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Literature / The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

"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."
—The final quatrains of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most-referenced pieces of Romantic poetry. Ever heard "Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink"? Yup, it's from here (although in the original text it's ''nor any drop to drink''). It is a relatively long Narrative Poem about a disaster-prone ship, enclosed in a Framing Device where the sailor who cursed it is describing his travels to a guest at a wedding. It's notable for its religious and naturalistic themes and for having a lot in common with Gothic literature. The poem is divided into 7 sections, each dealing with a different part of the Mariner's journey.

Gustave Doré illustrated it in a beautiful and unforgettable way. More recently, Underground Comics artist Hunt Emerson published an illustrated edition that is unforgettable in a very different way. Iron Maiden turned it into a 14-minute Filk Song.

Borrows elements from Nautical Folklore. Has its own Referenced By page.


  • Aesop Collateral Damage: The Mariner learning to value life took the death of his entire crew. Coleridge's gloss points out that the crew "make themselves accomplices in the crime" by approving his slaying of the albatross when they think it's had a good result for them.
  • Afterlife Express: A soul ship.
  • The Annotated Edition: The poem was reprinted with a "gloss" that explains several things.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Coleridge wanted to evoke the feeling of an older age of epic poetry.
  • The Atoner: The Mariner, who wanders the world repeating his story to others as penance for his crime of shooting the albatross.
  • Audience Surrogate: The Wedding-Guest is this. Essentially a blank slate who reacts to the Mariner's tale in much the same way as the reader.
  • Chess with Death: Actually, dice with death: Death and Life-In-Death gamble with dice, and Death wins the crew, while Life-In-Death wins the Mariner, and gives him a Fate Worse than Death.
  • Common Meter: Throughout. If you want to make sure you can never take the poem seriously again, try singing it to "Yankee Doodle". Or the theme from Gilligan's Island. Or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”
  • Dem Bones: DEATH is a skeleton; LIFE-IN-DEATH is either skeletally thin or an outright skeleton depending on interpretation.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Things go south rapidly after the Mariner kills the albatross, with the arrival of Death's ship being the final cruelty. This is balanced by the lengthy Deus ex Machina that returns the Mariner to his home country.
  • Did You Die?: After the Mariner describes how everyone on his ship died, the Wedding-Guest interrupts the story with "I fear thee, ancient Mariner!" and has to be reassured that the Mariner did not die.
  • Eldritch Ocean Abyss: One of the first reasons the ship's stranding appears to be supernatural is that despite the lack of wind, the water appears to be boiling and rotten with undescribed Sea Monsters from its depths.
    Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
    Upon the slimy sea.
  • Everything's Deader with Zombies: The Wedding-Guest interrupts the Mariner twice out of fear — once when he thinks the man died with the crew and he's speaking with a dead man and then a second time when the bodies of the crew stand up to sail the ship. The Mariner reassures him that 1. he's not dead, and 2. the spirits that reanimated the crew were benevolent, possibly even angels.
  • Fate Worse than Death: The Mariner gets one of these after Death loses him to Life-In-Death in a dice game.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: The events of the poem occur because the Mariner kills an albatross. Then again, some critics argue that the albatross is representative of Jesus. Also, Nautical Folklore holds albatrosses to be good omens (perhaps as they often show land is near) and in killing one it was believed you bring on bad luck and misfortune. And even if the Mariner, himself, didn't hold with such a belief, killing a bird that was plainly the source of hope for so many of his shipmates was a rotten thing to do.
  • Flying Dutchman: The Mariner is the "Wandering Jew" variation of this; he's compelled to wander the world for the rest of time, repeating his tale to those in need of wisdom and prespective.
  • Footnote Fever: In the second edition, which is the one most commonly reprinted, the poem is accompanied by extensive marginal glosses. These are sometimes referred to as "built-in Cliff's Notes".
  • Framing Device: The Mariner telling his story to Wedding-Guest.
  • From Bad to Worse: After the Mariner kills the albatross, the ship is freed from the ice and carried north... and then becalmed, surrounded by sea monsters, haunted by the spirit of the albatross, and beset by a shipwreck where Death and Life-in-Death gamble for the lives of each of the crew.
  • Gaia's Revenge: As a result of the Mariner shooting down an albatross, the weather abruptly turns and leaves the ship in the doldrums. This effectively leaves them out on the open sea with no fresh water, no protection from the Sun's heat, and no way of reaching port.
  • Ghost Ship: The soul ship, which manages to sail without wind and carries only two passengers (Death and Life-in-Death).
  • The Grim Reaper: DEATH. He fails to collect the Mariner's soul, so it instead goes to Life-In-Death.
  • Heat Wave: The ship gets stuck in the windless, tropical and hot doldrums. There is a drought along with the heat.
  • Hypocrites: The Mariner's crew start justifying his killing of the albatross; when things start to turn sour and the ship is left in the doldrums, they hang its carcass from his neck and curse him. Death promptly shows them the error in their ways.
  • Hope Spot: The Mariner notices a ship coming along and hails it, thinking that it is coming to the aid of the Mariner and his crewmen. It turns out that the ship is manned by Death and Life-In-Death, who promptly take the lives of all but the Mariner and sentence the Mariner to a Fate Worse than Death, respectively.
  • Irony: The "Water, water, everywhere" verse is a famous example of situational irony .
  • Lunacy: The Moon is almost a character in her own right, seeming fairly benevolent compared to the cruel Sun.
  • Mysterious Antarctica: The whole thing literally goes south because the Mariner's ship wound up hitting Antarctica. And then Death's ship appears...
  • Nameless Narrative: No one has a name unless you count Death and Life-In-Death.
  • Ocean Madness: The entire poem is a description of this.
  • The Penance: The Mariner wears the dead albatross around his neck while aboard his ship, shedding it only when he recognises the value of life and prays. Afterwards, he's compelled to wander from place to place endlessly, telling his tale to those in need of wisdom as a means of atoning for his actions.
  • Rambling Old Man Monologue: The entire poem basically seems like one at a glance - an old sailor, the titular Ancient Mariner, stops a guest at a wedding ceremony to tell the guest about a sailing voyage the Mariner took long ago. Understandably, this guest initially has misgivings about some old guy wanting to tell him something suddenly (especially since the actual ceremony was about to begin). However, the Mariner is actually compelled to tell this story with the intent of teaching a lesson rather than him just rambling senilely for little obvious reason as the trope really is.
  • Really 700 Years Old: The Mariner implies in his tale that between his time trapped on the ship and his subsequent time roaming the land telling his tale to anyone who'd listen that he's roughly one thousand years old.
  • Redemption in the Rain: The day after the Mariner's curse is lifted, a tremendous rainstorm appears, and he stands in it, gulping down the water, so happy he believes he died and is in paradise.
  • Rule of Three: "There is an Ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three..."
  • Signature Line: "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
  • Sole Survivor: The Mariner is the only member of his crew to survive, through the Cruel Mercy of Life-in-Death. However, his safe return to land is by fairly blatant divine intervention.
  • Space Whale Aesop: "Be compassionate towards all creatures and don't go around murdering innocent seabirds, or else you'll wind up stranded in the middle of the ocean, all your friends will die, their corpses will torment you, and when you eventually make it to land you'll be forced to constantly wander the world telling your story instead of being able to live a normal life."
  • Superstitious Sailors: The title mariner is cursed for shooting an albatross, which sailors consider bad luck as they are considered good omens and can lead one to land. As a result, he loses his entire crew and is forced to Walk the Earth forever, with the albatross' corpse hanging from his neck.
  • Too Good to Be True: The Mariner points out that there's something wrong with the way the unfamiliar ship is moving towards them, considering there's no wind, no tide and it's coming way too fast. As it gets closer, it becomes clear that it shouldn't even be floating.
  • The Undead: Upon paying penance for his crime, the souls of his crew rise from their corpses and sail the Mariner's ship to land before fading away. It is also insinuated that the Mariner has been rendered, if not undead, then incapable of dying in order to tell his tale to as many as he can.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The Mariner shoots the Albatross for completely unexplained reasons, despite the fact that the bird actually just led them out of the glacial maze.

Alternative Title(s): Rime Of The Ancient Mariner