The episode that lies at the heart of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – the killing of an albatross – was suggested by William Wordsworth, who had recently read George Shelvocke’s biographical Voyage Round the World by way of the Great South Sea (1726). On 1 October 1719, during a semi-authorised pirate expedition aboard The Speedwell in the South Seas, a black albatross that was following the ship had been shot by Simon Hatley, the melancholy second captain. There are many species of albatross with dark plumage, so this was not a rare variety. The appearance of the bird is associated with bad weather in the mind of Simon Hatley, but for Shelvocke and the rest of the crew the bird was ‘a companion, which would have somewhat diverted our thoughts from the reflection of being in such a remote part of the world’.
The area, to the south of Tierra del Fuego, off the southernmost tip of South America, was clearly cold and hostile, and one of the seamen lost sensation in his hands so that he fell to his death. Coleridge sets the albatross incident much closer to the equator.
What other sources does Coleridge use?
Coleridge’s poem combines elements of the biblical Cain, the legend of the Wandering Jew, a man cursed to walk the rest of his life as penance (a ballad version is in Thomas Percy’s Reliques) and the Flying Dutchman, a legendary ghost ship (the story of the Flying Dutchman, a ship doomed to sail the seas for ever, following some unspecified crime, had only recently become popular).