The Mariner and the Sailors spend a long “weary time” stuck in the state of thirst on the calm sea. But after some time, the Mariner sees a speck approaching in the westward sky. As the speck comes closer and closer, the Mariner begins to recognize what it is. However, neither he nor any other member of the crew can speak (because of their intense thirst), so he has no way of drawing the Sailors’ attention to what he sees. To solve this problem, the Mariner explains that he “bit my arm, I sucked my blood, / And cried, A sail! A sail!” With this visceral sacrifice he alerts the Sailors to the approaching ship.
Part of the Mariner’s penance is rooted in stillness, isolation, and utter abandonment of hope as time lurches by. This approaching ship (and the revelation of its purpose) gives hope and then dashes it. The ship also appeals to and utilizes the natural urge to tell stories and communicate. Part of the Mariner’s penance is undoubtedly the fierce desire to speak and the denial of that ability by nature. In order to communicate again, the Mariner must pay a visceral price: he drinks his own blood to wet his throat. This gruesome detail also functions within a Christian allegorical reading, as Christ’s blood has healing powers of salvation, and is drunk (literally or symbolically, depending on the interpretation) in the ritual of the Eucharist.
The Sailors at first take great joy in the Mariner’s announcement that another ship is approaching, since they believe that they are going to be saved. But that joy quickly turns to horror, as they begin to question how the ship could possibly be approaching without a breeze or tide. As the ship approaches close it seems to be the skeleton of a ship, creating a “dungeon-grate,” barred effect as it passes in front of the red setting sun.
This moment is an exhibit of master storytelling, both on the part of Coleridge and the Mariner. Readers are given hope, as a ship approaches and might rescue the Mariner, but that hope is almost immediately crushed as the poet delivers the realization that the ship is in fact a ghostly vessel. Note that the ghost ship is superimposed over the sun and the natural world, as the Mariner’s penance transfers into the supernatural realm.
Through the ‘ribs’ or ‘grate’ of the skeleton ship, the Mariner perceives its sole passengers: Death himself and Life-in-Death, a woman described with yellow hair, red lips, and haunting white skin. As their ghostly ship comes beside the Mariner’s ship, the Mariner notes that Death and Life-in-Death have been playing dice for the crew. Life-in-Death has won the soul of the Mariner.
The introduction of Death and Life-in-Death is one of Coleridge’s greatest moves away from Christian tradition and towards the supernatural. The strange in-between nature of Life-in-Death, exhibited in her name and her physical description, is in line with the living death that will become the next step of the Mariner’s penance.
After Life-in-Death announces her victory, the sun sets and the moon rises. In the 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 deck. Their souls whizz by the Mariner like shots from his cross-bow, but he alone is left alive to face whatever penance is demanded of him in his trials.
In a cyclic transfer of influence, the moon replaces the sun. The torture (thirst) caused by the natural world is brought to its final stage by the supernatural Death under the moon. Still unable to communicate by speech, the Sailors communicate (what should be) their final hatred through their eyes. Note that the fate of the Sailors is one of the aspects that challenges a straightforward Christian allegorical reading of the poem. To where do the Sailors’ souls whizz? Why do they die when the Mariner is given a chance at absolution? Is their interpretive sin somehow worse than his? Such complicating questions remain mostly unanswered and open to interpretation.