Three young men are walking together to a wedding, when one of them is detained by a grizzled old sailor. The young Wedding-Guest angrily demands that the Mariner let go of him, and the Mariner obeys. But the young man is transfixed by the ancient Mariner’s “glittering eye” and can do nothing but sit on a stone and listen to his strange tale. The Mariner says that he sailed on a ship outof his native harbor—”below the kirk, below the hill, / Below the lighthouse top”—and into a sunny and cheerful sea. Hearing bassoon music drifting from the direction of the wedding, the Wedding-Guest imagines that the bride has entered the hall, but he is still helpless to tear himself from the Mariner’s story. The Mariner recalls that the voyage quickly darkened, as a giant storm rose up in thesea and chased the ship southward. Quickly, the ship came to a frigid land “of mist and snow,” where “ice, mast-high, came floating by”; the ship was hemmed inside this maze of ice. But then the sailors encountered an Albatross, a great sea bird. As it flew around the ship, the ice cracked and split, and a wind from the south propelled the ship out of the frigid regions, into a foggy stretch ofwater. The Albatross followed behind it, a symbol of good luck to the sailors. A pained look crosses the Mariner’s face, and the Wedding-Guest asks him, “Why look’st thou so?” The Mariner confesses that he shot and killed the Albatross with his crossbow.
At first, the other sailors were furious with the Mariner for having killed the bird that made the breezes blow. But when the fog lifted soonafterward, the sailors decided that the bird had actually brought not the breezes but the fog; they now congratulated the Mariner on his deed. The wind pushed the ship into a silent sea where the sailors were quickly stranded; the winds died down, and the ship was “As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean.” The ocean thickened, and the men had no water to drink; as if the sea were rotting,slimy creatures crawled out of it and walked across the surface. At night, the water burned green, blue, and white with death fire. Some of the sailors dreamed that a spirit, nine fathoms deep, followed them beneath the ship from the land of mist and snow. The sailors blamed the Mariner for their plight and hung the corpse of the Albatross around his neck like a cross.
A weary time passed; thesailors became so parched, their mouths so dry, that they were unable to speak. But one day, gazing westward, the Mariner saw a tiny speck on the horizon. It resolved into a ship, moving toward them. Too dry-mouthed to speak out and inform the other sailors, the Mariner bit down on his arm; sucking the blood, he was able to moisten his tongue enough to cry out, “A sail! a sail!” The sailors smiled,believing they were saved. But as the ship neared, they saw that it was a ghostly, skeletal hull of a ship and that its crew included two figures: Death and the Night-mare Life-in-Death, who takes the form of a pale woman with golden locks and red lips, and “thicks man’s blood with cold.” Death and Life-in-Death began to throw dice, and the woman won, whereupon she whistled three times, causing thesun to sink to the horizon, the stars to instantly emerge. As the moon rose, chased by a single star, the sailors dropped dead one by one—all except the Mariner, whom each sailor cursed “with his eye” before dying. The souls of the dead men leapt from their bodies and rushed by the Mariner.
The Wedding-Guest declares that he fears the Mariner, with his glittering eye and his skinny hand. TheMariner reassures the Wedding-Guest that there is no need for dread; he was not among the men who died, and he is a living man, not a ghost. Alone on the ship, surrounded by two hundred corpses, the Mariner was surrounded by the slimy sea and the slimy creatures that crawled across its surface. He tried to pray but was deterred by a “wicked whisper” that made his heart “as dry as dust.” He closed...