Sidetracked by Samuel Coleridge
I got sidetracked by Samuel Coleridge today and he really got me to thinking.
Are we punished for our sins, and can we make penance that releases us from those sins? That is a question that man has asked for as long as we can remember and probably longer still.
The results of our actions can follow us, clinging to us like the smell of a rotten albatross that has been hung around our neck to remind us of our foolish choices. The “albatross around my neck” is a phrase that comes from a poem written in 1798 by Samuel Coleridge called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Two hundred years later it still rings true and paints a picture of sin, penance, redemption and love.
The story is told by an ancient mariner to a man he meets on the street, just outside a church where a wedding is about to begin. There is something in the eyes of this man on his way to the celebration that makes the mariner believe he must hear his story, that he must learn what the mariner learned. Despite his protests, the Mariner holds him, first with his boney hand and then with his words, until he has finished his story.
There was a ship with 200 men that had sailed south to the seas of Antarctica and they were in danger of becoming stuck in the floating ice and dying in its clutches. Without a southerly wind to push them away, they were doomed to die in the frigid waters of the deepest latitudes of exploration.
Out of the clouds and mist came an albatross, and the men cheered because along with the albatross came the south wind they needed. The ice parted and the ship sailed free, and the bird followed them for many days. One day, for reasons we are not given, the mariner aimed with his crossbow and shot the bird dead.
Soon after, the wind also died and the other sailors blamed the mariner for their bad luck. He had killed the bird that brought the southern wind, and now they were stuck in the doldrums. They were no longer cold, but blistering hot. Day after day they sat in the parching sun, waiting for the wind, as their water and food ran out. From this scene we get the classic lines:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The other sailors blamed their bad fortune on the mariner’s killing of the albatross, so they tied an albatross around his neck and made him wear it to remind him of what he had done.
One by one the sailors died until only the mariner lived and he saw the blame in each dead man’s eyes. The souls of his shipmates passed the mariner like the sound of the arrow he had shot from his crossbow, and he knew there would be no forgetting what he had done.
For seven days he lived with the dead men and felt no kinship with anything, not even the animals of the sea, which he called “slimy creatures.” He tried to pray, but nothing would come from his lips except a hoarse whisper and still he cursed the sea.
As long as he cursed others, he was cursed himself. One day he was watching the sea-snakes in the waters, creatures that had repulsed him before, and suddenly saw them as beautiful. He found himself blessing them for their life and beauty and sending them love.
Almost immediately the albatross fell from his neck and dropped into the sea, and he saw the beauty of every life that lives, even that of the albatross, and he was able to pray again.
[Side note: Notice that the mariner did not take off the rotting albatross even though all his mates were dead. He chose to continue wearing the weight of his sin, even though there was no one to stop him from tossing it off.]
Afterwards he slept in a delerium, and thought his dead mates had risen up to sail the ship again. When he woke the ship was sailing, but still there was no breeze. It was not the wind but the ocean that was moving him and it was taking him home.
As he lay on the boat filled with dead men two voices came to him in his delerium. One voice said that he was loved as much as the albatross. The other said his penance was done. No longer would he wear the albatross as a reminder.
He sailed on a mysterious wind that brought him to within sight of the lighthouse of his homeland. He might have gone unnoticed and drifted past the harbor, except that above each of his dead shipmates a golden apparition appeared, 200 of them shining like a beacon to catch the attention of those on shore.
A pilot, a boy and a monk rowed out to greet the ship with the strange lights. No sooner were they upon it than the skies turned dark and the water rumbled, and a whirlpool appeared that cracked the ship in two and sucked it under. The mariner was left floating in the water while his mates drifted down to their final resting place.
The mariner was hauled into the small rowboat, and for a moment they were all caught in the maelstrom of the whirling winds, screaming and scared. It was the mariner, weakened but forgiven, who finally picked up the oars and rowed them back to shore.
The mariner was home again, but the experience had changed him. Now, when he sees something in the eyes of a man who needs to learn something, he is compelled to tell his story. He has to share what he learned. He tells the man who has now missed the wedding,
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
So, this is a story of love, after all. It is a story of forgetting that we are all loved for whoever and whatever we are. It is a story of the damage that our forgetfulness can cause. It is a story of penance that we need to be released from. It is a story of redemption once our lessons are learned.
I feel the albatross around my neck. I smell the rotting stench of the carcass of that which should have been loved but instead was killed. I have aimed my crossbow at those who I deemed ugly. I am brought to my knees in humility for the beauty that I have taken away from the world.
I am the ancient mariner, and the likes of me will probably never die. I am not a woman to pray, my mind doesn’t work that way, and yet I better find a method to feel the love that the ancient mariner found for every living thing. He survived so he could teach, and today he taught me.
If you would like to read the complete poem of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Coleridge, go to http://poetry.eserver.org/ancient-mariner.html