The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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Storytelling and Interpretation Theme Analysis

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.
Storytelling and Interpretation Theme Icon

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is very focused on storytelling. The Mariner stops one of every three people he sees, since he knows that certain people need to hear his story, and he simply begins telling his tale. And the tale itself is so compelling that his listeners can do nothing but listen. Further, the Mariner can also be read as a kind of stand-in for a writer. The Mariner, after his experiences, is doomed to feel a perpetual need to tell this story, a never-ending urge that burns inside of him. And yet, at the same time, speech and storytelling is portrayed in the poem as a power and a blessing. The Mariner has a “strange power of speech,” and tells his story not simply to tell it, but because he wants and needs to communicate, to pass his own experience on to others so as to save them. This simultaneous curse and blessing of storytelling can be seen as a metaphor for storytelling in general, for the way that a writer feels compelled to tell his or her story, a compulsion to communicate. Finally, the poem asserts that stories really do have unique powers of communication. The poem is a story within a story, with the Wedding Guest’s encounter with the Mariner serving as a frame for the Mariner’s own story. This frame allows the reader to both hear the Mariner’s own story, and to witness the way the story transforms the Wedding Guest. The poem, in other words, insists on the power of storytelling, and shows how it can change, and improve, people.

Even as the poem explores storytelling – the human compulsion to tell stories and the power of those stories – it also investigates the just as human compulsion to interpret stories, to figure out what those stories mean. Both readers of the poem and the characters within the poem naturally try to interpret the information and stories they are given. Indeed, the Mariner’s slaying of the Albatross – an act that is never explained, and because of that seems the product of a kind of strange compulsion – can be seen as an act of interpretation. There is a long tradition that sees birds, and albatross in particular, as having the ability to exist between realms, as being both natural and supernatural, both mortal and spiritual. By killing the bird, the Mariner asserts an interpretation on the bird – that it is natural, mortal, and deceased. And after the albatross dies, the crew at first interprets the act as a sin, and then when nothing goes wrong they change their interpretation completely, saying the mariner was right to kill the bird. But the poem suggests that interpretation carries risks: after the mariner kills the albatross, reducing it to mere mortality, and the crew decides that killing it was justified, all of them are harshly punished.

Similarly, Coleridge’s notes that annotate his poem can be seen as fulfilling both the urge to tell stories and the desire to interpret. In some moments, Coleridge’s annotations seem excessive, and he seems simply to summarize and add extraneous details. He over-tells the story because of his own urge, which mirrors that of the Mariner. In other cases, his annotations are interpretive, giving explanations and implying morals in the story. And yet, these interpretations don’t always come across as helpful, and sometimes seem contradictory or incoherent when taken together. Put another way: Coleridge’s own annotations of his poem can be seen as showing the limits of interpretation, as showing that, just as the Mariner must learn to appreciate nature in its entirety, for what it is rather than reducing it to what it might mean for him, a person reading the poem should do the same, and appreciate it in its wholeness and be wary of picking it apart, of reducing it, and lessening its power.

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Storytelling and Interpretation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Storytelling and Interpretation 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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Storytelling and Interpretation 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 Storytelling and Interpretation.
Part I Quotes

He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.

Related Characters: The Ancient Mariner (speaker), The Wedding Guest
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

The Ancient Mariner has stopped one of three young men on the way to a wedding. When the Wedding Guest asks him why he is being stopped, the Mariner places his hand on the Guest and simply begins telling his story: “There was a ship.” This powerful start to the story demonstrates the power that storytelling has to enthrall and compel listeners. Readers may become invested in the Mariner’s tale even before the Wedding Guest accepts that he must hear it. The power of storytelling itself holds the Wedding Guest just as much as the Mariner’s old, skinny hand and “glittering eye” do.

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'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.

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.

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

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.

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.