04/10/2013 11:37 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

For the Birds


Everyone remembers the haunting image of the albatross from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In the poem, the gigantic bird saves the ship only to be slain by a cross bow. No good deed goes unpunished.

As in the Coleridge poem, an albatross appeared out of the blue on The New York Times' editorial page recently ("One Last Chick," March 15, 2013). One of the curiosities about albatrosses that the New York Times noted, besides the fact that they "mate for life" and have wingspans "easily reaching 10 feet from tip to tip," was the fact that in "their final breeding they enjoy unusual success rearing one last chick, partly because they support the chick through a longer fledgling period than younger parents do."

Obviously, this is a very sophisticated survival mechanism. Indeed, somewhere in this marvelous image lies the seeds of another great poem. One wonders how Coleridge might have handled the idea. Nature can often seem malevolent, with Darwinian phrases like "survival of the fittest" and "natural selection" describing its processes. And who knows what the fate of the albatross will be with global warming. The expression "wears an albatross around his neck," which derives from the poem, is more meaningful to poetry readers than to the few people who have actually seen albatrosses in their lifetime.

"There is something wondrous in the idea of a pair of elderly albatrosses raising a chick with great care, as their own death approaches," the New York Times editorial concludes. And one wonders if the real subject of the piece isn't the fact that no such survival mechanism seems to have been installed in homo sapiens for whom no quirk of nature ensures the care of the old.

Illustration: Gustave Dore engraving for edition of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," public domain

This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.