The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

From Academic Kids

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Illustration by Gustav Dore.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem written by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797-1798 and published in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798). It is the longest significant poem that Coleridge wrote.

Written in language that imitates the Anglo-Scots border ballads (which had only recently been introduced to the greater English public), it relates the supernatural events experienced by a mariner on a long sea voyage. During the voyage, the mariner kills an albatross with his crossbow. This crime arouses the wrath of supernatural spirits who pursue the ship, and the other members of the crew hang the albatross around the mariner's neck. Eventually, in an eerie passage, the ship encounters a ghostly vessel. Onboard are DEATH and LIFE-IN-DEATH, who are playing dice for the souls of the crew. DEATH wins them all except the Mariner. One by one the crew dies, but the Mariner lives on. Eventually, the Mariner's curse is lifted when he sees sea creatures swimming in the water and blesses them in his heart. The bodies of the crew rise again and steer the ship back home. The mariner is forced to wander the earth and tell his story, and teach a lesson to those he meets:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
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A statue of the Ancient Mariner, with the albatross around his neck, at Watchet, Somerset, England. The statue was unveiled in September 2003, as a tribute to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

The poem may have been inspired by James Cook's second voyage of exploration (1772-1775) of the south seas and the Pacific Ocean; Coleridge's tutor William Wales was astronomer on the HMS Resolution, Cook's flagship and had a strong relationship with Cook. On his second voyage Cook plunged repeatedly below the Antarctic circle to determine whether the fabled great southern continent existed.

When William Wordsworth and Coleridge planned the scheme for their joint collection Lyrical Ballads, it was agreed that Wordsworth would contribute poems describing common life and Coleridge would contribute poems on supernatural themes. It is useful to keep this in mind when examining this poem.

The poem received mixed reviews from the critics, and Coleridge was once told by the publisher that most of the book's sales were to sailors who thought it was a naval songbook. Coleridge made several modifications to the poem over the years. In the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), he replaced many of the archaic words. In 1817, in the Sibylline Leaves, he added the marginal glosses.

The poem contains many memorable and often quoted passages, such as:

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


The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

Popular Culture

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is also the title of a song by Iron Maiden from their 1984 album Powerslave, a 14-minute heavy metal epic based on Coleridge's poem.

The song Good Morning Captain by American underground rock band (see also "math-rock" and "post-rock) Slint from the album Spiderland is an adaptation of this poem.

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