Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge was first published in 1798 and is one of the most famous poems in the English language.

I fear thee ancient Mariner

I fear thy skinny hand

And thou art long and lank and brown

As is the ribbed sea-sand.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner tells of the misfortunes of a seaman who shoots an albatross, which spells disaster for his ship and fellow sailors. The seaman, who is the ancient mariner of the title, then roams the world retelling the tale of his cursed journey.

Was the ‘ancient mariner’ real?

The ancient mariner didn’t exist but it’s likely that Coleridge was inspired by a conversation with fellow poet William Wordsworth, who had recently read George Shelvocke's A Voyage Round the World. Shelvocke writes of an incident when his second in command shot an albatross, which had been following the ship for several days. The ship, called the Speedwell, was later lost at Juan Fernandez Island.

Others say the poem was inspired by a dream that Coleridge's friend, George Cruikshank had after reading Thomas James's Strange and Dangerous Voyage. This account refers to an old man who had been shipwrecked and survives thanks to angels piloting the ship.

There’s also a theory that the old man who speaks at the start of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner may have been Fletcher Christian who led the mutiny onboard the HMS Bounty in 1789. Coleridge would have been aware of the rumours that Christian had faked his own death and returned to England – therefore the old man of the poem could well have been inspired by Christian.