The Scary Tale of the ‘Ancient Mariner’

April 23, 2018
The Killing of the Albatross

The long poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), tells a rather creepy story. A ship was caught in a storm and was carried to South Pole. Everyone on the ship died of thirst and hunger leaving just one seaman, the Ancient Mariner, alive. This man was condemned by the forces of the deep to a ‘Life-in-Death’ as punishment for his wanton cruelty to an innocent seabird. He was cursed to wander forever and tell his dreadful story.  

This chilling story has haunted me from the day I read it for the first time several decades ago. May be, there are no tangible grounds for my emotions, considering the poem had a cold reception in its initial days.  Nevertheless, here I retell the story of the ‘Ancient Mariner’ in an idiom, hopefully more comfortable than the original poem, for general readers.

The poem commences with Ancient Mariner stopping a man on his way to attend a wedding ceremony. His heart was in agony and he had to tell the story to someone to find relief. The wedding guest tried to break free telling that he was a close relative of the bridegroom and was already late. The wedding guest saw that the man had something spooky about him. But the Ancient Mariner held back the wedding guest with his skinny hand and said, ‘There was a ship’. The wedding guest was furious. ‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’, he said. But the magic glittering in the eyes of the Ancient Mariner had a spellbinding effect that made the wedding guest stay. He sat on a wayside stone and listened to the story of the Ancient Mariner ‘like a three years’ child’.

The Mariner’s story began with his ship leaving the harbour.  It sailed southward under good wind and fair weather. But after a while, the atmosphere changed. A strong and tyrannous storm-blast hit the ship. The ship drove fast and the blast roared loud. And the vicious winds chased the ship to the South Pole.

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,

Like noises in a swound!”

The ship was stuck in the Polar ice and stood still. A grey shroud of frost and fog covered it. Giant glaciers lazily drifted around. The atmosphere was dour and dismal. The cold was killing. Everyone feared that he was doomed to die in the polar ice.

Then an albatross, a large and charming sea bird, came through the fog and mist. The sailors greeted it as a good omen. And the bird soon became friendly with the sailors. “It ate the food it ne’er had eat, And round and round it flew.” And it turned out that the bird had come to save those men trapped among the glaciers. Soon, the ice split with deafening sounds. The ship was free.

The helmsman steered the ship out into the open seas. A favourable south wind drove the ship ahead. The Albatross followed the ship. It came into the ship to play with the seamen and to eat the food they offered. Then one day, the Ancient Mariner did a terrible thing. With his crossbow, he shot the Albatross.  The poor bird lay in a pool of blood on the ship’s deck, very much dead. The seamen were certain that the Ancient Mariner had killed the bird that came to save them. The favourable south wind still blew behind. The ship kept going. But there was no sweet bird to follow it.

Finally, the ship burst into the open sea – the first ever vessel that came into that part of the silent sea. Soon the breeze dropped down, the sail dropped down. The ship became motionless on a vast and becalmed sea. There was not a whiff in the air or a ripple on the surface of the sea. For miles and miles as the seamen could see, the sea lay like a plain sheet of glass. It was sad and quiet; and the seamen spoke only to break the dreadful silence of the sea.

Days went by. The ship lay there, “As idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean”. The burning sun cruelly blazed above the men’s heads during daytime. Each throat was parched and every tongue was withered at the root. It was as if their throats had been choked with soot. None could speak.  And there was no drinking water left on the ship.

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

The rest of the crew was convinced that the Ancient Mariner had brought a curse upon all by killing the beneficent Albatross. They took the dead bird and hung it around the Ancient Mariner’s neck. He looked westward and saw what looked like a speck of mist faraway in the horizon where the sun was about to set. It was coming towards the ship. It looked a ship. The throats of those on the ship were dry and lips baked. They could not laugh or wail. They all stood dumb. Then the Ancient Mariner bit his arm and sucked the blood to wet his throat. Then he cried ‘A sail!’ ‘A sail!’. But he was wrong.

There was neither wind nor tide. Yet the ship kept coming fast with its keel upright.  The western sky was ablaze with the crimson fire of the setting sun. In between the burning sun and the stalled ship, the mysterious ship suddenly came forth. But there was something horrible about it. It had no solid body. The rays of the dying sun were peering through the latticework of her bones.    

The thing was now close to the stranded ship.  The AncientMariner saw that there were two beings on the phantom ship. One was a woman who looked more like a ghost. Her lips were red, her hair was yellow and gold and her skin was white as leprosy. She was the nightmare Life-in-Death. And her companion was Death.

The naked hulk of the ghost ship came alongside. The spooky figures inside were casting dice to decide the fate of the men on the ship.  Then Life-in-Death said, “The game is over, I have won! I have won!” She had won the Ancient Mariner. Death got the rest of them. The sun sank into the sea. The night was thick and the stars were dim. A whisper was heard far over the sea. The ghost ship shot off into the blackness of the night. By his lamp, the helmsman’s face gleamed white. Terror gripped the Mariner. 

One after the other, the two hundred living men who were on the ship just dropped down on to the deck with a heavy thump and died without a sigh or groan. Death saved them from the agony and horrors of their painful existence. But the curse lived on in their dead eyes. Each turned his face towards the Ancient Mariner and stared ghastly into his eyes, while he stood there alone on the deck with the dead men around and the dead bird hanging from his neck.   

When the story reached this stage, the wedding guest looked at the Ancient Mariner. He noticed that the hands of the man were skinny and brown, his eyes glittered and he was “long, and lank, and brown, as is the ribbed sea-sand.”  The wedding guest was suddenly gripped with dread. He thought that a spirit was talking to him. But the Ancient Mariner comforted him saying that he was indeed a human being in flesh and blood and not an apparition. He did not die as the rest. He was cursed to a Life-in-Death so that he would continue to live in agony for the grievous sin he had committed and to tell his chilling story.  

The Ancient Mariner alone lived, like the thousands of slimy things that swam in those slimy waters. He looked upon the rotting sea and drew his eyes away. He looked upon the rotting deck where all his companions lay dead. He looked to heaven and tried to pray, but could not utter a syllable. He only heard some wicked whisper that made his heart dry as dust.  

The corpses that lay at his feet did not rot nor stink. Cold sweat melted from their dead limbs. With spite-filled eyes, his dead mates continued to peer into his eyes.  Seven days and seven nights, he saw that curse in the dead men’s eyes. He wished to die; yet he could not die for he was cursed to Life-in-Death.

He found that the sea in the shadow of the ship was very still and very red.  Beyond the shadow of the rotting ship, he watched the water snakes. They moved in tracks of shining white. “And when they reared, the elfish light fell off in hoary flakes”. He once again shifted his eyes to the sea in the shadow of the ship.  This time the Ancient Mariner saw their rich attire – blue, glossy green, and velvet black. They coiled and swam; and every track was a flash of golden fire.

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.”

A great change came up on the way the Ancient Mariner looked at God’s creation. Earlier he could see only slimy things crawling with legs upon a slimy sea. And he saw the water, like a witch’s oils, burning green, and blue and white. He had no love for the beauty of the sea creatures  or the innocence of the lovely bird that he had heartlessly shot for the thrill to kill. His life was miserable since he had only hatred and violence in his heart. But now when he looked at God’s creatures of the great calm, by the light of the moon, he saw their beauty and shared their joy. A spring of love gushed from his heart, and he blessed them unaware.  Hatred puts people into the bondage of misery. But love sets people free. It broke the evil spell on the Ancient Mariner. The dead Albatross that hung from his neck fell off and like lead, sank into the see.   

A gentle sleep from Heaven slid into his soul. He dreamed that the buckets that had long stood empty on the deck were filled with soft dew. And when he woke up, it was raining. His lips were wet and his throat was cold. He tried to move, but could not feel his limbs. He felt so light and thought that he had died in his sleep and turned into a spirit.

Soon, the Ancient Mariner heard a faraway roar of the winds. The very sound of it shook the sail of his ship. The roar grew louder and louder.  And rains poured down from one black cloud above. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. The wind never reached the ship. But the ship moved. Then something more chilling occurred. The dead men on the deck groaned. Then they stirred and soon stood up. They did not utter a word or moved their eyes.  

The sea was flat and the air was still. The helmsman started steering and the ship moved forward. The mariners went to their usual posts. But their limbs moved more like lifeless tools. It was a ghostly crew on a ghostly ship. The body of his brother’s son was standing by the side of the Ancient Mariner. But that body did not utter a word or moved its eyes while they pulled the same rope together.

The wedding guest was once again swamped by horror. But the Mariner clarified that the real souls of those people had not returned to resurrect them. A troop of divine spirits had come to animate those corpses. Although there was no wind or tide, the ship sailed on quietly until noon.  At noon, the ship came to a sudden halt. It stood still on the becalmed ocean. A minute later, the ship began to move once again. She moved unsteadily back and forth, half her length. Then with a sudden force, she bounded ahead. Blood rushed up the head of the Ancient Mariner. He swooned and fell down on the deck in a heap.

The Ancient Mariner had no idea how long he lay in a swoon on the deck. But moments before he regained consciousness, in his soul, he heard two voices in the air. One voice asked whether he was the man who with his cruel blow killed the harmless bird. The spirit that lived alone in the land of mist and snow loved the bird. That spirit also loved the man who shot that bird with his crossbow. The other voice, soft as honeydew, said, “The man hath penance done, and penance more will do.”

When the Ancient Mariner woke up, the ship was still sailing on as if in favourable wind or tide. It was night. And it was calm. The moon was high and the dead men stood together on the deck with their stony eyes glittering in the moon. Those eyes were fixed on the Mariner as always. The way they gazed at him with eyes filled with anguish and aversion sent shivers down the Mariner’s spine.

The spell was soon snapped and once more, the Mariner looked far into the green ocean, seeing nothing. He stood there as someone filled with fear and dread walking on a lonesome road, who does not dare to turn his head to look behind since he knows that the frightful fiend he saw when he looked behind once earlier was still close at his heels

Soon he felt a wind on him. It had arrived without a sound or motion. It did not come from the sea for there was no ripple or motion. The breeze raised his hair and fondled his cheek like wind blowing over the meadows in the spring. And the breeze mingled with his fears.

Then to his immense joy, he saw the top of the lighthouse. Then the hill and church came to sight. He realized that he was back in his native land. The ship drifted over the harbour bar. And with a sob he prayed, ‘O let me be awake, my God! Or let me sleep always.’ The bay was white with silent light. A little away from the prow of the ship, he saw crimson shadows.

Now he turned his head to look upon the deck and was once again stricken with horror. The dead bodies of his companions lay lifeless and flat on the deck. And on every corpse, there stood an angel – each angel a lovely light. Each waved his hand to signal the people on the land. They did not speak a word. But their silence sank like music into the Ancient Mariner’s heart.

Then the Ancient Mariner heard the noise of oars striking the water. He saw a boat approaching the ship. It was the Pilot arriving to guide the ship safely into the dock. The Pilot had his boy for company. And there was a third person on the boat. It was the good Hermit. He lived in the woods that slopped down into the sea. He loved talking to seamen coming from faraway lands.  The Ancient Mariner believed that this holy man would wash away the blood of the Albatross with which his sole was stained.

The skiff-boat neared the ship. Now the Mariner could hear the people on the boat. The Pilot said that it was strange that the rows of beautiful lights that had signalled them a few moments ago were no more on the ship. It was indeed strange, said the Hermit. He pointed out how the planks of the ship were crumbling and sail was so thin and in tatters. ‘It has a fiendish look’, said the Pilot. Fear crept into the heart of the Pilot. The Hermit urged him to push on.

The Pilot boat came closer to the ship. The Ancient Mariner did not move or utter a word. The boat was close beneath the ship. Then there was a sudden and ominous sound. It seemed to rumble on under the water. It grew louder and fearsome. The ship shook violently. Then, like lead, the ship with its rotting planks and shrivelled up sail sank into the sea.

Like someone who had drowned seven days ago, the body of the Ancient Mariner lay afloat in the swirling current. The next moment he found himself in the Pilot’s boat. The boat kept spinning in the whirl of the sinking ship. Then all was still except for the hills echoing the terrible sound that took the ship down to the seabed.

When the Mariner moved his lips to speak, the Pilot shrieked and fell down in a fit. The Holy Hermit raised his eyes and prayed. The Ancient Mariner took up the oars to row the boat back to the shore. The pilot’s boy thought that the Mariner was the devil. He laughed loud and long. Then he screamed, “The Devil knows how to row”.

Finally, the Ancient Mariner went ashore and stood on the firm land of his home country. The Hermit was fatigued and could hardly stand. The Ancient Mariner wanted the Hermit to bless him. But the Hermit was unsure. He had no idea who the man was.  So the Hermit asked the Mariner to tell about him. Inside his heart, the Ancient Mariner was in agony. His relief lay in recounting his story.  And for the first time he narrated his incredible story to the Hermit. When he finished his tale, the Mariner felt free. Since then, his inner agony kept returning at intervals. And his heart burned within him until he found another man to whom who could relate his eerie tale.

A loud uproar burst out of the wedding hall. The wedding guests were inside. The bride and her maids sang in the garden bower. Then the thin sound of the ringing church bell was heard. The Ancient Mariner said that the bell was summoning him to prayer.  In farewell, he added:

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been

Alone on a wide wide sea:

So lonely ’twas, that God himself

Scarce seemed there to be.”

Now, the wedding guest, who had all along been trying to escape from the presence of Ancient Mariner, became a transformed man. He told the Ancient Mariner that it was far sweeter to him than the wedding feast to walk together to the church with a nice companion and all together to pray. The Ancient Mariner said in response that the person who prays well is the one who loves 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.”

Then the Ancient Marnier, whose eyes were bright and whose beard was hoar with age, was gone. Having told his story, he was freed from the tearing agony inside his heart. But he knew that the peace of the present would not last. His agony would return in due time and he would have to find the next person who must hear his haunting tale.

The wedding guest did not enter the bridegroom’s door or waited for the wedding feast. He turned away and went home like a man who had been stunned. The next morning, he woke up “a sadder and a wiser man.”  .




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