I’ve always loved dragons and snakes, and been disturbed that Christian iconography typically portrays them as agents of evil, so I was especially delighted to discover a positive portrayal in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
It’s a poem I’m rather ashamed to admit I’ve never read before, and I owe my final acquaintance to one of the delightful Gothic literature groups I recently joined on Goodreads. I was especially struck by the moral of the poem: “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small.” Certainly an ecological theme! The basic story of the poem is that the Ancient Mariner of the title comes under Heaven’s curse for wantonly killing a friendly Albatross that had landed on his ship, a bird which the other sailors had taken as a fortunate omen.
Even more striking is that the Mariner’s redemption arises from the most unlikely of creatures: a band of water-snakes:
“They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elflish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind Saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”
(Text from The New Oxford Book of English Verse, c1972, p. 534.)
I know nothing of Coleridge’s life beyond the bare bones, but I’m curious to know whether he knew anything of Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis, who was officially declared patron saint of ecologists by Pope John Paul II in 1979, is well known for his love of all living creatures. While I’ve never heard any anecdotes that specifically mentioned snakes, there is a story that “he lifted worms from the road for fear they might be trampled underfoot by passersby.” (I was especially gratified to read this, because I often do the same for earthworms when they’ve crawled onto the sidewalks after a hard rain.)
Of course, without further research, there is no way to know whether or not Coleridge was familiar with such stories about Saint Francis. He may merely have soaked up the Romantic movement’s love of nature from his friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth—or he may have loved such creatures from boyhood and needed no model or excuse to sing their praise. Though I have no idea what inspired Coleridge to give his character such unlikely saviors, I’m glad that he did.