According to the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798) Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth agreed to divide their contributions to the joint volume, with Coleridge writing the “supernatural poems” and Wordsworth the natural ones—the scenes of everyday life. Coleridge’s contributions included The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and he meant to include Christabel in the second edition (1800) but had not completed the poem; therefore, it was not published for another 16 years. Even then, like “Kubla Khan,” it was only a fragment of a larger whole that Coleridge claimed to have fully thought through, but which he never completed.
Lyrical Ballads is remembered for its revolutionary poetry of normal human life, and it might at first seem—as it seemed to Wordsworth—that the supernatural poems would be out of place, or at least detract from the extraordinary originality of the book. But Coleridge’s concern was not with supernatural incidents but with ordinary human response to such incidents and with the philosophical and psychological conclusions that can be drawn from such a response. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the greatest single poem in this mode, but Christabel is a close second. The story it tells hardly gets anywhere, but the psychological depths it probes show how deeply Coleridge plumbed his own mind.
Like William Shakespeare, Coleridge was deeply attuned to the experience of fatherhood. That is to say, he was highly sensitive to the ways fathers would become arbitrarily tyrannical, even with a full knowledge, veiled from their children, of how wrong their behavior was. As “poets of childhood” (Percy Bysshe Shelley on Wordsworth), Coleridge and Wordsworth were both deeply aware of what their own children’s experience might be, a theme Wordsworth made explicit in his “Anecdote for fathers” and Coleridge in “Frost at Midnight.” We can trace in the two years between “Frost at Midnight” and the conclusion to the second part of Christabel the sensitivity of Coleridge’s self-examination, as his son Hartley grew into his fourth year.
That conclusion is itself one of the deepest and most philosophical romantic lyrics. Its function in the poem is to explain Sir Leoline’s Lear-like overreaction to Christabel’s dislike of Geraldine. He explodes at Christabel at the end of part 2—but why? He feels “dishonoured” (l. 642) by his daughter’s treatment of Geraldine and leaves with her, presumably to court and marry her. But it is Coleridge’s deep psychological insight that the courtship he pays Geraldine is a displaced response to his daughter and not simple attraction to the seductress.
The conclusion to part 2 describes rage as an excess of love. This fact of human psychology is itself an aspect of human woe. We love what is hurt and therefore will rage sometimes in order to cause hurt, that we may love. The description of the relation of father and child there—the father’s eyes are filled with light (l. 661)—is repeated by Wordsworth five years later in the Intimations Ode, where he describes the light Coleridge darts at his young son (“with light upon him from his father’s eyes” [Intimations Ode, l. 89]). The conclusion to part 2 of Christabel laments that the depth and intensity of love might manifest itself only within the mode of pain. But this is a generalized insight within romanticism: Guilt, pain and loss are the modes and avenues of intensity that belong to us within the fallen world, and they are more intense than the things lost.
The conclusion to part 2 can help to give a general account of the theme of the poem. Of course, it belongs to the kind of psychological study that Wordsworth and Coleridge found or thought they found in the ballads in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), a study of what Sigmund Freud would analyze under the name of the uncanny. But the uncanny needs explaining, and Coleridge offers more of an explanation in Christabel than do the ancient ballads it imitates. (The meter of Christabel, which Coleridge thought a new invention, actually goes back to the oldest kinds of English versification, as he must somehow have subconsciously felt.) For the love which goes awry in the conclusion to part 2 might be seen as going awry throughout the course of the poem.
Christabel (as will Madeline in John Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” which is a kind of happy revision of Christabel) has gone outside the safe and sacred precincts of the castle she lives in to perform a prayer for the knight to whom she is betrothed. She has dreamed of him, and somehow that dream has caused her anxiety. She does not know what is making her anxious, but we can guess that there is some frustrated sexual source: He is far away and she misses him, and therefore she sneaks away from her father’s castle to pray for him by a giant oak, a symbol of his strength if not overtly phallic.
The important point is that the poem conjures up Geraldine as its response to Christabel’s prayer, and if we imagine that Christabel is somehow dreaming the whole thing (see line 253), Geraldine (with her story of abduction by five warriors) would represent her own sexual anxiety, as well as being a source of that anxiety. In anxiety dreams, the same figure can represent how the dreamer feels and what the dreamer fears, because if that fear is externalized it can be denied or ascribed to someone else—in this case to Geraldine. There is no question that Geraldine is a source of sexual anxiety, since whatever nameless horror she strikes up in Christabel, and in the reader, derives from her nakedness: “Behold! her bosom and half her side—/ A sight to dream of, not to tell!” (ll. 252–253). Whatever it is that Christabel sees, she sees it after she has herself undressed and lain down in her loveliness (ll. 237–238).
What are we to imagine of Geraldine? On one level she is a witch, or spirit of evil, a “thing unblest” (l. 529), which is why she cannot cross the threshold without Christabel’s aid (ll. 129–132). It is traditional—Coleridge would have known this most vividly from book 1 of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene—that witches turn out to have bodily markings when stripped naked, particularly serpents’ tails. The tail itself is phallic, and certainly one suggestion here is that Geraldine turns out to be male, or to have male organs. She should parallel the innocent Christabel, but she turns out to be the male sexuality that threatens her. The threat may be a specific and terrifying one: that exposure to male sexuality gives a maiden male sexual organs, makes her male or more male. This seems to be what has happened to Geraldine and what may therefore happen to Christabel by Geraldine’s contagion. Therefore, Bracy will dream of Geraldine as a phallic serpent coiled around the dove the baron has named Christabel after his daughter. The serpent is phallic, and Bracy describes it “Swelling its neck” (l. 554), but so, too, does the dove swell her own neck, in a kind of involuntary sympathetic fear of the serpent’s swelling.
It would be far too simple, however, to call Geraldine male. Rather, she might better be thought of as Christabel’s vision of female corruption or contamination by male sexuality. This is an important issue for Christabel, whose sense of the dangers of sexuality go back to the beginning of her life, since her mother died in childbirth. Christabel feels that her mother is a guardian spirit to her, and apparently so, too, does Geraldine. Geraldine tries to second Christabel’s wish for her mother’s presence but is immediately brought up short by that invisible spirit (ll. 203–206). She responds by asserting her own power—but a power which is temporary and will last however long the trial that the poem makes Christabel undergo will last.
The death of her mother is clearly the most important fact in Christabel’s life, and it governs her responses to everything else. But it is also important because of her father’s reaction to the death of his wife and because of the despair and bitterness her death causes him. Geraldine can seduce him so easily because for him she represents a substitute for the dead woman. But Christabel’s aim is life, whereas Sir Leoline’s seems to be the dead past, and while he may be fooled by Geraldine, Christabel is not. In an odd way, she represents the triumph of love over its own corruption by the sorrows of life, and this is why Bracy the Bard takes her side, enraging Sir Leoline.
This reading of the poem helps to explain one of its notable and powerful features (which it also shares with book 1 of The Faerie Queene)—namely, the sympathy the poem shows Geraldine. For she represents less the malevolent principle that the plot requires of her than the uncertainty and anxiety of both Christabel and her father. If there were not something genuinely sympathetic about her, she could not be of such importance to Christabel’s own thinking and sense of herself.
What would have happened had Coleridge completed the poem? We can be sure that Christabel would have eventually been vindicated and won her father’s heart back, as Cordelia does in Shakespeare’s King Lear. But we can see already that she wins even in the fragment that Coleridge completed: Her father’s fury comes from the love he feels for Christabel, and the love he feels ultimately signals Christabel’s triumph, as well as the triumph of life and hope over despair and death.
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