The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Part I Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Ancient Mariner, an old man with a grey beard and a “glittering eye,” stops one out of three young men who are on their way to a wedding. The man whom the Mariner stopped, the Wedding Guest, explains that the wedding is about to start, but the Mariner ignores the wedding guest and begins his tale anyway with the simple line, “There was a ship.” The Wedding Guest tries again to get out of hearing the story, but the Mariner holds him spellbound with his eye, his hand, and his powerful storytelling ability. The Wedding Guest is forced to listen to the Mariner’s tale.
The poem begins with a description of the Mariner, and immediately attention is drawn to his eyes, and his power to hold the Wedding Guest and force the young man to hear his tale. Here, storytelling needs no introduction, as the Mariner simply starts speaking and begins the story. The false urgency of the wedding is a rather mundane celebration that will pale in comparison to the Mariner’s tale, and to a proper Romantic appreciation of the sublime.
Themes
The Mundane and the Sublime Theme Icon
Storytelling and Interpretation Theme Icon
The Mariner then launches into the story of his experiences at sea, describing how the ship itself launched into the sea and sailed southward—he indicates the direction by describing the path of the sun. When merry sounds are heard from the wedding feast, the Wedding Guest once more tries to escape the Mariner’s tale, but he remains enthralled.
The Mariner takes the Wedding Guest and the reader abruptly into the natural world, using the changing position of the sun to show the planet’s orientation and vastness at once. With the motif of the wedding, the “mundane” tries to assert itself over the sublimity of nature, but it fails to overpower the story.
Themes
The Natural and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The Mundane and the Sublime Theme Icon
Storytelling and Interpretation Theme Icon
After the Wedding Guest quiets down again, the Mariner’s story moves on to the great storm, which pushed the ship towards the South Pole. There he and the other Sailors are surrounded by ice, mist, and snow. There is a complete lack of life, but also a sense of the sublime in the vast icebergs and glaciers they pass. The only noise is the haunting sound of ice cracking all around the ship.
The powerful storm and the dangerous beauty of the South Pole exhibit the essence of the Romantic ideal of the sublime. The storm overpowers the ship and forces it to the Pole, where it meets potential peril from the ice. But the mist and snow are also terrifyingly beautiful and majestic.
Themes
The Natural and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The Mundane and the Sublime Theme Icon
This silence and lack of life is broken, however, by an Albatross, which the crew hails as if it were a Christian, and believes to be a sign of good luck. They feed the bird, which follows them and visits to eat and play, and the Sailors all rejoice at the newly blowing wind (which they attribute to the bird) that allows them to begin heading north again.
Since the Albatross materializes out of the fog in a land where it seems nothing should be able to live, it is seen as both natural and supernatural, and an embodiment of the sublime. For the Sailors, it is a token of good luck and a means of connection with God and the natural world.
Themes
The Natural and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The Mundane and the Sublime Theme Icon
Christian Allegory Theme Icon
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But amidst this joyous celebration of the bird, the Wedding Guest suddenly interjects into the story, revealing that while telling this part of his tale the Mariner looks like he is greatly plagued by fiends. The Mariner then shares his tragic mistake and great sin without giving any indication of the reason he did it: with his cross-bow, he shot the Albatross.
This unexplained killing sets in motion the cycle of sin and penance the Mariner must undergo. It is first and foremost a crime against the natural world, and thus against God, for which the Mariner will never be fully absolved. Another way to view this attack on the bird is as another failed attempt to assert the mundane over the sublime. With this idea comes the notion that by killing the bird, the Mariner was fulfilling the constant human desire to interpret. The Albatross was once ethereal, natural and supernatural, crossing boundaries and exhibiting qualities of both worlds, but by killing it the Mariner forces a singular interpretation on it: dead. Nature and the supernatural world will then punish the Mariner for his sin and for his misguided effort to interpret a bird that resists interpretation. (Also note that the Albatross is killed by a cross-bow—adding Christ-like imagery to its death.)
Themes
The Natural and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The Mundane and the Sublime Theme Icon
Sin and Penance Theme Icon
Storytelling and Interpretation Theme Icon
Christian Allegory Theme Icon