Fragmentary Nature in The Poem Christabel

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      Coleridge intends Christabel to be a long poem in five parts, but for some reason or the other, he do not complete it. As the poem exists, it has only two parts and is obviously incomplete.

      Unmatching Styles. According to Coleridge himself the first part (L. 1-331) is written in 1797 and the rest in 1800. The scene of the poem is not defined in the first part but it is fixed in the second in the Lake district with which Coleridge make acquaintance in 1799 with Wordsworth. In Part I there is the castle in the woodland, with oak and moss and mistletoe, a landscape which has its function only in relation to the persons and the atmosphere. There are no proper names but those of the three main persons. In Part II we plunge straight into the detailed geography of the region. Wyndermere, Langdale Pike, Dungeon ghyll, Borodale and the rest organize the reader's attention as if this are matter of history rather than of imagery.

      The experience of reading the First part of Christabel, says Humphry House, is more an acquaintance with an atmosphere than the apprehension of poetic unity. This atmosphere is achieved partly through description of the setting, partly by the mystery surrounding Geraldine. At point after point in Christabel descriptions are used to heighten the mystery by such suggestions of slight distortion in behaviour or of contrast, or surprise. But it is all fragmentary and finally unsatisfying because it leads up to a mystery which is both incomplete and clueless. To a great extent this is true.

      Three Possible Developments. Three accounts of how the poem is finished have survived. The two shorter ones are vague, but indicate that Christabel's sufferings are represented as vicarious, endured for her "love far away". The third and longest account is much more detailed. In it, Geraldine assumes by supernatural transformation the outward appearance of the absent lover and pays court to Christabel, who not unnaturally senses something amiss. Nonetheless, to oblige her father, she obediently 'consents to approach the altar with this hated suitor’. At this point the real lover returns. The baffled Geraldine then disappears and they all sort themselves out after the joys of rightful marriage. This, however, is so pronounced a piece of Gothic extravagance that critics are divided on whether to take it seriously or not. However, even if in general it elevates its tawdry tradition, the poem undeniably belongs to the literature of a Gothic cult, and characterizes by its flesh-creeping terrors and supernatural happenings in a setting of ruin abbey or castle.

      Incomplete but not Unsatisfying. In Christabel the struggle of evil and innocence is examined, although within the framework of the typical tale of terror, for the purposes of moral realization of the manner in which evil works upon and transforms innocence. Coleridge's success in achieving this realization by poetic means is due to a dramatic tension building up to a final, irrevocable climax and skillfully regulated by its background of symbols from the natural world, says Charles Tomlinson.

And turning from his own sweet maid
The aged knight. Sir Leoline,
Led forth the lady Geraldine....

      The climax of leaves Christabel in that condition of pathological isolation which the Mariner also feels and which Coleridge must himself have known. If one feels a certain incompleteness about the poem it is because we are left with Christabel's pathological isolation which is never, unlike that of the
Ancient Mariner, to be resolved. The 'story', of course, is never completed and the elements concerning the broken friendship between Sir Leoline and the father of Geraldine, relevant as they are to the poem's theme of the division of the inmost being and of the most intimate relationship, are never knit up into a more organic significance. Christabel offers, however, despite its abrupt conclusion in psychological stasis, a completeness concerning what do happen, if only we pay attention to the premonitory nature of the symbols at the opening and see the poetic interest as centering on the uncertain balance which is represented here between health anti disease, good and evil, and the end as a tragedy in which neurosis, not death, strikes the final blow. Christabel, being bewitched, suffers simultaneously with the disintegration of personality, the disintegration of the will.

      In Christabel the disease condition of the moon links suggestively with the inability of Christabel's dead mother, her guardian spirit, to operate in her defense. This symbolic use of the moon to reinforce the presentation of a psychological condition is characteristic of Coleridge's natural effects. The disease moon prepares us for her transition from a condition of organic innocence to one of complete division. What is the nature of this division and how has its appearance developed in the poem? The development, it shall be noticed, takes place through instances of what happens to Christabel rather than what she does; evil works upon her and by the time she feels possessed by it and with force unconscious sympathy, perhaps even becoming evil herself, she has lost her own free will.

      To begin with, Christabel finds herself alone. Her lover is absent, her mother dead, her father sick. Here is the position of the typical persecuted woman of the tale of terror, defenseless and vulnerable, her isolation being intensified by its juxtaposition with the fine image of 'the one red leaf, the last of its clan.' In this condition, Christabel finds the Lady Geraldine who, according to her own story, has been abducted, then abandoned, and takes her into the castle. Coleridge conveys Geraldine's character of fatal woman in a cumulative series of startling touches. Coleridge gives the situation an adds uncertainty by withholding from us as yet Geraldine's exact intentions. Indeed, whatever they may be the fatal woman, aware of her own fatality seems half to regret what she is about to do. But as she lies down to sleep beside Christabel, she has put by all her scruples. They sleep and the suggestions crystallize into a final Christabel has lost her natural father and has found an unnatural mother: the guardian spirit has been worst.

....lo, the worker of these harms,
That holds the maiden in her arms,
Seems to slumber still and mild
As a mother with her child.

      The important final image of this passage of the sleeping mother embracing her child comes to mind once more when we hear Bracy's dream of the same night.

      In Part One the ground has been prepared: in Part Two the evil of Geraldine begins to operate within Christabel herself. Geraldine, "nothing doubting of her spell / Awakens the lady Christabel." Christabel has, on the level of the conscious mind, reassures herself and sees her tormentor as 'fairer yet, and yet more fair!'. But her unconscious fears become conscious once more as her father embraces Geraldine and the latter prolongs the embrace 'with joyous look':

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

      It is the hiss of a horrified intake of breath, but its significance becomes deepen when Bracy the Bard tells his story and with what follows. This moment is one of the most startling and suggestive touches in the poem. We are recalled by the image to that of the two sleeping together; we see in the movement of the snake an attempt to imitate that of the bird as well as to prevent its flight: we remember that the sound Christabel herself may resembled that of a snake. Just as the full moon that is dulled, holds in a frightful balance the image of health with the image of disease, the latter overpowering the former, so now there is a further frightful balance: we are on the brink of the suggestion that the identity of Christabel is coveted by Geraldine and that Christabel has unconsciously assumed something of the evil identity of the other. We come to the most important dramatic climax of the whole, when Geraldine is kissed by Sir Leoline and the significance of Bracy's dream is jestingly ignored by the knight. Our worst suspicion is now confirmed by what follows:

But Christabel in dizzy trance,
Stumbling on the unsteady ground
Shuddered aloud, with a hissing sound.

      She shudders with horror still, but she emits the sound a snake will make. Her imagination is so overpowered by 'hose shrunken serpent eyes:

That all her features were resigned
To this sole image in her mind...

      And not only does she see the image, she feels herself becoming the image.

      The idea has rooted itself in her mind. Despite this fact, she still fights against Geraldine's spell by asking her father to send her tormentor away, instead of which he 'leads forth the lady Geraldine' symbolically rejecting his own daughter. There is an extremely dramatic propriety about this incident as sickness and evil move off together.

      One might note finally that Coleridge makes use of the old and familiar material of folk tale: the aging ruler ignores his wise counsellor, rejects his 'natural' daughter and prefers the unnatural. None of the protagonists in Coleridge's narrative is in him or herself complex; all are stock figures and therefore mere allegory and J.F. Danby, speaking of 'King Lear where Shakespeare uses the same fable, calls 'the unambiguous Morality statement' (Shakespeare's Doctrine of nature). One is compelled to see the characters as symbols relating to every man's condition of inner psychological tension, the evil preying on the good, the sick undermining the health which brings one to the fact - that Coleridge's poem, is limited though it is by its inability to resolve the conflict, presents an extremely individual variant on this basic pattern.

      Conclusion. There is no doubt that Christabel is of a fragmentary nature. But it is, all the same, a great poem. It is "incomplete and clueless", as Humphry House says, but it is also what Byron called it — "a fine, wild poem".

University Questions

Christabel is all "fragmentary and finally unsatisfying because it leads up to a mystery which is both incomplete and clueless." Do you agree?

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