An Ancient Mariner, unnaturally old and skinny, with deeply-tanned skin and a "glittering eye", stops a Wedding Guest who is on his way to a wedding reception with two companions. He tries to resist the Ancient Mariner, who compels him to sit and listen to his woeful tale. The Ancient Mariner tells his tale, largely interrupted save for the sounds from the wedding reception and the Wedding Guest's fearsome interjections. One day when he was younger, the Ancient Mariner set sail with two hundred other sailors from his native land. The day was sunny and clear, and all were in good cheer until the ship reached the equator. Suddenly, a terrible storm hit and drove the ship southwards into a "rime" - a strange, icy patch of ocean. The towering, echoing "rime" was bewildering and impenetrable, and also desolate until an Albatross appeared out of the mist. No sooner than the sailors fed it did the ice break and they were able to steer through. As long as the Albatross flew alongside the ship and the sailors treated it kindly, a good wind carried them and a mist followed. One day, however, the Ancient Mariner shot and killed the Albatross on impulse.
Suddenly the wind and mist ceased, and the ship was stagnant on the ocean. The other sailors alternately blamed the Ancient Mariner for making the wind die and praised him for making the strange mist disappear. Then things began to go awry. The sun became blindingly hot, and there was no drinkable water amidst the salty ocean, which tossed with terrifying creatures. The sailors went dumb from their thirst and sunburned lips. They hung the Albatross around the Ancient Mariner's neck as a symbol of his sin. After a painful while, a ship appeared on the horizon, and the Ancient Mariner bit his arm and sucked the blood so he could cry out to the other sailors. The ship was strange: it sailed without wind, and when it crossed in front of the sun, its stark masts seemed to imprison the sun. When the ship neared, the Ancient Mariner could see that it was a ghost ship manned by Death, in the form of a man, and Life-in-Death, in the form of a beautiful, naked woman. They were gambling for the Ancient Mariner's soul. Life-in-Death won the Ancient Mariner's soul, and the other sailors were left to Death. The sky went black immediately as the ghost ship sped away. Suddenly all of the sailors cursed the Ancient Mariner with their eyes and dropped dead on the deck. Their souls zoomed out of their bodies, each taunting the Ancient Mariner with a sound like that of his crossbow. Their corpses miraculously refused to rot; they stared at him unrelentingly, cursing him with their eyes.
The Ancient Mariner drifted on the ocean in this company, unable to pray. One night he noticed some beautiful water-snakes frolicking at the ship's prow in the icy moonlight. Watching the creatures brought him unprecedented joy, and he blessed them without meaning to. When he was finally able to pray, the Albatross fell from his neck and sank into the sea. He could finally sleep, and dreamed of water. When he awoke, it was raining, and an awesome thunderstorm began. He drank his fill, and the ship began to sail in lieu of wind. Then the dead sailors suddenly arose and sailed the ship without speaking. They sang heavenly music, which the ship's sails continued when they had stopped. Once the ship reached the equator again, the ship jolted, causing the Ancient Mariner to fall unconscious. In his swoon, he heard two voices discussing his fate. They said he would continue to be punished for killing the Albatross, who was loved by a spirit. Then they disappeared. When the Ancient Mariner awoke, the dead sailors were grouped together, all cursing him with their eyes once again. Suddenly, however, they disappeared as well. The Ancient Mariner was not relieved, because he realized that he was doomed to be haunted by them forever.
The wind picked up, and the Ancient Mariner spotted his native country's shore. Then bright angels appeared standing over every corpse and waved silently to the shore, serving as beacons to guide the ship home. The Ancient Mariner was overjoyed to see a Pilot, his boy, and a Hermit rowing a small boat out to the ship. He planned to ask the Hermit to absolve him of his sin. Just as the rescuers reached the ship, it sank suddenly and created a vortex in the water. The rescuers were able to pull the Ancient Mariner from the water, but thought he was dead. When he abruptly came to and began to row the boat, the Pilot and Pilot's Boy lost their minds. The spooked Hermit asked the Ancient Mariner what kind of man he was. It was then that the Ancient Mariner learned of his curse; he would be destined to tell his tale to others from beginning to end when an agonizing, physical urge struck him. After he related his tale to the Hermit, he felt normal again.
The Ancient Mariner tells the Wedding Guest that he wanders from country to country, and has a special instinct that tells him to whom he must tell his story. After he tells it, he is temporarily relieved of his agony. The Ancient Mariner tells the Wedding Guest that better than any merriment is the company of others in prayer. He says that the best way to become close with God is to respect all of His creatures, because He loves them all. Then he vanishes. Instead of joining the wedding reception, the Wedding Guest walks home, stunned. We are told that he awakes the next day "sadder and...wiser" for having heard the Ancient Mariner's tale.