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 literature?

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An albatross can be a symbol of good luck, or a symbol of some psychological or emotional burden.  The albatross plays a key role in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  At sea, being followed by an albatross is generally considered good luck for the voyage, and in this poem the mariner’s ship becomes stuck amid the ice of the Antarctic when an albatross appears and leads them out of their predicament.  The mariner then shoots the bird, and when the ship is driven to the balmy reaches of the Equator and becalmed, and the crew is dying of thirst, they turn against the mariner, and see the shooting of the albatross – of their savior – as bad luck indeed.  Thus:

Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.

The albatross was hung around the mariner’s neck as a testament to the burden of the ship’s new predicament, which he, being the cause of the bad luck, must bear. 

After the poem was published, “having an albatross around one’s neck” became an idiomatic expression in English to mean “bearing the weight of some burden,” and carrying the mental strain that comes with such.  So, an albatross live at sea is a symbol of good luck – however woe to the man who kills the beast! 

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