy sailor is described as shooting a black albatross because considered a bird of ill-omen. (see Wikipedia on the poem’s inspiration) although in the poem the colour of the bird is undisclosed.