Supernatural Elements in The Poem Christabel

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      Christabel is a tale of terror, and it is the skill of Coleridge that makes it rise above other specimen of this genre, even though it is a fragment.

      Apt Atmosphere. Knowing that a tale involving the supernatural will no be effective in a contemporary setting, Coleridge places Christabel in the distant Middle Ages. We have the medieval castle, the superstitious beliefs of those days, the chivalrous element. Into this medieval setting and atmosphere Coleridge breathes the subtle breath of the supernatural. It is never described at any length. It is but barely suggested, unlike the practice of his contemporaries who revelled in drawing minute details. The object here is plain. The poet gains immensely in power; a hinted horror, which allows full play to the imagination of the reader, is usually far more effective than a described one; just as an unexplained ghost-story terrifies far more than one of which the solution is given.

      Gradual Build up of Atmosphere. The atmosphere is gradually built up. Ordinary details are accumulated to weave a mysterious texture. The old toothless mastiff bitch responds in a set manner to the hours struck by the castle clock. We are gently told that "some say, she sees my lady's shroud". Thus the supernatural element is introduced. Then come the lines:

Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly but not dark.

      This has an incantatory effect. The reader is led to accent the slight distortion in the behaviour of versions of natural objects. The thin gray cloud "covers but not hides the sky". The moon is full but "she looks both small and dull". The cock crows along with the owl's hooting. It is all "as if proportion is tin own out and normal vision perplexed", as Humphrey House says. The selling has been built up in which the supernatural will seem real.

      Suggestiveness of Evil. Who does not feel the terrible effect of the use of suspense in the story? Christabel goes out into the woods to pray. She kneels beneath the old tree, but springs up suddenly. A moan has disturbed her, but what it is, she cannot tell / The art of the poet in keeping us in suspense is here most evident, for, instead of proceeding to describe the search made by Christabel, he lingers to describe the scenery once more. Then comes the picture of lovely Geraldine with her obviously improbable story of abduction. But we feel no sense of disbelief "Jesus, Maria, shield her well!" says the poet. The supernatural is thus well anticipated and struck by keeping the reader in suspense.

      Supernatural dread is again well suggested in the angry moan of the old mastiff and the sudden shooting of a tongue of light, a fit of flame, from the brands that burn in the hall. The very air seems to listen to their tread as Christabel and Geraldine mount the stair. Thus step by step we are led on from one anticipation of horror to another till it culminates in two incidents. But again, with his usual reticence, Coleridge, instead of describing them, leaves us to gauge them from their effects on the persons present on the scene. The first is the appearance of the ghost of Christabel's mother to Geraldine alone. Her name has been mentioned, and the witch quietly, but hypocritically wishes she is there; and lo! there she is; but neither we nor Christabel know that she is there, until we listen to the low perturb voice of Geraldine, who bids her be off. With suggestive art the poet speaks of the witch as staring before her with unsettled eye, and poses the questions, "Can she the bodiless dead espy?" "And why with hollow voice cries she, 'off, woman, off! this hour is mine'?" The other, at the mere recitation of which Shelley is said to have shrieked and fled from Byron's room, is the very climax of the poem. Geraldine unrobes herself; Christabel who cannot sleep looks on till she sees:

A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel

      None of us can tell what that sight of shame or anguish reveals to Christabel. But it haunts us as it haunts Christabel all through that night and ever afterward, although her lips are sealed and she can not unburden herself of the anguish by an open avowal of it. An interesting point here is the omission of the line "hideous, deforms, and pale of hue", which we are told on oral authority, originally stand after the line "Behold her bosom and half her side." This will have described the horror, which Coleridge did not want to do. An unspoken horror is indeed more terrible than a spoken one.

      Sense of Mystery. To add to the effects of the supernatural, Coleridge makes use of mystery also in the poem Christabel. He raises a number of questions in the intelligent reader, and leaves them unanswered. What law of the spirit world has Christabel transgressed that she shall come under the spell of the witch woman? Was Geraldine really a witch, or did she only seem so to Christabel? The angry moan of the mastiff bitch and the tongue of flame that shot up as the lady passes are they omens, or accidents which popular superstition interprets into omens? Is the malignant influence which Geraldine exerts over the maiden supernatural possession, or the fascination of terror and repugnance? Did she really utter the words of a charm, or do Christabel dream them? And once more, what is that upon her breast "that bosom old - that bosom cold"? Is it a wound, or the mark of a serpent, or some foul and hideous disfigurement or is it only the shadows cast by the swinging lamp? We ask ourselves these questions, but we cannot answer them. That is also part of the charm of Coleridge's art in the poem.

      Plausible. The poet thus succeeds in rousing supernatural dread. But how does he make it plausible? Surely, by his suggestive art; but that is only one way. Coleridge definitely tells us that the supernatural is to make natural "by transferring from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief, for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." Is the story, which is like a fairy tale, as Coleridge admit it, anything like real life? Has it any elements which make it approximate to reality? Can we suspend our disbelief and say it is quite likely that this thing may have happened. Prof. Dowden supplies the answer: "In Christabel, the human and the supernatural elements interpenetrate each other more completely and more subtly than in The Ancient Mariner. The presence of higher than mortal power for evil and for good is everywhere felt, yet nowhere is thrust forward. We can reconstruct a story almost the same in which the incidents shall proceed in accordance with the acknowledged laws of the world: we can imagine an innocent girl coming under the influence of a woman older than herself of beautiful person and powerful intellect, but of depraved character, who shall disclose to her some bosom-sin under conditions which render indispensable for a time an inviolable secrecy; to shield the maiden from harm she shall possess, besides her own purity of heart, the pious memory of her dead mother. Thus by merely lowering the key all the action of the poem may be transported from the supernatural to the natural. Even the malign influence of Geraldine's look askance can readily be translated into its moral significance the fascinating power of evil over a virginal soul, the mere knowledge of vice seeming to imply a horrible communion with it dining, at least, one dreadful moment before the instinctive recoil from sin has had time and force to come into operation" Coleridge's story is much more than this; but we may thus interpret the moral and psychological truth on which Coleridge's story is founded. The poem is not a piece of didactic morality, and yet it is founded in spiritual truth, and, as Christopher North has said, while we read it, we are all the while in our own real and living world, and in the heart of its best and most delightful affections.

University Questions

How is the supernatural element used in Christabel?
Discuss Coleridge's mastery over the art of mixing the unreal and the real with reference to Christabel.

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