The albatross is a complicated symbol within the poem. Historically, albatross were seen by sailors as omens of good luck, and initially the albatross symbolizes this to the sailors when it appears just as a wind picks up to move the ship. Further, birds in general were often seen as having the ability to move between the earthly and spiritual realms, and this albatross in particular—with its habit of appearing from out of the fog—seems to be both natural and supernatural. Thus the albatross can be seen as symbolizing the connection between the natural and spiritual worlds, a connection that the rest of the poem will show even more clearly, and it can further be seen as a symbol of the sublime (the unearthly bird) as it sports with the mundane (the ship).
With the Mariner’s killing of the bird, the symbol becomes more complicated still. First, the killing of the innocent bird, and the Mariner’s line that “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung,” suggests that the Albatross can be read as a symbol of Christ, with the Mariner as the betraying Judas (particularly as the Albatross is killed by a cross-bow). The dead albatross, also, can be read more generally as a mark of sin.
But as all these symbols build up around the albatross, it also starts to be possible to see the albatross as a symbol of resistance to symbolism: a symbol that is not a symbol of nature but rather something that Coleridge has created to be similar to nature in the sense of its complexity, its resistance to being easily analyzed or pinned down. The poem insists that nature is something to be revered just as God is revered, but that, like God, nature is beyond both the mastery and comprehension of mankind. And in the albatross, with its multiplying potential symbols, Coleridge has created something similar. This idea is further supported by the fact that disaster strikes the Mariner and the sailors precisely after they “interpret” the albatross. The Mariner does so by killing it: what was once so many things, natural and supernatural, has been reduced to just being dead. And the crew then interpret the Mariner’s act as first a crime, and then a justified killing—at which point nature and the supernatural rear up against them, a literal reaction against these men’s “interpretation.”
The Albatross Quotes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! –
Why look'st thou so?'-
With my cross-bow I shot the Albatross.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware,
The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.
Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.'
It is the Hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns
That he makes in the wood.
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away
The Albatross's blood.
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.