I was reading an article about violence in America when I came across an account of how a sixteen-year-old boy crept up to a house and shot a dog. For no apparent reason. The teenager looked through the living-room window, saw the dog sitting on a couch, and shot it. In these days when the drive-by shooting has replaced the drive-in movie for some young people, the death of a dog is no big deal. Not when the average murder of his two-legged master doesn't make the front page anymore. Yet I couldn't help but wonder.
I wondered: if that young man had read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," would it have made a difference? It might have. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's (1772-1834) ghoulish, supernatural images of retribution for a thoughtless murder of an innocent bird sear into the memory. No action is without consequences, we learn. The poem is where the notion of an albatross hung around one's neck comes from.
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" begins when an old seaman accosts a guest on the way to a wedding feast and makes him listen to his tale. The ancient mariner worked aboard a ship that was driven dangerously close to the South Pole by a storm. At length a great white albatross appeared and brought good luck. The albatross and a strong south wind followed the ship back up north, until the ancient mariner killed the bird for sport:
"And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!...
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
'Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
All in the hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink..."
His fellow sailors hung the albatross around his neck as punishment, but the Other World's punishment was greater still. A ship of Death came alongside theirs, and one by one, all 200 seamen died, all but the ancient mariner.
"Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat,
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they:
The look with which they looked on me
Had never passed away.
An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die..."
At length, the Virgin Mary's intercession sent rain for the mariner's parched throat, wind for the sails, and angels to inhabit the bodies of the dead crew to work the ship until its return to his native land. The ancient mariner's pennace, however, was never-ending. Form time to time his body wrenched with an agony that was alleviated only with the telling of his tale. He was doomed to spend the rest of his days wandering from land to land seeking out new listeners. He left the wedding guest with this final message:
"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..."
Donna Nielsen Murphy, not previously published.