To begin with, it is useful to view the poem as a verse drama. It has two actors, the Mariner and the Wedding Guest. The Wedding Guest is hypnotized by the old man, yet longs to go to the wedding.
Much dramatization is employed, and to enjoy the poem, one must visualize the actions and facial expressions of these two characters. You should think of the Wedding Guest as representing a segment of humanity which does not have the revealed insight of the Mariner.
The poem can be read on at least three levels, two of which tend to overlap:
The literal level
The poem can be enjoyed simply as a suspenseful adventure story.
The moral level
This examines the poem as a fable of sin, penance, and redemption, drawing upon traditional Christian symbols and motifs. The Mariner's killing of the bird is a symbolic representation of original sin. The punishment of the Mariner resembles the crucifixion and bears upon the scapegoat tradition of Christianity. His wandering and being forced to tell his story equals penance and his final redemption and reunion with society. (However, beyond a certain point, seeing the Mariner as a Christ figure doesn't follow logically.)
The Mariner's penance draws upon the story of the Wandering Jew, a popular theme with the Romantics. This is the story of a Jew who refused to let Christ rest on the way to his crucifixion and, as a result, was condemned to travel about telling his story until Christ's second coming.
The allegorical level
This is similar to the moral interpretation, but without reference to the Christian myth. It sees the Mariner as an everyman figure who must come to grips with his isolation from society. It deals with sin in the universe and its overcoming.
The killing of the Albatross: While the Mariner sins against God on the Christian level, on the allegorical, the killing of the Albatross is a violation of the principle of cosmic love. In nature there is a moral pattern which demands of us that we demonstrate respect for the principle of life itself. The Mariner, "in contempt of the laws of hospitality," senselessly slays a living creature and shows man's capacity for blood-lust.
The deaths of the sailors: On both levels, the Mariner's fellow sailors must die. While at first they condemned the Mariner for his act, in the end they condoned it--hence they symbolically participate in the crime. (Also, they have no place in the dramatic development.)
The consequences of killing the Albatross: From a Christian standpoint, man is held accountable for what he does because he has freedom of will. From the allegorical, nature tends to look after its own; it is offended when its laws are violated. The Mariner must be punished and is by Nature herself. (Putting the bird around his neck shows the sailors trying to absolve themselves and make the Mariner a scapegoat figure.)
The Mariner's repentance: The Mariner cannot pray until he blesses the vile creatures unaware. This shows Christian humility and, at the allegorical level, a recognition of the principle of cosmic pity. Following this, he is on his way to be united with Nature. On the Christian level, he has repented and is ready to be saved; on the allegorical, he is ready to rejoin the great chain of universal life.
The poem captures an age-old dilemma: man's essential apartness in his aloneness. Man is alienated from the world. Hell, according to some iconoclastic theologians, is nothing more than such isolation (i.e., it is a state of mind).
All of the above contributes to the poem's lasting appeal. Each reader leaves the poem, like the Wedding Guest, a "sadder and a wiser man"; that is, he or she is inititiated into the higher mystery which was shown to the Mariner through great suffering.
© Scott Foll 2000. All rights reserved.