Study Guide
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798)

Read the poem from start to finish without stopping, then come back and answer the questions as you re-read the poem.

1. There are two time frames in the poem: first the dramatic time of the story itself, but the poem also takes place in the ‘present’ time as the Mariner tells his story to a specific listener. Consider first the reasons why the Mariner tells his tale to the listener.

- What is the specific situation in which the story is told? Who is the listener?
- Why does the Mariner feel compelled to tell his tale to this particular person?
- How many times has the Mariner felt the need to re-tell his tale?
- What is his message? What warning does he bring?

2. The story itself:

Part One
- Describe the world into which the boat is driven by the storm. How is it different from the normal world? (Think about how Homer uses the same device in The Odyssey.)
- Why does Coleridge use the margin notes to comment on the action?
- What do the sailors think of the albatross, the strange bird that sails into this world of ice?
- Why does the Mariner kill the albatross? (l.80) (Is there any indication in the text of motive?) (What vision of man in his natural state is suggested by Coleridge’s depiction of “motiveless malignity”?)

Part Two

- Describe how Coleridge draws us gradually into a supernatural world after the murder of the albatross.
- What force drives the ship forward even though it moves through utterly calm seas? (l.131)

Part Three

- Describe the strange ship that draws near the boat. How does the Mariner find the words to call out news of the Spirit Ship’s approach? (l.160) What happens to everyone on-board except the Mariner?

Part Four

- Look carefully at the moment at the end of Part Four when the Mariner blesses the water-snakes.(l.275) How is this moment similar to the shooting of the albatross? Why does the poem not end with this moment of Absolution?

Part Five
Part Six

- What makes it possible for the boat to return to the normal world?

Part Seven

- What happens to the boat as it enters home harbor?
- What final advice does the Mariner give the listener at the poem’s end?


3. Discussion 

1. The Frame: 
-       Why does the Mariner come to this specific place and confront this particular listener?
-       Why does he need to tell his story again and again?

2. The Story:

-      How does the action of the story teach us Coleridge’s religious beliefs?
-      Evil is an innate human characteristic which issues from a source deep within our psyche.
-      Expiation of sin issues from the same place and can only be achieved through an arduous spiritual process.
-      Guilt cannot be wholly expunged and confession needs to be enacted again and again.

3. Ballad Music

How does the sound of the poem, its music, contribute to its meaning?

-      It evokes a hypnotic, trance state with its driving rhythm, strange diction, sing-song rhyme, and dreamlike natural imagery.
-      In this state the reader can reach past the intellect and access the unconscious where the essential moral struggle takes place that forms our character.

4. What makes the poem Romantic?

-     The reader discovers truth through imaginative interpretation of poetry, not through inductive or deductive reasoning.
-     By interpreting symbol and responding to the music of a poem, the reader is allowed to participate in its creation.
-     The poem gives the reader the opportunity to experience a moral journey. As Kant explained, our only way to understand the truth and see God is through moral experience.
-     The poem’s simple form and diction allow any reader, not just a member of an intellectual elite, to access the truth. (Romantic Poetry is democratic, the poetry of the common man.)
-     The choice to reach back into the roots of English literature for the poem’s form and content affirms a national folk identity which has evolved through the centuries, not some universal, cosmopolitan vision of identity as conceived by the Enlightenment philosophes.