The Mariner says that after he shot the Albatross, the ship began sailing northward. While the winds still blow, the Sailors feel the absence of the bird, and they cry out against the Mariner for his hellish deed. But when the mist begins to fade, the Sailors attribute this positive change to the Albatross’s death, and they justify the killing and praise the Mariner for what he did, making themselves accomplices to his crime.
The Sailors also feel the need to interpret, and while they do so immediately, they change their minds quite easily. These interpretations—willingness to suggest that humans can control nature, or that killing the Albatross was the right thing to do—are also figured as a sin for which the Sailors are punished.
For a little while the ship sails with a good breeze and without mist, but suddenly, the wind dies down and the sea becomes extremely calm. Below a “hot and copper sky” and “the bloody Sun,” the Mariner and the Sailors become stranded in the ocean without water. Ironically, they are surrounded by water that they cannot drink, and they become extremely thirsty. Coleridge’s annotation here notes that “the Albatross begins to be avenged.”
Though the Mariner and the Sailors at one point believe good things will come of the Albatross’s death, nature, here ruled by the sun (and the Spirit), has other plans. The death of the bird starts to take its toll on the Mariner and the crew, as they begin the slow process of dying of thirst, despite being surrounded by water (and these lines are where the phrase “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink” comes from). Such a torture is penance for the sins they have committed.
During this period of dryness, completely stuck and increasingly thirsty, the Mariner cries out to Christ in terror afraid of the slimy creatures crawling on the surface of the sea. These strange creatures give way to the realization that an invisible Spirit, a supernatural being responsible for influencing the natural world, has followed them from the Pole and is plaguing the ship.
If approached with the correct Romantic attitude, the “slimy creatures” could be viewed as beautiful. But the Mariner has not yet had his realization, and is in the midst of facing penance at the hand of nature (guided by the Spirit), so he is unable to appreciate God’s creatures as is intended.
So thirsty that they cannot speak, the Sailors all give the Mariner evil looks, seeking to “throw the whole guilt” on him for what he did. Thus they decide to hang the body of the dead Albatross, in place of a cross, around the Mariner’s neck.
Nature and the supernatural forces have robbed the Sailors and the Mariner of their ability to speak, but humans still retain a more primal form of communication: the eyes. On the verge of death, the Sailors communicate their rage and hatred through looks, and hang the Albatross around the Mariner’s neck in place of a cross. At this moment, the symbolism of the bird for Christ on the cross is made explicit.