October 21, 1772 was the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a major English poet and literary critic. He is remembered especially for three major poems: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” and “Kubla Khan.”
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is often read in high school, but it makes a great poem to revisit occasionally as an adult. And the end of October, when our thoughts and prayers turn toward the souls of the dead, is a terrific time to read it. The poem is a kind of horror story, but one in which the Catholic main character undergoes purgatory, experiences the grace of conversion, receives the sacrament of reconciliation, and spends his life in penance.
It begins with a man about to join a wedding feast. He tells of being accosted by an old sailor whose gaze is so intense as to compel him to sit and listen to his story. From that point on the narrative belongs to the sailor, only interrupted at a few points when the man reports regretfully on the progress of the wedding he is missing. But he cannot stop listening, and readers feel just as transfixed by the old sailor’s story — a story that goes back to his younger days.
The Mariner had been on a ship sailing around the world, but the ship became trapped in an ice floe. At last an albatross appears — sign of good luck to the sailors — and sure enough, the bird guides the ship out of the ice. The sailors are grateful and treat the bird with hospitality, but in one of those desultory acts of senseless violence to which young men seem especially prone, the Mariner shoots it with his crossbow. A curse descends upon him. At first, the other sailors condemn his evil act, but when fog and mist surround the ship, they blame the bird for having led them to this place and in an example of situational ethics, they consent to the evil deed of killing the bird. Their consent makes them participants in the evil (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1868) and sharers in the curse.
His fellow crewmen hate the Mariner and tie the corpse of albatross around his neck. The ship becomes becalmed in the ocean and strange visions and dreams haunt the crew, who begin die of thirst. Another ship — a ghost ship — draws near. It sails without wind and has a horrifying crew — a woman who is Life-in-Death and her mate, Death himself. They gamble for the men on the ship and the woman wins. All the crew die cursing the Mariner, who remains alive and stuck on the ship, surrounded by dead crew mates whose fixed eyes still glare at him in hatred.
After a week of this horror, the Mariner looks out into the sea at some beautiful water snakes. As they dance and shimmer in the water, their beauty touches his soul and he blesses them. At that moment the albatross falls from his neck. The dead men begin once more to sail the ship, but the Mariner realizes that angels are animating their bodies. He falls into a swoon and hears two angels discussing the penance he must do. The ship returns the Mariner to his home shores and as it begins to sink in the sea, a hermit rows out and rescues the Mariner who confesses to him and receives absolution. The Mariner is compelled to wander the earth, consumed by an agony to tell his story.
The wedding guest is now released, admitting that listening to the ancient Mariner has made him a sadder and wiser man, having learned, as the poem says:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.
If your teens read this poem in high school, don’t miss the chance to discuss the points of Catholic moral teaching that are interwoven in the story. If you haven’t read it since high school, try taking another look with adult Catholic eyes. Who knows what good discussions might ensue?