The lone, repentant survivor of an ill-fated ocean journey in Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” committed a sin but received mercy and redemption that spurred him to spread his bittersweet tale for the benefit of others. His perplexing decision to kill a playful albatross that had followed his ship for days belied instincts of decency and led to grave consequences for the ship and its mates. The mariner quickly realized the weight and scope of his error as the winds ceased and left the ship and its crew to languish in dead calm, unforgiving waters. His casual crossbow shot delivered a mortal wound to the harmless bird and to the doomed crew.
As the ancient mariner and his mates sailed out to sea, the power and wrath of nature imposed its awesome will. From a “tyrannous and strong” storm blast to ice that “cracked and growled, and roared and howled,” nature constructed a treacherous, harrowing path for the ship to navigate and overcome. Amid this warning of nature’s power and fury, the ship encountered an albatross that appeared through the fog. The mates hailed it as a “Christian soul.” This large bird, recognized by the crew as one of God’s creatures, seemed to present a benevolent harbinger. Its appearance coincided with a break in the treacherous ice and a helping, hopeful south wind that filled the ship’s sails.
Suddenly, and seemingly on a whim, the mariner’s instincts failed him as he shot the playful, benevolent albatross with his crossbow. That single, perplexing shot delivered a death knell to every soul on the ship except the perpetrator. It can be surmised that this archer succumbed to “the fiends that plague thee thus!” These internal demons prevailed for a moment as the bird fell from the sky.
Fate turned dark when the albatross was felled, and nature again dealt the ship a dreadful hand. The mariner immediately realized that he “had done a hellish thing,” as the demise of this voyage and its crew was set. The superstitious mates linked the bird’s slaying with the cessation of the ship’s helping winds. A deadly ocean calm ensued, so calm and without even a zephyr, that the sea was rendered motionless and silent for days on end. A brutal, deadly hot sun accompanied the still sea, and the mariner incurred the wrath of his mates as desperation set in. He wore woe and guilt from the killing like a lodestone as “the Albatross about my neck was hung.” The miserable sailor could only watch as the number of living souls, parched by relentless heat and drought, dwindled to one.
A wrathful, natural justice hatched from his deadly transgression, but, ironically, the mariner’s life was spared. The virtually lifeless ocean and the harsh elements embodied a “Spirit that plagued” them so. Cursed, the mariner was relegated to solitary purgatory aboard the rotting ship as “a thousand slimy things lived on; and so did I.” The taunts of his dead mates fanned the fires of the mariner’s hellish plight. They paid the ultimate price for his shot “and every soul it passed me by, like the whiz of my crossbow!” The mariner was resigned and prepared to join his dead mates as punishment for his sin.
His fate seemingly sealed, acknowledgement of guilt and an accompanying redemption became the mariner’s final goals. He “looked to heaven, and tried to pray,” but his initial and inadequate attempts at repentance were soundly rejected by a “wicked whisper.” His curse seemed irreversible and final, yet the miserable mariner could not die. Weak, gaunt and near death, the mariner saw sea snakes and began his unlikely journey toward survival and repentance. These simple creatures, like the albatross, caused a “spring of love” to gush from his heart. When he rejoiced and prayed in the serpents’ sight, relief washed over him, and his lodestone of misery was instantly lifted.
The mariner felt hope and joy again as a result of his reprieve, and his fortunes turned for the better. Nature rewarded and relented by ending the deadly drought and ocean calm that took every life on the ship but his. A divine force was now present and guiding him as “the spirit slid: and it was he that made the ship to go.” Deep in his soul with his base instincts flaring, the mariner heard voices that weighed his sin versus his repentance. The softer, merciful voice prevailed and said, “The man hath penance done, and penance more will do.” The fallen man who felled the harmless albatross now had the impetus to pass his lesson of sacred life to others.
Mercy had embraced the mariner, and his optimism and new-found wisdom compelled him to spread his gospel and exclaim that sins can be overcome. Though his sin was of the highest order, a killing, his prayers were answered and he, alone, survived the perilous sea voyage. His faith and determination for doing good grew when he believed that his salvation was possible. Benevolent inner voices, unlike the demons that prompted the bird’s killing, soothed the mariner and prepared him for the rest of his life. He now believed that a divine power would “shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away the Albatross’s blood.” Spiritual, benevolent instincts now drove him to good deeds and good words.
The ancient mariner was allowed to live so that others could benefit from his story. Mighty nature gave him a stark parting shot when “it reached the ship, it split the bay; the ship went down like lead.” Yet, ironically, his lone “body lay afloat” for rescue. His spared life did not come without a price because internal and instinctive pangs would gnaw if he did not circulate his tale. He buoyed others with his story of forgiveness and hope when he relayed to the distraught or the skeptical that “so lonely ‘twas (I), that God himself scarce seemed there to be.”
And, for the rest of his life, this mariner sought souls to enlighten and save with his tale. Though old and frail, his enthusiastic spirit commanded listeners to heed his gospel. His skinny hands, like the long, thin wings of the albatross, gripped the listener while the mariner’s glittering eyes captivated and demanded attention. His pivotal moment of prayer in the midst of the sea snakes brought him back from the abyss of despair and death. At that critical instant, the wise mariner realized, with certainty, that all living things are precious and are God’s creation. The opportunity for redemption sprang from the mariner’s tragedy, and he believed it was his everlasting mission to preach about the sanctity of life “for both man and bird and beast.”