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Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel (1816)

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TO LOOK AT THE LADY GERALDINE. H. J. Ford and Lancelot Speed, 1891 Created for Lang’s The Blue Poetry Book, a collection seeking to “put before children, and young people, poems which are good in themselves”; curiously, this edition only includes Christabel Part I.

While not the most famous of his works, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Gothic poem Christabel, first published in 1816, is perhaps his most controversial. Unfinished by Coleridge, who supposedly intended to complete it with three additional parts (Coleridge 652), Christabel[1] was originally conceived as the concluding poem of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, though it was ultimately rejected by Wordsworth. The poem, which details the naïve maiden Christabel’s encounter with the mysterious lady Geraldine, is marked by its ambiguity and has led to innumerable interpretations from critics and reviewers, who have seen in the poem everything from lesbianism and vampirism to rape and feminine hysteria (for more interpretations of the poem, see Maier’s “The Bitch and the Bloodhound”[2] and Swann’s “Christabel: The Wandering Mother”[3]; for contemporary reviews, see Swann’s “Literary Gentlemen”[4] and Reiman’s Romantics Reviewed[5]).

Overview Edit

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1722-1834), also known for Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, claims in his Preface that he had the whole poem in mind from the beginning, when it came to his mind “with the liveliness of a vision” (Coleridge 652); nevertheless, the first two parts were published alone and never completed. In these first two parts, Christabel, an innocent young woman (and a fairly typical Gothic damsel in distress), goes to the forest to pray in the middle of the night and meets Geraldine, a woman who presents herself as another damsel in distress. Christabel secretly brings her home and, in a scene that is likely at least partially responsible for early reviews that called the poem "disgusting," Christabel sees something that she (and the speaker) finds simultaneously horrifying and indescribable as she watches Geraldine undress. Christabel’s father, Sir Leoline, is charmed both by Geraldine and by his memory of Geraldine’s father, his estranged childhood friend. Christabel’s attempts to warn her father are silenced by Geraldine’s spell, and Sir Leoline and Geraldine leave Christabel alone and disgraced.  

Major Scenes and Themes Edit

In Christabel's Bedchamber Edit

The heart of this poem is the scene in Christabel’s bedchamber. The two women enter the room in darkness, and Christabel lights a lamp that is chained to a carved angel’s feet (176-183), at which point Geraldine collapses—her apparent weakness to Christian symbols and to light hint that she is not as virtuous as she claims to be. After she is revived by wine, Geraldine seems to speak to Christabel’s mother’s guardian spirit, telling it “this hour is mine” (205), an action that once again suggests that her intentions are malevolent and also connects her to the supernatural.  

Christabel’s inability to resist looking at Geraldine as she undresses could be interpreted as innocent curiosity, erotic desire, or some combination of the two; regardless, it seems voyeuristic and proves to be her undoing. She sees something on Geraldine’s “bosom and half her side—,” but the speaker is unable to fully describe the sight, saying only that it is “A sight to dream of, not to tell!” (246-7). Christabel, though she presumably sees whatever has so startled the speaker, is not given the chance to say anything, as Geraldine immediately pulls her into her arms and tells her that “in the touch of [her] bosom there worketh a spell,” one that will make Christabel forget what she has seen until she only remembers rescuing a lovely lady in the woods (in other words, until she remembers nearly as much as the audience knows). Even though, she says, Christabel will eventually remember “This mark of [Geraldine’s] shame, this seal of [her] sorrow,” she will be unable to speak (257-8). Christabel is placed under the same spell as the speaker, apparently—though both have “seen” the mark, neither can directly speak of it or describe it. Whatever it is that Christabel has seen though, it is horrible enough that Geraldine must immediately work magic to make her forget.

The scene ends with Christabel in Geraldine’s arms in bed, where Geraldine’s “spell” recaps the night’s events, excluding whatever it was that Christabel saw. This spell ends with a description of Christabel, whose “love and . . . charity” led her to rescue Geraldine and “To shield her and shelter her from the damp air” (265-6). At some level, Geraldine is praising Christabel here, though perhaps not an entirely sincerely. The line also means that the section ends with an image of safety and comfort, and the Conclusion to Part the First compares Geraldine’s embrace to that of “a mother with her child” (289). Their embrace, then, has some aspect of the maternal alongside the obvious erotic undertones. However, Geraldine also warns Christabel that “vainly [she] warrest” (259), perhaps most obviously against the spell, but also, on some level, against Geraldine’s embrace. Combined with Geraldine’s snake-like characteristics in Part II, this struggling embrace evokes the image of a serpent strangling its prey, an image that gives Geraldine’s “praise” of Christabel much darker undertones.

Forbidden Knowledge Edit

This text is particularly interested in the effect of forbidden knowledge, both on Christabel and on the audience. Christabel goes to the woods to pray, but is unable to ignore strange noises in the dark—she goes to investigate strange moanings on the other side of her tree (41), despite her ominous surroundings. She seems fascinated with Geraldine, immediately demanding more knowledge of her (“And who art thou?” (68); “How cam’st thou here?” (74)). Taking Geraldine home with her after asking nothing more of her guest could be seen as a charitable action, but there is also an element of satisfying her curiosity about her strange acquaintance that is compounded by her secrecy in sneaking Geraldine up to her room without waking any of her servants (or her father). Christabel notes that they must “creep in stealth” to her room, where Geraldine “tonight must sleep with [her]” (116-117)—though Christabel’s actions seem innocent, even charitable, her phrasing suggests knowledge of a possible transgression. In bed, Christabel’s curiosity leads her to look at Geraldine as she undresses, an act that is at once both innocently curious and intensely voyeuristic. Even in the morning, when she is unable to even remember viewing the mark, Christabel wakes and says, “Sure I have sinn’d!” (369), suggesting an awareness of transgression despite being in an apparent state of forgetfulness—she has been changed by her knowledge, even if she is not entirely aware of that knowledge at the moment.

Christabel is rewarded for her voyeurism by finally gaining access to forbidden knowledge in the form of Geraldine’s mysterious mark, which is so dangerous for her to know that she is forbidden to speak more than a few lines for the entire rest of the poem. Geraldine’s secret, whatever it is, is equally forbidden to the audience—though the speaker can, like Christabel, express horror, the audience is never given more than a hint of what the mark actually looks like (or even what it is). Sir Leoline is prevented from even knowing that such a mark exists and, in the tradition of the Gothic (see Manfred and Frankenstein), is much happier for his ignorance—though the poem might hint that Sir Leoline is in danger, the unfinished poem leaves Sir Leoline unharmed and relatively happy for his lack of knowledge, unlike Christabel, who is left speechless and disgraced.

The Supernatural Edit

As is fairly typical for Gothic works, the supernatural’s influence in Christabel is left fairly ambiguous. In fact, the poem actually opens with natural images, including an owl and a howling dog. These natural images, though, are made unnatural by hinting at the supernatural—a rooster crows along with the owls, suggesting something frightening about time, and the dog howls sixteen times every night at the stroke of twelve, leading “some” to speculate that she sees the ghost of Christabel’s mother (10-13). Christabel has been driven to the forest by a dream about her lover (29-30), and later Bracy the bard discloses his own seemingly prophetic dream in which a dove named Christabel is strangled by a snake, a dream that woke him at midnight the night before, just when Christabel met Geraldine (519-51). Christabel also dreams that night, apparently guided by the spirit of her dead mother. Prophetic dreams, unnatural actions by the natural world—both are supernatural, but quietly (and ambiguously) so.

Geraldine, on the other hand, is arguably a fairly obvious example of the malevolent supernatural. She is introduced as if she has somehow managed to creep up on Christabel despite the almost unnatural stillness of the night (47-54). Later, as they approach the castle, Geraldine is unable to cross the threshold beneath the iron gates without Christabel’s help (124-129), an incident that connects her to vampires, who cannot cross thresholds without help, or fairies, who are notoriously averse to iron. She appears to be able to commune with the dead, and she says to Christabel’s dead mother and guardian spirit, “I have power to bid thee flee . . . this hour is mine—though thou her guardian spirit be, / Off woman, off! ‘tis given to me” (199-207). Later, Geraldine turns to Christabel in public and looks at her with  “eyes . . . shrunk up in her head,” and these “serpent’s eye[s]” (572-3) are capable of putting Christabel into a trance. Though Geraldine seems to have some sort of power over women both living and dead, the source of her power remains ambiguous.

Relevance to Romanticism and the Gothic Edit


"Christabel," Thomas Stothard, 1829 This first illustration for Christabel has been criticized for its portrayal of Geraldine and Sir Leoline, but was supposedly approved by Coleridge himself (see Bentley, below)

Christabel is perhaps most obviously in conversation with other Gothic texts that address themes of forbidden knowledge—the idea demonstrated in Frankenstein and expressed in Manfred, that “they who know the most / Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth” (11-12), is also present here. Curiosity, it seems, rarely leads to anything but misery in Gothic works—Manfred and Victor Frankenstein do not survive their respective narratives, and while Christabel does survives, she does so in horror. Meanwhile, Sir Leoline remains ignorant and survives, though his embrace of Geraldine is ominous in consideration of the fates of those stories’ ignorant characters, like Manfred’s Astarte and Victor’s entire family.

Like other Romantic, but especially Gothic works, Christabel also seems interested in friendship, or rather, the lack of friendship. Sir Leoline’s failed friendship with Lord Roland provides the speaker with a chance to set forth the virtues of friendship, especially friendship begun in youth, that mirrors Victor Frankenstein’s relationship with Henry Clerval. This focus on friendship is a reflection of the Gothic’s obsession with isolation—those who are without bonds with other people, especially bonds of friendship, are likely to fail, as in the cases of Frankenstein’s Creature and Manfred. Concern with parental relationships plays into this sense of isolation as well: dead mothers provide another common thread between Christabel and Frankenstein, where the loss of Victor’s mother is a partial cause of his eventual downfall. The bond between fathers and their children is equally tragic, and both Victor and Christabel’s affectionate relationships with their fathers ultimately lead to tragedy when they unknowingly and unintentionally put their fathers in danger (Frankenstein’s father, like Christabel’s, ultimately learns and rejects a small part of the truth, though he is able to do so without rejecting his child, unlike Sir Leoline).

Of course, Christabel is also in direct conversation with other Gothic texts in regards to gender. Like many other Romantic and Victorian texts, Christabel conceives of women who fit the virgin/whore dichotomy (or, in Gothic terminology, the dichotomy of the damsel in distress and the femme fatale). Christabel seems to be in particular conversation with Keats’ works: in Lamia (1820), for example, a serpent becomes a woman and seduces and imperils a man. Unlike Lamia, though, Geraldine is not at the center of the story, and Geraldine menaces a woman instead of a man. Geraldine is also neither fully discovered nor destroyed, and she ultimately gets away with her deception. Keats’ 1890 poem The Eve of St. Agnes contains similar surface features to Christabel: both begin on a chilly evening with an owl’s ominous hooting, and both include a dog—in St. Agnes, the dog awakens when the lovers sneak away in the morning, but recognizes Madeline and remains quiet (565-6), while in Christabel, the dog is part of the Gothic atmosphere and provides one of the first signs that Geraldine is not what she seems to be when she growls in her sleep as they pass (140-48). On a thematic level, both poems are also concerned with women’s sexuality, a concern that culminates in ambiguous but suggestive bedroom scenes. However, while the action in Madeline and Porphyro’s encounter is not explicit, but is romantic (or, at least, erotic) in nature, Christabel and Geraldine’s posture is explicitly referred to as an embrace, though the text is unclear whether it is meant to be read as maternal, erotic, or even dangerous (or perhaps a combination of all of these). Like many Romantic texts, Christabel, The Eve of St. Agnes, and even Lamia are simultaneously intrigued by and hesitant about women’s sexuality, which is explored frequently but always ambiguously.  

Relevant Sources Edit

  1. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Christabel." 1797-1801. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. Ed. David Damrosch, Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Peter Manning, and Susan Wolfson. 5th ed. Vol. 2a. New York, NY: Longman, 2006. 652-68. Print.
  2. Maier, Rosemarie. "The Bitch And The Bloodhound: Generic Similarity In 'Christabel' And 'The Eve Of St. Agnes'." Journal Of English And Germanic Philology 70.(1971): 62-75. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
  3. Swann, Karen. "'Christabel': The Wandering Mother And The Enigma Of Form." Studies In Romanticism 23.4 (1984): 533-553. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
  4. Swann, Karen. "Literary Gentlemen And Lovely Ladies: The Debate On The Character Of Christabel." Elh 52.2 (1985): 394-418. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
  5. Reiman, Donald H. The Romantics Reviewed, 1793-1830: A Collection In Depth Of Periodical Reviews Of The English Romantic Writers. New York: Garland, 1972. 892 2338 869, 1976. MLA International Bibliography. Print.

Further Reading Edit

For more on the connection between Christabel and The Eve of St. Agnes, see Maier, Rosemarie. "The Bitch And The Bloodhound: Generic Similarity In 'Christabel' And 'The Eve Of St. Agnes'." Journal Of English And Germanic Philology 70.(1971): 62-75. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

For discussion of Christabel’s relationship to revolution (and especially the French Revolution), see Henderson, Andrea. "Revolution, Response, And 'Christabel'." Elh 57.4 (1990): 881-900. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

For an overview of the criticism of Stothard’s illustration of the scene between Christabel, Sir Leoline, and Geraldine, which provides some insight into Coleridge’s ideas about the relationship between Geraldine and Sir Leoline, see Bentley, G. E. Jr. "Coleridge, Stothard, And The First Illustration Of "Christabel." Studies In Romanticism 20.1 (1981): 111-116. Historical Abstracts. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.


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