Martyrdom Theme in The Poem Christabel

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      It is difficult to interpret Christabel on one level because it is too fragmentary. There are three accounts of how Christabel is to have been completed. The Gillman and Derwent Coleridge accounts are almost identical.

      The shorter Gillman account says: "The story of Christabel is partly founded on the notion, that the virtuous of this world save the wicked. The pious and good Christabel suffers and prays for the weal of her lover that is far away exposed to various temptations in a foreign land; and she thus defeats the power of evil represented in the person of Geraldine. This is the main object of the tale."

      The Derwent Coleridge account also says that the sufferings of Christabel are to have been shown as vicarious, endured for her 'lover far away', for the holy and the innocent do often suffer for the faults of those they love and are thus made the instruments to bring them back to the ways of peace. According to this, Christabel goes to the forest because he had dreams all yesternight of her own betrothed knight / And she in the midnight wood will pray / For the weal of her lover that's far away.

      Christabel's encounter with Geraldine brings her intense suffering. Her guardian spirit, the spirit of her dead mother is driven away. She is put under a spell so that even in a moment of extreme suffering she cannot speak. At the climactic moment, she makes a hissing sound like a snake and her eyes wear a serpentine look that suggests that she has also absorbed some of the evil. Finally, she is discarded by her father, Sir Leoline, who leads forth Lady Geraldine. Thus Christabel is shown to gradually move towards a kind of martyrdom. In Table Talk, Coleridge has written that Crashaw's poem on the martyrdom of St. Teresa directly influenced the writing of the second part of Christabel. Crashaw's heroine experienced an alienation from her home and family similar to Christabel's except that she is prepared for it, whereas Christabel least expected this form of suffering. Christabel, however, suffers voluntarily with an understanding that the saints above will protect her, 'for the blue sky bends over all'.

      Geraldine, according to this interpretation, does not represent the power of evil, she is 'no witch or goblin' or malignant being of any kind, but a spirit who acts as an unwilling instrument of Christabel's martyrdom, obliges to perform her mission in the name of those 'who live in the upper sky'.

      There are some objections to such an interpretation. There is nothing in the poem to substantiate the idea that the vicarious suffering of Christabel is for the redemption of her absent lover. It is only from external sources like the two accounts of how the poem is to be finished and Coleridge's Table Talk that such an idea can be entertained. Furthermore, though there is a suggestion in part I, that Geraldine is at the mercy of some influence not quite herself, there are also hints to show that she is unequivocally evil. She cannot cross the threshold unaided; she refuses to pray: the mastiff bitch makes an angry moan when she passes by her: the fire embers give a tongue of light and a fit of flame; she drives off the spirit of Christabel's dead mother. These are clear pointers at her evil nature In Part II, her evil qualities certainly dominate. It is possible that Coleridge may have intended to bring about Geraldine's transformation from an evil to a good thing and to develop a moral theme of goodness suffering for the salvation of the wicked. However, nothing very definite is indicated anywhere.

      Thus to consider Christabel a story of martyrdom is not warranted by the text.

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