The poem begins at a wedding, three guests are walking to the church when an old man stops one of them and insists he sits and listens to his story. The wedding guest protests but is persuaded by the glittering eye of the mariner.

The mariner tells a story about a sea journey he made. They set out with good weather but soon a storm begins to brew and the ship is driven off course to ‘the land of ice and snow’. When an albatross (a huge sea-bird) flies over-head a wind picks up and they manage to steer the ship out of the ice burgs into a fog. But the mariner shoots the bird, killing it and the wind stops entirely. They think that the mariner has brought bad luck but soon the weather changes and they think they are safe and that the bird must have brought fog not wind.

However the wind soon stops, the sun rises high and they are left stranded with ‘water, water everywhere/ Nor any drop to drink’. They see strange ‘slimy’ things crawling over the sea and the ‘death fire’ makes the sea change colour. The sailors are terrified and blame the mariner so they hang the albatross around his neck as if it was a cross for him to bear, which gives it some religious significance.

Soon they think a ship has arrived that could rescue them but as it approaches they sea it carries Death and Life-in Death aboard. The nightmarish ship looks like a dungeon as the setting sun shines through it. Then every man on the mariner’s ship dies suddenly and as they pass away they curse him with a look from their dying eyes. The wedding guest interjects at this point to say, ‘ I fear thee ancient mariner,’ after hearing all these horrendous tales.

The mariner is cursed and cannot die, he watches snakes writhing in the sea and blesses them. At this point the albatross falls from his shoulders and he can pray. Things seem to be looking up as it begins to rain and a wind blows up. However, as this happens, the dead sailors rise up and begin to steer the boat without the wind’s help. The spirit driving them pulls the ship to a sudden halt and the mariner is knocked out. In a trance he hears a voice asking if he is the man who shot the albatross and hears a warning that he ‘hath penance done/ and penance more will do.’

In part six the two voices are heard but the structure is different, it is set out almost like a play, as one voice explains to the other voice how the ship moves and the importance of the mariner. When the mariner awakes he sees the dead men still staring at them and he is still transfixed by their eyes and the curse. Finally the curse is lifted and he can look out to sea. He never turns around for fear of seeing more terrible things.

The breeze blows on him alone and he sees a lighthouse as the ship returns home to his own land. He turns around and the corpses are dead again, in place of the risen dead there are seraphs (heavenly creature) shining so bright that they can guide him to the shore. He sees the pilot and his boy in a boat ready to take him back to land. He also sees, in the boat, a hermit from the woods who sings holy songs he hope will cleanse the blood of the albatross from his soul.

But as the little boat approaches there is a mighty rumble and the mariner’s boat sinks. To the pilot’s horror the mariner ends up in his boat. They bring him to shore and a terrible agony comes over him, in order to relieve the pain he tells the story to the hermit. Since then, he tells the wedding guest, at an, ‘uncertain hour,’ that urge comes over him and he must tell his tale. He finally speaks of the wedding and how nothing pleases him more than to be happy and walk in good company to church. He has learned that we must love God’s creatures. The wedding guest looks back and the mariner has disappeared, he goes back to the church a ‘wiser man’.