This is the longest – and perhaps the trickiest – poem that we study as part of our A2 poetry syllabus. As well as its length it’s also a bit difficult to follow, so I thought I’d try to give a breakdown of the story, as well as some notes on form and structure.
This poem is a ballad, which is a kind of narrative song that is passed down orally, and which recounts a tragic or heroic story emphasising a single dramatic event (which in this case is the mariner killing the albatross). In English tradition, a ballad usually follows the form of rhymed quatrains with alternating 4-stressed (iambic tetrameter) and 3-stressed (trimeter) lines. Coleridge doesn’t stick to this form all the way through, but instead adapts these conventions to give the mariner a unique voice with which to recount his story and share his message.
Since the mariner is telling his story to the wedding guest, the poem uses a framed narrative (like Shelley’s Frankenstein). The effect of this is to perhaps reinforce the oral tradition of the ballad and the idea of storytelling, highlighting the power of language, as the wedding guest becomes captivated by the mariner and his mysterious tale.
Throughout the poem Coleridge also uses glosses: brief notes in the margin explaining the meaning of certain words of phrases. They seem to make the story more coherent, summarising the story in certain stanzas, which was in fact one of Coleridge’s aims as a poet (to ensure his works were accessible to the ‘common man’, not just the elite) but it can be argued that because of them the poem loses its ambiguity and disables the reader from forming their own interpretations of what’s happening in the poem.
In the first section of the poem, the ancient mariner begins to tell his story to a wedding guest that he encounters. In the story, the mariner is on a ship sailing south to the equator when a storm hits and the ship becomes stuck in ice. However, an albatross appears, which the crew see as a good omen; the ice breaks and they begin sailing again, but in a seemingly unexplainable act the mariner kills the albatross.
At first the crew are angered by the mariner’s actions, but when the fog clears they commend him for killing the albatross, saying that it was in fact a bad omen. At the equator the ship slows and the men become thirsty and unable to speak. They see slimy creatures on the surface of the water, and a spirit follows them, moving about underneath the ship. To punish the mariner for this newfound suffering, they hang the albatross around his neck.
A ship is seen far off; the crew believe they are saved but realise that the ship is sailing without wind, meaning it must be something supernatural. In fact it is a skeleton ship, on which are Life-in-Death, a woman, and her mate Death. They gamble for the crew and Life-Death wins. One by one, the crew dies, and their souls leave their bodies.
The mariner is left alone for seven days and seven nights, during which time he attempts to pray but finds himself unable to do so. He looks at his dead crew but can’t die. He sees the water snakes again and blesses them, after which he can pray again, and the albatross falls from his neck.
The mariner falls asleep; when he awakens, it is raining. A storm comes, and the dead crew become reanimated and begin to man the ship. They sing, and the ship sails, moved forward by spirits, until it jolts and the mariner faints. In his sleep he hears two voices discussing his actions and his future.
As the ship sails rapidly northward, the two voices continue to discuss the mariner’s fate. He wakes up and feels the eyes of the crew still on him, cursing him. The magic he felt breaks and a breeze blows him to the shore of his native country. He watches the spirits of the men appear like light around him as signals to the land. A boat comes towards him, manned by a Pilot, a Hermit, and the pilot’s boy. The mariner hopes that the Hermit will help to cleanse the blood of the Albatross from him.
The ship sinks but the mariner is saved by being dragged onto the boat, which he then rows. Once on land he begs the Hermit to redeem him of his sin. After this he falls down in a fit before being compelled to tell his tale, with powers of speech that alert him to the men with whom he must speak. He tells the wedding guest how joyful he feels to have company after being so alone on the sea. He teaches him to appreciate all of God’s creations; the guest leaves and is changed by the mariner’s tale.
Let me know if language analysis for this poem would also be useful.