Chris Jordan/The Guardian/March 12 2018


This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea.
How loudly his sweet voice he rears!
He loves to talk with marineres
That come from a far countree.

He kneels at morn, and noon, and eve-
He hath a cushion plump:
It is the moss that wholly hides
That rotted old oak stump.

The skiff-boat neared: I heard them talk,
"Why this is strange I trow!
Where are those lights so many and fair,
That signal made but now?"

"Strange, by my faith!" the Hermit said-
"And they answered not our cheer!
The planks look warped! and see those sails,
How thin they are and sere!
I never saw aught like to them,
Unless perchance it were

Brown skeletons of leaves that lag
My forest-brook along:
When the ivy-tod is heavy with snow,
And the owlet whoops to the wolf below,
That eats the she-wolf's young".

"Dear Lord! it hath a fiendish look-
(The Pilot made reply)
I am a-feared"- "Push on, push on!"
Said the hermit cheerily.

The boat came closer to the ship,
But I nor spake, nor stirred;
The boat came close beneath the ship,
And straight a sound was heard.

Under the water it rumbled on,
Still louder and more dread:
It reached the ship, it split the bay;
The ship went down like lead.

Stunned by that loud and dreadful sound,
Which sky and ocean smote,
Like one that had been seven days drowned
My body lay afloat:
But swift as dreams, myself I found 
Within the Pilot's boat.

Upon the whirl, where sank the ship,
The boat span round and round;
And all was still, save that the hill
Was telling of the sound.

I moved my lips-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."

And now, all in my own countree, 
I stood on the firm land! 
The Hermit stepped forth from the boat,
And scarcely he could stand.

"O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!
The Hermit crossed his brow.
"Say quick " quoth he, " I bid thee say-
What manner of man art thou?"

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony
Which forced me to begin my tale: 
And then it left me free.

Since then at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night from land to land:
I have strange power of speech:
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that I must teach.

What loud uproar bursts 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!

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely twas, that God himself
Scarce 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 all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
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.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
hose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned, 
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn. 


The journey is almost done. We are being returned again-as the previous part has indicated-to the lighthouse-top, the hill, the church.

In Part 7 the Mariner is conducted to harbour by the Pilot roused by the strange lights of the incoming ship. The pilot is attended by the Hermit who brings the imagery of the wood into this poem of sea voyage. The Hermit combines a God-fearing quality with love of Nature ( of which he is revealed to be a close observer), and also a curiosity in the tales of mariners from far abroad.

The transfer of the Mariner to the pilot’s boat takes place after the mysterious sinking of the ship, which Coleridge makes wonderfully dramatic, or climactic. The supernatural powers have completed their mission of carrying the mariner back to his homeland; the ship disintegrates and goes down “like lead”. The Mariner is submerged and then :

Like one that hath been seven days drowned 
 My body lay afloat   

Guite (Mariner:A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Hodder and Stroughton 2018) likens this experience of the mariner to baptism. “Baptism is a ritual enactment of dying and rising, of drowning and breaking the waters coming to new birth.”

The shock of the disappearance of the ship, the whirling round of the pilot’s boat in the consequent whirlpool and the mysterious transition of the body of the Mariner to the company, not as a drowned body but one capable of speech and action induces the fear that the mariner is a ghost and is, amid the boy’s hysteria, relieved by a moment of humour :

" Ha! ha! quoth he, "full plain I see
The Devil knows how to row".

The presence of the Hermit advances the redemption theme. The Mariner needs to be shrieved-to utter confession to be fully absolved of his sin and continue in penetential purpose. This develops the Wandering Jew idea in which the Mariner becomes a wanderer from land to land as one also, needing to tell his tale.

There is a shift of perspective, returning to the Wedding-Guest scene of the start of the poem, to the Mariner’s address to the Wedding-Guest, bringing to him a new understading of the familiar: communal-life, the need to share in worship and prayer and a reminder of the great moral point of the poem. While Coleridge later felt that this section was too overt in its putting out the moral message -ideally he believed the moral truth should be contained within the art and not made to become explicit moral statement-it is also the case that for the mariner on his mission such explicitness would be a necessary part of his mission. As such it seems to me to work:

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.   

These stanzas are contrasted with the previous one which emphasises what had been the Mariner’s plight:

"O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely twas that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be. 

Isolation and disbelief are put together. The poem affirms, however, that the God who “seemed” not to be is in fact there as a potentially redemptive power which eventually on the turn of the Mariner’s mind towards love of the beauty of the water-snakes comes fully into play.

Modern readers have recognised the continuing relevance of the poem especially in our time when the threat to the natural world destroyed by human exploitation has come to the fore. The albatross destroyed by the Mariner’s arrow remains a creature encapsulating the wanton heedlessness and greed of humankind. That came to the fore with Chris Jordan’s film of the devastation plastic is causing in the albatross population. (See an excellent review of his film in The Guardian March 12 2018)

Chris Jordan/ The Guardian/ March 12. 2018

Coleridge’s poem in its theme is peculiarly modern in its concern with our relationship with the natural world while also pointing to the crisis of the individual soul having lost a belief in a creator God separated from Nature, living in a state of apartness from the creation which for his own health or wholeness he needs to reverence. Aware of the individual’s capacity for evil Coleridge combines what we might call the ecological theme with the need for personal redemption. This is the challenge of the poem to the modern reader, who may tend to emphasise the priority of the ecological theme at the expense of the religious purpose. But Coleridge reminds us that -to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn- the line between good and evil runs not just between political ideologies-the ecological -minded against the promoters of growth- but through every individual heart. To Coleridge the heart turned to a loving Creator knows the need to reverence God’s creation.


You may have noticed in our readings of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” how the sun and moon are significant presences in the poem. Coleridge thought deeply on the subject of symbols and symbolic language. He saw Nature as reflecting the language of God the Creator and he also conceived that the poetic imagination, given that Man was created in God’s image (Gen.1: 26-27), was a means of discerning the meaning of God’s language working through Nature.

Many of the poem’s first readers were shocked by the description of the Sun:.

Nor dim nor red, like God's own head
The glorious Sun uprist. 

According to Malcolm Guite in Mariner (Hodder &Stoughton 2017) one contemporary viewer wrote the likeness “makes the reader shudder…with religious disapprobation.” For the second edition Coleridge was persuaded to remove “God” and replace the phrase with “like an angel’s head” but when he produced the Sibylline Leaves edition (1817) he brought back the original phrasing.

The association of God and the Sun is of course both common and apposite. Without the sun there is no life, with light and heat the Sun enables growth; God the Creator acts to give light. Guite argues that the identification of the Sun with God as source of light is vital for Coleridge’s “sacramental” view of Nature. If God is creator, then the universe should not simply be seen as a mass of dead objects but as vital elements expressing God and our attitude to the universe should not be of its instrumentality or usefulness to us but reverential. As we have seen this is the message the mariner’s experiences teach him.

Guite here brings in Blake because Blake, like Coleridge, was profoundly opposed to what both saw as the deadening effects of the Newtonian view of the universe, Deism and Locke’s empiricism. For both poets, humans are creative participants in reality , not passive recipients of a reality presented to them. Blake has an interlocutor asking, “When the sun rises, do you see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea” and replies” O no,no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Why then readers of the poem might ask is the God-like invocation of the Sun followed by a more negative picture? :

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand 
No bigger than the moon.


The answer to this is suggested by Coleridge’s reading of a German mystic, Jacob Boehme 1575-1624 (also an influence on Blake). John Beer in his work “The Mysticism of Coleridge (Chatto & Windus 1970).

The heat of the sun is an essential element in the speculations of Jacob Boehme. Boehme’s insistence on the benevolence of God led him to the doctrine that if God sometimes seems angry, this was no more than an appearance engendered by the diseased imagination of fallen man. Cut off from the light of God, he could experience only the heat of his presence: and an exposure to his full glory would therefore be felt as nothing less than exposure to unendurable fire,

In relation to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” this is clearly relevant to the expression of the Sun as not only ” glorious” but also as oppressive, “bloody” and by implication condemnatory. The mariner’s guilt metaphorically expressed by the blood on his hands is projected on to a “bloody” sun representing an angry, vengeful God as Judge. ( The idea has a wider relevance when we consider the way in which the Israelites in the Old Testament project their guilt on to a God who is perceived as vengeful and angry with them for their misdeeds). Guite points out that the sense of blood-guilt is expressed later in the poem when he longs for forgiveness:

He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away
The Albatross's blood.     

It is the action of the Moon that saves the mariner from living under what he feels as oppressive judgement. As noted in my commentary on Part 4 there is a rhythmic shift of the verse when the Moon appears. The presence of the Moon is set against the shadow of the ship :

But where the the ship's huge shadow lay,
The charmed water burnt away
A still and awful red.

While the “awful red” is associated with judgement and condemnation when the mariner looks beyond the shadow he sees the action of the moon on the water and his vision is transformed. The water-snakes, hitherto rejected with disgust are now seen as creatures of beauty. As Coleridge’s marginal gloss puts it: “By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”.

Beer considers that as the moon is reflected sunlight the moon is interpreted by the poem acting as a mediator between God and Man in his fallen state. The moon is associated with radiating grace. It can also be seen in its traditional form as female; there is a Marian element in Coleridge’s poem. In part 3 when the skeletal ship comes between the Sun and the mariner’ s ship the mariner appeals to Heaven’s Mother:

"And straight the sun was flecked with bars
(Heaven's Mother send us grace)"  

This corresponds to the mediating action of the moon in Part 4:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared the elfish light 
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship,
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green and velvet black 
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.


As we have seen in the previous post it is the sight of the hitherto abhorred water- snakes in the beauty of the moonlight that enables the beginning of the redemption of the mariner. As Coleridge’s later-added gloss puts it:”By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm”. He sees what he did not see with the albatross when he killed the bird, that these are God’s creation. The moon, then, as reflector of the Sun’s light, Heaven’s mother, bringer of grace, mediates the mariner’s transformation.

Guite points to an entry in one of Coleridge’s Notebooks which has relevance to the meaning he is addressing here: “Quiet stream with all its eddys [sic] and the moon playing in them; quiet, as if they were Ideas in the divine Mind anterior to Creation.”

Guite goes on:

For Coleridge, the meaning of the moon and moonlight is not a purely human invention. It is a symbol, but it is not a randomly chosen or arbitrarily constructed human one; it is a symbol which is moulded by and participates in the reality it represents.

Guite refers to a late work in which Coleridge writes: The Symbol is characterised by… the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which renders it intelligible, and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity of which it is representative. (The Statesman’s Manual).

The Sun and Moon then in Coleridge’s work point to the spiritual and transcendent dimension working in Nature. They represent God’s creative glory, the expression of His Word, Logos, within Nature. Coleridge sees his responsibility (as does Blake) to challenge the materialist view of Nature as a mechanism, with God as the absent clock maker who has created the laws of operation and then retired from the scene. Reality for Blake, the visionary and Coleridge, the idealist, is God-penetrated and the creativity in Man is continuous with what God has created in Nature. Coleridge’s use of the Sun and moon as symbols in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”brings together the life within and the living reality of the external world.

They represent for us, these Romantics the first great creative reaction, developing the Christian world-picture to fight against the reductive tendencies of scientism and materialism. In a world still so reduced we still can find inspiration in these poets.


The Sun now rose upon the right:
Out of the sea came he, 
still hid in mist, and on the left 
Went down into the sea,

And the good south wind still blew behind,
But no sweet bird did follow,
Nor any day for food or play 
Came to the mariners' hollo.

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe: 
For all averred I had killed the bird 
That made the wind to blow. 
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay  
That made the breeze to blow!

Nor dim , nor red, like God's own head, 
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird 
That brought the fog and mist. 
Twas right said they, such birds to slay, 
That bring the fog and mist.

The fair breeze flew, the white foam flew, 
The furrow followed free; 
We were the first that ever burst 
Into that silent sea!

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down, 
Twas sad as sad could be; 
And we did speak only to break 
The silence of the sea!

All in a hot and copper sky, 
The bloody sun at noon, 
Right up above the mast did stand, 
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day, 
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship 
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where, 
And all, the boards did shrink;
Water, water every where, 
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ! 
That ever this should be! 
Yea, slimy things with legs did crawl 
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout 
The death fires danced at night;
The water like a witch's oils,
Burnt blue and green and white.

And some in dreams assured were 
Of the spirit that plagued us so; 
Nine fathom deep he had followed us 
From the land of mist and snow.

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root; 
We could not speak, no more than if 
We had been choked with soot.

Ah! well a day! what evil looks 
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross 
About my neck was hung. 

The poem marvellously combines a strong driving narrative appropriate to a ballad with a developing spiritual narrative focused on evil, guilt, isolation and the possibility of redemption. The narrative is brilliantly carried by ballad-style rhythm, rhyme, diction. There is repetition and echoing. For instance the first stanza “The Sun now rose upon the right Out of the sea came he” matches one in Part 1 “The Sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he” showing the contrast between the ship moving south in the northern hemisphere and the ship sailing north in the southern. The paralleling and contrasting works throughout the poem. Thus, in Part 2, as we shall see, the two six line stanzas hold together in contrast.

The drive of the narrative is shown by a series of stanzas of descriptive brilliance. First the ship flows freely: “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew” where the long e-vowel and the alliterative “f” sounds and the internal rhyme enable a verse of rapid movement with the second internal rhyme of “First” and “burst”” celebrating the excitement of discovery. Then follows a sudden collapse into a becalmed state of absence of movement. So from rapid movement we come upon the heavy slowness of “down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down”. There is the predominance of stillness: “And we did speak only to break The silence of the sea” reflected by the vivid clarity of the simile “As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean”. Also heat “All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody sun at noon” increases thirst and leads to the desperation of “Water, water, everywhere , Nor any drop to drink” Then there is the mariner’s disgust and recoil from the living world of Nature: “The very deep did rot : O Christ, That ever this should be! That slimy things did crawl on legs Upon the slimy sea” We see here, presumably, the transference of his own disgust with himself placed on the living world. There is a horror of fascination expressed in that repetition of “slimy”. But the negative feelings are not only his but those of the trapped crew. They find their release however in making him the scapegoat : “Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung.”

The crew, however, are not allowed to escape guilt. In the first of the two six- line stanzas they condemn the mariner for his action but it is for the wrong reasons. They saw it not as wrong in principle but in its effect. Because the bird was linked with the favourable external conditions-the encouraging breeze that drove the boat forward- the mariner’s action is seen as evil: “Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, That made the breeze to blow!” But when next day conditions change and the mist clears and they make further progress their gratification is expressed in approval of what has been done: “Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, That bring the fog and mist.” That bring the fog and mist.” Coleridge’s marginal gloss- about the gloss more in a later post- indicates that in doing so they have become “accomplices in the crime”.

Within the development of the narrative we see the development of themes of guilt, with its effects of revulsion, isolation, scapegoating. Within this Part we move from a glorious heightened and daring identification of the Sun with God the Creator :

Nor dim nor red , like God's own head,
The glorious Sun uprist. 

to a shrunken Sun a few stanzas later:

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand, 
No bigger than the moon.

If we take the sun as representing God, what is reflected here is the shrinking of the Sun to a damning God of Judgement. The shrinking ,however is within the consciousness of the self-condemned Mariner as one bearing guilt. The blood red of the sun emphasises his crime of slaughter . The description of the outer world reflects the spiritual condition of the mariner in self-blame “For I had done a hellish thing” and his accusatory fellows. sharing a fallen world.

The ship is no longer a community of men in unity. When the albatross first appeared, coming through the fog in a threatening world created by the surrounding ice with its range of strange and threatening sounds the bird is welcomed as a harbinger of grace: “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”. With that final phrase a sense of religious togetherness is created which brings together gratitude for the appearance of the sign of grace and hope. This brings along with it a spirit of hospitality as it is treated as guest provided with food. The release is not just inward but external: “The ice did split with a thunder-fit;The helmsman steered us through.”

However, this unity has been wrecked by the mariner’s deed. Malcolm Guite in his wonderfully helpful guide to the poem in his work Mariner argues that the crew members’ attitude to the bird moves from being sacramental to being instrumental. The albatross is no longer seen gratefully as a revelation to rejoice in but as an instrument whose role is to benefit the crew. So it is that the fellow crewmen are seen not as innocent but, in accepting the killing, as sharing in the denial of the harbinger from heaven.

Part 2 then shows the disintegration of community. The becalming brings out the sense of spiritual isolation. The wonder of God is changed to judgement and condemnation; gratitude towards creation is replaced by disgust, sharing of food with overwhewlming thirst, speech is followed by choked inarticulacy, unity of purpose with scapegoating.

The final action is the hanging of the albatross round the killer’s neck: “instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung”. The connection here is not that as Christ is condemned to the Cross so the Mariner is condemned ; it is that the cross is the sign of grace that Christ brings as the Albatross has brought grace to the crew. The sign has been rejected. As Christ has been condemned so has the Albatross. Christ as enactor of grace Is condemned and placed on the Cross. The albatross as a sign of grace is used by the crew to condemn the one on whom they want to place all blame for their condition.

This whole development signifies not simply a poem of the extraordinary and supernatural but a profound exploration of the Christian mystery.

Note. As mentioned above I have found the following work invaluable in developing my argument:

Malcolm Guite Mariner A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Hodder and Stroughton 2017




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.


( RE-edited blog: For the benefit of new readers and followers I am revising and reblogging the Ancient Mariner posts. The posts on this poem were rather more scattered than I originally meant them to be so there seems a benefit in putting them altogether and as the third work in the series on Old Stories That Tell Us Where We Are Now following the earlier reblogged posts on The Tower of Babel and Plato’s Cave.)

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 stopps't 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, greybeard loon!"
Eftsoons his hand dropped 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.  

It is an opening that startles with its dramatic immediacy.- It has the suddenness of dramatic confrontation of two opposed set wills : the one with a mind to go to a wedding , the other with a will to apprehend him. There is a moral tussle to gain the upper hand, then the one by a series of stages gives way to the more dominant one. Yet the form is simple ballad narrative -a genre that stretches back to the Middle Ages, with metric structure and rhyme scheme to match and the use of terminology fitting for a more archaic style. (Had you heard the word “eftsoons” ever before ?). Despite that the situation immediately rouses our attention. For a wedding invitation-especially as kin-is to us still something special. The attraction of the event- the alternative setting that is never to be fully realised is brilliantly put before us in the second stanza and elsewhere. So to be stopped on our way to such a wedding! That is the kind of shock none of us might relish! We are with Wedding-Guest in his frustration. Yet the the over-riding power of story, the enchantment it offers, the strangeness of the teller and the enthralling power his “glittering eye” wakens deep interest in us all-perhaps rooted in memories going back to earliest childhood when story quietened us before bedtime. Certainly this story so enchants the the listener that he moves from angry, unwilling and protesting hearer to becominging quiescent “like a three year child” sitting passive on a stone. What has the man to tell that is so extrordinary, justifying such an interruption? The poet has us caught.

It is, as I say, the ballad form. The traditional narrative ballad is in stanzas of four lines(quatrains) with four and three stress lines, the second and fourth rhyming. The rhythm is basically iambic. Thus:

The Bride/groom’s doors/ are op/ en’d wide/

And I/ am next/of kin/

The guests/ are met/the feast/is set/

Mays’t hear/the mer/ry din.

The phrases are short, simple , direct. The Wedding-Guest is here making his appeal to the ancient mariner’s understanding of the urgency of his position as guest. The structure enables the process. The broad accessibility requires the longer line :”The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide” : the following concise urgency of explanation “And I am next of kin” the shorter.

The diction follows traditional patterns: the old use of personal pronouns, and verb forms, the archaic vocabulary (That word “eftsoons” by the way means soon afterwards.). But right from the start deeper resonance are suggested. “One of three”, (we never hear again of the other two); the capitalised “Wedding-Guest”; even the capitalised “Bridegroom”; “glittering eye”. The first three touch on associations with the Gospels-not necessarily relevant specifically but suggestive of the level of significance the tale will draw on. The “glittering eye” especially along with “ancient” points to the seer, the sage.

In his work Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Malcolm Guite points to Coleridge’s interest in the Wandering Jew myth as one in which he was interested during the period in which the Ancient Mariner poem was being prepared. In a Notebook Coleridge jots the following note: “He was in my mind the everlasting wandering Jew-had told his story ten thousand times since the voyage, which was in his early youth and fifty years before”. He also had been “reading, absorbing, remembering and re-imagining almost every story of travel, sea-voyage, sea-discovery and shipwreck that was available to him.”

There are seven parts to the poem and I plan to go through the poem part by part, following its development. I invite you to join me in a fascinating journey.