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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What does the albatross symbolize in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

Quick answer:

The albatross symbolizes ideas such as the guilt of the mariner, the natural world, and God's creation.

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The albatross is symbolic of a few things. As a living bird, the albatross is symbolic of innocence, goodness, God's creation, and even God's love and salvation. In stanza 16 of part 1, the sailors and readers are introduced to the albatross.

At length did cross an albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

Notice how they hail it as a sign from God. Additionally, it is a good sign because the bird is shown as similar to a Christian soul. That would be something positive and eternal. The bird is beautiful and the sailors see it as a sign of God watching over them. Unfortunately, the Mariner shoots and kills the bird. The dead albatross is then symbolic of sin and bad luck. Many of the hardships that the sailors endure from this point forward are blamed on the Mariner's actions of killing a good creature of God's creation. Coleridge is fairly overt with comparing the killing of the albatross with the crucifixion of Christ. The final stanza of part 2 shows the albatross hanging from the Mariner's neck instead of the cross.

Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.

It isn't until the mariner finally learns to pray that the albatross falls into the ocean and the curse is finally broken, and that is another reminder of how the albatross is symbolically pointing toward faith and God.

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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.

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The living albatross is a symbol of God's creation and of innocence. The dead albatross is a symbol of sin.

When the Mariner kills the albatross, the other sailors see this as a sign of bad luck and fear, rightfully, that their dangerous voyage will be cursed and run into trouble. Yet the "bad luck" is merely a surface manifestation of a deeper issue. God created the albatross and all of the earth's creatures, and thus they all become reminders of God's presence in the world. They are not merely objects. The albatross is not simply a bird but a carrier of the divine spark. Albatross flesh supposedly tasted like human flesh, highlighting that both albatross and human are touched with divinity.

It is only when the Mariner can feel the beauty of God's creation that the curse of killing the albatross is lifted. When he feels love for the water snakes, the Mariner is released from his sin, and the albatross falls from his neck.

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The albatross to sailors is a sign of good luck, and sailors everywhere for centuries are very superstitious people, so they look for signs.  In the poem, however, the albatross is the symbol of the curse, and the origin of the popular saying "hang an albatross around his neck".  It is a burden to be carried that you cannot avoid or end on your own.

To kill an albatross at sea is instant bad luck, and casts a pall over the mood of the men as they then expect something bad will happen, and of course, the point of the story is that something bad does happen and the crew and the boat are cursed.

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In many ways it is the actual killing of the albatross that comes to have great meaning in the poem, but the albatross itself has always been linked to a number of things in nautical society.

The albatross can be linked to a natural order, and sailors have always believed it to be a symbol of good luck and a harbinger of good news or positive events.

The killing of that albatross was not one directed by malice or any real evil intention, but it becomes the focal point of the negative fate the killer is to suffer.  In killing the bird, he broke the natural connection between man and nature and fate and these actions come about to haunt the man and to bring him great misfortune.

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In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," what might the albatross have symbolized in Coleridge's own life?

 “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” published in 1798, is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s longest major poem. The conflict of the narrative poem begins when the mariner shoots the albatross who had just led the ship to safety. Not only is the ship’s crew angry with him but the mariner also faces the wrath of the spirits who seek to punish him for this act. The crew forces the mariner to wear the dead bird around his neck as a sign of penance and regret. Later, the ghostly spirits Death and “Night-mare Life-in-Death” curse all the crew members to die, but the mariner lives on, having to bear the burden of guilt. The mariner is forced to wander the earth, telling his story over and over.

While inspiration for the poem was likely drawn from several sources, including James Cook's second voyage to the South Seas and the book A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea, in which a sailor shoots an albatross. Coleridge’s own life may have inspired the poem as well. George Whalley’s 1947 essay “The Mariner and the Albatross” argues that the Ancient Mariner could represent an autobiographical depiction of Coleridge. The poet’s letters and journals reveal loneliness similar to that expressed by the mariner.  Additionally, religious themes of the poem related to guilt and redemption may have been influenced by Coleridge’s exploration of theological ideas at Jesus College. He was rumored to experience severe depression and was even discharged briefly from school by his brothers under the reason of “insanity.” These elements of Coleridge’s life likely influenced the creation of the tortured mariner character.

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In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," what might the albatross have symbolized in Coleridge's own life?

This is a very interesting question. Clearly we cannot know for sure if Coleridge was actually sharing some of his own experiences through this marvellous poem, but perhaps we can speculate at some parallels that he may have unwittingly created. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is famous not only for his poetry but also for his addiction to opium, which of course helped inspire some of his work, most famously "Kubla Khan." Because of his addiction, Coleridge, like the Mariner, was often wracked with physical pain and spiritual guilt. In the letters that he wrote about his addiction, Coleridge shows himself to be filled with shame and often hovers on the verge of despair. However, he refused to give in to this despair as he believed that this would be an even greater sin. Like the Mariner, he ultimately placed his faith in God to preserve him.

The albatross seems to function in the poem as a symbol of guilt, and so perhaps we are able to draw this parallel into the life of the author of this poem. The "albatross" that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had hanging around his neck is his own opium addiction. Unfortunately, it was not as easy for the author to rid himself of his own albatross.

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