Directions: Read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and answer the questions on this hand out.
What’s Up With the Title?
The title has different levels of meaning. On the most basic level, the poem is a "rhyme" – that is, it has rhyming verses – told by an old sailor, or mariner. Simple enough.
But why is "rhyme" spelled "rime"? Ah, now it gets interesting. In addition to "rhyme," the word "rime" means frost, and specifically the frost that forms in fog and wind when the temperature cools down. "Rime" often forms on the windy side of sails and ships. Much of the poem takes place in the Arctic, in a "land of ice and snow," and you expect to encounter a lot of rime in that climate. Furthermore, the Mariner himself is described as being "frosty" in some respects. For example, his beard is described as frosty or, "hoary" (7.142). If you wanted to turn this idea into symbolism, you might say that the Mariner's soul is covered with a layer of frost until he learns to have pity on his fellow creatures.
Finally, he's an "ancient" mariner because, clearly, he's very old. "Ancient" makes him sound like some timeless artifact, one that has always existed and always will exist.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Theme of Suffering
Suffering is sometimes the only way to change someone's habits for good, and it takes a whole lot of this painful medicine in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to make the Mariner realize that all of nature's creations are worthy of love and respect. The entire poem, but especially the middle section concerning the drought, contains enough suffering to last several lifetimes. Our vote for the most cringe-worthy moment is when the Mariner has to bite his arm to wet his black lips with his own blood so that he can yell.
Questions About Suffering
1. What is the worst punishment that the Mariner must suffer in the poem?
2. Why does the crew get killed but not the Mariner, who shot the bird? Is their fate worse than his?
3. What does the second voice mean by saying, "The man hath penance done, and penance more will do" (V.92)? What kind of penance does the Mariner perform in the poem?
4. Why does the Mariner feel the sudden urge to tell his story to other people? Does he continue to suffer in this way?
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Theme of Isolation
The Mariner in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner seems to have been a pretty sociable guy before he took that fateful trip down to the Arctic, but now he travels the country looking for former lost souls like himself. His best friend in the poem is a hermit, if that tells you anything. After the experience he has been through, he can't just return to normal society. The idea of going to a wedding is very distasteful to him, for example. The low point of the story he tells is when he is left the only man standing on the ship and must suffer the cursing stares of all the dead men.
How would you characterize the symbol of "Life-in-Death"? Why is she described the way she is?
How does the Mariner know that his crewmates are cursing him? What form does this curse take?
Why is he so happy to see the hermit at the end of his voyage?
How does the Mariner know to whom to tell his stories? Why does he pick out the Wedding Guest?
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Theme of Transformation
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner goes through several important transformations at key points, like after the Mariner shoots the albatross, but the most important transformation is the Mariner's conversion from prideful jerk who hates large birds to pious soul who can pray for even the ugliest creatures. The albatross that hangs around his neck represents the burden of his sins, which fall away when he repents and blesses the sea snakes. However, he hasn't simply wiped away his evil deeds after this transformation. His penance continues throughout the rest of his life, every time he feels the painful urge to tell his story.
Questions about Transformation
1. What brings about the Mariner's sudden change of heart toward the hideous sea snakes?
2. Who do you think the two "voices" in Part VI represent? Do they stand for specific people or ideas?