An Exploration of Guilt and Penance in Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Culpability and wrongdoing are often used motifs in poem and prose. Guilt and penance used in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner as not only a plot device but a window into the human psyche of then and now.  

The story begins with three wedding guests walking to a wedding ceremony, a mysterious and somewhat terrifying looking old man pulls the wedding’s groom aside with his glittering eye and tells him his nightmarish tale of his terrifying voyage across the seas. During a harsh voyage across the polar seas, a large albatross joins the crew by landing on the deck, as well as flying above the ship. Him and the crew aboard the ship see the bird as a good omen, the albatross serves as the ships guide through the ice of the Pacific. The shipmates decide that the bird brought the fog. The change of heart is seen in lines 63 –74 “At length did cross an Albatross / Through the fog it came; / As if it had been a Christian soul, / We hailed it in God’s name. / It ate the food it ne’er had eat, / And round it flew. / The ice did split with a thunder – fit; / The helmsman steered us through!”  In these lines the crew’s opinion of the bird is shown, their opinion of it is malleable in its ability to change based on the crews luck upon the sea. Here the plot reaches a pivotal moment when The Mariner shoots the albatross that circles the ship with his crossbow. After shooting the bird, the crew realize that the bird is in fact an omen of good luck as their voyage turns from bad to worse as they sit upon the doldrums, an area of the ocean without wind or current. The crew make him wear the albatross around his neck as an act of penance for his sins against the sea in lines 141-142, “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung.”  The vessel sits in the water as the men suffer through dehydration and hunger. In lines 89 – 96, “And I had done a hellish thing, / And it would worked ‘em woe: / for all averred, I had killed the bird / That made the breeze blow. / Ah wretch! Said they, the bird to slay, / That made the breeze to blow!” and in lines 115 – 119 “Day after day, day after day, / we stuck, nor breath nor motion;/ As idle as a painted ship / upon a painted ocean.” Here upon the doldrums The Mariner endures his first act of penance as he watches the crew and himself suffer, as they deteriorate upon the water. He realizes that their sitting on the water is his fault for shooting the albatross.  

Here, the crew encounters a ghost ship with The Night-mare Life-in-Death aboard. The ghouls plays dice with the mariner, forcing him to place his fellow sailors lives as bets, he loses every roll of the dice which costs the entire crew’s life in lines 203- 223 “We listened and looked sideways up!/ fear at my heart, as at a cup, / my life-blood seemed to sip! / The stars were dim, and thick the night, / the steersman’s face by his lamp gleamed white; / From the sails the dew did drip— / Till clomb above the eastern bar / The hornèd Moon, with one bright star / Within the nether tip. / One after one, by the star-dogged Moon, / Too quick for groan or sigh, / Each turned his face with a ghastly pang, / And cursed me with his eye. / Four times fifty living men, / (And I heard nor sigh nor groan) / With heavy thump, a lifeless lump, / They dropped down one by one.” As the ghouls play dice with him, upon his loss and their win, they cash out by taking the lives his shipmates. The ghouls pick the Mariner because of his ability to speak and wave to them while the rest of the men have succumbed to their frailty. These two spirits are the personification of his initial guilt for killing the bird. Coleridge also employs sensory experience in these lines by his explanation of the sound of the bodies dropping, he employs the term “lifeless” to describe to the reader the literal dead weight of the bodies. They fall without words or screams showing the reader how swiftly their lives are taken by these ocean-going ghosts.  

The Mariner is forced to sit upon the deck of the ship with the bodies of his fellow sailors, whose eyes watch him as they lay dead. For a week his guilt to festers as he succumbs to the want of death, he discovers that he cannot die due to the supernatural forces that are at play upon the water. This scene serves as a metaphor for his resurrection where nature itself absolves his sins against it. In lines 253 – 263 “The cold sweat melted from their limbs, / Nor rot nor reek did they: / The look with which they looked on me / Had never passed away. / An orphan’s curse would drag to hell / A spirit from on high; / But oh! more horrible than that /Is the curse in a dead man’s eye! / Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse, /And yet I could not die.”  This extraordinary guilt that The Mariner feels is because his actions led to the demise of the crew, his shooting of the bird led to 200 (in the poem – “four times fifty”) deaths and his own suffering.

His sins against nature evolved into sins against his fellow man, plunging his guilt further and further into his own soul. These sins then force The Mariner to spread his story as he is compelled through his guilt to share the story to any and every ear that is willing to listen as a form of confession for the nightmarish voyage that he endured and the pain that was the result of his faults and sin.  The poem serves as a look into the minds of those who sailed the seas, it shows the superstitions of sailors, and most importantly – it shows the profound impact that guilt has on the human mind.  

Works cited:

Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Plate 4. New York and New Haven.