The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Poetry & Opera

One of a set of engraved metal plate illustrations by Gustave Doré.
One of a set of engraved metal plate illustrations by Gustave Doré.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem written by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797– 1799 and published in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads ( 1798). It is Coleridge's longest major poem. Along with other poems in Lyrical Ballads, it was a signal shift to modern poetry, and the beginnings of British Romantic literature.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner relates the supernatural events experienced by a mariner on a long sea voyage. The Mariner stops a man who is on the way to a wedding ceremony, and begins to recite his story. The Wedding-Guest's reaction turns from bemusement and impatience to fascination as the Mariner's story progresses.

The Mariner's tale begins with his big purple ship leaving harbour; despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven off course by a storm and, driven south, eventually reaches Antarctica. An albatross, traditionally a good omen, appears and leads them out of the threatening land of ice; even as the albatross is praised by the ship's crew, however, the Mariner shoots it with a crossbow, for reasons unknown (with my cross-bow / I shot the albatross). The other sailors are angry with the Mariner, as they thought the albatross brought the South Wind that led them out of the Antarctic: (Ah, wretch, said they / the bird to slay / that made the breeze to blow). However, the sailors change their minds when the weather becomes warmer and the mist disappears: ('Twas right, said they, such birds to slay / that bring the fog and mist). The crime arouses the wrath of supernatural spirits who then pursue the ship "from the land of mist and snow"; the south wind which had initially led them from the land of ice now sends the ship into uncharted waters, where it is becalmed.

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

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

Here, however, the sailors change their minds again and blame the Mariner for the torment of their thirst, and hang the albatross around the mariner's neck as a sign of his guilt: (Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks / Had I from old and young! / Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung). Eventually, in an eerie passage, the ship encounters a ghostly vessel. On board are Death (a skeleton) and the "Night-mare Life-in-Death" (a deathly-pale woman), who are playing dice for the souls of the crew. With a roll of the dice, Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-Death the life of the mariner, a prize she considers more valuable. Her name is a clue as to the mariner's fate; he will endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross.

One by one all two hundred crew members die, but the Mariner lives on, seeing for seven days and nights the curse in the eyes of the crew's corpses, whose last expressions remain upon their faces. Their faces all stare back at him just before they fall down. They persih in water amd fire. Eventually, the Mariner's curse is lifted when he sees sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as "slimy things" earlier in the poem, he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them (a spring of love gush'd from my heart and I bless'd them unaware); suddenly, as he manages to pray, the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is partially expiated. The bodies of the crew, possessed by good spirits, rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks in a whirlpool, leaving only the Mariner behind. As penance for his deed, 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.

Spoilers end here.


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 the astronomer on 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. Critics have also opined that the poem may have been inspired by the voyage of Thomas James into the Arctic. "Some critics think that Coleridge drew upon James’s account of hardship and lamentation in writing The rime of the ancient mariner."

According to William Wordsworth, the poem was inspired whilst Coleridge, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were on a walking tour through the Quantock Hills in Somerset. The journey started at about 4 pm, on 13 November 1797. The discussion had turned to a book that Wordsworth was reading, A Voyage Round The World by way of the Great South Sea ( 1726), by Captain George Shelvocke. In the book, a melancholy sailor shoots a black albatross:

We all observed, that we had not the sight of one fish of any kind, since we were come to the Southward of the streights of le Mair, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black Albatross, who accompanied us for several days (...), till Hattley, (my second Captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagin'd, from his colour, that it might be some ill omen. (...) He, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the Albitross, not doubting we shout have a fair wind after it.

As they discussed Shelvocke's book, Wordsworth suggested to Coleridge, "Suppose you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the south sea, and the tutelary spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime." By the time the trio finished their walk, the poem had taken shape.

The poem may also have been inspired by the legend of the Wandering Jew, who was forced to wander the Earth until Judgement Day, for taunting Jesus on the day of the Crucifixion. Having shot the albatross the Mariner is forced to wear the bird about his neck as a symbol of guilt. Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung. This supports the idea of the Wandering Jew, who is branded with a cross as a symbol of guilt.

It is also thought that Coleridge, a known user of opium, could have been under the drug's effects when he wrote some of the more strange parts of the poem, especially the Voices of The Spirits communicating with each other.

The poem received mixed reviews from 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.

Coleridge's comments on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

In Biographia Literaria XIV, Coleridge writes:

The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural, and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life...In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith....With this view I wrote the ‘Ancient Mariner’.

In Table Talk, 1830-32, Coleridge wrote:

Mrs Barbauld tole me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were – that it was improbable and had no moral. As for the probability – to be sure that might admit some question – but I told her that in my judgment the poem had too much moral, and that too openly obtruded on the reader, It ought to have no more moral than the story of the merchant sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and the Genii starting up and saying he must kill the merchant, because a date shell had put out the eye of the Genii’s son.

Wordsworth's comments on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Wordsworth wrote to Joseph Cottle in 1799:

From what I can gather it seems that the Ancyent Mariner has upon the whole been an injury to the volume, I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. I f the volume should come to a second Edition I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.

However, when Lyrical Ballads was reprinted, Wordsworth included it despite Coleridge’s objections, writing:

The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects; first, that the principal person has no distinct character, either in his profession of Mariner, or as a human being who having been long under the control of supernatural impressions might be supposed himself to partake of something supernatural; secondly, that he does not act, but is continually acted upon; thirdly, that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other; and lastly, that the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated. Yet the Poem contains many delicate touches of passion, and indeed the passion is every where true to nature, a great number of the stanzas present beautiful images, and are expressed with unusual felicity of language; and the versification, though the metre is itself unfit for long poems, is harmonious and artfully varied, exhibiting the utmost powers of that metre, and every variety of which it is capable. It therefore appeared to me that these several merits (the first of which, namely that of the passion, is of the highest kind) gave to the Poem a value which is not often possessed by better Poems.


There are many different interpretations of the poem. Some critics believe that the poem is a metaphor of original sin in Eden with the subsequent regret of the mariner and the rain seen as a baptism.

Although the poem is often read as a Christian Allegory, Jerome McGann argues that it is really a story of our salvation of Christ, rather than the other way round. The structure of the poem, according to McGann, is influenced by Coleridge's interest in Higher Criticism and its function "was to illustrate a significant continuity of meaning between cultural phenomena that seemed as diverse as pagan superstitions, Catholic theology, Aristotelian science, and contemporary philological theory, to name only a few of the work's ostentatiously present materials."

In popular culture

A statue of the Ancient Mariner at Watchet Harbour, Somerset, England, unveiled in September 2003 as a tribute to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.Ah ! well a-day! what evil looksHad I from old and young!Instead of the cross, the AlbatrossAbout my neck was hung.
A statue of the Ancient Mariner at Watchet Harbour, Somerset, England, 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.


  • In Chapter Twelve of C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan the Great Lion takes the form of an albatross to guide the Dawn Treader to safety.
  • In James M. Cain's crime novel Double Indemnity, Phyllis is described as the creature who came on board ship to shoot dice in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." She dresses up in a red shroud and pale makeup.
  • In My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Durrell's brother, Larry, confuses an albatross with a gull and interprets it to be a sign of misfortune. The poem is mentioned by name.
  • In Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, Claudia is described with the following verse:
Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold
Her skin was as white as leprosy
The Night-mare Life-in-death was she
Who thicks man's blood with cold
  • The poem features prominently in the plot of Douglas Adams's novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. It also had a large influence on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
  • A portion of the poem was recited by Wonder Woman as the body of the Viking Prince and his longship were sent into the Sun, during the Justice League Unlimited episode "To Another Shore".
  • In issue #36 ("Boy Loses Girl") of Y: The Last Man, Hero Brown, referring to her brother Yorick Brown, tells Beth Deville "...don't let him become an albatross, you know?"
  • In Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, the poem "Workshop" describes how the title of the work in question gets the author's attention--"like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve"
  • In Lights Out by Peter Abrahams, the protagonist Eddie Nye has memorized the poem during his 15 years in prison. He ponders many aspects of the poem as his own story unfolds. The plot of the novel reflects several aspects of the poem.
  • In Chapter 7 of Bram Stoker's Dracula, it is mentioned in reference to the arrival of the doomed Russian schooner The Demeter.
  • The cartoonist Hunt Emerson produced a graphic novel illustrating the poem, and featuring his usual quota of visual puns, gags and grotesque caricatures. The text, however, is essentially used verbatim.
  • The poem is referenced in the chapter titled "Campus of interzone university" in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
  • In James Tiptree, Jr.'s short science fiction story, Painwise, the protagonist says, "Her lips were red, her locks were free, her locks were yellow as gold. . .The Night-Mare Life-in-Death was she, who thicks man's blood with cold."
  • Comic book author Bill Everett based his most famous character, the Sub-Mariner, on this poem.
  • In Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife, the poem "Thetis" contains a verse with relation to Coleridge's original poem:
Then I did this:
Shouldered the cross of an albatross
up the hill of the sky,
Why? To follow a ship.
But I felt my wings
clipped by the squint of a crossbow's eye.
  • The poem is heavily referred to in Connie Willis' novel Passage.
  • In the book Club Dead by Charlaine Harris the main character, Sookie Stackhouse, quotes the lines, "Water, water, everywhere / Nor any drop to drink" when she is surrounded by very attractive but homosexual men.
  • In the book Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, Jubal refers to human morals as an "Albatross around the neck".
  • In Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series, the Mariner is an ancient and powerful being. He claims his real name is Captain Tom Shelvocke, and he mentions accidently shooting an albatross.

Television and film

  • The poem is extensively featured in the film Pandaemonium, which is based on the early lives of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth and William Wordsworth.
  • In the film adaptation of the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the character Willy Wonka says "Bubbles, bubbles, everywhere, but not a drop to drink...yet."
  • The theme song from Gilligan's Island shares the same rhyme scheme as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  • In Richard O'Brien's Shock Treatment, the character Betty Hapschatt recites the entire poem to Judge Oliver Wright who, along with an entire theatre of people, has fallen asleep by its closing lines. When the lights are turned back on, the security guard Vance threateningly presents her with a dead white bird.
  • In the ITV1/ A&E nautical adventure series Hornblower, Captain Sir Edward Pellew quotes "As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean" when his own frigate is becalmed in the episode "The Frogs and the Lobsters".
  • In The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard says to the Scarecrow, "Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain!"
  • In the season one episode of seaQuest DSV entitled "Hide and Seek", Captain Bridger quotes from the poem in order to convince Commander Ford that it is the correct course of action to allow an ex-dictator named Tezlof (as well as Tezlof's autistic son) safe passage on the seaQuest.
  • Joss Whedon wove the major themes of this epic poem through the TV series Firefly and the film Serenity. The significance of the albatross in this setting becomes clear when a main character ( Malcolm Reynolds) gives the line, "Way I remember it...albatross was a ship's good luck till some idiot killed it." Then, in typical Whedonesque fashion, he turns to Inara Serra and states, "Yes, I've read a poem. Try not to faint."
  • In The Ice Dream, an irreverent Australian talk show covering the 2002 Winter Olympics, the hosts said that a curse had been put on Australia's Winter Olympic team after Cedric Sloane skewered a seagull in a cross-country skiing event at the Oslo Winter Olympics, which could only be lifted by the team winning a gold medal.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons, " Boy-Scoutz N the Hood", Homer Simpson says "Don't you know the poem? 'Water, water, everywhere, so let's all have a drink.'"
  • There is a 1952 Looney Tunes short entitled " Water, Water Every Hare".
  • In the " Super Trivia" episode of the television show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Master Shake says to both Meatwad and Frylock that they're "Albacores around my neck," which Frylock corrects by replying "that's Albatross!"
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl the crew share a similar curse to that of the Ancient Mariner.
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, something happens that is quite comparable to "playing dice for the souls of the crew."
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus has a sketch called Albatross.
  • " The Rescuers" series has an albatross as the means of airtravel
  • In the film Out of Africa Denys Finch-Hatton quotes from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner as he washes Karen's hair. She says "you're skipping verses" and he replies "Well, I leave out the dull parts".
  • In the third last episode of the Australian television series 'Seachange', Max compares the failure of his relationship with Laura to the Mariner shooting down the Albatross.


  • "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a song on the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden's album Powerslave. It is a 14-minute epic based on Coleridge's poem and containing many direct quotes.
  • The album cover of Australian singer Sarah Blasko's album What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have was inspired by an illustration of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A song from the album, "Queen of Apology", features the line "Truth, truth, everywhere, but not a drop to drink." The album also features a song titled "The Albatross".
  • A song from the album Spiderland, "Good Morning Captain", by American underground rock band Slint, is an adaptation of this poem.
  • Cecil F. Alexander hymn " All Things Bright and Beautiful", published in 1848, contains the following refrain which echoes the sentiment of the Ancient Mariner:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
  • Shane MacGowan of the Irish punk rock band The Pogues makes reference to "a minstrel. . .stoppeth one in three" in the song " Fiesta".
  • The Flogging Molly song "Rebels of the Sacred Heart" has the line "the albatross hangin' round your neck is the cross you bear for your sins."
  • The band Corrosion of Conformity has a song called Albatross, in which the lyricist warns the albatross away. The lyricist also states, "I believe the albatross is me".


  • Baseball pitcher Diego Segui, who was pitching for the Seattle Mariners at the age of 40, was tagged by sportswriters as "The Ancient Mariner".
  • Since 1978, the U.S. Coast Guard has recognized the active duty member with the most accumulated time aboard its ships and an exemplary character as the "Ancient Mariner", as noted in the list of USCG Medals and Awards ( pdf).
  • In the collectible/playable card game Magic: The Gathering, there is a card named and fashioned after the Will o' the Wisp described in the poem; the card even features flavor text with a pertinent excerpt from the poem:
About, about in reel and rout,
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white
They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken--
the ice was all between
  • A card from the Magic: The Gathering "Homelands Set", called "Giant Albatross", has the special ability to destroy all creatures that are damaged by it. The controller of that creature could pay two life points to prevent this special effect, injuring himself to save a creature he controls. As a result the Giant Albatross is put into the discard pile when played.
  • In the computer game Marathon Infinity, one of the levels is named "One thousand thousand slimy things", a line in the poem.
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