Inversion of the Serpent and a Queer Reading of Coleridge

By: Vee Sharp ’24

English and Art Majors with Art History concentration and Creative Writing minor

Brief Description: Animals hold a very specific weight as symbols, a weight that shifts and changes depending on what culture one looks at them from. Living in a culture very much influenced by Christian symbolism, we tend to associate the images of animals with specific traits, whether it be the bird and hope or the serpent and deceit.

The following was written for ENG 321: Romanticism.

Photo by Jan Kopu0159iva on Pexels.com

The serpent and the bird, particularly in Western cultural canon, have visceral connotations within both literature and art. The snake represents temptation, a fall to evil or degeneracy; the bird, or more commonly the dove, is a herald, a symbol of divinity and hope. With such symbolism associated with these creatures, an inversion or play upon these associations becomes a powerful exploration into what we value and why, and what happens when the individual crosses the firm boundaries created by institutions. Coleridge plays with the image of the snake and bird throughout his work. His poem Christabel is a clear example, containing subversive material and presenting the snake and bird as intertwining entities rather than separate. To invert the associations seemingly inherent to the serpent and the bird seems a natural bridge into a queer reading. The symbolic inversion of serpents and birds within The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge presents a space for queerness in identity, sexuality, and desire, illustrating narratives of coming out to both oneself and to social groups.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, while a tale that can be taken in a supernatural or literal sense in equal measure, also rings true as a metaphor for the search for queer identity and the renewal of the self. The narrative told by the titular sailor is inundated with the images of snakes and birds alike, with the story incited by the appearance of an albatross:

                        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. (62-65)

The bird takes the place of the biblical dove, becoming a beacon of hope for the lost sailors. It is a conventional symbol of comfort. Its presence becomes a substitute for the divinity that the sailors associate with larger institutions, thus having “hailed it in God’s name.” While the bird has religious significance to the superstitious sailors, its meaning only goes so far as what society would give it. They “hail” the bird “in God’s name” in a group, in a “we.” Their identity in the face of the bird is that of a collective, a fundamental agreement of the significance of religion and propriety. With this agreement, the albatross is kept alive: “It ate the food it ne’er had eat” (62), and continuously circles back around to the sailors: “And every day, for food or play, / Came to the mariners’ hollo!” (73-74). The albatross’ meaning, as a physical presence, is dependent only on the credence given to it by the sailors. Likewise, the hold of social norms and religion upon the group is only upheld by the group itself.

The meaning and holiness of the albatross, however, only extends so far as its life. The narrator—the mariner—shoots the albatross, and apparently the sailors’ hope: “With my crossbow / I shot the albatross” (80-81). Never does the mariner explain, or even know himself, why he destroys the albatross, and in turn the hold of social norms upon himself and the group. In a queer identity, or perhaps any aspect of the self-subversive to larger establishment, the perceived “destruction” of the “holy” is seemingly inevitable. The death of the bird, then, is not the death of the sailors’ hope, but on a metaphorical level the slow death of religion’s hold. The bird hovered above the ship, an ever-watchful eye. By removing that gaze, the sailor removes any larger judgment on both himself and his crewmates. Removing that stability by giving into impulse provokes incredible hatred among the sailor’s peers.

 The initial shock of violence, the impulsive “murder” of the albatross takes the place of coming out—it is a fast, quick blow to the neck of an established comfort. The death of the albatross is a metaphorical “coming out,” a revelation of true identity. The crew, losing their comfort and shield, proceeds to ostracize and blame the mariner:

                        And I had done a hellish thing

                        And it would work ‘em woe:

                        For all averred I had killed the bird

                        That made the breeze the blow. (91-94)

The mariner’s queerness is on constant display before the crew and the world, his inner turmoil made public. The albatross, rather than being a symbol of hope, becomes inverted into a weight and a burden; religion and the need for absolution become a burden for the mariner, haunting him as he dehydrates and starves. The turmoil associated with queerness and the discovery of queer identity becomes a burden rather than a joyful flight. His queerness comes from this “coming out,” and his killing of the albatross not the erasure of hope but an attempt at removing the ever-watchful eye that is a barrier to identity. The inversion of the bird asks the question of who flies and who is burdened by the wider definition of hope.

The image of the snake, likewise, pervades the poem from the very beginning, with the description of the mariner suggesting the visage of the serpent, particularly in the imagery of his eyes, which are “glittering” and “bright” (14, 20). This almost supernatural imagery marks the mariner as Other from the start, as he embodies the serpent. Like the albatross, the serpent begins with its conventional, sinister connotation:

                        The very deeps did rot: oh Christ,

                        That ever this should be!

                        Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs

                        Upon the slimy sea. (122-125)

As the mariner suffers, he turns with fear upon these serpent-like, monstrous images, abhorring them just as the crew abhors him. With his own serpentine attributes identified from the beginning, the mariner is by extension turning upon himself, tearing at his identity as the outside world also does so. As the world Others him, the mariner also Others himself. The process of coming out, in this case, includes a process of coming out to the self.

The serpent comes to represent not temptation to evil, but rather renewal and acceptance of the queer. Though the mariner initially looks upon the sea serpents with disgust and fear, his own desperation eventually leads him to look downward and within. With his own acceptance comes an inversion of the serpent, as the creatures below take on a divine tone, moving “in tracks of shining white” (274). As the albatross rots, the serpents thrive, and the mariner finds divinity in what he initially feared and found abhorrent. The process of queer acceptance, likewise, finds a person allowing their previous identity and beliefs to rot. In exchange, one finds beauty in what others deem ugly. The serpent is life where the mariner initially can only see death. In loving the snakes below, he finds the means to love what the outside would identify as sin:

                        Oh happy living things! no tongue

                        Their beauty might declare:

                        A spring of love gushed from my heart

                        And I blessed them unaware! (282-285)

The death of the albatross allows the mariner to resolve his guilt. His crew dies in the metaphorical sense because they hinged so much of themselves upon the albatross, upon that what has already died. Through spurning the mariner, they in essence kill themselves as well. The “coming out” of the mariner, which shattered the oversight and beliefs of convention, killed those around him because so much of themselves hinged upon that oversight. The mariner can live and rejuvenate himself by accepting his serpent-like qualities, by inverting the conventional wisdom of rejecting temptation. He comes back to life by indulging in temptation, in finding the holy within the serpent.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, though a story of incredible loss on the part of the mariner, is also one of rebirth and kinship. Rather than being a symbol of temptation, snakes become representative of flouting the death imposed by the rotting albatross. The mariner himself, taking on the characteristics of the snake, is drawn to those that are like him—the wedding guest, who listens to his story. Between the marginalized, the different, there is an unspoken understanding. The wedding guest, then, is identified as queer, and intrinsically understands the mariner’s story through the end. Through embracing the subversion of familiar symbols, the mariner and his listener can find personal liberation in their identities, free to explore those spaces and use those symbols in a personal respect.

Works Cited:

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Romanticism: An Anthology, edited by Duncan Wu, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006, pp. 715-731.

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