The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Christabel is a long narrative poem, most of which is written in tetrameter couplets. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself pointed out in the original preface to the work, although the meter is standard, the number of syllables is somewhat irregular, varying from seven to twelve. The simple title emphasizes the fact that the story told by the poet is indeed Christabel’s story, the story of her struggle against possession by a demonic force.
From the scenic description in part 2 of Christabel, critics have deduced that the geographical setting Coleridge chose for his poem was the Lake District of England, where he had lived for some time near his friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth. The historical setting is the Middle Ages and, appropriately, the physical milieu is the castle of a baron, Sir Leoline.
Christabel begins in the forest outside the castle. Although it is a chilly night in early spring, the protagonist, Christabel, has sought the solitude of the woods to pray for her absent lover. Suddenly a mysterious lady emerges from the darkness. After introducing herself as “Geraldine,” she says that she was abducted from her own home by five knights, who deposited her in the woods but will return for her. Taking pity upon Geraldine, Christabel helps her into the castle, ignoring such warnings of evil as the lady’s seeming inability to walk across the threshold, which had been blessed against evil spirits,...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In the late eighteenth century, the Middle Ages had once again become fashionable. Readers were fascinated with the Gothic: knights in armor, ladies in distress, exotic religious trappings—such as rosaries, matins, bells, guardian spirits, and prayers to the Virgin—and, above all, supernatural suspense. It was this side of Romanticism that Coleridge had claimed when he and Wordsworth divided up the subject matter to be included in Lyrical Ballads (1798), and even though it appeared in a later collection, Christabel also clearly illustrates this kind of work.
The images in Christabel are those conventionally associated with mystery and the supernatural; for example, the sounds mentioned in the first lines: the chiming of the midnight hour, the hoots of owls, and the howling of the mastiff. The poet stresses the fact that the cock is crowing at the wrong time; clearly, this is a hint of disorder in the natural environment. The full moon is significant, too; although it brightens the dark woods, it is partially covered by a gray cloud, symbolizing the struggle between light and dark.
As the poem proceeds, this conflict becomes more explicit, and the images suggest the theme. Conventionally, light represents good, and dark, evil. It is also light that reveals the truth. Thus, when Geraldine enters the castle, the cold brands flare up so that Christabel can see Geraldine’s snakelike eyes. Later, it is Christabel who lights the lamp, Geraldine who seems to shrink from the light. The fact that Geraldine is garbed in white, denoting goodness and purity, indicates that she is involved in a carefully planned deception.
The snake or serpent is the major symbol of evil in part 2 of the poem. Sir Leoline applies this symbol to Geraldine’s supposed attackers, who he says must have “reptile souls.” Later, he misinterprets Bracy’s warning about the dove and the snake by assuming that the innocent-looking Geraldine is the dove. It is Christabel who now begins to see her as a snake or a serpent. It is clear that the images in the poem do more than create a mood; they are integrally related to the central conflict of the poem.
The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
It is midnight at Langdale Hall, the English Lake District castle of Sir Leoline, and under an April full moon the baron’s daughter Christabel passes through the gate and walks alone deep into the forest, eventually stopping to pray at an old oak tree for the well-being of the knight to whom she is betrothed. Hearing a moan, she goes to the other side of the tree and sees “a damsel bright,/ Drest in a silken robe of white . . . gems entangled in her hair.” The stranger tells Christabel she is of noble birth, is named Geraldine, and was abducted by five warriors who left her beneath the oak, promising to return. Christabel assures Geraldine that her father will see that she is safely guided home and leads her to the castle and her bedchamber, where Christabel offers her guest wine made by Christabel’s late mother (who “died the hour that [she] was born”). Seemingly sensing that the mother’s spirit is present, Geraldine says
“Off, old woman, off! This hour is mine—Though thou her guardian spirit be,Off, woman, off! ’tis given to me.”
Restored by the wine, Geraldine assures her hostess, “All they who live in the upper sky,/ Do love you, holy Christabel!” and she will attempt “to requite you well.” Preparing for bed, Geraldine removes her clothes, and the narrator tantalizingly says
Behold! Her bosom and half her side—A sight to dream of, not to tell!O shield her! Shield sweet Christabel!
Geraldine says nothing, but with a stricken look gets into bed, takes Christabel in her arms, and says
“In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!Thou knowest tonight, and wilt know tomorrow,This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow . . . ”
Christabel will be unable to reveal to others this shameful mark. She sleeps that night with...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bate, Walter Jackson. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. New York: Macmillan, 1968. A comprehensive one-volume biography that has not lost its importance with the passage of time.
Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Early Visions. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990. Focusing upon Coleridge’s most productive years as a poet, this biography places “Christabel” in the context of the man’s life.
House, Humphry. Coleridge: The Clark Lectures, 1951-52. London: Hart-Davis, 1953. A collection of six lectures, this small book provides extended analyses of the poetry, including a landmark discussion of “Christabel.”
Magnuson, Paul. Coleridge’s Nightmare Poetry. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974. Looks closely at Coleridge’s comments and textual revisions as a guide to interpreting his works.
Nethercot, Arthur H. The Road to Tryermaine: A Study of the History, Background, and Purposes of Coleridge’s “Christabel.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939. A comprehensive study of the origins of the poem that is patterned after The Road to Xanadu, the classic John Livingston Lowes book on “Kubla Khan.”
Paglia, Camille. “Christabel.” In Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A psychoanalytic and feminist analysis of the poem that offers fresh insight into the work.
Taylor, Anya. Erotic Coleridge: Women, Love, and the Law Against Divorce. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Reads Coleridge’s representation of women in terms of contemporary marriage and divorce law. Includes a chapter on “Christobel” that emphasizes its representation of youthful vulnerability.