On a superficial level, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can be read as a tale of horror in which a mariner is hounded by disaster and supernatural forces after murdering an albatross. But it is much more than that. Coleridge clearly tries to make the supernatural elements of the poem appear as integral parts of the natural world. His underlying theme is that all things that inhabit the natural world have an inherent value and beauty, and that it is necessary for humanity to recognize and respect these qualities. The simple action of the plot, initiated by the mariner’s unthinking, destructive act, leads to his tribulations and consequent maturation. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an excellent example of Romantic poetry and is often read to understand the characteristics of this poetic genre.
There are two settings in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the first scene an ancient mariner stops a guest at a wedding party and begins to tell his tale. The mariner’s words then transport the reader on a long ocean voyage, returning to the wedding at the end of the poem. The story is probably set in the late medieval period; the town in which the action occurs is never named, although it is likely that Coleridge’s audience would have pictured a British seaport, possibly London.
The mariner describes a voyage he takes as a youth from an unnamed European country to the South Pole and back. The initial descriptions of the ship and its crew are fairly realistic, but as the ancient mariner undergoes his quest for understanding and redemption, the supernatural world increasingly engulfs him. His world becomes nightmarish when contrasted with the realistic world that he has left behind. At the same time, in the background, elements from the natural world are always present. For much of the poem, the mariner is adrift in the middle of the ocean, symbolically cut off from all human companionship.