Bruce Chatwin on the Sources of the Albatross in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Seth Kalvert '91 (English 137, 1990)

Taking off, the albatrosses spread themselves to the wind, their huge webs paddling the water, streaming spray until the cutting edge of their wings lifted them clear.

Instead of the Cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Nathaniel Hawthorne once saw in a museum a stuffed Great Wandering Albatross, with its wingspan of twelve feet, and the idea of such a bird around the Mariner's neck struck him as yet another instance of the poem's absurdity. But Coleridg's albatross was a much smaller bird. Here is the text, taken from Captain Shelvocke's voyage, which gave the poem its marching papers:

The heavens were perpetually hid from us by gloomy distant clouds. . . one would think it impossible that any living thing could subsist in so rigid a climate and indeed we had not the sight of one fish of any kind, nor seabirds, except a disconsolate Black Albatross, hovering near as if he had lost himself. . . till Hatley (my second captain) observing in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagin'd from his colour that it might be some ill-omen . . . and after some fruitless attempts shot the Albatross, not doubting, perhaps, that we should have a fair wind after it.

There are two contenders and I saw them both on Tierra del Fuego: the Sooty Albattross, ashy bird, smoke-grey all over and known to sailors as the Stinkpot or Prophet; or, less likely, the Black-browed Albatross or Mollymauk, fearless and attached to human company. [113]

Chatwin does not provide the source of his quoted passage. How would you go about finding it? What does his quotation of Captain Shelvocke imply about the poem? The relation of individual texts to each other? Why, for that matter, would the author of a travel book include such speculations and his similar comments about Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym?


Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia, New York: Summit, 1977

United Kingdom In Patagonia