First printed in 1798, written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has left it’s mark on western thought. It marked the turn to romanticism in literature at the start of the 19th century and has influenced much of the new-wave spiritualism and environmentalism prevalent to this day.
Originator of the idiom “albatross around one’s neck,” the tale tells the tale of an ancient seafaring captain whose ship strays into Antarctic waters and is stranded in an ice jam. When an albatross appears, it leads them out and brings a fair wind to sail them north.
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
Despite the saving power of the albatross and the good omen it proved to be, curiously the mariners shoots the Albatross.
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white moonshine.”
`God save thee, ancient Mariner,
From the fiends that plague thee thus! –
Why look’st thou so?’ -“With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross.”
The superstitious crew at first lament the death of the good omen, but when a good wind prevails they assume the death of the bird brought them salvation.
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
However, once the boat is stranded in a still sea, the crew punish the mariner by forcing him to wear the dead bird around his neck.
And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.
Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.”
The mariner and his crew are then visited by a ship captained by death and a crew playing dice for the lives of the mariner and his men.
Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman’s mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
`The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.
The crew one by one are taken but the mariner is cursed to live on watching his men die slowly – it seems as retribution for killing the albatross.
One after one, by the star-dogged moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.
Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.
The souls did from their bodies fly, –
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my crossbow!”
Unable to pray, sleep or die, the mariner lives on alone for seven days, until in despair he notices the beauty of the sea creatures and praises their loveliness. This utterance, releases the mariner’s from the curse.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”
The wind picks ups immediately and fresh rain falls reviving the mariner. In his daze he envisions his dead crew steer his ship home or that a spirit beneath the waves carries the vessel forward.
Upon returning home he is met by a hermit, who rows a boat with a pilot and a boy who greet him in the harbour. However, his wretched boat sinks in a whirlpool beneath the waves and they drag him into their boat thinking him dead.
Salvaged from the sea he is cursed forever to retell the tale to all who would hear it.
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 significant to the romantic literature movement for its animation and personification of nature. The mariner kills an innocent seabird, one that aided his ship from danger. In retribution, he loses his crew to death’s dice and himself is cursed to live on to remind generations after that “dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.” Only once he praises the beauty of the sea creatures he once feared, is he released from his punishments.
As the industrial revolution carved up Europe, the romantic poets lamented the death of nature. Religion, in the wake of Kantian philosophy, had been relegated to the realm of the private and intellectual while politics, economics, business and science, divorced from spirituality became disciplines commandeered by experts, ruled by reason but devoid of ethics and prone to domination by the strongest of wills.
Seeing the figurehead religion as sham, party to the desecration of nature through capitalist and imperialist pursuits, the romantics kept alive a spirituality and transcendent love of the earth by turning back to classical imagery, Greek and Roman myths and legends in which nature and her elements have agency.
The 20th and now 21st centuries have experienced a flowering of religious interest and environmental concerns which can be attributed to the works of the early romantic poets such as Coleridge and his peers.