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...
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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 alone into the forest? The castle as Coleridge presents seems a more than adequate Christian venue. Christabel’s solitary quest for solace in prayer leads to unintended consequences, but Sir Leoline also is to blame for Geraldine’s success, because he quickly becomes infatuated with her, is too credulous, and acts impetuously.
Throughout the poem, Coleridge tantalizes readers with hints of supernatural aspects of Geraldine’s body and repeated descriptions of her rejuvenation through physical contact with Christabel and Sir Leoline. Geraldine is a vampire, or, more precisely, a lamia, a female of the species that often is portrayed as a reluctant practitioner of her dark deeds. Vampires are malevolent creatures that need physical contact with humans to suck their blood to sustain themselves, and in the process their victims either become vampires or assume some of their traits. Absent the entire narrative, readers can only speculate about the true nature of Geraldine. She may be at the mercy of a malevolent power, herself a victim forced to prey on others. She may have committed a sin of some sort, for which her vampirism is punishment. More broadly, Coleridge may be using his narrative as a means of dealing with the problem of evil and its effect on good, and he may be showing that the two are inextricably intertwined (like the snake around the dove’s neck in Bracy’s dream). The heroine’s name, starting with “Christ,” could be emblematic and intended to heighten the adversarial tension of the narrative. On the other hand, Geraldine may simply be the “fatal woman” of Gothic literature (also the subject of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” 1820, by John Keats), doomed to prey upon the innocent and unsuspecting. The poem has also given rise to psychosexual interpretations ever since it was published in 1816, some by critics who focus upon the ambivalence of the relationships among the principals and others who see it as a portrayal of lesbian love, albeit cloaked in medieval Gothic trappings. Without clear evidence of Coleridge’s intentions for the unwritten parts (several scenarios have been proposed), uncertainty remains as to the fate of the residents of Langdale Hall and their mysterious visitor.