Professor Ted Shank
May 1, 2020
The Mariner is Dead
Medieval Religious Symbolism in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
There are fascinating allusions
to Medieval and Old English religion in “Rime of the Ancient
Mariner”. Study and understanding of these themes help clarify
message and meaning of the story. This paper presents an
enumeration and interpretation of the biblical allusions, and a
conclusion that “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is Coleridge’s
rendition of Dante’s “The Inferno”. While reading and studying
“Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, for purposes of re-writing this
class assignment, the presence of religious and biblical symbols
came more apparent and interesting. Hence this paper.
Coleridge seems to make effort to use not just
religious allusion, but specifically allusions to Medieval, Old
English religion, with archaic vocabulary, rather than religion of
his time and place. It would seem he is poking fun at the Church
of England and the Catholic Church. The allusions are archaic, not
Ostensibly “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the
story of a man’s penance for killing a deity of guidance and
benevolence. For no apparent reason the Mariner kills a bird. He
is then destined to spend eternity telling his story and teaching
lessons to certain and specific people.
The Ancient Mariner is dead. He has been a long
time. Our first clue is that he is ancient. “And thus spake on
that ancient man” (Coleridge, 91). There are repeated references
to the hoar of his beard, terminology more typically used to
characterize the beard of decayed cadavers than the living.
Final paragraphs in part seven tell us
explicitly the Mariner is dead. He is a spiritual being and not of
this earth. He is destined for eternity to tell his story; and not
to just anyone he sees, but to specific individuals who he does
not know in advance are to hear his lesson, chosen spontaneously
and arbitrarily in the same way the albatross was killed.
Following his final absolution, the Mariner tells the wedding
“Since then, at an uncertain hour,
The Mariner tells the wedding guest “this
soul” (Coleridge, 1188) and not this man, person, or sentient
being; has traveled “Alone on a wide wide sea”, (Coleridge,
1193) absent God. He shoots a bird, descends to hell, meets his
maker, and receives absolution three times. His final judgement is
for eternity to tell his tale; making mankind wiser but
That agony returns
And till my ghastly take is told
This heart within me burns.
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man must hear me:
To him my take I teach.” (Coleridge, 1203)
Coleridge uses a litany of archaic and
- kirk for church
- alway instead of always
- copse for corpse
- hoar to describe the Mariner’s beard
- shrieve, from Middle English, for absolution
- swound, having several meanings from Middle
English, such as fainting, swooning, a curse, or God’s wound
- Mary as “Mary Queen”, “Mother of Heaven”, and
- efstoon, on the first page, is an eleventh
century term for soon after
- gramercy, 14th century archaic for “grand
- clomb, archaic past-participle of climb
- charnel-dungeon fitter is archaic for a tailor
Coleridge’s choice of Rime is clever. It has
meaning on three levels:
- Rime ice is an old maritime term for a thin
layer of frozen vapor, covering the deck and standing rig of
sailing ships traversing polar regions. It was a constant
sight for mariners traveling the southern Pacific. Rime, or
Rime ice, is also called hoarfrost,
- Dante’s Inferno is also called a Rime. This is
the oldest reference I can find to this term. In it is the
story of nine circles of hell. In 1824 William Blake was
commissioned to draw what would eventually be over a hundred
illustrations of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. More than 30 of
these drawings are in my 1944 edition of the “Divine Comedy”.
From Coleridge’s biographies it is known that he studied and
wrote about Blake’s work. I have not been able to determine
whether they knew each other well or related Blake’s
- Rime a synonym for rhyme, of which there is a
considerable amount, in both “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and
Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.
Coleridge’s fixation with the numbers three,
six, seven, and nine are no accident. These numbers have religious
In Christian Angelogy there is a hierarchy of
nine celestial bodies, in three circles, with a seraph being the
highest and angel the lowest. There are three rings, with three
bands each in this hierarchy.
Vespers, Vesper Bells, and Vespers Nine make
repeated appearances. A vesper or vesper bell is the sixth of the
seven canonical hours, or the service for it, occurring in the
late afternoon or the evening.
Three and nine appear often in the story.
The Mariner is greeted at the harbor by three deities; the pilot,
his son, and the Hermit. The Hermit, termed a seraph, grants him
absolution but then sentences him to permanent penance. The Hermit
prays three times daily at an old oak stump. The albatross first
appeared and “perched for vespers nine” (Coleridge, 302). The
first spiritual being to visit the mariner on the ship “plagued us
so; Nine fathom deep he had followed us” (Coleridge
God made man and earth in six days and rested
on the seventh. Seven in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” appears in
poignant places of the story:
There are seven parts to the story
After the crew all died:
“But oh! more horrible than that
There are more religious symbols
and allusions in this story than can be enumerated in this essay.
A few other allusions of relevance are:
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse
And yet I could not die” (Coleridge 1155).
- Frequent use of the color red and the color of
- Other references to vespers and vesper bells
- She-wolf, who raised Romulus and Remus
- “The son of my Brother”, perhaps taken from
“Romeo and Juliet” (act 5, scene 3, line 137)
The pilot’s son does not refer to the Mariner
as living: “‘Ha! ha!’ quoth he, ‘full plain I see, the Devil knows
how to row.’” (Coleridge 1101).
I am not a religious scholar, nor versed in
religious symbolism, but there are apparent patterns in “Rime of
the Ancient Mariner”, of Medieval and Old English religious terms,
symbols, and themes. The plot imitates Dante’s Inferno. It is
Coleridge’s “The Inferno”. When viewed as a religious parable,
mimicking Dante’s Inferno, the story of “Rime of the Ancient”
Mariner gains clarity and cohesion.
To fully appreciate “Rime of the Ancient
Mariner” takes a concurrent reading of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”,
several works of Shakespeare, Coleridge’s many written analyses of
Blakes writing, “Fatal Shores” (about the voyages of James Cook),
and perhaps the “Confessions of Jean Jaques Rousseau”. At the very
least, a better read of “Divine Comedy”, beyond scope of this
paper, would offer further insight.
The fatal flaw in Coleridge’s Inferno is the
choice of senseless killing. In maritime history there is nothing
sacrosanct about an albatross nor sinful in its killing at sea.
From afar it is a magnificent and graceful bird. Viewed up close
it is ugly, with a gnarled face and an oversize hooked beak. It is
a notorious predator and killer of shore birds, nestlings,
hatchlings, and eggs. Killing an albatross, largely for food but
also sport, is common and documented in English maritime history.
It is found in expedition narratives of James Cook and William
Bligh, two of England’s more famous and heroic mariners, whose
lives overlapped Samuel Coleridge. Watermen and mariners of the
time would care less about the killing of an albatross.
“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is Coleridge’s
rendition of Dante’s “The Inferno” in the “Divine Comedy”, laced
with allusion to Medieval and Old English religion and symbolism.
Senselessly killing a revered deity sends the Mariner through the
gates of hell. He descends many of hell to final judgement without
full absolution. He is dead, banned eternally to “pass, like
night, from land to land” (Coleridge 1233) and teach his lesson.
In the end, the Mariner disappears to find his
next tyro. The guest, who is possibly the groom, leaves the
wedding; wiser, which is good; but sadder, which is not:
“The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.” (Coleridge 1390).
Coleridge, Samuel T. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. New York,
Heritage Press, 1938