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!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.'
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?'—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
Albatrosses are the largest flying birds, with wingspans of up to three metres. Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific, is the oldest known wild bird, still laying eggs at 70 years old. Albatrosses remain loyal to their mates all their lives.
As they age, wandering albatrosses become almost entirely white; invested, in the past, with the spirits of drowned sailors and a sense of the ominous (the words avian and augury have the same Latin root). In Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726), an influence on Coleridge's poem, George Shelvocke records that his second captain, Simon Hatley, saw a black albatross, ‘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’.
As Hatley took aim, his commander looked on in wonder, as if himself stupefied. ‘That which, I suppose, induced him the more to encourage his superstition, was the continued series of contrary tempestuous winds, which had oppressed us ever since we had got into this sea'. And so, said Shelvocke, 'he shot the Albitross.’