The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Summary and Analysis
The Ancient Mariner was cheered by the Hermit's singing. He admired the way the Hermit lived and prayed alone in the woods, but also "love[d] to talk with mariners." As they neared the ship, the Pilot and the Hermit wondered where the angels - which they had thought were merely beacon lights - had gone. The Hermit remarked on how strange the ship looked with its misshapen boards and flimsy sails. The Pilot was afraid, but the Hermit encouraged him to steer the boat closer. Just as the boat reached the ship, a terrible noise came from under the water, and the ship sank straightaway. The men saved the Ancient Mariner even though they thought he was dead; after all, he appeared "like one that hath been seven days drowned." The boat spun in the whirlpool created by the ship's sinking, and all was quiet save the loud sound echoing off of a hill. The Ancient Mariner moved his lips and began to row the boat, terrifying the other men; the Pilot had a conniption, the Hermit began to pray, and the Pilot's Boy laughed crazily, thinking the Ancient Mariner was the devil. When they reached the shore, the Ancient Mariner begged the Hermit to absolve him of his sins. The Hermit crossed himself and asked the Ancient Mariner what sort of man he was. The Ancient Mariner was instantly compelled to share his story with the Hermit. His need to share it was so strong that it wracked his body with pain. Once he shared it, however, he felt restored.
The Ancient Mariner tells the Wedding Guest that ever since then, the urge to tell his tale has returned at unpredictable times, and he is in agony until he tells it to someone. He wanders from place to place, and has the strange power to single out the person in each location who must hear his tale. As he puts it: "I have strange power of speech; / That moment that his face I see, / I know the man that must hear me: / To him my tale I teach." The Ancient Mariner explains that while the wedding celebration sounds uproariously entertaining, he prefers to spend his time with others in prayer. After all, he was so lonely on the ocean that he doubted even God's companionship. He bids the Wedding Guest farewell with one final piece of advice: "He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast." In other words, one becomes closer to God by respecting all living things, because God loves all of his creations "both great and small." Then the Ancient Mariner vanishes. Instead of entering the wedding reception, the Wedding Guest walks away mesmerized. We are told that he learned something from the Ancient Mariner's tale, and was also saddened by it: "A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn."
As expected, things again go awry for the Ancient Mariner despite his momentary relief. Though safely in the harbor, the ship is pulled under by a forceful undertow, but the Ancient Mariner cannot drown since he is doomed to a living death. Just as he is compelled to tell the Wedding Guest his story, he is compelled to tell it to the Hermit. The Hermit does not ask him where he came from or how he got to the harbor, but rather asks, "What manner of man art thou?" as if to discern whether or not he is human. After all, the Ancient Mariner appears dead when the rescuers pull him into the boat, and suddenly comes to life to row the boat to shore. Instead of answering the Hermit's question directly, the Ancient Mariner is forced for the first time to tell his tale, or be consumed by agony. As he tells the Wedding Guest, he does not seek out certain people to whom to relate his tale, but rather knows them when he sees them. Since both the Hermit and the Wedding Guest are forced to listen to the tale, it is implied that there must be some similarity between the two men even though they appear to come from entirely opposite worlds.
The Hermit, a type of character often valorized by the Romantics, is pious and keeps to himself except to converse with transient sailors. He has divorced himself from worldly pleasures, preferring to live in harmony with nature. Meanwhile the Wedding Guest yearns to join his friends in a social and merry setting, full of decadent pleasures such as fine food, wine, song, and dance. The Ancient Mariner's final message is that by respecting all creatures, one can become closer to God. This advice is certainly not new to the Hermit, who devotes his whole life to living in unity with nature and praying three times a day. If the Wedding Guest must be reminded of this because he is on his way to indulge in earthly pleasures separated from nature, why doesn't the Ancient Mariner stop either of the Wedding Guest's two companions? As in the rest of the poem, we cannot know more than the Ancient Mariner himself; by maintaining this device, Coleridge reminds us that we are subject to the same moral laws and consequences as his characters. He also maintains a position of authorial power, as though to remind us that while we inhabit his story, we are in his hands. Just as the Ancient Mariner can compel men to listen to his tale, Coleridge can compel us to read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" from first line to last, and communicate his message to us so that we become "sadder and...wiser."
Coleridge famously claimed that he did not intend for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to have a moral, although he seems to phrase one neatly in the lines: "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all." Put differently, one becomes closer to God by respecting all his creations. Coleridge uses the word "teach" to describe the Ancient Mariner's storytelling technique, and says that he has "strange power of speech." In this way, he compares the protagonist to himself; both are gifted storytellers who impart their wisdom unto others. By associating himself with the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge implies that he - and by extension all writers - are tormented by their gift for storytelling; it is in fact a curse. Just as the Ancient Mariner is forced to balance in a painful limbo, the writer is compelled to balance in the liminal space of the imagination "until [his] tale is told." Both are like addicts, and storytelling is their drug; it provides only momentary relief until the urge returns. Coleridge paints an equally powerful and pathetic image of the writer. He is able to hold an audience's attention so completely that he can force a man to miss his next of kin's wedding reception. He is capable of forever changing his listeners, but is also the constant victim of his own talent - a skill that torments, but never destroys.
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