The Scarlet Albatross: The Ancient Mariner’s Own Cross To Bear
What goes around truly does come back around, and karma tends to come back to us with a vengeance. The world has a mysterious way of making sure people’s wrong-doings are brought to light. Everyone, at some point in their life, must come to terms with such wrong-doings and figure out what consequences or reparations they will have to suffer to achieve atonement. Some believe that we must answer to a higher power, whatever that may be. Ironically, religion was a rather considerable topic of debate during the Romantic period. This has been proven time and time again in Literature, specifically within Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Coleridge begins his story at the scene of a wedding. The Mariner is seeking a guest of the wedding to tell his “utterly important” story to. Puzzled and hesitant, the wedding guest agrees to listen to the Mariner’s tale, and readers are then taken on a flashback journey through the Mariner’s transgressions. The Mariner goes on to talk about being on a ship with his crew. The beginning of his journey was marked with great wind and weather conditions, perfect for sailing. Then a storm hit.
Serving as a beacon of hope, and a marvelous omen, an Albatross appears through the fog of the bone-chilling Antarctic waters, and the crew is over-joyed. Coleridge writes,
” 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.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew,
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steer’d us through!” (636)
The Albatross was a guiding light for the crew, and got them through even the most treacherous conditions. They praise God for the Albatross’s presence. This got me thinking about religion and how it stuck out so clearly to me while reading this story. Just as the Albatross was a beacon of hope to the crew, Jesus himself was a beacon of hope sent to Earth by God to guide His people through trying and difficult times in their lives. So what does the Ancient Mariner do to repay the bird for its great courage and protection? He kills the bird. How did humanity repay Jesus for his purity, protection, and guidance? Our sinful actions nailed him to a cross.
As the weather conditions revert back to the way they had been before the Albatross arrived, the crew becomes infuriated with the Mariner, and they force him to wear the Albatross around his own neck. Does this sound familiar? Yes, I thought so too. Reading this text instantly reminded me of “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Just as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter” is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her shirt because of her adulterous acts, the Mariner also now has a physical representation of his wrong-doings, hanging around his very own neck for all to see. When making this comparison between these two texts, I began to think about reparations and how we must suffer some sort of consequence for our immoral actions. This is a fact that has remained true for as long as humanity has been in existence. Looking deeper into this comparison, I realized that Hester’s “scarlett A” and the Mariner’s “albatross” are merely exterior representations of interior battles that they are fighting with themselves. I believe that Hester Prynne was struggling with her adulterous thoughts long before she acted upon them, and after she actually did act on them, her interior battle was brought to light for all to see. Just the same, I think that the Mariner was obsessed with power and ultimate control. The Albatross swooped in, becoming this leader and source of hope for the ship’s crew, and the Mariner could not contain his inner discontent with the fact that he could not provide those things himself for his crew, and so he acted upon it, and he removed what he could not control from the equation. The Albatross becomes the Mariner’s own “cross to bear”. The comparison of the Mariner’s violent and uncalled for murder of the Albatross to the crucifixion aspect of Christianity was no mistake. Russell M. Hillier agrees with this statement in his work, Coleridge’s Dilemma and the Method of ‘Sacred Sympathy’: Atonement as Problem and Solution in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Hillier states, “The Mariner’s unthinking, unfeeling destructiveness, a senseless act of unwarranted and unprovoked aggression against a pacific creature that shows humans nothing but affection resonates with the conditions surrounding the persecution and crucifixion of Jesus.”(9).
The Albatross soon proves to be only one of the many reparations that the Mariner will have to endure in order to reach atonement for his wrong-doings. As another ship appears on the horizon, the Mariner and the crew soon come to a horrifying realization. The figure they saw approaching turns out to be the mere skeleton of another ship, and Death is among it’s crew. Coleridge writes,
“Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that a Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman’s mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-Mair LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold” (639)
DEATH and LIFE-IN-DEATH play a game of dice for the lives of the crew, and as a result, all of the Mariner’s shipmates drop dead. He is then forced to live a week surrounded by the corpses of his shipmates. Talk about reparations. Not only does the Mariner have a gigantic bird wrapped around his neck, but he now gets to live with the fact that he is the reason his crew is dead. The Mariner’s selfish action of depriving the crew of the one positive omen they had has now resulted in him suffering greatly. Lets relate this back to the theme of religion shall we? A core belief of Christianity is that God created everyone individually, yet every single human being is born with free will. Due to the sinful acts of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, humans are also born with what Christians refer to as “Original Sin”. Christians recognize that everyone is going to sin, but they also acknowledge that sin is, and always will be, wrong, and that Christians will suffer the reparations of their sinful actions until they repent for what they have done. This reminds me of a specific point in the story. The Mariner is observing a group of water- snakes. He comments on how they move, their slimy texture, and he does not have anything pleasant to say about them. When suddenly, the Mariner has a revelation.
“O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declair:
A spring of love gusht from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware!
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.” (Coleridge 641)
All of a sudden, the Mariner recognizes the water-snakes as “happy living things”. This relates back to what I was just discussing about the core beliefs of Christianity. The Mariner finally has a change within his heart, and he is rewarded for acknowledging it and freed of his burden, just as Christians are cleansed of sin after repentance. Coleridge goes on to describe exactly what the Mariner’s reward is:
“The self same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like Lead into the sea.” (641)
The Mariner is free of the restraint of the Albatross once and for all. As a final reparation, the Mariner must tell his story of the Albatross to whomever he possibly can for the rest of eternity, just as Christians will have to repent their sins to their God for as long as they shall live.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. 5 Vol. 2A. Susan Wolfson and Peter Manning. New York: Pearson Education, 2012. 634-650. Print.
Hillier, Russell M. “Coleridge’s Dilemma and the Method of ‘Sacred Sympathy’: Atonement as Problem and Solution in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature (2009): 8-36. EBSCOhost. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.