In the poem's first line, we meet its protagonist, "an ancient Mariner." He stops one of three people on their way to a wedding celebration. The leader of the group, the Wedding Guest, tries to resist being stopped by the strange old man with the "long grey beard and glittering eye." He explains that he is on his way to enjoy the wedding merriment; he is the closest living relative to the groom, and the festivities have already begun. Still, the Ancient Mariner takes his hand and begins his story. The Wedding Guest has no choice but to sit down on a rock to listen.
The Ancient Mariner explains that one clear and bright day, he set out sail on a ship full of happy seamen. They sailed along smoothly until they reached the equator. Suddenly, the sounds of the wedding interrupt the Ancient Mariner's story. The Wedding Guest beats his chest impatiently as the blushing bride enters the reception hall and music plays. However, he is compelled to continue listening to the Ancient Mariner, who goes on with his tale. As soon as the ship reached the equator, a terrible storm hit and forced the ship southwards. The wind blew with such force that the ship pitched down in the surf as though it were fleeing an enemy. Then the sailors reached a calm patch of sea that was "wondrous cold", full of snow and glistening green icebergs as tall as the ship's mast. The sailors were the only living things in this frightening, enclosed world where the ice made terrible groaning sounds that echoed all around. Finally, an Albatross emerged from the mist, and the sailors revered it as a sign of good luck, as though it were a "Christian soul" sent by God to save them. No sooner than the sailors fed the Albatross did the ice break apart, allowing the captain to steer out of the freezing world. The wind picked up again, and continued for nine days. All the while, the Albatross followed the ship, ate the food the sailors gave it, and played with them. At this point, the Wedding Guest notices that the Ancient Mariner looks at once grave and crazed. He exclaims: "God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends that plague thee thus!- / Why lookst thou so?" The Ancient Mariner responds that he shot the Albatross with his crossbow.
with his crossbow.
The sailors were trapped in their ship on the windless ocean for some time, and eventually became delirious with thirst. One day, the Ancient Mariner noticed something approaching from the West. As it moved closer, the sailors realized it was a ship, but no one could cry out because their throats were dry and their lips badly sunburned. The Ancient Mariner bit his own arm and sipped the blood so that he could wet his mouth enough to cry out: "A sail! A sail!" Mysteriously, the approaching ship managed to turn its course to them, even though there was still no wind. Suddenly, it crossed the path of the setting sun, and its masts made the sun look as though it was imprisoned, "As if through a dungeon-grate he peered." The Ancient Mariner's initial joy turned to dread as he noticed that the ship was approaching menacingly quickly, and had sails that looked like cobwebs. The ship came near enough for the Ancient Mariner to see who manned it: Death, embodied in a naked man, and The Night-mare Life-in-Death, embodied in a naked woman. The latter was eerily beautiful, with red lips, golden hair, and skin "as white as leprosy." Death and Life-in-Death were gambling with dice for the Ancient Mariner's soul, and Life-in-Death won. She whistled three times just as the last of the sun sank into the ocean; night fell in an instant, and the ghost ship sped away, though its crew's whispers could be heard long after it was out of sight. The crescent moon rose above the ship with "one bright star" just inside its bottom rim, and all at once, the sailors turned towards the Ancient Mariner and cursed him with their eyes. Then all two hundred of them dropped dead without a sound....