Ancient mariner, the central character of 'The Rime of Ancient Mariner', in his youth when he was at the sea killed a friendly albatross, a friendly member of God’s world. And the consequence of this single unthinkable act was fatal for the mariner as well as for his shipmates. But it’s the mariner who suffers more. Like other mariners, he suffers physically but unlike them he also suffers from his inward guilt.
The ancient mariner inhospitably kills the innocent albatross. It is significantly an utterly unjustified act. The act is explicitly called “hellish”. By this act he becomes a universal sinner. He is Adam and Eve, he is Judas, he is Cain and he is Macbeth. Like Adam ad Eve, the mariner fails to respect God’s rule. The sin is committed at the end of part 1. The shipmates judge things according to the principle of utility. At first the Mariner's fellow seamen curse him but as the fog clears they decide that the bird was trying to lead them into misery. They then praise the mariner and so become part of the crime themselves.
The killing of the Albatross is, first of all a murder in the physical world. So, the consequences of the murder first spring from the physical world. The ship is brought to the Pacific Ocean, near the Equator. Then it is becalmed, suddenly. Coleridge gives the picture of a lonely, silent sea.
'Twas sad as sad could be ;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea !
We know that the act of crime makes a being completely isolated, lonely. Adam and Eve became lonely inhabitants of the world after their crime. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth became same lonely when they committed a crime. Once again we see how lonely the mariners have become after the crime.
Before the killing of the bird the sun was “bright” but now it has become “the bloody sun” in “a hot and copper sky”.
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
The nature continues punishing the mariners. The wind refuses to blow, and the sun’s relentless heat chars the men.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breathe nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean
This hot sun makes the mariners thirsty but they have no drinkable water.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The mariner lives like Tantalus. They need water badly and it is all around them but it is entirely undrinkable. The throats became “unslaked” and “lips baked” under the hot sun.
“We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.”
The crewmen change their attitudes again as their drinking water runs out and they find that the ship is becalmed. They blame the Mariner for shooting the Albatross and hang it around his neck.
‘Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.’
The Mariner also suffers spiritually for his sin. He is disgusted to see slimy things crawl with legs upon the slimy sea. At night he notices death fires dancing around his ship. His shipmates have a dream in which they are told of the Polar Spirit that is avenging the killing of the Albatross upon all of them. At morning they stare at him with cursing looks. And he feels remorse for his sin for the first time. This happens by the part of part 2.
In part 3 a mysterious ship arrives. When the ship is sighted in the distance, the sailors feel happy to think that the will now get water to quench their burning thirst.
‘I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail ! a sail !’
But in a few moments they discover the reality of the ship. The crew consists of Death and Life- in- death.
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.
Coleridge beautifully depicts the mental suffering of the Mariner under this condition:-
“Fear at my heart, as at a cup
My life blood seemed to sip.”
The suffering becomes even more painful when all his fellow men dropped down one by one. And the soul of each passes by him with the sound like that of his arrow that killed the Albatross.
“They dropped down one by one.”
For seven days and nights the mariner remained alone on the ship.
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea !”
The dead sailors, who miraculously did not rot, continued to curse him with their open eyes which intensified his inner guilt.
“Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.”
His surroundings- the ship, the ocean, and the creatures within it are “rotting’ in the heat and sun, but he is the one who is rotten on the inside.
This central experience comes almost at the middle of the poem. It is the nadir of depression to which the earlier stanzas sink, and the rest of the poem describes. The mariner has broken the bond between him and the life of nature, and in consequence suffers physically and spiritually.