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.
Storytelling and Interpretation ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Interpretation Quotes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'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.
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!
'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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.