Words of Water: from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

In Coleridge’s longest and most famous major poem, a lanky old mariner regales a stranger on his way to a wedding with a supernatural tale of a long sea voyage-turned-nightmare due to the shooting of an albatross. At one dire point, the thirst-crazed mariner and his shipmates encounter (or hallucinate..?) a crumbling shell of a ship bearing Death himself and a yet more frightening female companion, playing at a game of chance to determine which will claim either the crew or the mariner who killed the fateful albatross.

The ghostly hulk comes alongside the mariner’s ship, and surprise and confusion turns quickly to terror as he recognizes the figures aboard…

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)

How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman’s mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
`The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

The sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.

We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersman’s face by his lamp gleamed white;
From the sails the dew did drip –
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The horned moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.

One after one, by the star-dogged moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.


Death and his companion, Life-in-Death, from “Poems of Coleridge” illustrated by Gerald Fenwick Metcalfe 1907

Life-in-Death preferred, obviously, to have won the mariner, securing for him (as is her role, made evident by her name) a fate worse than death as punishment for killing the albatross. He is condemned to watch his shipmates die one by one, and then to spend seven days and nights staring at the curse in their eyes, their faces frozen in haunting, accusing expressions.

Though mercifully, he was freed of his punishment and the dead albatross which had hung about his neck, but only once he acknowledged in awe the beauty of all the creatures in the sea, to which he had earlier disdainfully referred to as “slimy things”.


Read the full poem here

Featured image: “Ship” by Mikalojus Konstaninas Ciulionis 1906

Original material © 2017 M. Everwhite – All Rights Reserved

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