Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003
Christabel was supposed to be one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s contributions to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, a joint project with William Wordsworth first published anonymously in 1798 that included The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge’s long ballad. He wrote the first part of Christabel in 1797, but by 1800, when an expanded, two-volume edition of Lyrical Ballads was published, he had completed only the second part of the poem. When the poem, still a fragment, finally was published 1816, Coleridge stated in a preface: “But as, in my very first conception of the tale, I had the whole present to my mind, with the wholeness, no less than the liveliness of a vision, I trust that I shall be able to embody in verse three parts yet to come, in the course of the present year.” He never did, and this sentence subsequently was deleted from the preface.
Coleridge’s reputation as a giant of English literature rests upon his literary criticism and just three poems—The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan (1816)—only the first of which he completed. All epitomize the Romantic period’s attraction to the remote (in time and place) and the mysterious (with supernatural and Gothic elements). Though The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (particularly in its early version) seems closer in poetic style than Christabel to the traditional English ballad, Coleridge in his preface to the latter says his meter is “founded on a new principle: namely, that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables [which] may vary from seven to twelve, yet in line the accents will be found to be only four.” Actually, much Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry was based on accent, with variation in the number of syllables per line, as in this poem, but since the 1500’s English poetry had typically had a regular number of syllables per line, so Coleridge indeed was departing from prevailing practice. Compared to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the incomplete Christabel, follows more directly in traditions of the English ballad and the Gothic because of its native setting, folklore superstitions, overarching Christianity, and supernatural elements.
The opening stanzas of Christabel abound with familiar Gothic imagery, which focuses upon the unusual, the unnatural, and the un-Christian: a rooster crowing at midnight instead of at dawn, sleeping owls awakened, the tolling of a tower clock that rouses an old mastiff bitch, who may see his lady’s shroud. There is a full moon, and when Christabel first encounters Geraldine in the forest, the stranger has a faint voice, is weary, and thinks she is under a trance. Further on, when they return to the castle and cross its moat, Geraldine faints, a sign that she either is possessed or is an evil creature of some sort, for such a person, according to lore, cannot freely enter a Christian household. To emphasize Geraldine’s alien, un-Christian nature, the narrator describes how dying candles in the castle hall flare anew as she passes, a supposed indication of the presence of evil. In the bedchamber, a lamp chain in an angel’s form sways as the women enter and casts its shadows on the walls, causing Geraldine to swoon. Meanwhile, the guest has demonized her hostess, it seems, because the narrator compares Christabel’s eyes to those of a serpent, and on two occasions Christabel gives a snakelike hiss in her father’s presence.
At the point at which the unfinished fragment breaks off, Geraldine is in control, largely as a result of Christabel’s quixotic midnight adventure, about which there are unanswered questions. Christabel was concerned about her betrothed knight, who presumably was fighting for the king, and she wanted to pray for his safe return. Could she not have done so in her bedchamber? Why venture out...
(The entire section contains 1003 words.)
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