|The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - study guide|
This guide to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner is intended for students reading poetry in Key Stages 2 and 3 of the UK National Curriculum. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page.
If you would like a copy of the 1817 edition of the poem as a text file, please click here (get rime10.txt0.. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this page, please contact me by clicking on this link.
About the poem
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). It was first published in Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems in 1798. The Lyrical Ballads were written and published jointly by Coleridge and his good friend William Wordsworth (1770-1850) by whom most of the poems were written. The first version of the poem was entitled The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, and much of the spelling was very archaic (old-fashioned) even at that time. In 1800 the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads appeared, with another volume of poems to accompany the first. Coleridge, at Wordsworth's suggestion, had modernized much of the spelling and the title appeared in the form at the head of this page.
The text of the poem generally used today appeared in Coleridge's collection Sibylline Leaves in 1817. It is very substantially different from the first version: as well as modernizing the spelling, Coleridge added or removed stanzas or lines and changed tenses of verbs. The narrative in the poem has many sources: some ideas come from other poems which Coleridge read; the central action was suggested by Wordsworth, who had been reading Shelvocke's A Voyage round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea (1726): on this voyage one of the crew shot an albatross which had followed the ship in bad weather. According to a friend of Wordsworth, the Rev. Alexander Dyce, the poem was founded on a strange dream which one of Coleridge's friends had; the dreamer, John Cruikshank of Nether Stowey in the Quantock hills (between Bridgewater and Minehead), where Coleridge lived, dreamed of a skeleton ship with figures in it.
Responding to the poem
When you have read the poem, you will be expected to do some of the activities which are outlined below. Your teacher will allocate time at home and/or in school for this, and advise you on which activities to attempt. Written work could be done in a neat exercise book or in a booklet.
The Ship's Log
Every ship is supposed to have a log book, which is filled in every day by the captain. If he dies, the next senior officer fills it in (usually the First Mate). You should write a series of entries for the log of the ship in the poem. For part of the voyage, these will be written by the captain; after all the other men die only the ancient mariner is left to fill it in. Decide on appropriate dates (the mariner's tale was supposed to be thought of as already very old when the poem was published: it should be no later than about 1700; other clues to the date are the light-house and the mariner's crossbow). If you wish you can make the log look old by staining the pages, by your handwriting and spelling. You could also do this as an oral activity: record the entries on audio tape; use voice effects and other sound effects if you can!
The fantastic details in the story are well-suited to vivid illustration. You can use a series of pictures with captions underneath to turn the poem into either a storyboard for a film version, or as a comic strip. For the captions you should use either stanzas of the poem, the prose explanations Coleridge puts in the margin, or both. Get advice from an art/media teacher about appropriate techniques and media for the art-work. Alternatively, this could be done on word-processing or DTP software using clip art.
Newspaper (and other) reports
This can be a bit corny (English teachers use it when stuck for decent ideas!) but may work well with this poem. When the ship leaves port, to the cheers of the sailors' friends and sweethearts, no-one has any idea of what is to happen; but the return of the ship, its sinking in sight of land, the strange lights seen on it, the one survivor, his strange tale and his effect on the pilot and his boy - all this adds up to a mystery any reporter would love to write about. If you dislike the newspaper report method, you could write an official report of the naval authorities investigating the loss of the ship and all its crew bar one, or a doctor's report on the pilot and his boy.
Research and wider reading
If you have enjoyed this poem, you might wish to read further to find out about things in, or suggested by, the poem. The ideas which follow do not represent a complete list. If you have a different idea, try it on your teacher. First, you might read other poems by Coleridge. Try Kubla Khan or Christabel.
Second, you might look at other literature about the sea and sailing ships, such as Stevenson's Treasure Island or the novels of Captain Marryat and C.S. Forrester. The best such novel (but very challenging) is Herman Melville's Moby Dick. There is also an excellent account of a similarly doomed voyage in Chapter 7 of Dracula, by Bram Stoker. This chapter quotes the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and contains the log of a ship, the Demeter, where terrible things happen to the crew.
Third, you might wish to find out about sailing ships in the 17th century or earlier. Finally, you could research some of the places mentioned in the poem, or creatures such as sea-snakes and the albatross.
The mariner's voyage is clearly described in the poem. Using a modern map of the world or, even better if you can find one, an old world-map, plot the voyage of the ship. If you leave sufficient space, you can draw small illustrations and add brief extracts from the text. The mariner's home port is not specified, but has a wood, a hill, a church and a light-house: perhaps Bristol, where the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads was published and near which Coleridge lived at this time is the most likely real port.
Examining the text
You may wish to explore the poem as a literary critic would. To do this, you should write about some or all of the following (you can do them as separate paragraphs or organize them into an essay):
The poem as narrative
show how, though Coleridge uses the poetic form, he is still concerned principally to tell an exciting and fantastic story.
The narrative voice
The mariner's tale, told in the first-person, is set in a third-person narrative about a wedding. Show how the poet uses the first person narrative voice to make the tale more vivid and moving.
Themes of the poem
examine the ideas of crime and punishment in the poem, and the poet's attitude to the natural world. The albatross is a pious bird of good omen; the mariner kills it for no reason (most readers in 1798, like people in some other countries today, would see nothing wrong in a man's killing of a bird); at first his fellow sailors blame him, then when the fog goes they approve of his action (and so share his guilt); when they are becalmed they change their minds again and blame him, hanging the dead bird around his neck; Death and Life-in-Death dice for the crew and the latter wins the mariner; when he returns to land, he finds he has to tell his tale; he ends his narrative by reminding the wedding guest of the need to love man and bird and beast; in the poem, the Polar Spirit is said to love the albatross, and two other spirits discuss the mariner's fate. To understand the poem's attitude to the natural world, you should look at the way the albatross is presented in the poem and the changing attitude of the mariner to the water snakes.
The poem is full of strange, macabre, uncanny or Gothic elements. Gothic horror fiction was very popular at the time it was written. Discuss how these elements appear in the poem. You should consider
This poem is very vivid, as the poet describes some spectacular scenes. These are often memorable in themselves but also stand for (symbolize) other things, for the people in the poem as much as the reader, sometimes. Elsewhere comparisons are made to describe things, as when the becalmed vessel is said to be As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean. Find some of the more striking or memorable images (there are lots of them!) and discuss the use the poet makes of them.
The poet uses effects of rhyme, alliteration (same initial consonant) and pacing (as in the line "For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky" which suggests the slow passing of time and the mariner's weariness) and other effects of sound. Discuss how these are used by Coleridge to re-inforce ideas in the poem.
Coleridge uses many dialect (regional non-standard) words, and archaic (old-fashioned) spellings of standard words. Why does he do this? Discuss particular examples of unusual words or spellings.
1798 vs. 1817
Why did Coleridge change the text so much, and was he right to do so? Compare the two versions (ask your teacher for the 1798 one) and discuss any changes you can find. You might write out some of the missing stanzas from 1798, and give your opinion of them. Here is one such, to start you off (Death, as described in 1798):
His bones were black, with many a crack,
Performing the poem
This is a very dramatic poem, excellent for reading aloud, or even setting to music, as one heavy metal group has done! Practise reading aloud a part or parts of it, ideally in a pair or small group. Try to use sound effects, or musical instruments to accompany your reading. If you are very happy with this, you could perform it to the class, or make a cassette recording.
You could expand this by presenting your performance as part of a radio broadcast, introducing and discussing the poem, developing the other work you have done on it. Information about the poet, the narrative and themes of the poem, and so on could be given here.
All the tasks and activities suggested here can be done using traditional methods (paper, pen, voices), Information and Communication Technology, or a combination. Try to choose appropriate methods for the tasks you wish to undertake. You can search the World Wide Web for more resources to support this work.
© Andrew Moore, 2002; Contact me