RSAA'S ALBATROSS

 

The Wandering Albatross, avian exile of the southern seas, has a rich Romantic heritage.

While Sir Richard Dawkins was the first English mariner to record observations of the albatross in 1593, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the albatross began to acquire its mythical allure. George Shelvocke was greatly impressed by “Albitrosses” during his circumnavigation of the globe in 1719-22, describing them as “the largest sort of sea-fowls, some of them extending their wings 12 or 13 feet.” His account of this Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea (1726) also details a rather familiar incident in the inhospitable waters off Cape Horn:
 

we had not the sight of one fish of any kind… nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black Albitross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us 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. That which, I suppose, induced him the more to encourage his superstition, was the continued series of tempestuous winds, which had oppress’d us ever since we  had got into this sea. But be that as it would, he, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the Albitross, not doubting (perhaps) that we would have fair wind after it.

 
In 1758, the Wandering Albatross was recognised by Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus as a new species, Diomedea exulans. The inspiration for Linnaeus’ genus name was the mythological Diomedes, the valiant and sagacious commander who, according to Homer’s Iliad, sailed an army to lay siege to Troy and recover the abducted Helen. Favoured by Athena, Diomedes was one of the few commanders to survive her wrathful storm after the fall of Troy, but never returns to his homeland Argos again. Post-Homeric legend also suggests that at his death, his grieving men were transformed into birds to guard his tomb, and that we hear their mourning song in the albatross’ call. Linnaeus’ epithet exulans is said to derive from the ancient Greek root of ‘exile.’ And hence, from its inception as a species, the Wandering Albatross has been identified as a master of the seas, intrepid, portentous and without a home.

By 1797, on the cusp of the high Romanticism, William Wordsworth related this tale from Shelvocke’s Voyage to his good friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge while walking near Alfoxden, thus laying the seeds of inspiration for one of the most famous poems of literary history: Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Almost needless to say, the Rime presents the Wandering Albatross as—in Wordsworth’s words—a “tutelary spirit” of the South Seas, an otherworldly connection to an unseen world, whose senseless murder at the hands of the Mariner sets in motion a harrowing journey of spectral persecution, penance, and redemption.

 
           At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the Fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian Soul,
We hail’d it in God’s name.
In mist or cloud on mast or shroud
It perch’d for vespers nine,
Whiles all the night thro’ fog-smoke white
Glimmer’d 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.
 
 
 
Gustave Doré, Illustration for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," plate 8 (1876)
 
With the shooting, the albatross undergoes a swift cultural transformation; once majestic and ethereal, it is transformed into a dead, heavy and cumbersome weight to hang around the Mariner’s neck: “Instead of the Cross the Albatross / About my neck was hung.” Perhaps this is the unspoken consequence of the Mariner’s crime—that the albatross is now also associated with an oppressive sense of burden.

Despite this, the albatross continued its flight towards literary apotheosis. It is the albatross, and not the white whale, that is “the white phantom [that] sails in all imaginations” in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851):

 
I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king's ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. Long I gazed at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then.
 

But it is Charles Baudelaire’s “L’Albatros” (1861), perhaps, that captures the abject misery of the Wandering Albatross outside of its element, as a symbol of Romantic suffering and yearning:

 

Often, when bored, the sailors of the crew

Trap albatross, the great birds of the seas,

Mild travellers escorting in the blue

Ships gliding on the ocean’s mysteries.

 

And when the sailors have caught them in the planks,

Hurt and distraught, these kings of all outdoors

Piteously let trail along their flanks

Their great white wings, dragging like useless oars.

 

This voyage, how comical and weak!

Once handsome, how unseemly and inept!

One sailor pokes a pipe into its beak,

Another mocks the flier’s hobbled step.

 

The Poet is a kinsman in the clouds

Who scoffs at archers, loves a stormy day;

But on the ground, among the hooting crowds,

He cannot walk, his wings are in the way.

 

 

The largest living thing in the air, yet effortless in flight; the most itinerant creature in existence, yet mesmerizing in its stillness on a gale; the Wandering Albatross is an antipodean Romantic enigma. A symbol of resilience and beauty in the skies, yet equally lumbering and unwieldy on land—where it has been hunted to near extinction—the Wandering Albatross is an emblem of our ambition to rise above the endless turbulence of the waves.

 

May it safely guide our Association and its members far across the southern seas.

 

 

 

 

References:

Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil. Translated by James N. McGowan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lindsey, Terence. Albatrosses. Collingwood: CSIRO, 2008.

Lowes, John Livingstone. The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. London: Constable, 1930.

Shelvocke, George. A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea. London: 1726.