Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797-8, revised several times thereafter) is created out of layers of Coleridge’s voracious reading, especially reports of voyages, and filled with motifs that were current in Romantic-period art and literature (such as a guilty / cursed hero, supernatural apparitions, the powers of nature, and pseudo-medieval literary style – here the ballad). Yet it is also a feat of striking imaginative originality. And alongside its numerous sensational and supernatural horrors, like the nightmare Life in Death or the ship crewed by dead men, its power comes above all from a core story-pattern with universal appeal: combining the pattern of the perilous voyage that eventually ends in safe return home with the pattern of the sin followed first by punishment then forgiveness.
It’s a voyage beyond the normal, geographically – into a bizarre territory both of the natural (an Antarctic yet burnt and parching place) and the supernatural – and also into a realm where key events defy normal rationality. Why should casually shooting a bird bring terrible retribution? Why should an equally ‘unaware’ impulse to bless watersnakes bring a miraculous reversal? No interpretations within the text adequately answer its reader’s questions, though there is myriad potential for Christian, environmental, psychological, gender-based, imperialist, autobiographical, political, and doubtless other, readings. Despite recurrent Christian motifs, these add up to no coherent religious rationale. The simple chantlike ‘message’ offered at the end, he prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small is simultaneously uplifting, suggestive and inadequate. No translation into a single explanation could ever fathom the journey we go through with the Ancient Mariner.
It is elemental objects — sun, ice, stars, the dark, rain, wind, etc. – that are the strongest actors here, the men largely passive, helpless and doomed. The poem is filled with violent contrasts, colours and sounds: emerald-green ice; copper sky and bloody sun; and ocean ‘burnt green, and blue and white’; ice which cracked and growled, and roared and howled’; dead men’s souls that whizzed past with a noise like an arrow from a bow. It is a Rime for a painter and musicians.
– Helen Phillips