In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a sea captain is punished by nature for killing an innocent albatross for no reason – or so it seems. In fact, the story is more complex than the short stanzas and simple rhyme lead us to believe, and thus raises questions about the nature of the curse and the crime.
The Mariner and his crew, while sailing along in the icy sea, form an attachment to a wandering albatross, the only other form of life in the wasteland they are sailing through. For reasons not disclosed, the Mariner shoots the bird with his crossbow. Immediately, a series of unfortunate and supernatural events begin to unfold and eventually claim the lives of all the crew members except the Mariner. The Mariner must, entirely alone, survive through the supernatural tumult of dehydration, fear, and death. It is not until he blesses the sea serpents that it appears that the curse is lifted. However, the moral of the tale hardly seems able to be reconciled to the idea that the Mariner, suddenly seeing the error of his ways is discounting the lives of animals, is saved while he stands upon a ship laden with the corpses of his crew mates. It seems wrong that the lives of the crew members (likely some fifty or so men) were merely pawns in a game of winning the salvation of one man who killed a bird.
Then, it seems more likely that the Mariner is missing the point of the curse, in being unable to see that his foolishness costs the lives not of a mere bird, but of all the men that it was his duty to protect – one of them being his own nephew. His punishment is not merely living through the horrors of the poem, but the burning heart he has in his chest that impels him to tell his tale for the foreseeable future. The Mariner suggests that he, by some divine force, must tell his story to people for their sake – but more and more it seems that it is for his own.