The Marinerís Albatross

It was Wordsworth who proposed to Coleridge that an albatross be brought into his ballad and that the shooting of the bird constitute 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, published in London in 1726. Shelvocke writes 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 colour, 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 very likely that Coleridge then read the book after Wordsworth had recommended it to him.

The most impressive of the various species of albatross is the Wandering Albatross of the antarctic seas; it is an enormous snow-white bird with jet-black wing tips, a long beak that hooks downward at the tip, and webbed feet like a duck. It is the largest of all sea-birds, weighing seven to eleven kilos (fifteen to twenty-five pounds) and its wing spread three or four metres (ten to twelve feet) or longer. The bird travels alone and is capable of following a ship for days without resting on the water. At intervals it may glide down to feed on refuse from the ship‘s galley and on squids and shrimps churned to the surface in the ship‘s wake. See the photograph on the previous page.

It is not clear, however that this is the species of albatross that the Mariner shot because its immense size would make it infeasible for it to be hung round the mariner‘s neck. The “black albatross” mentioned by Shelvocke was probably a Sooty Albatross, a species also plentiful in antarctic waters, but much smaller in size than the Wandering Albatross, about the size of a goose. Coleridge nowhere specifies the colour of the bird, but it is likely that he had in mind the darker bird in accordance with Shelvocke. See the photograph on the next page.

Albatrosses figure in numerous sea travel books of the time. Sailors regarded the bird with superstitious awe and sometimes maintained that albatrosses harboured the transmigrated souls of evil old sea-captains. However, they apparently did not hesitate to trap or kill them, either for sheer sport, or to make tobacco pouches from their webbed feet, pipes from their hollow wing bones, hand muffs from their breasts, even huge paper clips from their beaks. [See William Jameson, The Wandering Albatross, 1961.]