In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's long, rhyming poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an old sailor (the ancient mariner) tells the harrowing story of a ship lost at sea. According to the mariner, everything starts off well as the ship and crew leave England.

The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.


Things go south pretty quickly. Literally—the ship is blown off-course and ends up skirting Antarctica. The ship and crew are in grave danger.

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!


The desperate sailors soon find themselves with a good-luck charm, however.

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!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!


The audience, to whom the mariner is telling his story, seems relieved. The mariner isn't.

"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?"-With my crossbow
I shot the ALBATROSS.


So . . . he killed the only thing keeping him from a truly gruesome death. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be a bad decision, although—SPOILER ALERT—the mariner does not die.

He does, however, get to wear the rotting carcass of a giant seabird around his neck.

And then things get really bad.

Read the entire poem here.

(Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1797, published it in 1798, and updated it throughout his life. The text excerpted here is from 1834.)

albatross
Noun

type of very large seabird.

ancient
Adjective

very old.

carcass
Noun

dead body.

Christian
Noun

people and culture focused on the teachings of Jesus and his followers.

Noun

steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.

crossbow
Noun

weapon made of a large bow with a trigger used for releasing the arrow.

desperate
Adjective

hopeless.

dismal
Adjective

gloomy or sad.

emerald
Noun

green gem of the mineral beryl.

fiend
Noun

evil spirit.

Noun

clouds at ground level.

Noun

material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

grave
Adjective

very serious.

gruesome
Adjective

gross or violent.

Noun

part of a body of water deep enough for ships to dock.

harrowing
Adjective

extremely disturbing or scary.

helm
Verb

to lead and manage a ship and ship's crew.

hollo
Noun

call for attention.

Noun

water in its solid form.

ken
Verb

to know or understand.

kirk
Noun

church (term mostly used in Scotland and northern England).

lighthouse
Noun

structure displaying large, bright lights to warn and help ships navigate coastal waters.

literally
Adverb

exactly what is said, without exaggeration.

mariner
Noun

sailor.

mast
Noun

tall, pole-like structure rising above the top of a ship, where sails and other rigging are held.

Noun

clouds at ground-level, but with greater visibility than fog.

ne'er
Adverb

never.

plague
Verb

to consistently bother, torment, or annoy.

poem
Noun

written or spoken composition notable for its beauty or rhythm.

rot
Verb

to decay or spoil.

sailor
Noun

person who works aboard a ship.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Noun

(1772-1834) English poet.

Noun

large part of the ocean enclosed or partly enclosed by land.

seabird
Noun

bird native to an aquatic environment.

sheen
Noun

shine or brightness.

skirt
Verb

to pass along the edge of something.

snow
Noun

precipitation made of ice crystals.

swound
Noun

swoon, or state of fainting.

thus
Adverb

in a specific way or manner.