“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a poem written in 1798 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is one of the most interesting poems of the Romantic period because scholars have not reached a solid conclusion on it’s meaning. I am going to analyze the climax of the poem, the killing of the albatross, to explore its religious significance in the following ways: Coleridge’s working religious identity, consequential fears, and the role of demonic characters.
Before we begin, this poem is influential because of its historical significance, and lasting impact on the English language. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an albatross first as a seabird, and second as, “[S]omething that causes persistent deep concern or anxiety.” Of course, this definition comes from the famous albatross featured in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The definition goes on to say that an albatross is a sign of anxious guilt, since it’s death in the poem resulted in the death of the ship’s crew. Now that we see proof of this poem’s significance, let’s begin analyzing.
Coleridge was struggling with his religious identity when he wrote this poem, and he transcended his inner turmoil into the Mariner, specifically his curse. The Mariner walks the Earth and spreads the word not to sin, which is a Christian duty. An essay by Michael Murphy entitled “Coleridge and Atheism in the 1790s” highlights Coleridge’s life-long journey with religion. He writes, “Coleridge had an enduring repulsion and attraction for pantheism; the attraction to “one life” philosophy that he shared with Wordsworth and Thelwall is apparent in Coleridge’s poetry,” (Murphy). Pantheism believes that the universe is a manifestation of God.
Most branches of Christianity are pantheistic in the belief that all living things have a divine quality, since they were created by God. Under pantheism, God is everything and everything is God. As Coleridge strived to find his religious identity, he was torn between his personal need to investigate different religions, and his feelings of moral obligation to God, “Christianity is expressed as a heartfelt truth. It triumphs over his speculative interests,” (Murphy).
Coleridge returned to the Church of England in 1814, 16 years after he wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Church of England practices the Anglican Communion, the third largest Christian community. Coleridge was struggling with his religious identity as he wrote the poem, which is why it is so full of religious symbolism.
Coleridge is projecting his fear of losing access to God and the heavens through the Mariner’s killing of the albatross. It is Coleridge’s way of expressing his fears that his sins will not be forgiven, and he will not be absolved by God. His period of religious fluidity insinuates a shaken faith in God, which is a sin. The killing of the albatross is the climax of the poem, it is all downhill from there. It results in the Mariner wandering the world, spreading his story in order to convince people not to make his same mistakes; not to sin. The albatross, when alive, is a good omen because when there is a bird, there is land. Birds carry a lot of spiritual symbolism. They are thought to serve as bridges between the Heavens and Earth. Birds have an access to Heaven that humans do not, “And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.’”(Genesis 1:20, The Bible, English Standard Version.) When the Mariner murders the albatross, he destroys the one thing connecting the crew to the spiritual guidance of the divine.
One could interpret this projection in many ways. I believe it exemplifies pride, one of the seven deadly sins under Christianity. According to the “Deadly Sins” website, “Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity,” (Shannon). Coleridge does not offer a salient reason why the Mariner shot the albatross; why he committed this sin. The Mariner demonstrates pride, “Then all averred, I had killed the bird / That brought the fog and mist,” (lines 99-100). The Mariner convinced himself that he did the right thing, establishing dominance as captain over the crew. He trusts his own abilities in an attempt to maintain his status. The sin of pride is known to be the root of the other deadly sins, comparable to how the Mariner’s sin causes problems, including the deaths of his crew members, all two-hundred of them.
The demonic characters in the poem, Death and Life-in-Death, symbolize the consequences of sinning; they take Coleridge’s fear of divine rejection and spice it up with the idea of Hell. The Mariner first reacts to them, “And is that Woman all her crew? / Is that a Death? And are there two? / Is Death that woman’s mate?,” (lines 187-189). The woman, Life-in-Death, is dominant over Death, as she is the captain and he is her mate. These two characters exemplify the Grim Reaper myth, because they are there to collect the souls of the crew. The death of the crew ties back to the Mariner’s sin; he watches their souls shoot up, just like the crossbow he shot the albatross with.
This encounter establishes the Mariner’s curse, “The man hath penance done, / And penance more will do,” (lines 408-409). Death and Life-In-Death demand a drastic change from the Mariner; they killed his crew to show they mean business, and they let him live so he could follow the path that God wants him to take. In the end, all the Mariner can do is attempt to repent in order to be absolved of his sins; all Coleridge can do is carry out his Christian duty in the hope of going to Heaven.
During my research I discovered that the band, Iron Maiden, has a song entitled, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The lyrics summarize the plot in full; it is over 13 minutes long. Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NA2cGy_iDTk
“Albatross.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 2018, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/albatross.
- H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume D. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company. 1962.
Murphy, Michael. “Coleridge and Atheism in the 1790s .” Friends of Coleridge, 1998, www.friendsofcoleridge.com/MembersOnly/Murphy.html.
Shannon, Adam. “Sins, Virtues, and Tales.” Seven Deadly Sins, www.deadlysins.com/.
Smith, Stephen. “100 Bible Verses about Birds.” What Does the Bible Say About Birds?, Open Bible, English Standard Version, 2001, www.openbible.info/topics/birds.