The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The poem was conceived by Coleridge and Wordsworth in the course of a walk along the Quantock hills on 13 November 1797, in the expectation that the New Monthly Magazine would pay £5 for it. According to an account by Wordsworth dictated in his old age, the basic outline was Coleridge's, but Wordsworth contributed the idea that the crime committed by the Mariner should be the shooting of the albatross. This was based on an incident in Shelvocke's Voyage Round the World, published in 1726. Coleridge was the unquestioned author, but Wordsworth said that he contributed a couple of lines, and Coleridge attributed a different pair of lines to him. On 23 March 1798 Dorothy Wordsworth recorded in her journal that Coleridge brought his ballad completed. It was not offered to the New Monthly Magazine but appeared in Lyrical Ballads under the title of The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere.
Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry had first appeared in 1765, and its success had done much to popularise the ballad form.
The frame of the story tells how the Ancient Mariner detains a wedding guest against his will, by the power of his eye, in order to tell his tale. At the end the wedding guest departs like one stunned, abandoning the wedding, and rises the following morning "a sadder and a wiser man".
The tale itself starts with the Mariner on a ship that is driven south from the equator into foggy antarctic regions, where it is frozen in by ice. An albatross appears and flies around the ship, till eventually the ice splits and the ship sails free. As the albatross continues to follow the ship, the Mariner shoots it with his crossbow. The crew at first condemn him for this crime, but then, when the fog lifts, applaud the deed. The ship continues north into the Pacific Ocean and is becalmed in tropical waters. The crew blame the Mariner and hang the albatross around his neck. The rest of the crew die of thirst, but he, having been won in a game of dice by the "Night-mare Life-in-Death", continues to live and suffer. When he observes the living things in the ocean and blesses them, the immediate curse is lifted, the albatross falls from around his neck, and rain falls. The ship is crewed by angelic spirits in the bodies of the dead sailors and is carried at supernatural speed back to the Mariner's own country while he is held in a trance. Once arrived, the ship sinks, though the Mariner is picked up by the pilot's boat. He is at once compelled to tell his tale to the Hermit, and thenceforward to travel around telling it to others, who are likewise compelled to listen.
The verse and the versions
Coleridge exploited the ballad form, particularly in his use of repetition with variation. The majority of the stanzas have four lines, of 8, 6, 8, 6 syllables, rhymed, abcb. There are also stanzas of longer length.
The original version in Lyrical Ballads was full of archaisms in words and spelling. In the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads the number of archaisms was reduced. When Coleridge put the Rime into his 1817 collection of poems, Sybilline Leaves he introduced the marginal glosses which are now normally printed with the poem. These have a display of esoteric learning and stylised diction, as though another character, a commentator, were being introduced.
A critics' playground
The Ancient Mariner has provided a virtually inexhaustible opportunity for critics to demonstrate their learning or their powers of interpretation and analysis (without necessarily illuminating the poem for the general reader). Possibly the best known is J. L. Lowes, whose The Road to Xanadu meticulously documented the sources that Coleridge used. This has not stopped others from finding other implied sources. The knowledge that Coleridge had a philosophical bent, and that he urged Wordsworth to write a great philosophical poem tempts some to find a deep underlying meaning. There is, however, little agreement on what the poem is "about".
The poem has helped to make fantasy literature acceptable. It has produced a dozen or so well known quotations, one of which "Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink" is frequently misquoted. It has introduced several concepts and phrases which are in common usage: the Ancient Mariner, as a story-teller from whom one cannot escape; the Albatross as a condemning weight round one's neck; the idea of a "sadder and a wiser man".