Christabel: by S. T. Coleridge - Summary and Analysis

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      Date of Composition. The first part of Christabel has been composed in 1797 when the poet used to live at Nether Stowey. The second part has been composed in 1800, after the poet's return from Germany.

      Date of Publication. Coleridge has an elaborate plan about the present poem, but he can not complete it. On Byron's recommendation, Murray published these two parts together with Kubla Khan and The Pains of Sleep in 1816.

      The Plan of the Poem. In 1836, Wordsworth is ben remarked that "he had no idea how Christabel was to have been finished and he did not think Coleridge had ever conceived in his own mind, a definite plan for it; that the poem had been composed while they were in habit of definite intercourse, and almost in his presence, and when there was the most unreserved intercourse between them and he had never heard from him any plan for finishing it."

      Reasons for Not Completing the Poem. The biographers of Coleridge have assigned several reasons due to which the poem can not be completed. As a matter of fact, a number of unfortunate incidents does not let Coleridge complete this poem. In a note book entry for 3rd November, 1810, Coleridge has written that he suffered a lot due to his quarrel with Lamb and Lloyd and this has prevented him from completing Christabel. On 19th December, 1799, he write to Southey, "I am afraid that I have scarce poetic enthusiasm enough to finish Christabel."

      Despite the two facts mentioned above, Coleridge makes every effort to complete the poem. But he is a very sensitive man. He is almost hyper-sensitive. His quarrel with his two best friends, Lamb and Lloyd, prevents him not only from completing Christabel, but also from doing any other thing. His mental peace is further disturbed when he sees Lloyd's novel, Edmund Oliver. Lloyd, to humiliate his friend, modelled his hero in the novel on the dark side of Coleridge. So great became his despair and anguish after that "the gulf between his intellect and will, between powers and performance" went on increasing, as Prof. Saintsbury remarks. Consequently, Coleridge could never complete the poem and it remains in its unfinished state as we find it today, though he himself has a strong desire to complete the poem. He writes on one occasion, "The reason for my not finishing Christabel is not that I don't know how to do it—for I have, as I always had, the whole plan entire from beginning till the end in my mind, but I fear I can not carry on with equal success of execution of the idea, an extremely subtle and difficult one." But like many unrealised schemes and visions of his, Christabel too, remains unfinished.

      Joint Plan of Wordsworth and Coleridge. As very close friends, Wordsworth and Coleridge has planned to produce the Lyrical Ballads jointly. "It is agreed," says Coleridge, "That my endeavours shall be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, is to propose to himself as his object to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural. With this view I wrote the Ancient Mariner, and is preparing, among other poems, the Dark Ladie and Christabel in which I shall have more nearly realised my ideal than I have done in my first attempt." Coleridge has already contributed The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads. Christabel is to be included in the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, but Coleridge fails to complete the poem well within time.


      The first part of the following poem is written in the year 1797, at Stowey, in the county of Somerset. The second part after my return from Germany, in the year 1800, at Keswick, Cumberland. It is probable that if the poem has been finished in either of the former periods, or if even the first and second part has been published in the year 1800, the impression of its originality will have been much greater than I dare at present expect. But for this, I have only my own indolence to blame. The dates are mentioned for the exclusive purpose of precluding charges of plagiarism or servile imitation from myself. For there is amongst us a set of critics, who seem to hold, that every possible thought and image is traditional; who have no notion that there are such things as fountains in the world, small as well as great; and who will therefore charitably derive every rill they behold flowing, from a perforation made in some other man's tank. I am confident, however, that as far as the present poem is concerned, the celebrated poets whose writings I may suspect of having imitated, either in particular passages, or in the tone and the spirit of the whole, would be among the first to vindicate me from the charge, and who, on any striking coincidence, will permit me to address them in this doggerel version of two monkish Latin hexameters.

'Tis mine and it is likewise your;
But an if this will not do;
Let it be mine good friend ! for I
Am the poorer of the two.

      I have only to add that the metre of Christabel is not, properly speaking, irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded on a new principle: namely, that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables. Though the latter may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accents will be found to be only four. Nevertheless; this occasional variation in number of syllables is not introduced wantonly, or for the mere ends of convenience, but in correspondence with some transition in the nature of the imagery or passion.


      Sir Leoline of Langdale has a lovely daughter, named Christabel. Once she goes to the woods at midnight—the hour of witches and ghosts to pray for her absent fiance. In the chilly April night she meet a damsel who is alone and dress in the silken clothes and surpassingly beautiful. She is related her story thus: "My name is Geraldine and I am the daughter of Sir Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine. Yesterday, I am forcibly abducted by five warriors who gagges my mouth and carries me on a white palfrey to this deserted place where they have left me promising to come back soon." The touching story moves Christabel.

      As Geraldine entered the Castle, a few strange things happens. She sank over the threshold of the gate; the old mastiff makes an unwanted angry moan; the smouldering brands give a 'tongue of light or flit of flame'. All these occurrences has an air of mystery about them.

      They shares the same bed. At night Geraldine wrought her evil spell upon Christabel. The charm is so powerful that under its effect she could only say that she has succoured a lady of surpassing loveliness in the forest and brings her home and feed her. She has no power to say anything else concerning Geraldine.

      During her sleep, Christabel has dreadful and happy dreams one after the other. In the morning, Christabel repents for the evil thoughts that had come to her during her sleep, and she cheerfully led Geraldine to meet her father. When the Baron come to know that the distressed lady is the daughter of his old friend (Alas! the two friends has quarrelled and parted) he make a vow that he would avenge the outrage to Geraldine the noble lady. He has embraced her fondly. At this time Christabel has a vision (this was the second vision). In the vision she see the same cold bosom of Geraldine. She shudders and hiss.

      The father can not understand what the real matter is. In the meantime, the witch assumes the pose of injured innocence and wants to be send home. The Baron asks his poet (Bracy) to go to Sir Roland and request him to come with his equipment to take his daughter. Bracy wants permission to postpone his departure. He has seen a vision, he says, and in the vision he has seen a bright green snake (Geraldine) encircling a gentle dove (Christabel) and ready to kill it. The Baron interprets the dream differently and take the snake to mean the ruffians who has abducted her. Geraldine plays the lady and thanks the Baron in the most fashionable manner. She looks at him with her large bright divine eyes, but at Christabel she looks askance. The pure maid has her third vision in which only one image — the dull and treacherous look of Geraldine — seems to be fixed upon her mind.

      After the trance is broken, Christabel appeals to her father to send Geraldine away. He carries the impression that his daughter has grown jealous. He feels insulted and disgraced. He gets enraged and furious and repeated his orders to the Bard. Bracy goes and the Baron turning his back upon his own daughter, lead forth Geraldine.


      L. 1-22. According to the clock in Sir Leoline's Castle, it is midnight. The cock has begun to crow. Sir Leoline's mastiff bitch howls sixteen times, and the midnight is chilly; it is a moonlit night, but the cloud obscures the moon light. Being the month of April, spring has only just commenced.

      L. 23-36. Christabel, beloved of her father, Sir Leoline, is alone in the forest late at night, praying for the welfare of her lover who is far away; silently, she is kneeling and praying beneath the huge oak tree.

      L. 37-78. Christabel is suddenly disturbed in her silent prayers by a nearby moaning sound. It cannot be the wind that makes the moaning sound for there is very little wind in the air. Christabel walks round to the other side of the oak tree and sees there a beautiful lady lying in some disorder. When asked to explain who she is, the lady says that she is too weary to speak; but, presently, she starts telling her story.

      L. 79-103. The lady says that her name is Geraldine; she has been kidnapped by five warriors in the morning; she has been secured on the back of a horse; the whole day they have travelled and when night came, one of the five have taken her from the horse's back and left her at the foot of the oak tree. They have vowed to come back soon. When they left her, she has become unconscious - it is the castle clock that awoke her. Having told her story, the lady requests Christabel once again to stretch forth her hand and help her to escape from her enemies.

      L. 104-122. Hearing Geraldine's sad story, Christabel extends her hand to her and promises her that Sir Leoline will send her (Geraldine) safe to her own father's hall. As they walk slowly together, Christabel tells Geraldine that Sir Leoline being too weak in health, shall not be disturbed till the morning. Geraldine can, however, sleep for the night in Christabel's room on the same couch.

      L. 123-174. Walking together, Geraldine and Christabel crosses the moat; Christabel opens the door in the middle of the gate, and they cross the court, and then the hall. Seeing them, the mastiff bitch moans angrily: when they pass the dying fire leaps up into a sudden blaze. They find their way from stair to stair, and at last they enter Christabel's room.

      L. 175-219. Christabel's room is contrived by clever workmen and sculptors like a real lady's chamber. Christabel trims the silver lamp and makes it bright. Meanwhile Geraldine sinks upon the floor, as though she is very tired. Christabel - offers her a cordial wine made Out of wild flowers by her late mother. Geraldine is now suddenly frightened by some mysterious presence-probably the spirit of Christabel's mother-and cries out wildly. She presently recovers her poise and pretends that her fit has subsided and that she is all right once again.

      L. 220-244. Geraldine drinks some more wine and regaining her strength, stands erect on the floor; she is alluring and strange, as if she has come from a distant place. She asks Christabel to undress and go to bed. But Christabel cannot sleep now, and hence she reclines on her elbow and observes Geraldine from the bed.

      L. 245-278. Slowly and with a shudder as it were, Geraldine too undresses, she neither speaks nor stirs for a time; her face shows sorrow and hesitation; but suddenly she seems to make up her mind and lies down by Christabel's side. She now takes Christabel in her arms and pronounces a charm upon her, which puts her under Geraldine's power.

      L. 279-331. Christabel, as she is kneeling and praying at the foot of the old oak tree, looks so innocent so beautiful. Now she is lying by the side of Geraldine, and dreaming the most fearful dreams. Her eyes are open, and yet she is unconscious; such a fearful change has come upon her. But, by her side, Geraldine is slumbering in ease, unmindful of the happiness she has wrecked. An hour passes; the hour of Geraldine's absolute triumph is over. The night-birds are calling lustily and Christabel too comes out of her night marish trance; she sheds tears of happiness and smiles like a child; for she has now seen a sweet vision, the vision of her guardian spirit, the vision of her dead mother, Lady Leoline.

      L. 332-359. It is the custom in Sir Leoline's Castle for the sacristan to count the heads and mutter prayers forty-five times between two consecutive strokes of the morning bell. This is so because, according to Sir Leoline, life is really a living death. When the sacristan rings the bell, the sounds are taken up by the ghosts of three other sacristans in the neighboring country and each matin bell thus echoes far and wide. When the three echoing sounds cease, the devil himself concludes the series with a merry peal from Borodale.

      L. 360-392. When she listens to the devil's jubilant voice, Geraldine rises from her bed and awakens the lady Christabel also. For a little while Christabel is not sure whether the Geraldine she sees is the sinful Geraldine she has met (or had she only dreamt of her) last night or whether it is rather a pure-minded and innocent lady. In spite of her confusion, Christabel greets Geraldine kindly and leads her to meet Sir Leoline.

      L. 393-407. Christabel leads Geraldine to Sir Leoline's room. After embracing his own daughter, he gives proper welcome to the lady Geraldine. He learns her story and learns also that her father is Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine. This suddenly and unaccountably upsets the Baron.

      L. 408-430. Sir Leoline and Lord Roland de Vaux has been formerly friends; but busybodies and scandalmongers poisons their friendship. Through misunderstanding, each spoke harsh words to the other, and so they parted and never met again. But neither of them is afterward able to find another equally true friend. Their friendship shatters, they now stood like two cliffs cleft in two with a deep chasm between them. As Sir Leoline now gazes upon Geraldine's face, it appears rather like the face of the youthful Lord Roland, so familiar to him in former times.

      L. 431-482. Now the Baron forgets his age and full of anger affirms that he will punish the men who have so infamously wronged Geraldine. He will challenge them to combat and kill them there and then. He also tearfully takes Geraldine in his arms, and she too meets his embrace readily. Meanwhile, Christabel sees as in a flash - the real Geraldine; for a while she is awed and horror-stricken; but presently she sees her guardian spirit, and she is once again calm, and she is even able to smile rapturously. To her father's query, she merely replies, 'All will yet be well!' While Christabel knows the truth, but cannot reveal it, Sir Leoline is wholly deceived by appearances and looks upon Geraldine as a thing divine; and Geraldine cunningly begs him to send her away to her father's castle, since she does not want to be a source of annoyance to Christabel.

      L. 483-518. Sir Leoline calls Bracy the bard and entrusts him with the task of proceedings to Tryermaine and informing Lord Roland of his daughter's safety. Bracy is also to invite Lord Roland, with all his retinue, to Sir Leoline's castle; and the Baron will meet Lord Roland half-way and express regret for the insulting words he has spoken long ago. And so they will be friends again.

      L. 519-563. Bracy the bard answers the Baron as follows: "It is always a pleasure to obey you; by your permission let me not go on my journey today. I dream last night that the dove, by name Christabel, which you and your daughter alike love, is lying on the ground and screaming in pain. On looking closer at it, I found that a snake has coiled around its wings and neck. Presently, I awoke and found that it is midnight. Today I wish to wander in the forest and drive away with my saintly songs the snake-like unlikely creature that, according to my dream, is loitering there."

      L. 564-620. When Bracy concludes, the Baron supposing that the dove in the dream signifies Geraldine, tells her, "Your father and I will kill the snake (i.e., your enemies)". Geraldine blushingly turns away from the Baron and archly fixes upon Christabel's dull, malicious eyes of a snake; immediately.

      Geraldine's look reverts to its previous brightness as she meets the Baron's gaze. As for Christabel, she shudders aloud with a hissing sound, she has no thought but the memory of the serpent glance; her own eyes shrink in irresistible response into the smallness and maliciousness of the serpent eye; and she stares at her own father with this deformed look. After a little while, her features relax, she is again her own sweet self; she prays inwardly and kneeling before her father, earnestly entreats him to send Geraldine away at once. The spell is still so strong that she is unable to say more by way of explanation.

      L. 621-655. This request throws Sir Leoline into some confusion. On the one hand, he loves his daughter; his wife has (lied praying for the welfare of his daughter, Christabel, his child and his late wife's child, is doubly dear to him. On the other by making this request, Christabel has dishonoured him, spoilt his hospitality to his friend's daughter. He suddenly makes up his mind, orders Bracy to go on his errand at once, and leaving Christabel alone, leads forth the lady Geraldine.

      L. 656-677. As a little child - a nibble fairy like child with beautiful cheeks - Christabel is always happy and always gladdenes her father's eyes. On the occasion however, he treats her roughly; but this was due to the very excess of his love. It is strange that contradictory thoughts love and anger should sometimes live together; it is strange that people shall love and at the same time say or do cruel things to the objects of love. But such "Giddiness of heart and brain" is generally caused by anger and Pain.


      Christabel is written between 1797 and 1800. It is a fragment, but the reason why it has been left unfinished is not that the poet did not know how to finish it — for he has the whole plan entire from the beginning to end, in his mind — but that he feared he could not carry on with equal success the execution of the idea, an extremely subtle and difficult one.

      England has not so far produced a greater writer of supernatural poetry, nor a finer dreamer. Coleridge has been called the master of natural supernaturalism, a wizard who creates an atmosphere of eerie mystery and horror by purely natural means. Christabel, Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan — these three poems stands in a class by themselves. In their own field they are unrivalled in the whole range of English literature.

      Christabel is a story of a witch who casts her evil spell upon an innocent soul. It is a supernatural tale of mystery, horror, wizardry and wonders. The dream faculty of the poet has given it a very high rank among works of pure creative art. It is one of the three or four master-pieces of Coleridge on which his reputation as one of the great poets of England rests. About these poems Stoffod Brook remarks, "All that he did excellently well might be bound up in twenty pages, but it should be bound in pure gold."

      Supernaturalism. Christabel is a tale of enchantment, sorcery and magic. Its place as a work of literary craftsmanship in the realm of supernatural poetry is very high. The pure and innocent Christabel, Sir Leoline's daughter, falls a victim to the wicked influences of Geraldine, a lovely and fascinating sorceress. The charm is so potent that under its effect the poor soul loses her power to disclose the shameful story of the witch even to her father. The language is the language of incantation and the setting and the atmosphere are supernatural.

      Mark the masterly skill of the poet in preparing the ground for the meeting between Christabel and Geraldine. It is the middle of night. The owls are screeching 'Tu-whit'! 'Too-Whoo'; they have awakened the drowsy cock. The Baron's toothless mastiff from her kennel beneath the rock maketh answer to the clock, four for the quarters, and twelve for the hour, sixteen short howls, not over aloud. The night is chilly but not dark. 'The moon is full and yet she looks both small and dull.' The thin grey cloud is spread on high.' It covers but not hides the sky. 'It is a month before the month of May.' The forest is bare and bleak. The wind is unusually still and motionless.

      Before Coleridge, many writers has trodden the field of supernaturalism and has brought out stories of ghosts and witches. But the only feature of such stories is that they creates sensation and make our flesh creep. They lacks imagination and are divested of human interest. In the hands of writers like Monk Lewis and Anne Radcliffe, they have degenerated into a mere orgy of crude sensationalism. But Coleridge changes all this. He gives his supernatural tales a human interest and a semblance of truth. He tells his tales against a psychological background. He creates a willing suspension of disbelief the reader readily believes what he is reading without questioning the possibility of events and incidents recorded in the tales. Doubts never cross his mind. Coleridge's stories are undoubtedly fantastic, unreal and improbable, but by his supreme art he has given them an air of plausibility, has made them look real. In blending the supernatural with the natural lies the greatest achievements of the 'subtle souled psychologist'.

      Every word of what has been written in the above paragraph applies to Christabel. It is a story from the world of spirits. It is 'witchery by moonlight.' It is, "an imaginative romance pervaded throughout by the supernatural." But, "while we read it, we are all the while in our real and living world." The human and the supernatural elements have been so skilfully blended that it is well-nigh impossible to separate one from the other. Our credulity is never shocked. We do not doubt even for a moment the existence of Geraldine, Christabel or other human characters nor do we ever call in question the raison d'etre of happenings like the visions and dreams recorded in the poem. The supernaturalism of Coleridge is therefore psychological, subtle and refined. It is realistic supernaturalism.

      One of the secrets of the success of Coleridge as a great supernatural pcet is that his stories are not blood-curdling, nor does he consciously attempt to produce sensationalism in his readers. In Christabel, the feeling of horror is produced indirectly. Coleridge does not describe or define horror, he only suggests it. He does not actually describe the horrible sight; he merely gives us the effect of that horrible sight:

Alas! What ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she
"Off woman, off! this hour is mine"

      Here what Geraldine sees has not been described; the spirit of the dead body of Christabel's mother has not been dragged into the story. But the poet has succeeded in conveying to us the effect of the dreadful sight Geraldine sees.

      Again, Coleridge leaves many things in the poem deliberately vague and indefinite. At several places there is an air of mystery which the poet has not cleared. The poet excites the reader's curiosity but leaves it ungratified till the end. In the lines:-

Again she saw that bosom old
Again she felt that bosom cold,
And drew in her breath with a hissing sound

      We are left to conjecture the exact nature of the sight Christabel sees in the cold bosom of Geraldine. It has not been clearly defined.

      Medievalism. The scene of the poem is laid in the Middle Ages. The Medieval times are marked by superstition and piety. During that period the people are superstition-ridden; they believe in magic and witchcraft. They are also deeply religious. This period is characterised by feudalism. The feudal lords lives in castles round which moats are built; they take part in tournaments. Now in Christabel, we find that characters, situations, scenes all belongs to the Middle Ages. The theme of the story is magic. One of the characters is a witch who casts her evil spell upon her innocent victim. There is the chivalry of Middle Ages in Sir Leoline who lives like a feudal lord in a fortified castle, attends by innumerable attendants, pages and heralds, and takes part in tournaments. The piety of the Middle Ages is seen in the prayers to Jesus and Maria and in the reference to the bell. We have a reference to Medieval art in the Chamber of Christabel - 'Carved so curiously'.

      Narrative Skill. Coleridge Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Love and Kubla Khan all bear eloquent testimony to his narrative skill. He is a storyteller par excellence and a supreme master of this art. His narrative skill in Christabel is worthy of a very high praise. The poet has with consummate skill make use of almost all weapons in his armory to make the story interesting, except at one or two places it never flags; it is a gripping tale. It is full of action and excitement; it is told against a psychological background; there is human interest in it. It arouses curiosity and produces a feeling of suspense; it appeals to us and thrills our souls. Many things in the story have been left intentionally vague and indefinite so that the reader fills up the details according to his imagination. Its language is very simple.

      Metre, Imagery, Music, Melody, etc. In Christabel, Coleridge has introduced a new metrical novelty. On this points, he himself says: "The metre of Christabel is not, properly speaking, irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded on a new principle, namely, that of counting in each line the accent, not the syllables. Though the letter may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accent will be only four. Nevertheless, the occasional variation in number of syllables is not introduced wantonly, or for the mere ends of convenience, but in correspondence with some transition in the nature of imagery and passion."

      Art of Picture. Coleridge is deft in the art of picture making with the help of simple words. ''Coleridge's success is not a little due to the perfection of his language. From the simplest material of ordinary words he weaves a web of music and imagery. By slight deft touches he creates a picture, the details of which are quickly filled in by a responsive imagination. He is a master of harmony.... with that supreme art which ever seems artless, he weaves such a sound, colour and detail as to defy all attempts at analysis".

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