The Albatross

The Albatross
Martin Gardner

from The Annotated Ancient Mariner

It was Wordsworth who proposed to Coleridge that an albatross be brought into his ballad and that the shooting of the bird provide the Mariner’s “crime.” The idea had been suggested to Wordsworth by his reading of A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea, by Captain George Shelvocke, London, 1726. Shelvocke speaks of a “disconsolate black albatross” . . . that followed the ship for several days “hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley, (my second captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagined, from his color, that it might be some ill omen. That which, I suppose, induced him the more to encourage his superstition, was the continued series of contrary tempestuous winds, which had oppressed us ever since we had got into the sea. But be that as it would, he, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the albatross, not doubting (perhaps) that we should have a fair wind after it.”


It is now almost impossible to speak of an albatross without invoking Coleridge’s poem. The magnificent seabird has come to represent the presence of innocent good and the grace of God’s favor.  It likewise hearkens more darkly to man’s capricious evil and the consequences that follow.  The poem’s analogy resonated immediately as readers as notable as Herman Melville quickly latched on.

In Chapter 42 of Moby Dick we find this:

“Be-think thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in all imaginations? Not Coleridge first threw that spell; but God’s great, unflattering laureate, Nature.”

As Malcolm Guite explains:

Of course, it is in the very nature of poetry, as Coleridge asserted, that it should awaken the mind’s attention and restore to it a sense of wonder, of feelings “analogous to the supernatural.” Whether or not Melville’s subsequent description of this first sighting is intensified by the encounter with Coleridge, there can be no doubt that Coleridge intends us, as his readers, to have this intense apprehension of the bird as bodying forth a spiritual power and meaning.

How are you inspired by wonders of nature?

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Rick Wilcox is Editor in Chief