Death of an Albatross : A Catalyst for Change
In the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge takes the death of the albatross and uses it as a catalyst for action in his poem. The death of the great bird changes everything within the poem. The mariner changes, of course, but there are also changes within the sailors, the weather and the wedding guest. Therefore, it is important to understand the albatross and all of the elements and themes Coleridge chooses for the bird. The mariner goes from a man that obviously cared little for creatures which inhabit the earth to a man compelled to teach others about respecting all of God’s creatures. This is the most obvious of the transitions within the poem, and it takes nearly the entirety of the story to complete. The mariners’ fellow sailors are also swept into the action caused by the killing of the sea bird. Their demeanor and attitude toward the bird go through transitions, as well as their appearance. Lastly, the wedding guest seemingly makes a drastic change in the way he views the world around him. However, none of these changes would have taken place without the death of the albatross. So, as we delve into a greater understanding of the bird we will gain insight into the transitions that follow.
Coleridge immediately uses personification as he introduces the bird to the crew and the reader. “As if it had been a Christian soul, We hailed it in God’s name” (Coleridge 293).This line and the salvation from the “rime” that follows, starts a definitive parallel between bird and Jesus. It can be argued that Coleridge symbolically used the albatross to represent Christ. First, there is the fact that bird is slain with a crossbow, “With my crossbow I shot the Albatross” (294). Of all the weapons available to a sea faring man at the time, Coleridge chooses his mariner to use a crossbow. Jesus was killed on a cross. The mariner is forced to wear the dead albatross around his neck in much the same manner in which the crucifix is worn. “Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung” (295). The albatross, which initially delivered the sailors from their captivity within the icy confines, is praised a savior. “The ice did split with a thunder-fit: The helmsman steered us through!” (293). However, the sailors quickly turn on the great bird and agree that his death was good. “’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, That brings the fog and mist” (294). These ideas clearly mirror the manner in which Jesus was treated during his final days in Jerusalem. The people, who initially praised Jesus as the Messiah, had killed him within a week’s time.
The sailors make themselves accomplices to the mariner’s crime at this point, and their punishment is severe. Initially, there is extreme thirst despite the fact that there was “water, everywhere” (295). The men “could not speak” (295). The same lips that had cried out in laud of the great bird and then turned to accordance with its death were now “black lips baked” (296). The sailors that once played and ate with the albatross now “could not laugh or wail” (296). The separation, by death, of the sailors and the bird wreaked havoc on the men’s health. However, the pain of thirst was soon sated by the retribution of the spirits. Death came for the sailors. “The souls did from their bodies fly—The fled to bliss or woe! And every soul, it passed me by, Like the whizz of my crossbow!” (297). Even with Death portrayed as a character in the poem, the driving force remains the slaying of the great sea bird. The mariner is reminded of the sound of his weapon even as his fellow mates are dying around him. The crew, although dead, are still bound to follow the commands of a higher power and are forced to sail the ship once again. When the mariner has his epiphany, the crew are given some sort of life in order to sail the man back to shore. “They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—We were a ghastly crew” (300). It is here that the mariner first learns of his need to tell his tale.
The wedding guest hears the tale just as the reader first hears it told. The story of the death of the albatross changes the man for good. Initially, he is on his way to a wedding where he is “next of kin” (292). Oddly, the man cannot seem to break away from the mariner’s story even though “the feast is set” and he can “hear the merry din” (292). The wedding guest eventually comes to fear the ancient mariner. “I fear thee, ancient Mariner!” (297), but is calmed by the continuation of the story he was intended to hear. By the end of the tale, the wedding guest “Turned from the bridegroom’s door” (307). The changes wrought by the mariner’s tale of death caused him to become “a wiser and a sadder man” (307).
Clearly, the death of the albatross brought about change in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The mariner, himself, goes from an uncaring sailor to a pious bard. The sailors transition from life to death through a series of unfortunate experiences. The wedding guest becomes wiser, even at the cost of his merriment. All of the things are the result of the death of a sea bird.