Symbolic Themes of Mystery and


As the albatross "perch'd for vespers nine" (line 76), a reference to prayers spoken by the crew or nine ship's bells tolling in the mist, while "all the night, through fog-smoke white/Glimmer'd the white moonshine" (lines 77-78), the ancient Mariner suddenly kills the bird with his crossbow ("I shot the Albatross," line 82) which shows that the narrative of the poem is set in Medieval times when, according to Celtic myth, birds represented prophetic knowledge or bloodshed in the form of an omen or a messenger of bad tidings (Nooden, Internet).

In Part Two of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the albatross commences his revenge upon the Mariner and his crewman by initiating two distinct "plague" motifs -- first, as bereavement and guilt overcome the Mariner, he turns very thirsty and realizes it will not be quenched ("Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink," stanza 9, lines 39-40). He then beholds.".. slimy things" that "crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea" (stanza 10, lines 43-44) as the body of the dead albatross dangles in a noose tied around his neck. Stanza 11 truly elicits the motifs of mystery and the supernatural, for "The death-fires danced at night/The water, like a witch's oils / Burnt green, and blue, and white" (lines 46-48) which stands as a symbol of the bird's vengeance and conjures up images of a witch's cauldron boiling with colorful "oils." It is interesting to note that water, for the Medieval alchemist, was a very powerful, magic element that could dissolve everything, including perhaps guilt and the consequences of murder.

In Part Three of this excursion into the mysterious and the supernatural, the reader is presented with Coleridge's Gothic themes which were heavily influenced by such writers as Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1765). His description of Death in stanza 11 as being in the form of a woman ("Her lips were red, her looks were free/Her locks were yellow as gold/Her skin was as white as leprosy," lines 48-50) who is "the Nightmare Life-in-Death" (line 51) is quite reminiscent of a vampire that "thicks man's blood with cold" (line 52). Thus, the Mariner is trapped in a world brought about by his killing of the albatross and the bird's life-in-death vengeance and once again Coleridge focuses on whiteness as a means of expressing the terrors felt by the Mariner as he observes this "woman," the very image of feminine beauty and ghastliness.

Finally, in Part Five of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the flesh and blood spirits of the Mariner's crewmates, due to the curse set upon them by the albatross, return to haunt the instigator of their untimely deaths -- "Beneath the lightning and the Moon/The dead men gave a groan" (stanza 9, lines 38-39). In this reincarnation of terror and mystery, the dead men never speak and never open their eyes which to the ancient Mariner is quite strange,.".. even in a dream/To have seen those dead men rise" (stanza 10, lines 42-43), a distinct Gothic vision of the walking dead. As Davidson points out, this is.".. A beatific spiritual vision, for on the corpse of each dead body stands a spirit, an angel made not of substance but of light" (160) which reminds one of the white skeletons envisioned by John Cruikshank in his terrifying dream related by Reverend Dyce. But in reality, these manifestations are not "angels" but spectres of death which seem to float in from some phantasmagoric realm and eventually out again into the black regions of the unknown.

Thus, the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," replete with the mysteries of life and death, ghostly apparitions and vengeance fueled by an ominous white bird, emanates from a realm of magic which lies in the subconscious mind of the reader as created by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the original "ancient Mariner" who poetically placed himself aboard a doomed ship detached from reason and steeped in his own psychological understanding of the supernatural world.


Davidson, Graham. "The Supernatural Poems: The Ancient Mariner." Coleridge's

Career. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990.

Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834. New York: Pantheon

Books, 1998.

Lowes, J. Livingston. The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination.

Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1927.