In this poem, the mariner recounts the story of how he killed an innocent albatross that had been previously labelled as a good omen by the crew. The crew consequently fell into a series of unfortunate and frightening situations and blamed the mariner for their plight.
The significance of the albatross and what it represents have been debated by critics. On one level, the albatross represents the guilt of the mariner, whose reckless action led to the demise of the crew. The mariner was notoriously forced to wear the heavy albatross around his neck, creating a visual, symbolic image of guilt and shame.
The albatross also represents the beauty and innocence of nature. By killing the albatross, the mariner showed his contempt for the natural world, implying his perceived superiority above it. The mariner destroyed an innocent life without a clear reason, symbolizing the contempt of humanity over the natural world.
Significantly, this lack of respect for the natural world also suggests a lack of devotion to God. In the Christian faith, the natural world is depicted as God's creation and is therefore deserving of respect. By killing the albatross in such an apathetic way, the Mariner demonstrated a lack of respect toward God and his creation.
In the following passage from the poem, Coleridge advocates love and respect toward all of God's creations, symbolized in this poem by the albatross:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.