The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Popular Music
I first discovered Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner during my senior year in my AP English class (shout out to Marla Dercher). Ever since, the poem kept finding its way back to me through one syllabus or another. And each time we were reintroduced, my intense feelings regarding its timeless nature and relevancy grew.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1789, begins with three men who are on their way to a wedding when a creepy sailor (the Mariner) stops them and tells about the horrific travel he endured. The Mariner began his travel narrative with how his crew sailed near Antarctica in order to avoid a severe storm. Due to the obvious and weird nature of the Mariner, you can guess correctly that avoiding a storm is unlikely and trouble is ahead…nevertheless, the Mariner and his crew encounter an eerie patch of fog. In the midst of the fog, the crew has graced by the presence of an albatross that steers them through the fog and provides strong winds, guiding them to safety. And then, irrationally, and without concrete reason, the Mariner shoots the albatross. Following the Mariner’s problematic act, death and decay overcome the crew and ship. The Mariner wears the albatross around his neck, and until it falls off of his neck, the terror ends. When the Mariner returns back to shore, he is cursed forever to tell his story, warning others of his sin, and crime.
The albatross is used metaphorically to describe psychological burden and a curse. The bird represents crime, sin as well as punishment. The image of the albatross has transformed into a symbol of bad luck believed by sailors.
With the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s plot summary and significant symbolism in mind…
How is this piece timeless?, you ask…
Well, one of my favorite parts about bathing in great literature is constructing Spotify playlists full of their wonderful allusions. Some are harder to find than others, but The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has an impressive amount of modern music in which artists explicitly allude to this piece, more specifically, the albatross.
If you would like to listen to the playlist, click here!
Why do artists deem this poem so crucial and necessary to be repurposed through their own personal art? Perhaps it is because of Coleridge’s opium addiction, or his suffering with anxiety and depression. As you will learn listening to the playlist, most of the lyrics evokes tones of concern (i.e. is this singer okay? Who/what hurt him/her?). Much of this concern derives from the loss of love or breakups. For example, Foxing, known for their introspective indie rock sound, has a song called Bloodhound on their appropriately titled 2014 debut album, The Albatross, that mourns over a lost love. The final verse refers to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
When the tide came in there was nothing left
But an albatross hanging from my neck
And just as you could not contain the sea
You could not contain me
In this case, Foxing, like Coleridge, is using the albatross as a metaphor for a psychological burden. His burden being the girl who he loved and has now left behind.
Continuing this emphasis of sorrow and darkness, the London alternative rock group, Bastille, takes a spin with the use of the albatross by masking its tones with an 80’s-friendly beat in their song Weight of Living, Pt. 1.
There’s an albatross around your neck
All the things you’ve said and the things you’ve done
Can you carry it with no regrets?
Can you stand the person you’ve become?
Oh, there’s a light
Oh, oh, oh, there’s a light
Your albatross, let it go, let it go
Your albatross, shoot it down, shoot it down
When you just can’t shake the heavy weight of living
Bastille acknowledges the albatross (guilt and, or, sin), yet provides a sense of hope by simply encouraging the listener to shake off whatever is on their shoulders, learn from it, and become better – a much more hopeful tone than the original ending of the poem. The mariner is burdened with an eternal curse, and Bastille rejects that.
If anything makes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner recognized as influential regarding music, its due to the fact that Pink Floyd found it worth mentioning. Echoes, from Pink Floyd’s album, Meddle, is a whopping twenty-three minutes and thirty-two seconds long and filled with allusions from Coleridge’s piece. More specifically, it tackles human relationships, questioning empathy and apathy. In other words, are we capable of seeing ourselves as the mariner, or, do we reject that notion and refuse to relate at all? The first verse and chorus go a little something like this…
Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of distant tide comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine
And no one showed us to the land
And no one knows the where’s and why’s
But something stirs and something tries
Starts to climb towards the light
To conclude our tour-de-albatross in popular music, Fleetwood Mac’s biggest-selling rock instrumental, Albatross is my favorite song that holds allusions regarding The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It lacks lyrics, but makes up ten-fold with its blues-like guilt-ridden tone. The entire song contains only two guitar tones, seemingly simple, yet heavy in sound. Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac’s guitarist, read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a child and claimed this was the direct inspiration of the song.
I find it incredibly important to note how Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English Romantic poet, continues to make space for himself and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner within a modern pop culture context. Did he intend for his poem on guilt and punishment to transcend through so many artists? The irony, a poem about a cursed man who is forced to retell his story to warn others, is being retold in the same exact fashion in the shape of music.