Answer: An allegory is described as a fictional literary narrative or artistic expression that conveys a symbolic meaning parallel to but distinct from, and more important than, the literal meaning. This is true in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” This poem is an allegory that symbolizes the inherent struggle of humans facing the ideas of sin and redemption. In writing this poem, Coleridge spent four months of sustained writing upon his purpose of supposing that supernatural situations are real. This purpose is seen clearly in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which demonstrates salvation, and the power of sympathetic imagination. The story of the ancient mariner takes place on a sea voyage around the horn of Africa and through the Pacific Ocean to England, which Coleridge uses to symbolize the pass into the spirit world of guilt, retribution, and rebirth.
In discussing the symbolism of guilt in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, it is important to understand that in the eyes of the Romantics God was one with Nature. Because of this belief a sin against Nature was seen as a sin against God. In line 82 of the poem, the Mariner simply says, “I shot the Albatross.” In saying this, the reader often questions why the bird was shot. There is no explanation. The Albatross was shot without reason or motive very much like the sin of humans. Here the poem begins to take on its allegorical purpose in which the Albatross symbolizes not only sin, but possibly Jesus as well. In Christianity, Jesus died upon the cross for the sins of humanity. He was punished in order for humankind to be forgiven. Like Jesus, the Albatross died not for its own sins, but rather for the sins of humans–the sin of the Mariner.
In order for the Mariner to be forgiven of this sin he must first admit his guilt. In lines 91 through 96 he does so by saying,
“And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ‘em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!”
It is this admission of guilt that allows the process of forgiveness for the Mariner to begin. It also allows the Albatross to become a reminder of the Mariner’s sin, a representation of Christ’s suffering, and a symbol of the Christian cross. In lines 40 and 41 it says, “Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung.”
The next symbolic theme in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is that of retribution. In lines 143-146 Coleridge illustrates a time of draught for the sailors on the voyage. Without any water to drink they are suffering. This symbolizes the spiritual draught that humans face in Christianity. Without the love for Christ humans are thirsting for spiritual enlightenment and forgiveness–without which they suffer.
Also as a symbol for retribution in the poem is the appearance of Life in Death. In Christianity, in order to experience everlasting life in heaven, humans must succumb to death first. Coleridge uses supernatural events to show real life situations in his poem. The real life situation of life in death in Christianity is symbolized as a supernatural being in in lines 188-193 of the poem. This symbolism of Life-in-Death is expressed through personification in saying,
“Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.”
The final symbolic theme in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is that of rebirth. This rebirth is seen in the Mariner’s realization that all creatures are apart of God. In lines 272-281 the Mariner discusses the beauty of the water snakes that are around the boat. This realization leads to the Mariner’s rebirth when in lines 284-285 he says, “A spring of love gushed from my heart, and I blessed them unaware.” It is at this moment of recognition that the Albatross falls from the Mariner’s neck because he no longer needs it as a reminder of his sin. He has been forgiven in his heart as he sees the beauty that God is in Nature.
Another symbol of rebirth in the poem is seen in the rain. After a draught of endless time through which the Mariner did not realize his sin or the beauty of Nature in God, he finally feels rain that he can drink, and be quenched from his physical and spiritual draught. With his recognition the Mariner experiences rain as a symbol of baptism and rebirth in lines 299-300 when he says, “I dreamt that they were filled with dew; And when I awoke, it rained.” In Christianity, baptism symbolizes the rebirth of the human from his or her sin into a new enlightenment, as does the rain in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
In the conclusion to the poem, Coleridge provides closure to the spiritual journey of the Mariner by expressing his Anglican upbringing. In lines 574-577 the Mariner asks a holy Hermit for forgiveness and is given penance. To fulfill his spiritual rebirth the Mariner is told by the Hermit in lines 578-581 to tell the story of his journey of death in life and rebirth in love to others. This penance is what allows the Mariner to be reborn.
The last stanza of the poem tells the reader of the wedding guest who has been listening to the story all along. It expresses the moral of the story in saying,
“He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn. (line 622-625)”
Coleridge uses “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to transport the reader into a spiritual journey of guilt, retribution, and rebirth as a symbol of the journey of Christianity. Expressing the inherent struggles of humanity for sin and redemption, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” allows the reader to suppose that supernatural situations are real. Coleridge uses supernatural events to bring to live the ideas he expresses in his work. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” clearly demonstrates the ideals of Christianity as salvation and the power of sympathetic imagination.