There are several subthemes in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” relating to Christianity and the supernatural, and two primary themes. The first primary theme concerns the potential consequences of a single unthinking act. When the mariner shoots an albatross, he does it casually and without animosity. Yet this impulsive, destructive act is his undoing. Similar to other Romantics, Coleridge believed that the seeds of destruction and creation are contained each within the other. One cannot create something without destroying something else. Likewise, destruction leads to the creation of something new. The loss of the mariner’s ship, shipmates, and his own former self ultimately leads to the regeneration of the mariner.
This process of destruction and regeneration introduces the poem’s second main theme. The mariner gradually comes to realize the enormous consequences of his casual act, even as he struggles to accept responsibility for it. To do this he must comprehend that all things in nature are of equal value. Everything, as a part of nature, has its own beauty and is to be cherished for its own sake.
This realization is suddenly apparent when the mariner spontaneously appreciates the beauty of the sea snakes; his heart fills with love for them, and he can bless them “unaware.” The moral of the tale is manifest in the ancient mariner’s final words to the wedding guest: “He prayeth best, who loveth best/ All things both great and small;/ For the dear God who loveth us,/ He made and loveth all.”
The major character in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the mariner who relates his chilling experiences. It is he who kills the albatross, suffers the consequences, learns from his sufferings, and earns his redemption. As part of his penance, he spends his life telling his tale to others as a warning and as instruction. At first terrifying in looks and manner, the mariner is so intense that the wedding guest is compelled to listen. As the tale unfolds, the wedding guest’s reactions to the mariner change from scorn to sympathy, and finally even to pity. The wedding guest serves as a plot device to frame and advance the story, but he also undergoes a transformation of his own. Startled by the mariner who accosts him, the wedding guest first appears as a devil-may-care gallant. But after he hears the mariner’s dreadful tale, he is thoughtful and subdued.
The mariner’s shipmates are innocent victims of his rash act. Like the members of the wedding party, the sailors are purposefully kept vague and undeveloped, for Coleridge’s intent is that the audience focus their full attention on the plight of the mariner.
Supernatural beings appear in the poem as symbolic or allegorical figures, representing the forces of nature, life, death, and retribution. The mariner confronts these figures and must ultimately appease them in order to obtain his salvation.