Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Christabel was published by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1816. Coleridge wrote only two parts of the poem. He did not complete it out of concern that the rest might not be as perfect as the beginning. The poem breaks off at a very significant point in the plot.
The setting of the poem is a medieval castle owned by Sir Leoline, an old widower and a baron. He has a daughter named Christabel, who is loving, obedient, and pious.
Everyone in the castle sleeps, yet Christabel is still awake and praying in the woods nearby. An unknown young lady of extreme beauty appears before her:
There she sees a damsel bright,Drest in a silken robe of white,That shadowy in the moonlight shone:The neck that made that white robe wan,Her stately neck, and arms were bare;Her blue-veined feet unsandal'd were,And wildly glittered here and thereThe gems entangled in her hair.I guess, 'twas frightful there to seeA lady so richly clad as she—Beautiful exceedingly!
The unknown lady's name is Geraldine. She asks Christabel for protection, because, as she says, she has been attacked and pursued by warriors. The good Christabel grants her request, and
The lady sank, belike through pain,And Christabel with might and mainLifted her up, a weary weight,Over the threshold of the gate:Then the lady rose again,And moved, as she were not in pain.
Christabel carries Geraldine over the moat and brings her into the castle. However, Geraldine's fatigue and distress suddenly disappear once she gets into the castle, and the reader doubts for the first time that Geraldine is truly what she says she is.
It is past midnight. As Christabel brings her guest into her home, the old dog who lives in the castle moans. As they pass through the hall "that echoes still," the brands dying in the fireplace suddenly flame up. Christabel sees nothing in the darkness except Geraldine's eyes and the "boss" of her father's shield, which hangs in an "old niche in the wall." There seems to be some mysterious connection between these strange signs.
Christabel leads her guest into her bedroom and accommodates her there. Coleridge describes how Geraldine undresses, showing the stunning beauty of her body. She looks at Christabel, lies down near her and embraces her:
Then suddenly, as one defied,Collects herself in scorn and pride,And lay down by the Maiden's side!—And in her arms the maid she took,Ah wel-a-day!
Then Geraldine pronounces some mysterious words in which she mentions a spell:
And with low voice and doleful lookThese words did say:"In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow,This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow . . ."
The next morning, as the inhabitants of the castle wake up, Christabel introduces Geraldine to them. The beautiful guest enchants Sir Leoline. He offers her his hospitality. She tells him that she is distressed and haunted.
In the second part of the poem, the old baron orders, upon Geraldine’s request, that search be made and Geraldine’s pursuers be dealt with. Bracy the bard is charged with conducting the search, yet this brave servant of the Baron suddenly falters after having a dream. In the dream, he has seen a dove and a green snake coiling around a bird’s neck. He himself interprets the image of the dove as representing Christabel. Yet he does not give any explanation as to whom...
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the snake might be. The baron, as he listens to Bracy the bard, looks listless. He is totally enchanted by Geraldine.
The poem's speaker then links the image of the snake from the bard's dream with Geraldine:
A snake's small eye blinks dull and shy,And the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head,Each shrunk up to a serpent's eye,And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread,At Christabel she look'd askance!—One moment—and the sight was fled!
Christabel faints, but when she comes to her senses, the only thing she can ask her father for is to banish the evil Geraldine. However, she cannot explain the reason of her request, because
more she could not say:For what she knew she could not tell,O'er-mastered by the mighty spell.
The baron, however, being under the strong influence of Geraldine’s magic, is confused by his daughter’s plea, thinking that it violates the laws of hospitality. He remains untouched by Christabel’s distress and leads forth Geraldine, presumably as the new mistress of the castle.
At this point, Coleridge's unfinished poem breaks off.