Analysis of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's lengthy poem, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," is quite different from the work of other Romantic poets. His deliberately archaic language, ominous tones and crazed narrator are a stunning contrast to the lighter, pastoral works of Wordsworth and others. There is a similar contrast and tension in "Rime" between the bright lights of the wedding ceremony and the cheerful guests and the mariner with "his glittering eye" and his dark tale in which a "thousand thousand slimy things" crawl from the depths of the ocean. Coleridge seems to suggest that in the pleasant mundanity of the everyday world, there is also hidden an element of darkness, evil and mysticism.
"Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is an exploration of evil, both that of men and of nature, and of salvation. The poem is rife with Christian symbolism, also a departure from most Romantic poetry. The slaughtered albatross, emerging spirits from beneath the murky water and ghastly figures of Death and Life-in-Death are images of sin and evil and its consequences.
As the mariner describes in the beginning of "Rime," the albatross follows the ship into bright, sunlit waters. The crew regards it as a blessing. However, in a fit of bad faith, the narrator kills the albatross with his crossbow. Shortly thereafter, a fog descends upon the ship, and the crew congratulates the mariner, now believing the bird to have been a bad omen. The albatross can here be seen as a symbol of God's favor, bringing with it good fortune and favorable results. The mariner, mortal and fallible, succumbs to his paranoia and fear when he cruelly slaughters the innocent creature, thereby tainting himself with sin and losing connection with God and all things good.
With the death of the albatross, the crew of the cursed ship soon learns the gravity of the mariner's deed. They are stranded without wind, "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." The crew has lost touch with the very element of life for a sailor, due to the rash actions of the narrator. The water thickens and the men are tortured with thirst; the sailors dream of a sea-monster chasing the ship through dark waters; slimy creatures crawl from the rotting deep to torment the doomed crew; at night, the water burns with unholy death fire. Coleridge uses dramatically mystical elements to express the consequences of the mariner's colossal mistake. The mariner, by destroying one of God's creatures, exposes himself to the darker aspects of the world. By extension, Coleridge suggests that to sin and defy God can bring about only the worst results, though perhaps not literally torture at the hands of legions of aquatic undead.
In retaliation for their increasingly unpleasant plight, the crew hangs the corpse of the dead albatross about the mariner's neck like a cross. This powerful symbolism of the mariner as a Christ-like figure cannot be overlooked. The cross-like albatross, a symbol of sin, is borne by only the mariner, though he was commended by the crew after the killing. Though the crew seems to share equally in the act of sin, only the mariner bears the brunt of the punishment after the other men turn upon him.
After a weary time on the ocean, the mariner sights a sail and the sailors smile, believing themselves to have been saved. However, it is revealed to be the ghostly hull of a ship crewed by two figures--Death, and a nightmare woman Life-in-Death--playing dice for the fates of the crew. Life-in-Death may be seen as a Devil figure; a woman on a ship is a powerfully bad omen and she holds the power to extinguish the sun's light. She claims the souls of the men, all except for the mariner, who is cursed in turn by each man and is left upon the deck surrounded by hundreds of corpses.
Only after seven deathless and prayerless days and nights is the mariner finally truly remorseful for his original deed. He is able to regain the favor of God and the ability to pray, only by realizing that the hideous monsters around him are equally beautiful in the eyes of God, and therefore should be loved as the mariner should have loved the albatross. As he prays and he is filled with God's grace, the albatross--and his sin--falls from him. His revelation is supported by his encounter with a hermit towards the end of the poem.
Coleridge's fascination with natural evil and salvation is evident throughout "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Though the slimy creatures and ghastly apparitions are fantastical, they are the direct result of a very realistic moral failing on the part of the mariner, thus again connecting between the dark and mystical with ordinary, mundane life. Coleridge, like the other Romantics, sees the beautiful and compelling in both the good and bad sides of nature, and exhorts the reader to embrace them, rather than succumb to fear as the mariner did.