The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Sin and Penance Theme Icon

In the context of the spirituality that pervades the poem, the Mariner’s story can be seen as one of Sin and Penance. In shooting the innocent albatross he commits a sin (against both nature and God, since one is the expression of the other). The Mariner is then punished: he suffers deprivations and horrors until he learns to appreciate and love the natural and supernatural world that the albatross symbolized, and then he is absolved of his crime. Such a story of sin and penance, of punishment and absolution is common across many cultures and belief systems, including Christianity. And yet, at the same time, the poem’s treatment of the story isn’t quite so simple.

For one thing, the Mariner is only partially saved. Once his penance is complete and he learns to appreciate nature, his overtly supernatural torments are ended and he can enjoy the beauty of nature and the blessing of prayer. But, at the same time, he is compelled to continue telling his story indefinitely, or else suffer a kind of agony. There is no indication that he will ever be truly forgiven or absolved of his duty to share his experience, and in a way, this itself is another punishment. And yet, it too can be viewed as a blessing, since through telling his story he is given the gift of being able to save others, as, implied at the end of the poem, he saves the Wedding Guest.

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Sin and Penance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Sin and Penance appears in each Part of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Sin and Penance Quotes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Below you will find the important quotes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner related to the theme of Sin and Penance.
Part I Quotes

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! –
Why look'st thou so?'-
With my cross-bow I shot the Albatross.

Related Characters: The Wedding Guest (speaker), The Ancient Mariner
Related Symbols: The Albatross
Page Number: 79-83
Explanation and Analysis:

The Mariner has just introduced the Albatross, which flies around and follows the ship. But suddenly, the Wedding Guest interrupts the story (a masterful storytelling technique on the part of Coleridge) since the Mariner’s face apparently contains some sort of agony. Coleridge here gives us the Wedding Guest’s reaction to the Mariner’s face in order to covey how plagued he is by what information will follow, adding to the building sense of tension and anticipation.

The Mariner then continues in his tale and reveals the sin that will set in motion a series of horrifying experiences as part of his penance: he shot the Albatross with a cross-bow. We can note that the Mariner offers no explanation for why he shot the bird. We can attempt to understand it through various frameworks, however. In one framework, the slaughter can be seen as an effort to assert human mastery over nature. Related is the notion that killing the bird is an attempt to assert the mundane and civilized over what is naturally sublime, a rejection of the Romantic ideal and a denial of what is majestic in nature. And in a third framework, the act of killing the Albatross is seen as an interpretive act, whereby the Mariner gives in to the natural desire of humans to interpret; he cannot reconcile with the Albatross’s ethereal existence across boundaries (natural, supernatural, sublime, mortal, an omen) and so he kills it to force the bird into one category (dead). But ultimately, readers are not given an indication of the Mariner’s motive. Rather, we only see the dire consequences of the act.

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Part II Quotes

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), The Lonesome Spirit from the South Pole
Page Number: 115-122
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Mariner kills the Albatross, for a time the wind remains good and the fog dissipates. The crew briefly shifts from cursing the Mariner to justifying his actions. But soon, under influence of the Lonesome Spirit from the South Pole, the breeze dies down and the ship becomes stranded. The Sailors then suffer in the heat, beginning the first stage of the Mariner’s penance. Day after day, the ship remains stuck and still, as if it is merely a ship in a painting.

In this state, the Mariner and the Sailors begin dying of thirst. The second quatrain (four-line stanza) excerpted here plays with the irony of the situation, and also contains one of Coleridge’s most famous (and often misquoted) lines. They are surrounded by water, but since it is seawater, they cannot drink it. This predicament is part of the Mariner’s penance, which is influenced by the supernatural spirits, but it also exhibits some of the sublime terror and beauty of the natural world. The sea is at once compared to a painting and a means of torture and death. Thus while the Mariner doesn’t yet take the correct approach, the poet describes the scene from firmly within the Romantic mindset.

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.

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 V Quotes

'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.'

Related Characters: First Voice and Second Voice (speaker), The Ancient Mariner, The Lonesome Spirit from the South Pole
Related Symbols: The Albatross
Page Number: 398-409
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Mariner’s momentary absolution and spiritual realization, he is also able to fall into sleep, and finally can drink water. But after nature rages and angels possess and reanimate the Sailors’ bodies, the Mariner is thrown into a fit. Within this strange dreamspace, the Mariner hears the First Voice and the Second voice conferring about who he is (“is it he?”) and what he has done (“With his cruel bow he laid full low / the harmless Albatross”). The excerpt here demonstrates how overt Coleridge’s storytelling is at certain moments. One of the voices says explicitly that the Mariner has done penance, and will do more penance in the future. This line proves to be true in the immediate future, and for the rest of the Mariner’s existence, as the poem ultimately implies that his penance is never ending and he is never completely absolved.

Part VI Quotes

It is the Hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns
That he makes in the wood.
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away
The Albatross's blood.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), Hermit
Related Symbols: The Albatross
Page Number: 508-513
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Pilot, the Pilot’s Boy, and the Hermit approach the Mariner, the Mariner’s ship is sinking. But rather than worrying about the fate of his ship, the Mariner focuses on the Hermit, who presents an example of a good man of God who does not require such trials as the Mariner to maintain the appropriate attitude. Note that the Hermit is connected with nature through the reference to the “wood,” presumably the place he lives.

The Mariner views the Hermit as a means to conclude his journey and bring a final form of penance and absolution, whatever it may be. He hopes the Hermit will “shrieve” him, which is archaic for shrive, which means take confession, apply penance, and absolve. We can note that he hopes the Hermit will wash away the Albatross’s symbolic blood and lift away the guilt of the crime. This suggestion is also complicated by the fact that the Albatross is a symbol for Christ, and Christ’s blood is typically the means of redemption and washing away sin in Christian allegory and doctrine.

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.

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), The Wedding Guest
Related Symbols: The Albatross
Page Number: 612-617
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines conclude the Mariner’s tale; they contain the explicit lesson that he hopes to impart to the Wedding Guest, and the moral of Coleridge’s story that (despite the poet’s intentions) is difficult to ignore. The Mariner has for the first time acknowledged the wedding ceremony, and the joys therein, but only at the service of saying that devout prayer offers much greater joy.

Here, he explains how to reach the best kind of prayer and spiritual awareness: the best prayers come from those who best love “man and bird and beast.” He continues, employing repetition with slight variation, saying that the best prayers come from those who best love “all things both great and small,” since God loves us, and God made (and loves) everything. Finally, the Mariner seems to understand the correct (Romantic) approach to nature: all of God’s creations on all scales, from birds like the Albatross, to mist, to the vast sun and moon, to the supernatural spirits and beings that interact with and influence the natural world, are deserving of reverence, respect, and pious embrace. Doing so, argues the Mariner, is the best way to connect with and communicate with God.

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.