“The Lyrical Ballads” were published in 1798, and contained Coleridge’s best piece “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which fascinated the reader for its fantastic plot and supernatural atmosphere.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” tells the story of a mariner who committed the crime of killing an albatross. For this reason, he was condemned to travel about the world, telling his story to anyone in order to teach to as many people as possible reverence and love to God’s creatures. We observe that the gratuitous kill of the Albatross by the old mariner opened the way for an endless series of interpretations, the most common of which is that the Ancient Mariner would have been punished for his unnecessary cruelty against a God’s creature, which also showed itself to the crew as a “good omen.” The most commonly quoted source of inspiration is the Bible, with the classic example of Cain, who was forced to wander the world forever because of his horrifying crime. This is certainly a valid interpretation, and it was supported by Coleridge himself; however, we must not forget that we are faced with a poet who had a good literary education, and an excellent knowledge of ancient Greek literature, specifically of the Homeric poems, which are rich in difficult and adventurous sea voyages. In a beautiful essay by M. Detienne we read that Athena, the goddess of wisdom and intelligence, was also the goddess of navigation, and he showed herself to mariners in the form of a sea bird called “Aithya”, “the crow of the sea” (M. Detienne, “The navire of Athena ‘,’ RHR ‘, IV, 1970, pp. 113-117. The essay was published in English: ” Athena and the Mastery of the Horse “, in” History of Religions “, XI 2, 1971, pp. 161-184. In Italian,” La nave di Atena”, in “Il mito. Guida storica e critica”, Edited by M. Detienne, Bari, Laterza, 1982, pp. 164-200; p. 171)
Since we are in search of some sources of inspiration of this famous ballad, we observe that the episode described by Coleridge seems taken from the Odyssey (5, 285-464). The protagonist of the story was Ulysses, who was sailing towards the land of the Phaeacians. While Ulysses discerned on the horizon the coast of the Phaeacians, Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and oceans, unleashed against him a violent storm. While Ulysses felt at a loss, a miracle came to his rescue. Ino Leucothea (the “White Goddess”), appeared to Odysseus, and he offered to him the sail that would lead him to the land of the Phaeacians. We must emphasize the fact that Ino Leucothea appeared to Odysseus in the guise of a bird, that is as “Aithya”, the crow of the sea.” M. Detienne pointed out in his essay that “Aithya” was the “light bearer”, ‘phorosphoros’, as the “morning star”; “‘Aithya’ was a light in the darkness.” In addition, Athena-”Aithya” instilled the “metis” ["pragmatical intelligence"] into helmsman to get out of trouble. “Till a great sea-bird Called the Albatross, Came through the snow-fog, and was with great joy and hospitality Received … [and] The helmsman steered us through! “(Part I, 60-70).
Now it is clear the severity of the “crime” committed by the rude and ignorant Ancient Mariner. Killing the albatross, he was guilty of the most ghastly crime that could be committed against humanity, that is the killing of intelligence, the “light” that guides men through the vicissitudes of life; and, with reference to navigation, he also killed the “wisdom” and the “practical knowledge” that guides the helmsman. It’s not very difficult to see in Athena-Aithya the symbol of poetry as Coleridge understood it, for whom poetry is a form of knowledge, indeed, the highest form of knowledge. “The power of man appears in the poet,” Goethe said (Faust). The “killing of the poet” was to be punished with an eternal, monotonous and unchanging punishment, that is the exact opposite to the vital movement that characterizes human intelligence. For those who kill “the poet” there can be only the obsessive and manic “repetition” of an eternal act. The Ancient Mariner was, like Sisyphus, condemned to repeat the same gesture. In fact, Sisyphus was condemned eternally to push up a stone, that when it reached the summit, rushed back to the valley, so that the punishment had never end. The punishment of the Ancient Mariner is very similar to that of Sisyphus, because he was obsessively to tell the story of his “crime” against the albatross. . Usually, it is said that the “gratuitous” kill of the albatross by the Ancient Mariner remains a mystery. However, if the albatross symbolizes intelligence, human wisdom and above all the highest form of human knowledge, that is poetry, we can say without fear of contradiction that poetry, intelligence and human wisdom were (and are) vilified and “killed” from day to day before our eyes.