By Duncan Steel 19/06/2020


Yesterday I wrote that I can find some reason to celebrate almost any date, and today (19th June) is no exception: it’s World Albatross Day. Unfortunately the day began with a news story concerning a commercial fishing boat killing four endangered Antipodean albatrosses off NZ’s East Cape. Even more unfortunately, such events are not unusual, with several others media stories this year concerning the loss of albatrosses and other seabirds as a consequence of commercial fishing (for example, see here, and here, and here). Clearly there are reasons for concern.

In my post yesterday about Wellington and Nelson I wrote that there was not much about astronomy or space (my usual subjects) involved. In the present blog post there is, in fact, a bit of an astronomy connection, and I will come to that at length. First, though, some other thoughts that concern albatrosses, obliquely or not.

If one has some difficulties in life, those of a Christian bent might say that it is a cross that they have to bear, referencing the cross that Jesus had to carry or drag to his crucifixion. Others might say that they have an albatross around their neck, and it happens that these two allusions are connected, as I will show.

Whilst governments might pass legislation aimed at limiting the numbers of albatrosses and other seabirds that die as a result of fishing activities, another approach might be to appeal to maritime superstitions! That is, it is considered unlucky to kill an albatross, by many seafarers.

This belief is best-known through the epic poem entitled The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1798 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Here is the cover of an edition published almost 80 years later, with magnificent illustrations by Gustave Doré.


In the middle of the front cover one sees an albatross in flight. Lamentably there is also an arrow in flight, about to kill the wingspread bird. More about that in a while.

The ship and its crew in this poem are voyaging in far southern seas, in frigid weather, and are accompanied for some time by an albatross which seems to be guiding them to safety. Here Doré shows the albatross perched on the vessel, being regarded by an apprehensive crew, while icicles hang all around:


The text that describes the killing of the bird comes in the last twelve lines of the first part of the poem, the context being that the Ancient Mariner, some years later, is describing his ill-starred voyage to a wedding guest whom he has halted in his tracks. Thus lines 79, 80, and the first half of line 81, are spoken by the wedding guest, while the remaining line-and-a-half come from the lips of the Ancient Mariner.

The final dozen lines of the first part of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner; I have utilised, in this blog post, copies of the text taken from a variety of editions of the poem, some with explanatory notes, as here.

Here is how Doré envisioned the shot that killed the albatross, the engraving being used in part for the cover of the book as shown above:


Not wanting to spoil the story for you (I write in jest), let me merely say that things go downhill rather for the crew after the death of the albatross, and the Ancient Mariner is blamed for bringing ill-fortune upon them:


In consequence, the crew hang the dead albatross around the Ancient Mariner’s neck (hence my earlier comment about the link between a cross to bear and an albatross around one’s neck):


This situation was depicted in several illustrations by Doré, for example those below:


The albatross hanging around the neck has been the subject of representations by many other artists. Here is a pair of depictions of such a circumstance by the Irish artist Harry Clarke from about 1913/14:

Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung. Illustrations by Harry Clarke. Source: Internet Archive/Cornell University/The Victorian Web.

Next, a far simpler representation, showing the other sailors in the act of hanging the albatross about the Ancient Mariner’s neck, by William Strang for an edition of the Rime published in 1903:


Alternatively, a rather more-recent cover for an edition of the Rime:


In case that is not modern enough for you, finally here is some artwork linked to a track by the heavy-metal band Iron Maiden, from their album Powerslave (1984):


Leaving aside the poor albatross, there is one pair of lines from the Rime that many people know, even if they do not recall its source. Just like the quotes from Shakespeare we all use without realising it, and often get wrong in detail (“All that glitters is not gold” is frequently heard; the original version in The Merchant of Venice is “glistens”), the following is based on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
                                             Water, water, everywhere, 
                                             But not a drop to drink. 

Actually, many editions published during Coleridge’s lifetime read:
                                             Nor any drop to drink. 

The original, however, I think read as below (though I would be pleased to be corrected if this is wrong):

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs … Upon the slimy Sea  — Brilliant.

So, what has this to do with astronomy? It happens that the Rime contains many allusions to things happening in the heavens, such as “Glimmered the white Moon-shine” as shown above. Here is another example:


Though I read the Rime at school (and hated it, at the time: that’s what schoolkids do), I had not thought much more about it until 1992, when – though I was living in Australia at the time – I went back to my home county of Somerset in order to give a space-related talk at the 75th birthday celebrations of Arthur C. Clarke in Minehead. Clarke had been born in that little town on 16th December 1917, but the festival put on to mark his birthday was six months out of phase: he had been living in Sri Lanka for decades, and could not face an English winter. Suited me to go there in the summer, too. Anyhow, with a day or so spare I decided to take a ride on the steam railway that runs eastwards from Minehead and eventually terminates at Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, though I actually got off at Watchet to look around the harbour. And I discovered that it was around here that Coleridge wrote his Rime. Indeed there is now a statue there in the harbour showing the Ancient Mariner with the dead albatross hung around his neck.

The thing is this… I discovered that the concept for the Rime came about during a multi-day walk along the coastline near Watchet that Coleridge took with William Wordsworth and the latter’s sister Dorothy. While Coleridge and Wordsworth are most often associated with England’s northern Lake District, in fact in these younger days they were living in west Somerset, most notably Nether Stowey, in the Quantocks. Ill-health, however, had caused Coleridge to shift in 1797 about 30 km westwards to a cottage between Porlock and Lynton, and it was here that he dreamed his poem Kubla Kahn and was feverishly writing it down when he was interrupted by the infamous Person from Porlock, the result being that the rest of the poem was forgotten and so never completed.

But back to the chase. Coleridge and the Wordsworths began their walk late in the afternoon of 13th November 1797, and that sparked something in my memory. The Leonid meteor showers, which return to produce great meteor storms with a cyclicity near 33 years, had put on a huge display the previous night. This, I figured, might explain various aspects of the Rime, in particular these stanzas that I had studied years before at school:


To me, the middle five lines appeared like what one might anticipate the Leonid meteors could have looked like. Reading various literary explications of the Rime, and in particular the astronomical allusions, I found that previous authors had considered it likely that Coleridge was describing an auroral display, in this case the aurora australis. They had not twigged to the significance of the specific dates on which the poem was conceived, though.

So, eventually (in 1998) I wrote up my idea for Astronomy & Geophysics, a journal published by the Royal Astronomical Society, giving the various arguments for the above section of the Rime being inspired by a viewing of a spectacular Leonid meteor display. I won’t bore you here with all the details, but a copy of my paper is available here.

Addendum, 22nd June: In the above I omitted perhaps the best-known version of an albatross-tied-around-the-neck in recent decades. This is a sketch that was first broadcast on British TV in an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in January 1970. John Cleese appears in the guise of a woman selling ice-creams (or so one might expect) in a cinema, his only item for sale being a dead albatross. The recently-deceased Terry Jones is his customer. I note that Cleese was born not far along the coast of the Bristol Channel from Watchet, in Weston-super-Mare. The Wikipedia page for the sketch makes no mention (yet) of any connection with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.