At a glance:
- Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- First Published: 1816
- Type of Work: Poem
- Genres: Poetry, Narrative poetry
- Subjects: Folkloric or magical people, Snakes, Sex or sexuality, Supernatural, Ghosts or apparitions, Good and evil, Castles, Birds, Romanticism, Middle Ages, Monsters, Demoniac possession, Vampires
Christabel has two parts, written in 1797 and 1800, with the second part a distinct falling-off from the preceding. In the first part, the maiden Christabel, rather unwisely for a defenseless young girl, goes into the woods at midnight to pray for her betrothed knight, where she discovers the beautiful but evil Geraldine, who claims that she has been abandoned by five would-be rapists. At once, the idea of sexual violation comes into the poem. Christabel takes pity upon Geraldine and brings her to the home that she shares with her father, Sir Leoline. Geraldine, like evil spirits traditionally, cannot cross the threshold of the castle, so poor, duped Christabel carries her, in an ironic inversion of the marriage ritual.
Christabel brings Geraldine to her bedchamber and tells her guest about her mother’s having died when she was born. They undress, Geraldine revealing her magic and mystery in an undescribed horror visible on her chest and side. Naïvely, Christabel sleeps with her visitor. In the conclusion to the first part, the narrator acknowledges that Geraldine now has Christabel at her mercy and that only the unlikely aid of the spirit of Christabel’s mother can save her. Geraldine probably is a lesbian vampire, as is most persuasively argued by James Twitchell and Camille Paglia in Harold Bloom’s collection of essays on Coleridge.
The second part of the poem concerns the day after the previous waking nightmare. Sir Leoline arises to note that he awakes to a world of death, which clearly characterizes the experience to which his daughter is now subject. He meets Geraldine, who discloses that she is the daughter of his youthful best friend, from whom he is now estranged. He decides to use this visit to mend fences, while the watching Christabel is reminded of how chilled she was when she touched Geraldine the night before.
Similarly, Bard Bracy, the resident poet who is by virtue of his craft gifted with the artist’s intuition of truth, describes a dream that he has just had, in which Sir Leoline’s pet dove, named for his daughter, has been captured by a green snake. Moreover, Christabel, under the magnetic but malevolent influence of Geraldine’s serpentine eyes, reflects the same diabolic appearance, which renders Sir Leoline, interpreting it as jealousy, enraged at his evidently inhospitable child. Christabel’s troubles are only just beginning, it seems, as the poem breaks off.
Coleridge talked of completing the poem, but starting as it does with the rise of evil, he was uncomfortable pursuing that to its anticipated and un-Christian triumph. It remains, then, a provocative fragment of innocence in the grasp of potent, malicious, and unconventional female sexuality.
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