And I Had Done a Hellish Thing

The beginning of the second part of the Rime is strikingly modern in my eyes. Coleridge shows here a great insight of human nature and the dynamics that rule relations among men and I may say nowadays more than ever. The first part had ended with the Ancient Mariner’s unforeseen killing of the albatross. There is not a  particular reason that may justify such senseless and despicable action. He just did it. That is why this crime is somehow even more terrible than that of Cain, who had killed, for sure, but because he envied his brother. At least he had a reason. The killing of the albatross has no justification at all, that is why it represents absolute evil, the evil that does not need motives: ” I shot the Albatross“. Full stop. Evil is a seed  that resides in every human soul and can blossom in any moment, just responding to our basest instincts and this is a fact for Coleridge.

Particularly interesting is how the crew, who represents the Mariner’s community of friends and connections he has to interact with daily, reacts to the killing of the albatross.  Coleridge,at this point, leaves the quiet pace of the ballad made of quatrains and marks a change employing two sestets where he can better develop the repercussions of the incident on the mariners’ souls:

“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!”

The seafarers at first blame the mariner for having killed the bird of good omen they had believed to be the cause of their good fortune, thus, managing to escape from the mist and the wondrous cold of the South Pole and move Northward. There is not a single word of condemnation on the moral implication of his action.They are just superstitious and believe that the infamous behaviour of the mariner, somehow, will have consequences on their welfare. They are 200 in all, but they speak as if they had one voice. The scenario, however, suddenly changes:

“Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.”

Against all odds, after many days of suffering and fear the glorious sun rises and under that warm and comforting light the seafarers now believe to see the truth clearly : that albatross was not the bird of good omen, but quite the contrary. They all agree, with no exception, that the killing of the Albatross was rightly done as the bird must have been the cause of their misfortune. In this way they all become accomplices to the Mariner. In these few lines Coleridge tells us how mutable human nature is.The members of the crew are prompt to change their minds according to the new situations and beliefs, but above all they move en masse. This herding behaviour makes them feel stronger and ready to attack like wolves whoever acts differently or is seen like a danger. I may say that social medias provide the most fertile ground where this kind of human attitude manifests itself nowadays.

For better or worse the killing of the Albatross places the Mariner in a condition of seclusion and solitude. Furthemore, he is the only one who realizes the extent of what he had done when he says it was a ” hellish thing“, an action that ” would work ’em woe”. In fact, pleasant warmth becomes unbearable heat and when the wind drops and the men find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean, with no water to drink, the wolves attack the Mariner again and hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

By the way, the crew is eventually punished with death for not having blamed the crime of the Ancient Mariner for its moral implications. As only survivor the Mariner is now condemned to live persecuted by the memory of his dead comrades. His punishment is even more terrible than death itself: to live in solitude, without the hope of God’s piety, with a tormented soul and in constant agitation.  Even when, eventually, he expiates his sin and manages to go back home, he is not allowed to enjoy the communion of other men. He will have the mission of admonishing them, impart the lesson he had learnt from his experience, but nothing more. He’ll remain at the margin of the feast of life, doomed to stop men, with his “glittering eye” to which no one can escape, trying to make them wiser, if possible, even if this means being sadder.





9 thoughts on “And I Had Done a Hellish Thing

  1. What a thought-provoking post! I read Coleridge and other lake poets when I was an English major at UC Santa Barbara and I was fascinated by this particularly long and dark tale. Talking about modern day applications; have you seen the trailor of the Albatross? An environmental documentary? That gives this Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner a whole new meaning.

  2. The Rime is such a powerful poem. The will of the Mariner echoes through times, as he still tries to stop everyone who reads his story and make them think. I can picture him staring at me with his glittering eye, so fearsome, yet so sad and resigned. He truly is “Ancient”, as he lives through Coleridge’s words and still reaches out to us today. Wow.

    What makes the character so unique are indeed the “misfortunes” he experienced on that boat. In other words, his past actions (the albatross one in particular) and the death of all his fellow mariners. We can all agree that his eyes have indeed “seen enough”.

    Transporting it in “modern” times, I am more and more convinced that the Mariner is not alone. Many people have heard his story and many, many others have experienced equally tragic things, if not worse. Coleridge’s world is our very same: most of us are so stuck in our routines, apparently tireless, blinded by our daily deeds. But at some point you are bound to stop. Life stops you. And without even realising it, you sit still, questioning yourself about everything that you are and that ever happened to you until that precise moment.
    I have stumbled upon other eyes. Glittering, but full of fire. They are no more the Mariner’s unique feature.
    Those stares I met belonged to young boys and girls, men and women. But unlike the Mariner, they are not at the edge of their lifetime.
    The weds walked away sad, and didn’t take part at the feast. Life is not the same, everything has a different meaning. The things you used to enjoy may become what you hate the most, now that you see beyond them.

    Sadness and wisdom are a the end of the Poem, but not at the end of life. In the right hearts, they can spark the fire of change, and inspire youger generations to stand for their rights and act for their future.

  3. I love this poem and love sharing it with my students every year! It’s so beautifully written that it simply *must* be read aloud.
    I’ve chewed on the reasons why the mariner shot the albatross as well. The only thing I can devise is that he refused to believe it was the bird that was their aid. His disbelief is punished as well as his failure to appreciate all of God’s creatures. Hence in the end when he tells the wedding guest how lovely it is to go to the kirk and pray.
    Fantastic post, thank you!

    • I always look forward to the time of the year when I have to deal with “The Rime”. The students enjoy it with few exceptions and their feed-back is always very interesting.
      The Mariner had no reason and doen’t give any. You have to consider that when he commits the crime he is as young as the Wedding Guest, that is, an age when you are more impulsive and less prone to weighing the consequences of your actions. Ahhh, youth!! 😉

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