An Ancient Mariner, with a long grey beard and glittering eyes, stops one of the three guests on their way to a wedding feast and wants him to hear his story. The Wedding-Guest stands hypnotized and “cannot choose but hear.” The Mariner goes on with his tale. He tells how his ship leaves the harbor and under a favourable wind sails southwards to the tropics. Then comes a furious and thundering storm blast which drives it to the land of mist and snow. The mariners see no beast or bird there. At last, an Albatross comes flying to the ship and follows it. Along with its coming, the weather clears up and a favourable wind begins to blow. The sailors hail it as a bird of good omen and feed it with affection. But, alas, The Ancient Mariner, in a moment of wanton impulsiveness, shoots the bird with his cross-bow and this marks the beginning of their sorrows.
All goes well for a while. The fog thins away. The sun rises “like God’s own head.” The ship sails merrily along. The sailors approve of the Mariner’s crime by saying that it is right to kill such birds as it brings fog and mist. But suddenly the wind falls so that the ship cannot move. The ship is becalmed. The sun burns fiercely. The silent sea rots; the slimy creatures crawl about the sailors suffer from unbearable thirst. At night unearthly fires flit across the waters. The Spirit of the sea pursues the ship nine fathoms deep from under the sea, and take its vengeance upon the sailors for the slaughter of the harmless Albatross by persecuting them with horrible sights and unbearable thirst. All the sailors hate The Ancient Mariner hangs the dead Albatross around his neck as a punishment for his brutal act.
The sailors have an awful time and are almost dead with thirst when The Ancient Mariner sees a tiny speck in the horizon. The Mariner thinks that a ship is coming towards them. He bites his own arm and sucks the blood to moisten his lips to proclaim to the other sailors the approach of a ship that will put an end to their agonising thirst. But, alas, it proves to be a skeleton ship, sailing steadily without breeze or tide. The next moment the Mariner sees in the ship Death and Life-in-Death playing at dice, their stake being The Ancient Mariner. The latter wins, signifying that all the sailors are to die immediately and thus to be relieved of their suffering except The Ancient Mariner who is to suffer life-long agony,i.e., doomed to live a life in death. The phantom ship then disappears. One after another all the two hundred sailors’ drops down dead. The Ancient Mariner alone is left behind to expiate by life-long suffering and penance
The Ancient Mariner lives all alone on a wide, wide sea. Not a saint takes pity on his soul in agony. The men, all so beautiful, lying dead on the deck; while a thousand slimy creatures live merrily on. The sight of the dead sailors meets him on all sides. He tries to pray, but a wicked whisper comes, and makes his heart ‘as dry as dust.’ The sea and the sky lie like lead on his weary eye, and the dead men lie at his feet. He is persecuted by his guilty conscience and the cursing looks of the dead sailors. Soon the moon rises and covers the whole sea with white light. The Ancient Mariner watches the water snakes moving in ‘tracks of shining white.’ He admires their beauty. A spring of love gushes out of his heart and he blesses them unconsciously. At the same moment, he is able to pray; the dead Albatross falls off his neck and sinks like lead into the sea.
The Mariner then falls into a deep sleep. When he wakes up, he finds that rain has moistened his ‘baked’ lips and quenches his thirst. He is so light that he cannot feel his limbs. He feels as if he has died in sleep and is a blessed ghost. He hears strange sounds and sees strange movements in the sky. The rain pours down from one black cloud, with the moon at its edge. The dead men give a groan and suddenly rise, as if from sleep. The Mariners work at the ropes and the ship moves on. The Ancient Mariner and his nephew pull the same rope, without speaking to each other. The dead bodies come to life, animated by a troop of heavenly angels. But the next morning the angels leave the bodies. Still the ship moves on. The vengeful spirit of the South Pole ‘makes the ship go.’ At noon the ship comes to standstill. But in a moment it begins to stir and then makes a sudden bound. The Ancient Mariner falls down into a swoon. In that condition, he hears two spirits’ voices talking about his crime. One of the voices says that The Ancient Mariner does a great crime in killing the Albatross that has loved the Mariner. The other voice says, “The man has done enough penance and will do more of it.”
When The Ancient Mariner wakes up, he finds the moon calmly shining in the sky and sees the dead bodies standing with their stony eyes fixed on him still. But soon the spell is broken altogether. A light breeze begins to blow and the ship enters the harbour which the Mariner at once recognizes to be that of his own country. To his great astonishment, he finds the corpses łying flat, with a seraph standing on each and silently waving his luminous hand like a bright signal. The silence sinks like music into his heart. But soon he hears the flash of oars and sees a boat coming fast, bringing the Pilot, the Pilot’s boy and the good Hermit. The Ancient Mariner rejoices for he thinks that the pious Hermit will wash his soul clean of all guilt.
But as the boat approaches, there is heard a loud thundering noise below it and the ship goes down like lead into the sea. But The Ancient Mariner is at once saved in the Pilot’s boat. His strange aspect frightens the Pilot and sends the Pilot’s boy crazy. The Mariner finds himself on the solid land of his own country. He prays to the Hermit to wash his soul clean of all guilt. The Hermit asks him who he is; and forthwith his body is ‘wrenched with a woeful agony’ which forces him to tell his ghastly tale. Since then at uncertain intervals, this woeful agony returns and he is relieved only when he has told his tale of woe to some sympathetic listener. The Mariner tells the Wedding-Guest that he passes, like night, from land to land; he possesses a strange power of speech and of knowing the right man who will hear his tale. To him, his tale relates. The Ancient Mariner, before parting, tells the Wedding-Guest that “he prayeth well, who loveth well all things both great and small,” and then he suddenly vanishes.