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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Why did the ancient mariner kill the albatross?

Quick answer:

The poem does not explicitly say why the ancient mariner killed the albatross. However, it is possible that he killed the bird in an attempt to prove that it was not an omen and that men can control their own fate.

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The mariner does not explain exactly why he shot and killed the albatross with his crossbow. When the albatross first came to the ship, the sailors thought it was good luck, for a good wind followed it. Thus, when the mariner shot it, they were initially angry. They eventually changed their minds, thinking he was right to have shot it; but after days with no wind, they began to blame him again.

Though the mariner's motives for killing the albatross are not clear, perhaps he wanted to show the other sailors that no bird could be so powerful—that their fate was not determined by something as simple as a bird. He may have wanted them to see that it is men who are powerful, not forces of nature.

This poem was composed during the Romantic period of poetry. Writers of this period were concerned with the relationship between people and natural forces. They often used themes that emphasized the idea that people do not control the natural world. Instead, they are at its mercy. By killing the albatross, it may be that the mariner was trying to raise himself up to be more powerful than mortal men can be. The ill fate that befell the ship as a result of his foolish action indicates that no one can rise above the forces of nature. Instead, they must live in harmony with the natural world if they hope to receive its blessings.

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What do you think was the mariner's motive for killing the albatross?

This is one of the most enduring questions about Coleridge's poem and certainly one of the most discussed. To approach this question, we should look to the text for some help in constructing an answer.

First, we know that the appearance and killing of the Albatross all happen during the first part of the story. The bird appears when the Mariner's ship has reached the Antarctic and gets stuck in the ice.

The sailors rejoice at seeing the bird, referring to it as a "Christian soul." They feed it and play with it, and eventually the ice splits and the ship is able to pass safely out of the ice-field. The Albatross then follows the ship to warmer waters until the Mariner shoots the bird.

So, why did he do it? Wasn't the bird helpful to the ship? Or is that coincidence and superstition?

Well, at the end of Part I, the Wedding-Guest gives us a clue. He interrupts the Mariner's story to say how terrible the Mariner looks. Since the Mariner only tells us that "With [his] crossbow, [he] shot the albatross," the Wedding-Guest's reaction helps us recognize the remorse the Mariner feels about killing the bird.

Now, I want to share two reasons why he might have killed the bird. First, it is possible that the Mariner killed the bird for food, but that the sailors wouldn't let him eat it. This is plausible considering that the ship might have spent a long time in Antarctic waters, and the food supply had been greatly reduced. Another speculation that fits into the overall theme is that the Mariner doesn't have a reason. He simply does it because he doesn't respect the bird, and perhaps he wanted to shoot it for sport.

This last reason I think is the more believable. We know that the message the Mariner gives to the Wedding-Guest at the end is that "He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast. He prayeth best, who loveth best all things both great and small." The Mariner has realized that all animals are deserving of love and respect. This is important, because it tells us that he did not realize this previously and didn't think through the consequences of killing the albatross. Since killing the Albatross was a senseless act, then the Mariner truly had no clear motivation at the time other than killing the bird for the sake of it.

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