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Literature

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Characters

  • The Ancient Mariner: An incredibly old mariner (literally, "a guy who hangs around the marina") with the ability to make his drunken ramblings rhyme.

Discussion

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a haunting tale, one that sticks in the memory far beyond the date on which it is first heard. In fact, it is one of the most commonly memorized poems in the English language. The poem is a masterpiece of symbolic verse, and a reader who is not well versed in the subjects truly being discussed may miss important details. For this reason, we shall examine it line by line.

The Rime begins:

Row, row, row your boat

Although the use of oarsmen on large ships was part of ancient history during the time period in which Rime takes place, Coleridge uses the metaphor of a slave galley and the repeated, rhythmic, "Row, row, row" to reinforce the slogging, tedious feeling of being aboard a ship for a long period of time. Referring to the craft as a "boat" instead of a "ship" further increases the feeling of claustrophobia.

Gently down the stream.

The Mariner's ship is in a delicate situation -- perhaps entrapped by ice -- and must be sailed with great care lest it be destroyed. The ice has closed in so that the once great shipping lane has been reduced to a mere "stream" down which the great vessel must navigate or risk being torn apart by great sheets of frozen death.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Lack of food and stress has taken its toll on the ship's crew. They babble, sing deluded songs of happiness, and repeat themselves endlessly. Truly, the end must be near.

Life is but a dream.

Ah, but all is not lost. Here Coleridge points out that problems are but fleeting things. Keep your hopes up and in short order the ice will have broken and you'll be feasting on roast albatross (or some other popular shipboard delicacy) on a calm sea.

Topics for further research

  • What should be made of the many parodies of the Rime that have come up over the years, such as the one in which the Mariner incites children to "throw your teacher overboard and listen to her scream"? How do these build upon the symbols in the original work?
  • How does "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" compare with Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" ("Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, brah")?

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