Man lashed to a ship's mast in a storm

The Quadra Project: A poem for our time

The long narrative poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was published in 1798 during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Even by this time, however, the devastating consequence of burning coal to fuel the proliferation of factories was evident. Once pristine valleys were transformed into darkened wastelands of smoke and soot, bucolic streams and rivers were turned toxic black, quaint villages were converted to slums of indentured labourers, and the maw of multiple machines was making people into consumable and disposable objects. The artistic reaction to this perceived travesty was Romanticism, an effort to save humanity and nature from a revolution that was perceived to be destroying both.

Today, as modern humanity confronts an unprecedented environmental crisis that has been accelerating uncontrollably for a little more than two intense centuries, Coleridge’s poem contains prescient insights that are worth considering.

His story takes place on a ship of some 250 sailors that is working its way northward to England from the south polar seas. On its journey, it is befriended by an albatross, which for no specified reason, is shot with a crossbow by one of the mariners. The ship is subsequently becalmed, and all the sailors eventually die, except for the one who shot the bird. Its corpse is hung around his neck as a “cross”. And as the sole survivor, he is then compelled to tell the tragic story that is remarkably parallel to the situation we are currently confronting.

Why the Ancient Mariner shot the albatross is not explained—it was probably just one of those thoughtless acts that we perform every time we dig for minerals, net fish from the sea, build a highway, invent a new chemical or chainsaw down a living tree. For the sailors aboard the ship, such a thoughtless act became suicidal; for us in the 21st century, we are confronting a similar possibility. Of course, the usual debate ensued. Some of the sailors argued that the albatross brought the fog and mist, so it deserved to be shot. Others contended that it brought the winds that allowed them to sail safely through the ice. But none argued that the bird itself had any intrinsic value.

This, too, was the opinion of the Ancient Mariner. Then, as supplies of food and water were depleted and his fellow sailors died one by one from starvation and thirst, he cursed the living things that danced and played within the shadowed sea of the becalmed ship. But some mysterious power kept him from dying, forcing his gaze upon the natural life that abounded around him.

The moment of conversion that awaited the Mariner was his realization that even the slimy things within his gaze were marvellous and precious. “Oh happy living things! No tongue / Their beauty might declare. / A spring of love gushed from my heart, / And I blessed them unaware.”

With blessings rather than curses, the burden of the albatross fell from his neck and he was is “free”. The ship with its cargo of corpses was magically sailed back to England, the Mariner sought forgiveness from a hermit of the forest, and as penance, was compelled to tell his story of suffering and redemption over and over again.

The connection between The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the environmental condition in which we find ourselves is too conspicuous to overlook. We, too, are on a ship afloat in the sea of endless space, our safety and wellbeing dependent on our ability act with sensitivity, caring, foresight and wisdom. But we have been shooting metaphorical albatrosses for millennia, an irresponsible behaviour supported and encouraged by cultures, mythologies and psychologies that now seem to place all nature in the service of our insatiable needs.

The folly of this attitude is now becoming uncomfortably apparent. Although Alok Sharma, the presiding president of the December 2021 United Nations’ COP26 in Glasgow was not alluding to the calamitous act of the Ancient Mariner, he did remind the assembled representatives of nearly 200 countries that their failure to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions would be “a monstrous act of self-harm”.

The representatives at COP26 did not heed Sharma’s warning. By the end of the meeting, the aspirational target of keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels was on “life support”. The pledged reductions would only reach 2.4°C. With added corporate contributions—if met—the anticipated temperature rise would reach 1.9°C, well into the range where we could lose control of the global warming process.

When writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge obviously did not know what ultimately awaited humanity’s extensive and abusive treatment of nature. The continents seemed large, the oceans vast, and the world was still huge. Perhaps industrialization could despoil parts of England. But the whole planet? In 1798, that seemed impossible. But not any more. Coleridge could never have imagined the power unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. We can’t either, which is part of the problem. However, if we are brave enough to look, we will find a dying albatross draped around our necks.

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra

Top photo credit: Gustave Doré, Mariner up on the mast in a storm illustration  for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: