The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Summary and Analysis

Part 4

Buy Study Guide

The Wedding Guest proclaims that he fears the Ancient Mariner because he is unnaturally skinny, so tanned and wrinkled that he resembles the sand, and possesses a "glittering eye." The Ancient Mariner assures him that he has not returned from the dead; he is the only sailor who did not die on his ship, but rather drifted in lonely, scorching agony. His only living company was the plethora of "slimy" creatures in the ocean. He tried to pray, but could produce only a muffled curse. For seven days and nights the Ancient Mariner remained alone on the ship. The dead sailors, who miraculously did not rot, continued to curse him with their open eyes. Only the sight of beautiful water snakes frolicking beside the boat lifted the Ancient Mariner's spirits. They cheered him so much that he blessed them "unawares"; finally, he was able to pray. At that very moment, the Albatross fell off his neck and sank heavily into the ocean.

Analysis

As the Ancient Mariner drifts on the ocean, the natural world becomes more threatening. His surroundings - the ship, the ocean, and the creatures within it - are "rotting" in the heat and sun, but he is the one who is rotten on the inside. Meanwhile the sailors' corpses refuse to rot, and their open eyes curse him continuously, giving the Ancient Mariner a visible manifestation of the living death that awaits him. He will age, but his body will never rot enough to release his soul; his eye will glitter forever with the horror of damnation. As the Ancient Mariner floats, he becomes delirious, unable to escape his overwhelming loneliness even by sleeping: "I closed my lids, and kept them close, / And the balls like pulses beat; / For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky / Lay like a load on my weary eye..." His depravity has even denied him the comfort of prayer.

Ironically, it is the "slimy", "rotten" creatures themselves that finally comfort the Ancient Mariner and allow him to pray. Until this moment, Coleridge's imagery has underscored the overbearing nature of the Ancient Mariner's environment: it is hot, salty, pungent, and "rotten." However, his surroundings - and the imagery that accompanies them - turn cool in the moonlight. Coleridge compares the moonlight to a gentle frost, connecting it to the serenity of the "rime": "[The moon's] beams bemocked the sultry main, / Like April hoar-frost spread." Aglow in the moonlight, the sea creatures begin frolicking, rather than churning nastily; creatures of a beautiful, supernatural world, they "moved in tracks of shining white, / And when they reared, the elfish light / Fell off in hoary flakes...I watched their rich attire; / Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, / They coiled and swam; and every track / Was a flash of golden fire." Whereas Coleridge's descriptions of the ghost ship, sun, and sailors are replete with spare, harsh imagery, he describes the water-snakes in decadent, lush terms. Only when the Ancient Mariner is able to appreciate the beauty of the natural world is he granted the ability to pray - and, it is implied, eventually redeem himself. Earlier in the work, the desiccated setting represented the Ancient Mariner's moral drought, but the moment he begins to view the natural world benevolently, his spiritual thirst is quenched: "A spring of love gushed from my heart." As a sign that his burden has been lifted, the Albatross - the burden of sin - falls from his neck: it is no longer his cross to bear.