Samuel Coleridgeâ€™s â€œThe Rime of the Ancient Marinerâ€ is a major piece of poetry. The poem has major themes, characters and morals. The major character in â€œThe Rime of the Ancient Marinerâ€ is the mariner who relates his chilling experiences. It is he who kills the albatross, suffers the consequences, learns from his sufferings, and earns his redemption. As part of his penance, he spends his life telling his tale to others as a warning and a lesson. At first sight, the mariner appears terrifying in looks and manner, but he is so intense that the wedding guest is compelled to listen. As the tale unfolds, the wedding guest's reactions to the mariner change from scorn to sympathy, and finally even to pity. The wedding guest serves as a way to frame and advance the story, but he also undergoes a transformation of his own. (Bostetter) Startled by the mariner who accosts him, the wedding guest first appears as a devil-may-care gallant. However, by the time he has heard the mariner's dreadful tale; he has become thoughtful and subdued. (Coleridge)The mariner's shipmates are innocent victims of his rash act. Like the members of the wedding party, the sailors are purposefully kept vague and undeveloped; (Hartman) since Coleridge's intent is that the audience focuses its full attention on the plight of the mariner. (Bostetter) Supernatural beings appear in the poem as symbolic or allegorical figures, representing the forces of nature, life, death, and retribution. (Bostetter) The mariner confronts these figures and must ultimately appease them in order to obtain his salvation. (Hartman)
There are several secondary themes in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', relating to Christianity and the supernatural, and two primary themes. The primary themes are the potential consequences of a single unthinking act and the process of destruction and regeneration. In addition, Coleridge focuses on humanity's relationship to the natural world. (Hartman) It is clear that the killing of the albatross brings dire consequences on the mariner. In a larger sense, it is not his killing of the bird that is wrong, but the mariner's callous and destructive relationship with nature that is in error. Coleridge intends to confront this relationship and place it in a larger philosophical context. (Hartman)
One primary theme concerns the potential consequences of a single unthinking act. When the mariner shoots an albatross, he does it casually and without animosity. Yet this impulsive, destructive act is his undoing. Coleridge believed that the seeds of destruction and creation are contained within each other. (Bostetter) One cannot create something without destroying something else. (Bostetter) Likewise, destruction leads to the creation of something new. The loss of the mariner's ship, shipmates, and his own former self ultimately leads to the regeneration of the mariner. (Bostetter)This process of destruction and regeneration introduces the poem's second main theme. The mariner gradually comes to realize the enormous consequences of his casual act, even as he struggles to accept responsibility for it. To do this he had to comprehend that all things in nature are of equal value. Everything, as a part of nature, has its own beauty and is to be cherished for its own sake. (Hartman) This realization is suddenly apparent when the mariner spontaneously recognizes the beauty of the sea snakes; his heart filled with love for them, and he can bless them 'unaware'. The moral of the tale is manifest in the ancient mariner's final words to the wedding guest: 'He prayeth best, who loveth best (Coleridge Line 612) All things both great and small; (Coleridge Line 615) For the dear God who loveth us, (Coleridge Line 616) He made and loveth all.' (Coleridge Line 617).
Although the mariner's killing of the albatross, the terrifying deaths of his shipmates, and the grotesque descriptions of supernatural spirits are disturbing, these elements are intended to develop the story, to illustrate how the mariner's destructive act sets him apart, and to portray vividly the results of his act and the horrifying, repulsive world that he came to inhabit because of it. The consequences are all the more terrible for having been set in motion by such a thoughtless act in the first place. Coleridgeâ€™s goal is to portray the mariner's development into a sensitive, understanding, and compassionate human being. (Hartman) In so doing, he aimed to persuade the reader to reconsider his or her attitudes towards the natural world. Part of Coleridge's technique is to personify aspects of nature as supernatural spirits, yet he does not on any level develop an argument for pantheism . (Hartman) A great deal of Christian symbolism and some allegory are present; particularly at the end of part 4, where connections are made between suffering, repentance, redemption, and penance. (Hartman)These elements combine to form a rich texture of both natural and religious symbolism that can be profoundly moving.
Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th Edition. Vol. 2. New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 2 vols. 430-446.
Bostetter, Edward E. The Nightmare World of "The Ancient Mariner" in: Other Poems. Ed. Alan R Jones and William Tydeman. Tiptree, 1973.
Hartman, Geoffrey H. Romanticism and 'Anti-Self-consciousness. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1970.
Robertson, Robert. The Romantic Quest for Salvation: Romanticism in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Connexions. 20 Nov. 2007 <http://cnx.org/content/m15558/1.1/>.