Although heavily influenced by William Wordsworth and the pantheist tradition, Coleridge diverged from Wordsworth on the source of inspiration for life and poetry: Where Wordsworth believed nature was his source of inspiration, Coleridge believed love was the source of inspiration. Drawing from Christ’s instruction that the greatest commandment is love, Coleridge develops a story that illustrates the importance of love not only for the individual soul but also for the balance and harmony among all living things.
The senseless shooting of the albatross, a bird lured to follow the ship by the men’s initially friendly treatment, serves as the point of illustration for a parable about right behavior. Even as the hospitality and friendliness toward the albatross and the common sense and decency with which the ship members treated it dried up, the men on the ship are dried to the point that their tongues turn black. Their rottenness causes the sea to rot.
The crew is angry and afraid but unaware of its complicity in the sin, hanging the albatross around the Mariner’s neck. For their complicity and unwillingness to take responsibility, they are punished with death. However, the Mariner, because he is directly responsible for killing the bird and showing no mercy, is fated to remain alive like the Wandering Jew who refused Christ the mercy of a cup of water.
Initially, the Mariner does not fully understand his responsibility for what is occurring and blames others: “And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony.” Because he refuses responsibility, he feels guilt, hearing the departing souls of his shipmates pass by “[l]ike the whizz of [his] crossbow!” and seeing himself as one of the slimy things that lives on, but he cannot repent. Until blessed with an overwhelming sense of love for the beauty of the sea snakes, the “wicked whisper” of both despair and desire to blame others for his predicament prevents him from praying and moving toward atonement, which consists of repeating his story to those who need to hear it that they might learn,
He prayeth best, who loveth bestAll things both great and small;For the dear God who loveth us,He made and loveth all.