The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Summary and Analysis
The ship sailed northward into the Pacific Ocean, and although the sun shone during the day and the wind remained strong, the mist held fast. The other sailors were angry with the Ancient Mariner for killing the Albatross, which they believed had saved them from the icy world by summoning the wind: "Ah wretch! Said they, the bird to slay / That made the breeze to blow!" Then the mist disappeared and the sun shone particularly brightly, "like God's own head." The sailors suddenly changed their opinion. They decided that the Albatross must have brought the must, and praise the Ancient Mariner for having killed it and rid them of the mist: "Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, / That bring the fog and mist."
The ship sailed along merrily until it entered an uncharted part of the ocean, and the wind disappeared. The ship could not move, and sat "As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean." Then the sun became unbearably hot just as the sailors ran out of water, leading up to the most famous lines in the poem: "Water, water, every where, / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink." The ocean became a horrifying place; the water churned with "slimy" creatures, and at night, eerie fires seemed to burn on the ocean's surface. Some of the sailors dreamed that an evil spirit had followed them from the icy world, and they all suffered from a thirst so terrible that they could not speak. To brand the Ancient Mariner for his crime and place the guilt on him and him alone, the sailors hung the Albatross's dead carcass around his neck.
Coleridge introduces the idea of responsibility in Part 2. The sailors have an urge to pin whatever happens to them on the Ancient Mariner, since he killed the Albatross for no good reason. It seems more important to them to make him claim responsibility for their fate than what their fate actually is; first, they curse him for making the wind disappear, and then they praise him for making the mist disappear. Coleridge may be poking fun at allegory in this section. He told reviewers after the poem's release that he did not intend for it to have a moral, even though when reading the poem, one is hard-pressed not to discern a moral message. By having the sailors switch from blame to praise and back to blame again, Coleridge mocks those quick to judge. To go back to the preface, the sailors represent those too eager to discern the "certain" from the "uncertain", preferring to see things in black-and-white terms.
The major theme of liminality emerges more fully in Part 2. In literature - and especially Romantic literature - a liminal space is where plot twists occur or things begin to go awry. The Romantic hero, although he begins confident and with a clear mission, stumbles into a bewildering space where he struggles, and from which he emerges wizened and saddened. Traditionally these places are borderlines, such as the edge of a forest or a shoreline. Recall from Part 1 that the ship's course is sunny and smooth until it crosses the equator and the storm begins. The equator is the boundary between the earth's hemispheres, and is therefore an extreme example of a liminal space. The icy world or "rime" itself is also a compelling liminal space. At first it seems to be the epitome of the temporal; there are no visible creatures there besides the sailors, whose senses it assaults with huge icy forms, terrifying sounds, and bewildering echoes. But it is equally a spiritual place, the dwelling of a very powerful spirit who wreaks havoc on the sailors to punish the Ancient Mariner for killing its beloved Albatross. The icy world represents a tenuous balance between the temporal and spiritual. The physicality of the icy world represents its tenuousness; in it, water exists in all its three phases: ice, water, and mist. The boundaries between the temporal and the spiritual, what Burnet calls the "certain and uncertain" in the epigraph, are as indistinct there as the physical state of water. It is not necessarily the loudness, coldness, or desolateness of the icy world that makes it so terrifying. Rather, it is the fact that nothing there is easily definable. In light of the epigraph, it represents the balance that one must seek between the "certain and uncertain," which will ultimately lead to the truth. However, the icy world as a symbol suggests that this path to enlightenment is equally fascinating and terrifying.
The most famous lines in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are unquestionably: "Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink." The sailors are punished for the Ancient Mariner's mistake with deprivation made worse by the fact that what they need so badly - water - is all around them, but is entirely undrinkable. Since the poem's publication, these lines have come into common usage to refer to situations in which one is surrounded by the thing one desires, but is denied it nevertheless.
In light of the epigraph, the Ancient Mariner shoots the Albatross because he, like humans throughout time, wants to learn about the spiritual world. The Albatross is an animal, but it is akin to a spirit, and its murder wreaks spiritual havoc on the sailors. We are given no reason why the Ancient Mariner shoots the Albatross, and he does so without premeditation. It is as though he needs to bring the beauty of the spiritual world (embodied in the Albatross) down to the temporal world in order to understand it. He takes the bird out of the air and onto the deck, where it proves to be mortal indeed. After that, the spiritual world begins to punish the Ancient Mariner and the other sailors by making all elements of the temporal world painful. They are thirsty and sunburned, cannot sail for lack of wind, and are threatened by creatures and strange lights in the water. The sailors add to the Ancient Mariner's physical punishment when they hang the Albatross around his neck, giving him a physical burden to remind him of the spiritual burden of sin he carries. They too punish him physically for his spiritual depravity.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Essays and Related Content
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- Samuel Coleridge: Biography
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Summary
- About The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Part 1
- Summary and Analysis of Part 2
- Summary and Analysis of Part 3
- Summary and Analysis of Part 4
- Summary and Analysis of Part 5
- Summary and Analysis of Part 6
- Summary and Analysis of Part 7
- The Romantics
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