illustration of the Ancient Mariner in the ocean with an albatross tied around his neck

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Explain these lines from the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

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: 

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The language of this poem is deliberately archaic, a conscious choice on the part of the poet to evoke the sense that this "ancient" mariner is living in a world of legend, distanced from contemporary reality and in the style of a myth. This being the case, however, it can be difficult to parse as a modern reader.

In "translation," then, the gist of these lines would read: And I had done a hellish thing which would cause pain and trouble for the people in my crew. They all said that I had killed the bird who was making the wind blow upon us, helping our ship travel. This was a terrible thing to do. However, then the sun, no longer dim and no longer red, suddenly rose up, and it was like God's face smiling upon us.

Effectively, the crew were angry with the mariner for killing the albatross, seemingly the bringer of good luck to the voyage; however, when the sun appeared, they changed their minds, as it appears that the bird was actually bringing bad luck—the return of the sun symbolizing the return of God and righteousness to the world.

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When the Albatross approached, the men saw this as a good omen. And from that point on, they had good winds to push their sails. Therefore, they associated the Albatross with this good fortune. For some reason, the mariner then kills the Albatross with his crossbow. Then the mariner begins to think that what he did was wrong and the men begin to think that killing the bird will bring them bad luck. "For all averred, I had killed the bird / That made the breeze to blow." They all determined (averred) that the mariner killed the bird (Albatross) that brought them luck and a good wind to sail by. 

But in the next lines, the sun rises and brings fog and mist with it. Since this makes sailing difficult, the mariner's crew support the mariner's killing of the bird because now they think that he's killed the bird who brought bad luck: fog and mist. 

'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,

That bring the fog and mist. 

When the Albatross was killed, the crew was upset, not because an innocent creature was killed, but because they (selfishly) believed this would end their good luck. However, when the fog and mist arrive, they believe the mariner was right to kill a bird who apparently brought the bad luck (fog and mist). In supporting the mariner's killing, the crew members become accomplices to the mariner's crime. (This is indicated in the gloss: the marginal notes.) 

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This stanza comes in the second section of the poem after the Mariner has shot the fateful albatross and it is clear that the slaying of this innocent bird has consequences that cause the other sailors to immediately turn on the mariner and argue that he has done a "hellish thing." The albatross in Section I of the poem is seen almost as a good luck charm to the sailors, as the following quote explores:

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!
Not only does the albatross come to be identified as a sort of mascot to the sailors, but he is also associated with the coming of a "good south wind" that clearly is seen as being beneficial to the ship as a whole as it seeks to make its journey. The way that the albatross is linked to these favourable wind conditions is asserted in the line "I had killed the bird / That made the breeze to blow." To kill that bird, that symbol of good luck, makes the Mariner a "wretch," not only because he has jeopardised the success of the voyage as a whole but also because there will no doubt be personal consequences, as the rest of the poem makes absolutely clear. The way in which the sun is described as acting in strange ways makes it clear that the significance of the Mariner's slaying of the albatross cannot be understated.
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