The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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Eyes Symbol Icon

Other symbols and many of the themes in the poem exert their presence through the eyes. Firstly, the Mariner holds the Wedding Guest with his story, but also with his “glittering eye.” The eye then symbolizes both a means of control and a means of communication, which makes sense given the spellbinding power of storytelling in the poem. When words fail, humans communicate through their eyes. This point is also exemplified by the silent curses the Sailors give the Mariner when they are too thirsty to speak. This form of communication is powerful, direct, and primal, and it is also continued and pushed into the realm of the supernatural and sublime when the communicative gaze continues even after the sailors’ deaths.

But eyes do not only symbolize a means of primal, ineffably communication between humans. They also symbolize the means of communication between humans and the natural world, and through it, God. It is through the eyes that we observe God’s creatures, nature, and the sublime: the Mariner observes the Albatross, the Sun and Moon, the sublime, and the rest of the natural world with the power of sight. Some of the most terrifying moments of the poem are given through the means of sight and the eyes, for example, when the Mariner spies a ship and realizes its skeletal, ghostly nature as it approaches. The communication signified here is indicating that penance or punishment is coming, but the communication that the eye symbolizes and enables can also carry a message of salvation, as it is the sight of the radiant beauty of the swimming snakes that allows the Mariner to realize his error.

In another way, then, the eye can symbolize the limitations of the poem and of storytelling itself. The Mariner (and through him Coleridge) can use words to communicate the glory of God and the beauty of the world, but this communication will always be indirect. By seeing, we can take one step closer to God, to an appreciation of the sublime in nature, and to understanding for ourselves the lessons which the poem seeks to impart.

Eyes Quotes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The The Rime of the Ancient Mariner quotes below all refer to the symbol of Eyes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Natural and the Spiritual Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner published in 0.
Part II Quotes

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), Sailors
Related Symbols: The Albatross, Eyes
Page Number: 139-143
Explanation and Analysis:

Though they first justified the Mariner’s decision to kill the Albatross when the fog lifted and the breeze continued, in face of perilous thirst and torturous stillness, the Sailors have turned back against the Mariner. They seek to place the entirety of the blame on the Mariner (whose actions may indeed be the cause of their own downfall), and even want to curse the Mariner, but their thirst is so severe that none of them are able to speak. Thus, as it is explained in the excerpt, they use “evil looks” as the means for communication. The eyes, we see, serve to communicate when words fail or are prevented.

After cursing the Mariner with their eyes, the Sailors hang the Albatross around his neck—a burden for him to bear in place of a cross. In this way, they attempt to put the responsibility of the sin entirely on him, and mark him as a sinner. Such a gesture is one of the aspects of the poem that clearly calls for an interpretation along the lines of Christian allegory. The Albatross as a symbol of Christ is also strengthened by the gesture, as the dead bird on the Mariner replaces Jesus on the Crucifix.


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Part III Quotes

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), Sailors, Death , Life-in-Death
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 157-161
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines give some of the most powerful, chilling poetry of the entire work. After the Sailors hang the Albatross around the Mariner’s neck, the ship remains stuck and the crew remains so thirsty that they cannot speak. Under a blood-red sun, the Mariner notices a tiny speck approaching on the horizon. This speck provides a moment of hope for the Mariner and drama in the story, as it is revealed to be a ship, and then a phantom ship carrying Death and Life-in-Death.

Seeing the ship, the Mariner is struck with the common desire to share what he sees—to communicate. But nature (and the supernatural forces surrounding it) has taken his ability to use language. In order to win back the ability to speak, the Mariner must pay an painful price: he bites his arm and drinks his own blood, wetting his mouth enough that he can speak. The consumption of blood seems at first horrifying, but it can also be made to fit within the Christian tradition, as Christians consume the blood of Christ (whether literally or metaphorically, depending on the tradition) through the form of wine when taking the Eucharistic sacrament.

Note that the poetry of these lines underscores the uncanny nature of the incident. The stanza contains five lines, as opposed to the common four or six, and is filled with formal features. We can note, for example, alliteration in “black / baked” and “drought/ dumb” as well as the internal rhyme of “unslaked” and “baked,” which somehow makes the five line stanza flow beautifully. The beauty and poetic craft that Coleridge injects here makes this moment and its description an example of the sublime in and of itself.

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), Sailors, Death , Life-in-Death
Related Symbols: Eyes, The Sun and Moon
Page Number: 212-219
Explanation and Analysis:

The ghostly ship, carrying Death and Life-in-Death, has pulled alongside the Mariner and the crew. The two haunting figures have gambled for the lives of the Sailors and the Mariner; Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, implying that the Sailors are won by Death. The Mariner then must face dire penance through a horrifying experience of life within death. As part of this punishment (and perhaps a punishment for them), the two hundred Sailors one by one curse the Mariner with their eyes, before dying in the moonlight.

The lifeless thumping of the Sailors’ bodies can be seen as a reminder of the danger and power of nature and supernatural beings. We can note that as they die, unable to speak, they are still able to communicate their curses and hatred through their eyes, the primal means of wordless communication that is used throughout the poem. These eyes, we will see below, are able to convey curses even after death.

Part IV Quotes

An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), Sailors, Life-in-Death
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 257-262
Explanation and Analysis:

The Sailors have died one by one, and the Mariner here experiences penance through the forms of solitude and horror. To emphasize the terror of being surrounded by these wide-eyed corpses, the Mariner evokes an “orphan’s curse,” which would supposedly have the terrible effect of dragging even a spirit from on high down to hell. “More horrible than that, “ he suggests, is the curse found in a dead man’s eye. We can note that the communicative power of the eye does not cease even in death, existing as an echo of life within death.

This echo is fitting, given the punishment (penance) that Life-in-Death enacts. Surrounded by corpses and death, the Mariner ironically cannot die himself, even over the course of a week. This lingering amidst death brings the Mariner’s isolation and desperation well beyond the experience of being stuck at sea surrounded by a speechless, but still living crew.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware,

The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Albatross, Eyes, The Sun and Moon
Page Number: 282-291
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Mariner is cursed by the dead eyes of the Sailors (for an entire week), the moon rises higher in the sky. In the moonlight, the Mariner observes radiant water snakes swimming beside the ship. At their sight, he comes to the central spiritual realization of the poem. He exclaims with joy that these are happy creatures, beautiful beyond words, and he becomes possessed with love for them and a desire to bless them. He has come to appreciate nature in a Romantic and spiritual mindset, the key lesson he ultimately hopes to impart (as opposed to his earlier hatred of the “slimy creatures” living in the water around the ship).

Once he makes this realization (which is enabled both by the moonlight and the communicative power of his eyes), the Mariner is able to pray once more. The lapse in communication with God has been repaired by, finally, a proper approach to nature and the sublime: respect, reverence, and appreciation. With this attitude the Mariner turns back to prayer, and the Albatross slips off his neck, signifying that (for the moment) he has been absolved of his sin.

Part VI Quotes

This seraph-band, each waved his hand:
It was a heavenly sight!
They stood as signals to the land,
Each one a lovely light;

This seraph-band, each waved his hand,
No voice did they impart –
No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), Sailors, The Lonesome Spirit from the South Pole
Related Symbols: Eyes, The Sun and Moon
Page Number: 492-499
Explanation and Analysis:

After a race homeward, powered by the Lonesome Spirit (who is in turn instructed by angels) the sun rises and the angels leave the Sailors’ bodies. Rather than singing, as they have done before, the seraphs simply wave at the Mariner, putting on a heavenly display to be experienced through the eyes. This display is essentially silent, which, the Mariner suggests, carries its own type of divine music. Furthermore, the lines themselves are musical, as each stanza begins with the same first line and contains strong rhymes and perfected rhythm and meter. Here, the Mariner is so connected with nature and the sublime that he is able to have a direct spiritual experience, without the presence of the lenses that he requires in many other moments.

Part VII Quotes

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), The Wedding Guest, Hermit
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 586-560
Explanation and Analysis:

The Mariner has been rescued by the Hermit and Pilot and is now safely on land. There he begs the Hermit to absolve him of his sin, and is first prompted to tell his story. Here, the Mariner explains the perpetual state of penance he now occupies: he wanders eternally, intermittently succumbing to the agony within him that forces him to tell his story.

He travels from land to land and employs his “strange power of speech,” which seems to be granted to him by the journey and for the purpose of sharing his lesson. He also demonstrates another way that eyes communicate here: he knows to whom he must tell his story by seeing faces. We can note that storytelling here is figured explicitly as teaching. This power of speech allows the Mariner to hold audiences captive, and, we will see, to impart change in their lives.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner, The Wedding Guest
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 618-625
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines end the poem. The Mariner, despite his age, still has a bright eye, indicative of his ceaseless urge to communicate and tell his story. We can also note that the Wedding Guest turns away from the wedding rather than continuing on to it (as he so fervently wanted to at the start of the poem). This subtle change in his decision and path of the day represents a shift in the journey in his life. The Wedding Guest is “stunned” and is “of a sense forlorn.” Such descriptors give evidence that interacting with the ancient man and hearing his wild story of nature and spirits is itself a sublime experience. The Wedding Guest has not seen nature’s terrors in the way the Mariner has, but he has heard the story and seen those fierce bright eyes. Thus he becomes “a sadder and a wiser man,” and most likely a saved man. The Mariner is not able to ever fully absolve himself, but through the power of his speech, he is given the gift of being able to save other people.

Readers, too, are in a similar state to the Wedding Guest, since almost immediately after the Mariner’s story ends, the poem ends. Having observed the effect words and stories have on the Wedding Guest we then (Coleridge might hope) are more open to the profound effects that poetry can have on us.

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Eyes Symbol Timeline in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The timeline below shows where the symbol Eyes appears in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part I
The Mundane and the Sublime Theme Icon
Storytelling and Interpretation Theme Icon
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.... (full context)
Part III
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
...moonlight, one by one each of the Sailors turns to curse the Mariner with their eyes. Then one by one, all two hundred Sailors drop down dead and thump to the... (full context)
Part IV
The Natural and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The Mundane and the Sublime Theme Icon
Sin and Penance Theme Icon
After closing his eyes in an attempt to escape his punishment, the Mariner finds that he is still being... (full context)
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
Following this weeklong dead-eyed curse, the Mariner comes to his great realization. In the moonlight, while the ship’s shadow... (full context)
Part V
The Natural and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The Mundane and the Sublime Theme Icon
Sin and Penance Theme Icon
Storytelling and Interpretation Theme Icon
...a supernatural phenomenon. The dead Sailors groan, rise up, and, without speaking or moving their eyes, begin working on the ship. Even without wind, the ghastly crew is able to sail... (full context)
Part VI
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
...under the moonlit sky beside the dead Sailors. For a moment, his penance and the dead-eyed curse returns, and the Mariner becomes unable to pray. But just as soon as it... (full context)