A Critical Essay on the Use of Symbols in Coleridge's The Rime of The Ancient Mariner


The term ‘symbolism’ can be defined as the practice, system and art of representing ideas by means of symbols. The term ‘symbol’ although is a word, a phrase, an object, or a clause even, yet it always represents an abstraction. So the thing represented is an idea, quality, condition, or any other abstract thing.

Kinds of symbols

 Coleridge has employed symbolism in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, as E.E. Stolls sums up, in two artistic symbolic Categories – symbols of distance and symbols of life in middle ages.

            E.E.Stoll, opines that the symbols are based on the ‘principle of perspective’. The symbols of the art of story telling serves to heighten the illusion; credibly the marvels, provide an approach to them, a middle distance, which makes them appropriately more remote. There is also nearer distance. The Wedding Guest is a symbol of the middle distance. He stands between the Ancient Mariner and his voyage in a land of marvels. The marginal comment of the poet is a symbol of nearer distance. It stands between the reader and the marvel land of poetry.

image: wikipedia
Further, the Hermit, the pilot and the Pilot’s boy, again the background of the sea-port hill, the church, and the lighthouse are symbols of the vanished life of the middle ages. Hence in the words of Stoll, “when the Mariner and his strip, equally bewitched arrive, the effect of the mere sight of them on  normal every day Hermit, pilot and pilot boy is startling, shocking. The effect of that, in turn, upon the Wedding Guest and also the reader is convincing”.

The Mariner

 A symbol of inquiring spirit: Adopting the spiritual point of view, E. M. W. Tillyard looks upon the Ancient Mariner a symbol of “an unusually inquiring spirit”, and his voyage as a ‘mental adventure’. Allan grant says that The Mariner’s tale is a story of a voyage into the interior. Not only into the unfathomable depths of the sources of human action; the story also takes us beyond the human world altogether. Again, it is a voyage of extreme contrasts of suffering and of expiation, of the human and social and an altogether alien cosmos with its own terrible yet beautiful order”.

Moon symbolism: According to A. Douglas, “with Coleridge, a weak or waning moon is pretty clearly a powerful symbol for loss of mother love”. In The Ancient Mariner, Part-III the crescent moon rises after life in death has won the Mariner’s soul and Death has won his ship mates, lives. Here the moon rises in the eas6t, while the moon always rises in the west.

Shooting of the Albatross

 The Albatross following the ship stands for the power of Nature, coming to the help of the Mariner and his crew. It saves them from snow and fog. The bird seems to suggest some redeeming force in creation that guides humanity:
“As if it had been a Christian soul,
            We hailed it in God’s name”.
The shooting of the Albatross comes quite suddenly and irrationally. It symbolizes the sin of ignorance the act is explicitly called ‘hellish’. As a result, the ship is becalmed in a tropic sea. Parching heat replaces icy cold. The Mariner gradually discovers from the result of his action that the killing of the Albatross is the violation of a great sanctity. The sympathy between Nature and voyage is broken and terrible, retribution follows. The knowledge of evil is symbolized by the ‘shiny things’ that crawl on the retiring ocean, and the ‘death-fires’ and ‘witch’s oil’ burning by night.


Coleridge defines a symbol as something which presents the eternal in the temporal, and the universal in the particular. It is through the use of symbols that a poet conveys universal truth. The Ancient Mariner, being a tale of the supernatural, is also symbolic and allegorical.
            Through a set of symbols the poem becomes a moral allegory which says,
            “He prayeth well, who loveth well
            Both man and bird and beast”.
The whole poem illustrates the moral of an intimate kinship between all living things. God is on the side of pity and love, and the forces of the universe become hostile to those who show cruelty towards animals. According to Bowra, this poem is a “myth of guilt and redemption”.

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