It recounts a mariner telling his tale to a wedding guest. While on a voyage the ship was thrown off course into Antarctic waters, where it was saved by an albatross. The mariner shot the albatross, and was forced to wear it around his neck as penance. Stranded at sea, they came across a ghost ship piloted by Death, and his fellow sailors died. Finally he reaches his home and is saved, but is cursed never to travel by sea, but to tell all he meets that "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 poem is particularly famous for the line "Water, water, everywhere / Nor any drop to drink."