The original Latin text has been slightly edited by Coleridge, mainly through silent omission of some sentences and words and the gaps closed up. Click here for a translation in a new window of the text as it is given.
line 8: in the first version of the poem (Lyrical Ballads 1798), the contrast between the merriment of the wedding-feast and the desolation and horror of the Mariner’s tale is further emphasised by the Wedding-Guest’s suggestion that if the Mariner has a “laughsome tale” to tell, he can come to the wedding-feast and amuse the guests. “Laughsome tale”, indeed!
line 11: loon = a clownish, awkward, ill-bred person. (The slang expression "loony", from lunatic, did not become current until much later in the 19th century.)
line 12: eftsoons = immediately (archaic).
line 13: mesmerism was enjoying a vogue in Coleridge’s day. Coleridge himself may have attended demonstrations in which the wills of people were frozen by what appeared to be the occult power of the mesmerist’s gaze. More than one contemporary commentator has said that Coleridge himself, in his power to hold listeners entranced by his conversation, possessed something of a “glittering eye”.
line 15: the last two lines of this stanza were written by Wordsworth.
line 30: at the equator, the noonday sun is never far from overhead; at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (23 September and 21 March) it is directly overhead. So this line means the ship is on the Equator.
line 32: an anachronism: musical instruments that can legitimately be called bassoons did not come into existence until the 17th century, whereas the action of the poem must be earlier than that (see introductory note on the date of the action). However, while Coleridge was working on the poem, the church choir at Stowey was given a bassoon by Thomas Poole, in whose house Coleridge was then living. This may have affected Coleridge’s choice of instrument, though it has to be said that there are not many instruments that rhyme with “noon”.
Alternatively. the Ancient Mariner might be condemned to walk the earth until the Day of Judgement and the date of the wedding is indeed in the 1790s, which would make him a bit more than 300 years old.
gloss to line 41: in Sybilline Leaves (1817) and later printings the word is indeed “drawn”, as given here. Some scholars have suggested it should be “driven” which was misread by the printer from the manuscript and overlooked by Coleridge in his proofreading. In support of this, in Lyrical Ballads 1798 the line reads “Like chaff we drove along”.
line 47: “still” here has the sense of “always” or “continually”.
line 50: “aye”, meaning always or continually, rhymes with “say”.
line 51: it might be worth noting that the description of the fog and ice in this and the next two stanzas was taken from the accounts of voyagers in the Arctic seas. Coleridge has imaginatively transferred the fog and ice to the southern polar seas. Probably none of his readers would have been any the wiser.
line 57: ken = saw.
line 62: swound = swoon (rhymes with “round”, obviously).
A person regaining consciousness after fainting can sometimes hear a sudden jarring onrush of sounds. In 1800, Coleridge altered the line to “A wild and ceaseless sound”, apparently in response to complaints that the line was nonsensical, but later restored the original in 1817 (except for the substitution of “in” for “of”).
line 64: thorough = through (archaic).
line 67: we know what sort of food the Albatross ate, because the line originally (Lyrical Ballads 1798) was “The Marineres gave it biscuit-worms”; but Coleridge may have come to realise the incongruity of giving a bird the size of an albatross food which would barely satisfy a bird the size of a wren. However, there is one account (which Coleridge would have read) of Magellan and his crew in the first (1520) crossing into the Pacific of the mariners being forced out of necessity to eat the powder and worms which remained, having consumed all the ship’s biscuit in their four-month journey since leaving the Straits of Magellan.
line 75: shrouds are the heavy ropes which stretch from the top of the mast to the side of the ship, whose purpose is to keep the mast upright and rigid.
line 76: vespers is a Roman Catholic prayer service held at sunset, so the sense here is that the albatross perched for nine evenings (i.e. for nine days).
The perching probably also reflects Coleridge’s ignorance of albatrosses, which although they have three forward facing toes in common with most birds (albeit webbed in the case of the albatross), they have no toe behind – thus rendering them unable to perch on anything. Voyagers did report, however, of albatrosses resting by supporting themselves on and against the rigging of the ship.
line 77: in the original edition (1798), this was printed as "fog-smoke white" but corrected to "fog smoke-white" in an errata slip. a reading which has persisted through all later editions. However, early voyagers referred to the fogs round Greenland and Sptzbergen as as being smoke-like fog or frost-smoke. It could be that the original printing is in fact accurate.
line 81: The crossbow was a medieval weapon for shooting arrows and other missiles by means of a bowstring drawn back over a groove, with a trigger mechanism for holding and releasing the taut string. For a picture of a crossbow, click here.
line 92: an old form of “them” was “hem”, often spelled in this contracted form.
line 97: “Nor dim nor red” – but glorious gold, like God’s own head; a simile which occurs in more than one voyager’s account of the first rising of the sun above the horizon in early spring north of the Arctic circle. The dimness and redness refer to the days preceding, when the dawning sun does not fully come above the horizon.
line 103: the easterly trade winds, which are at this point carrying the ship north-east, were called “the Brises” in Coleridge’s time. In the first version (Lyrical Ballads 1798) of the poem, the line begins “The breezes blew...”.
line 104: originally this line was as given here, but in Sybilline Leaves (1817) Coleridge changed the line to “The furrow stream’d off free”, with a footnote in which he explains the original form of the line and adds “But I had not been long on board a ship, before I perceived that this was the image as seen by a spectator on the shore, or from another vessel. From the ship itself, the Wake appears like a brook flowing off from the stern.” He later restored the line to its original form, perhaps because he realised that the poetry of its original pleasant alliteration was more important than consistency of frame of reference.
line 109: the word “break” was sometimes pronounced “breek” in Coleridge's day, thus giving a nice internal rhyme.
line 112: perhaps "The bloody sun at noon" refers to an early childhood memory of the summer of 1783 (when Coleridge would have been 10 years old) when, as Gilbert White records in his Natural History of Selbourne (chapter 65) "the sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground and was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting". This could have been due to Iceland's Laki volcanic event.
line 127: About, about. Coleridge is quoting from a chant of the three witches in Macbeth (Act I scene 3 lines 32-34):
The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about;
The chant occurs just after one of the witches has pronounced a curse on a mariner, depriving him of drink and sleep and sending a storm to wreck his ship.
line 128: “death-fires” are ghostly lights which the superstitious in Coleridge’s day believed could be seen at night hovering over burial grounds. The light was supposed to come from decaying corpses. In fact, putrefied fish and the decaying bodies of animals (including humans) are sometimes attacked by luminous bacteria that emit a blue-green glow.
line 129: “witch's oils” are mysterious oils that burn with vivid colours, and are supposedly used by witches in the preparation of their charms.
line 130: many plankton organisms (which swarm on the ocean’s surface) are luminescent, especially when agitated. The voyagers often wrote of such luminescence as a kind of burning.
line 131: assured were: were given a revelation.
line 133: a fathom is six feet, so nine fathom is about sixteen and a half metres.
line 141: we know the Mariner was a Roman Catholic, so it is reasonable to assume that he was wearing a crucifix around his neck which his shipmates took off before replacing it with the albatross. Moreover, Coleridge would also have known that a burning sign of the cross was branded on the forehead of the Wandering Jew, as a sign of his crime.
line 152: wist = knew.
line 156: tacked = turned towards the wind; veered = turned away from the wind.
line 164: gramercy = mercy on us!
line 166: as = as if.
line 168: weal = well-being, happiness.
line 169: A strange black ship with all her sails set, coming in against wind and tide, is the authentic phantom ship of the traditional superstitions of the sea.
line 174: a setting sun, its light refracted through dense layers of atmosphere, can assume a broad oval shape.
line 177: “flecked” here has the sense of “striped”.
line 184: “gossameres” are filmy cobwebs that float in the air when there is no wind.
line 188: a Death = a skeleton.
line 189: in a copy of Lyrical Ballads (1798) Coleridge added in manuscript at this point another stanza, which never appeared in any of the ballad’s printings:
This ship it was a plankless thing
– A bare Anatomy!
A plankless Spectre – and it mov’d
Like a being of the sea!
The woman and a fleshless man
Therein sate merrily.
line 193: a “night-mare” is a female spirit or monster supposed to beset people or animals by night, settling upon them when asleep and producing a feeling of suffocation by its weight.
line 195: naked hulk = a hulk without planking.
line 196: There is an ancient tale, which belongs
to the oral tradition of the Netherlands, of one Reginald Falkenburg
who, for murder done, is doomed to wander forever on the sea, accompanied
by two spectral forms, one white, one black; and in a ship with all
sails set, the two spectres play at dice for the wanderer’s soul.
“Six hundred years has that ship been sailing without either helm or helmsman, and so long have the two been playing for Reginald’s soul. Their game will last till the last day. Mariners that sail on the North Sea often meet with the infernal vessel.” (Quoted in Lowes, Chapter XV.)
line 197: Death wins all the crew except the Mariner who is won by Life-in-Death. His doom is therefore to live on in a kind of suspended animation, unable to die.
gloss to line 200: the gloss here has had a number of variants. For the various versions, click here. The current gloss first appeared in print in 1828, though it first appeared in manuscript just after Sybilline Leaves (1817) was published.
line 209: clomb = climbed.
A waning moon can rise at any time between 2 am and sunrise, but a new moon must rise in broad daylight. Since a new moon cannot rise at sunset, “Till” (line 210) must surely permit most of the night to pass by. Or this might have been a dying moon, which can indeed rise in the east, ahead of the sun.
line 210: the phenomenon had been noticed on a few occasions between 1788 and 1794 and reported in the Philosophcal Transactions of the Royal Society Volume 84, pages 429-434 (1 January 1794) ("An Account of an Appearance of Light, like a Star, seen in the Dark Part of the Moon"), which in turn was reviewed in the British Critic (which Coleridge read).
line 211: originally (Lyrical Ballads 1798) this line was the astronomically more plausible, but less supernatural, “Almost atween the tips”.
line 227: this note first appeared in Sybilline Leaves (1817): "For the last two lines of this stanza, I am indebted to Mr. Wordsworth. It was on a delightful walk from Nether Stowey to Dulverton, with him and his sister, in the autumn of 1797, that this poem was planned, and in part composed."
The beach at Kilve, where Coleridge and Wordsworth often went, is ribbed with bars of dark shale that emerge from the sand “like the spiny backs of a half-buried sea-monster” [E.H. Coleridge, Poetry Review, January 1918]. See photo.
line 245: or = ere.
line 267: main = sea.
line 271: non-luminous “red seas” are common in the reports of the voyagers; they are caused by marine plant and animal organisms.
line 273: there are many reports from the voyagers of various luminescent snake-like forms, probably nemerteans, which are beautifully coloured ribbon-like marine worms varying from a few millimetres long to more than 30 metres.
line 309 : in this and the following stanzas we seem to have a combination of an aurora and a tropical storm. Although the combination of calm at the Line and a thunderstorm with lightening which falls like a river are well attested to by voyagers, the combination of an equitorial thunderstorm and an aurora is not to be seen as bewildering meteorology (which indeed it is) but as an imaginative and eminently Coleridgean rich association of ideas and images.
line 310: anear = near.
line 312: “sere” cloth is cloth that has been worn to shreds.
line 314: “sheen” is here an adjective meaning bright and shining.
line 317: this stanza appears to describe an aurora; but an aurora is a polar phenomenon and could not be seen if the ship is still near the equator. Probably Coleridge drew on descriptions of the aurora from the voyagers and translated the phenomenon to the tropics in ignorance. Or see the introductory note on the route of the voyage for an alternative explanation.
line 319: sigh like sedge = sigh like wind blowing through sedge.
gloss to line 328: inspired = inspirited (as indeed it was so written in Sybilline Leaves 1817).
line 340: we have Wordsworth’s word for it that it was he who suggested that the ship be navigated by dead men, or by dead men reanimated by a cohort of angels who reanimate the bodies (the latter probably being Coleridge’s elaboration of Wordsworth’s suggestion, it being a feature of an old seafaring legend which Coleridge may well have come across in his extensive reading).
line 348: corses = corpses.
line 368: the sails are presumably shaking in the pseudo-breeze produced by the ship's rapid motion through the still air.
line 377: As the 1834 gloss makes clear, from the shooting of the albatross to the dramatic climax at the end of the Fourth Part, the impelling agency of the ship is daemonic. From that point to the end, the moving forces are angelic.
line 380: control of the ship has now passed from the daemons to the angels of the Lord, even though the underwater deamon is still the agent that moves the ship, but now does so reluctantly. For some reason it seems that he cannot cross the Equator. One imagines the daemon angrily moving the ship back and forth with a “short uneasy motion” as he realises the Line has been reached and he must abandon his power over the ship and, frustrated in his vengeance, gives the ship a last violent shake (line 390) before he lets go and returns to the South Pole.
line 394: have not = am unable.
line 407:" honey-dew" is literally a sweet sticky substance that exudes from the leaves of certain trees in hot weather, but here, as in other poetic usage, it is a supernatural substance, deliciously sweet, that falls from the heavens.
line 415: blast = wind.
line 417: the moon is, of course, the cause of ocean tides, i.e. she tells him what to do.
line 424: an attempt to introduce a quasi-scientific explanation. A vacuum forms in front of the ship, so that pressure of the air from behind pushes the ship forward.
line 435: a “charnel-dungeon” was the place where in medieval times dead bodies were put before burial.
line 445: “else” here has the sense of “formerly” or “at another time”.
lines 446-451: in a copy of Sybilline Leaves (1817) annotated by Coleridge opposite this stanza are pencilled in the two words “From Dante”. He seems to be referring to Inferno XXI lines 25-30 which read (in Carlyle’s translation) “Then I turned round, like one who longs to see what he must shun, and who is dashed with sudden fear, so that he puts not off his flight to look; and behind us I saw a black Demon come running up the cliff”.
line 455: perhaps Coleridge is referring to the fact that wind-rippled water can thereby acquire a darker shade.
line 460: In the Odyssey, as Coleridge would have known, Ulysses is brought home to his native land in a fast ship whilst in a trance: “But now, when bending to their work they tossed the water with their oars, upon Odysseus’ lids deep slumber fell, sound and most pleasant, very like to death...Safely and steadily [the swift ship] ran; no circling hawk, swiftest of all winged things, could keep beside her. Running thus rapidly she cut the ocean waves, bearing a man of godlike wisdom, a man who had before met many griefs of heart...yet here slept undisturbed, heedless of all he suffered.” (XIII, 78-80 and 86-92, translated by G.H. Palmer).
line 467: countree = country (an archaic form often used in old English ballads).
line 468: a harbour bar is a ridge of sand that sometimes forms across the mouth of harbours.
line 473: strewn = calmed.
line 475: shadow = reflected image.
line 483: “crimson” symbolises either or both of the blood of the Albatross and the blood of Christ by which the Mariner is cleansed of his sin.
line 485: by “crimson shadows” Coleridge probably intended nothing more than crimson reflections in the water, without realising that it is impossible to stand on a ship’s deck and see in the water a reflection of anything on the deck.
line 489: the “holy rood” is the cross on which Christ died.
line 490: in Christian mythology, the seraphim are the highest order of angels, exceeding all others in the fervour of their love. In medieval art, they are traditionally given a red colour.
line 501: when a ship entered a large harbour in Coleridge’s day, it was often boarded by a pilot who took control of the ship to guide it efficiently into its assigned berth; or the pilot might have stayed in his own boat while leading the ship to its berth.
line 507: blast = destroy.
line 512: to shrieve someone is to hear their confession of sin and to grant absolution. This office can validly only be performed by an ordained priest, but in those days it would have been reasonable to assume that a hermit would have been ordained even if he subsequently renounced his call to the priesthood (a public vocation). ). Note, however, that although the mariner confesses his sin, no enactment of absolution actually takes place.
line 516: rears = raises.
line 517: Coleridge here retains the original spelling “marineres” of Lyrical Ballads (1798) to emphasise the rhyme with “rears”.
line 524: trow = believe.
line 535: strictly speaking, an “ivy-tod” is a bunch of berries on an ivy bush, but here means the whole bush.
line 536: the owl was traditionally associated with the ivy-bush, perhaps because its dense foliage provided a convenient place for the bird to hide by day.
line 537: the male wolf was traditionally believed to kill and eat its own cubs.
line 545: the poem does not explain the supernatural event responsible for the monstrous sound that shakes the sea and sinks the ship.
line 552: after about a week or more, the gases of putrefaction can cause drowned bodies to rise to the surface.
line 559: telling of = echoing.
line 575: crossed his brow = made the sign of the cross on his forehead, to protect himself against the Devil or his agents.
line 577: the Hermit, before he grants forgiveness, wants to know if the mariner really is a man and not a drowned body reanimated by a daemon, or indeed (as suggested by the Pilot’s boy) the Devil himself incarnate.
line 595: vesper-bell = the bell announcing the evening service of vespers.
line 623: forlorn = deprived.