Last Updated on September 24, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848
Setting is important to Coleridge’s poem Christabel, as it takes place in a dark forest and a dark castle. When Christabel (innocence) first meets Geraldine (evil), it is at night and under the cover of the trees in the forest. An old belief is that the dark forest is the dwelling place of the devil, who waits to tempt innocent victims to evil. In a way, Christabel is walking right into evil’s way by going into the forest at night. Although the speaker says there is moonlight, we can envision the woods being dark because the moonlight cannot penetrate the dense trees. Additionally, “the moon is behind, and at the full,” so readers might intuit—given the full moon’s common literary use as a symbol for burgeoning dark forces—that something bad is about to happen.
When Christabel and Geraldine return to Christabel’s home, readers find that it is a castle. One can envision the moat, the iron gates, the drafty and dark corridors as they are described. The two women walk the halls “Now in glimmer, and now in gloom” and “not a moonbeam enters” Christabel’s room. Therefore, readers sense pervasive darkness, which contributes to a feeling of dread. We know that something is wrong but are still not sure what it is. These settings prepare us for the poem’s subsequent events.
Symbolism is also important to the poem. As readers, we decipher what is happening as we go through the lines, but we constantly question what is real. The poem is written in an ambiguous way to keep us guessing. Certain symbols clarify our thoughts. For instance, Bracy’s dream is of a dove being strangled by a snake. He says he heard the dove’s cry for help but could see nothing wrong, and he went closer to see what was the problem. Then he noticed a green snake “Coiled around [the dove’s] wings and neck.” The snake had been camouflaged by the grass. Bracy says the dove’s name was Christabel. The dream should be a warning to Leoline and everyone that danger is camouflaged but real and present. Clearly, the dove symbolizes the innocent Christabel, who never harms anyone but exists in purity and love. The snake, known as a symbol of evil, is Geraldine, who hides under the guise of a helpless victim but is actually a spell-casting temptress. The symbols in Bracy’s dream confirm the reader’s suspicions that Geraldine is not to be trusted. The snake image, associated the devil, clearly confirms that Geraldine is a dark force and compels the reader to consider other clues in the poem as to who she really is.
We might be tempted to dismiss the poem as a supernatural story meant as pure entertainment. But perhaps Coleridge has a greater purpose in mind. One of his primary themes seems to be that evil will be victorious over good if we are not careful. The signs are all there that Geraldine is dangerous. She is found in a dark wood in the middle of the night. She appears to be physically weakened when near religious symbols, such as the angels in Christabel’s room. She chases away Christabel’s mother’s spirit, who is there as a protector. Christabel and Leoline seem to be in a trance around her. Bracy dreams of Christabel being harmed. Christabel has a vision of Geraldine as an old hag. However, the characters do not listen to each other. Each one holds clues as to Geraldine’s true nature, but each clue by itself is not enough proof. If Leoline would listen to the others, and if Christabel would be honest about her visions, perhaps they could all piece together the clues and avoid doom. Perhaps Coleridge is reminding readers to pay attention to warning signs so we can make sure that good wins over evil.
It is important to note that the use of a third-person limited narrator adds to the suspense of the poem. The narrator knows the poem’s events and what Christabel and Leoline are thinking, but they do not get inside Geraldine’s mind. Because the narrator is limited, we are left guessing at the end of the poem whether our suspicions about Geraldine are correct. We know she is a force of evil, but we are unsure exactly what kind. We might guess that she is some type of vampire based on the way she weakens near iron and wood (which might be used to make stakes to kill a vampire) and the fact that she is outdoors at night in a weakened state. She seems to thrive in darkness, so she is right at home in that dark castle. She also could be a witch, given her ability to cast spells and speak to spirits. We will never know exactly what Coleridge intended, but we can say that he used a third-person limited narrator to place suspicions in our minds. Thus, we are not taken in by Geraldine’s charms, though the characters are.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574
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, and the growls of the usually good-natured old mastiff as the guest passes.
When they reach her room, Christabel speaks of her dead mother, who she believes still guards her from evil. The statement calls forth a strange, defiant exclamation from Geraldine, but Christabel attributes it to her guest’s frightening experience, and the two settle down to sleep. While she holds the sleeping Christabel in her arms, Geraldine puts a spell on her, so that although she will be able to recognize evil, Christabel will not be able to speak about it.
When Christabel awakens the next morning, she has a confused sense of having sinned, perhaps in a dream. It is difficult for her to believe that Geraldine is evil, however, especially after Sir Leoline discovers that their guest is the daughter of his former friend, Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, from whom he has long been estranged. Resolving to heal the breach between them, Lord Roland commands the bard Bracy to take word to Lord Roland that his daughter is safe.
Bracy asks for a day’s grace, so that he can expel from the woods the evil which he senses is lurking there. He tells the Baron of a troubling dream, in which he saw a snake devour a dove. Unfortunately, Sir Leoline assumes that the dove is not Christabel but Geraldine. When Christabel begs him to expel the guest, he accuses her of jealousy and, in a fury, sends Bracy on his mission. The poem ends with a few lines about the relationship between a father and a child.
Although Coleridge published the poem unfinished, he left an account of his intentions for two or three more parts, which would bring it to a conclusion. Geraldine would vanish, to reappear in the guise of Christabel’s lover, and Sir Leoline would insist on proceeding with a wedding. The real lover would appear just in time and prove his identity. The evil spirit would disappear forever and all would end happily.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359
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.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917
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 open eyes (“ah woe is me!” laments the narrator), whereas Geraldine “Seems to slumber still and mild,/ As a mother with her child.” When Christabel awakens in the morning, smiling yet weeping, the narrator speculates hopefully that guardian spirits will look after her.
The second part of the poem begins with the daily morning tolling of the bell, which Bracy the bard says has been heard throughout the Lake District for years that span the lives of three sacristans. When Geraldine awakens, Christabel thinks her bedmate is fairer than she was the night before: “For she belike hath drunken deep/ Of all the blessedness of sleep!” She then says, “Sure I have sinned!” but under Geraldine’s spell, she can only pray that Jesus might wash away any unknown transgressions. She introduces Geraldine to Sir Leoline, who at first welcomes her but, hearing her tale and father’s name—Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine—grows pale, recalling that he and Roland had been close friends when young but subsequently became estranged.
They parted—ne-er to meet again!But never either found anotherTo free the hollow heart from paining—They stood aloof, the scars remaining,Like cliffs which had been rent asunder.
Moved by recollections of past friendship and seeing in Geraldine a youthful Sir Roland, Sir Leoline vows to avenge those who wronged her. When he embraces Geraldine, she prolongs the closeness “with joyous look,” and Christabel recalls her fearful vision of Geraldine the previous night.
Again she saw that bosom old,Again she felt that bosom cold,And drew in her breath with a hissing sound.
Her father asks what ails her, but “so mighty was the spell” she cannot tell him.
Geraldine, feigning concern that she has offended Christabel, asks that she be sent home without delay, but the baron refuses. He orders Bracy to travel to Lord Roland’s home, inform him his daughter is safe and that he should come to retrieve her. Bracy is also to say on his lord’s behalf
That I repent me of the dayWhen I spake words of fierce disdainTo Ronald de Vaux of Tryermaine!—For since that evil hour hath flown,Many a summer’s sun hasth shone;Yet ne’er found I a friend againLike Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine.
Bracy, his voice faltering, asks of his master that “This day my journey should not be” because in a dream the previous night he found a dove called Christabel in distress in the forest with a snake coiled around its neck but awoke at that point (it was midnight) and vowed to search the forest this day “Lest aught unholy loiter there.”
Ignoring his daughter, Leoline turns to Geraldine, addresses her as “Lord Roland’s beauteous dove,” says that he with her father will crush the snake, and kisses her forehead, at which time her eyes “shrunk up to a serpent’s eye,/ And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread,” she looks askance at Christabel, who stumbles and shudders with a hissing sound. Christabel begs her father “By my mother’s soul” to send Geraldine away, although unable to tell him why, since she still is “O’ermastered by the mighty spell.” Sir Leoline feels betrayed, thinking Christabel is jealous because of his obvious attraction to Geraldine. His “rage and pain” swell, his heart is “cleft with pane and rage,” and he thinks his only child is dishonoring him in his old age. Turning to the “gentle minstrel bard,” he reiterates his earlier order, turns away from his daughter, and leads forth “the lady Geraldine!”
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237
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.