Christabel is an unfinished poem of 677 lines written by S. T. Coleridge. Its first part consists of 337 lines, which was written in 1797 and its second part consists of 337 lines which were written in 1800, after Coleridge returned back from Germany. After this there was a decline in his poetic powers and in spite of his numerous efforts to complete the poem, he could not do so. This poem was supposed to be included in the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, but because it was not complete its inclusion could not be possible.
On 1st November 1800, Coleridge wrote a letter to Josiah Wedgwood in this context. In his letter, he wrote- “I tried to perform my promise; but the deep unutterable disgust, Which I had suffered in the translation of that accursed Wallenstein seemed to have stricken me with bareness- for I tried and tried and nothing would come of it. I desisted with a deeper dejection than I am willing to remember”.
Wordsworth decided not to include Kubla Khan in the Lyrical Ballads because he thought that the style of this poem was very different as compared with his style of writing and so he did not allowed the printing of this poem along with his other poems in Lyrical Ballads, though Coleridge himself thought that it was not included because of its inappropriate length. It was read and admired both by Walter Scott and Lord Byron and it was finally published by Murray in 1816 on the recommendation of Lord Byron.
In his preface to Christabel, Coleridge writes ‘‘in my very first conception of the tale, I had the whole present in my mind, with the wholeness, so less than the liveliness of a vision”. In 1815, in a letter to Lord Byron, he wrote that the poem will be written in five parts. All this shows that Coleridge had a definite plan about the narrative scheme of the poem . However, Wordsworth was doubtful about the presence of definite plan in Coleridge’s mind to write this poem.
Wordsworth says that-“I am sure he never formed a plan or knew what was to be the end of Christabel and that he merely deceived himself when he thought, as he says, that he had the idea quite clear in his mind”. Christabel was intended to be a long poem consisting of five parts but because of the decline of the poetic powers of Coleridge, he could not write beyond few lines in part three and as the poem has come down to us, it consists only of two parts. In part one, the descriptions of the landscapes are meant to create a suitable setting for the story.
There is a deliberate undecidedness and vagueness about them which increases the sense of mystery and horror being woven by the poet. The first part tells us abut Sir Leoline, who was a rich Baron and who lived in a castle. He had an old, toothless bitch of a strong breed. This bitch was in the habit of uttering short and not very loud howls in answer to the castle clock. She howled once when the clock struck a quarter and twelve times when it struck an hour. It was believed that she could see the coffin in which Christabel’s dead mother was wrapped at her death.
Then the focus shifts to a cold midnight. It was a full moon night but moon was hidden behind a thin cloud. Sir Leoline’s young and lovely daughter Christabel goes to the forest at midnight. All of a sudden, she hears a low moaning sound from the other side of the oak tree. This sound could not have been produced by wind because there was no wind at all. Christabel gets scared and her heart starts beating fast and she goes to the other side of the tree to see what it was . There she sees a beautiful young lady dressed in magnificent clothes.
Her white neck and arms were bare and she was wearing glittering gems in her hair Christabel is astonished to see such a beautiful lady there. When she talks to this lady, she gets to know that her name is Geraldine and she is from a noble family. She was abducted by five armed warriors, the previous day and after a long ride, they had left her in the forest and they had said that they would return soon. The young lady requests Christabel to help her run away from that place. Christabel promised her every help she could give.
She said that her father, Sir Leoline would make arrangements to send her to her father’s house safely. Christabel then took the young lady to her castle and told her that her father’s health is not very good so he should not be disturbed at the nighttime when he is sleeping. She asks Geraldine to share her bed that night. A strange thing happened when both the ladies crossed the castle gate and passed by the old bitch. The bitch made an angry howl and Christabel was surprised because the bitch had never howled like this at her approach.
While they were crossing the hall, another strange thing happened. The fire which had burnt low suddenly leapt into a flame. Finally when both of them reach Christabel’s room, Geraldine faints and so she is given some wine by Christabel which was made by her mother who had died when she was very small. Geraldine got disturbed on the mention of the mother. Then in a strange voice, she challenged the spirit of Christabel’s dead mother and told the spirit to go away because this hour belonged to her. Christabel could not understand what was happening.
She thought that Geraldine was disturbed by her horrible experience and so she offered her more wine. Geraldine soon recovered and stood upright and thanked Christabel for her kindness. Then she asked her to undress and go to sleep. Christabel followed her instructions but could not sleep. Then Geraldine loosened her dress and revealed her bosom which was a very horrible sight to see. Then she went to the bed and lay by Christabel’s side and took the innocent Christabel to her arms and said “O Christabel, in the touch of this bosom there works a spell.
It will be the master of your speech. You will not be able to describe your condition to anyone. You will only be able to say that you saw a beautiful young lady in the forest and brought her home in order to save her from damp air. ” That night Christabel had horrible trees about Geraldine who looked very different from the girl she saw near the oak tree. But things slightly changed in the morning. When Christabel got up in the morning, her face was sad. Large tears flowed from her eyes but she smiled too.
Perhaps she felt that her guardian spirit was near and she felt that if people prayed to saints for help, they never refused it. The part two forms the continuation of part one. It is morning time and Geraldine gets up and dresses herself. She changes her horrible shape in which she had appeared to Christabel in order to cast her spell. She once again looks bewitchingly beautiful. She awakens Christabel and asks her whether she enjoyed her sleep. As Christabel, opened her eyes, she saw Geraldine looking as beautiful as she was looking previous night when she was standing under the oak tree.
Geraldine’s face had an expression of such sincere gratitude that Christabel felt ashamed of thinking her to be a wicked woman and thought that she must have seen some horrible dream about Geraldine previous night. She greeted Geraldine in a sweet but hesitant tone. Her mind continued to be in a state of confusion. She got up at once, dressed herself, prayed to Lord Christ and took Geraldine to meet her father sir Leoline. Even he was amazed to see her daughter being accompanied by such a beautiful woman.
He greeted her in a befitting manner and while narrating him the whole story, when Geraldine, mentions the name of her father, Sir Leoline’s face turns pale because Sir Leoline and Geraldine’s father were good friends in their youth time and because of some misunderstanding, they had turned dead against each other and parted never to meet again but since that time, both of them had not found a friend, whom they could trust and with whom they can share their secrets. Now his old affection for his friend returns and he promises to take the revenge from those people, who had treated Geraldine in a bad manner.
With tears in his eyes, he took Geraldine affectionately in his arms. She responded to this affection of his, with joy in her eyes. But when Chritabel saw this look in her eyes, the dreadful sight, she had seen in her dream returned to her once once again she saw Geraldine’s horrible bosom and started shaking with fear. At the same time, she drew in her breath and made a hissing sound as if she was offended by her father’s behavior towards Geraldine. Sir Leoline was surprised at her daughter’s behavior and Geraldine too suggested that since her presence was unwelcoming to Christabel, she should be immediately sent back to her father’s place.
Sir Leoline rejected this proposal and ordered his poet Bracy to go to Geraldine’s father and inform him that his daughter was safe in his place and to convey to his friend, his sincere greetings and tells him to give his message that ever since both of them had parted, he had never found a friend like him. Bracy is little reluctant to go immediately because previous night he had seen a horrible dream , in which he saw Christabel in the shape of a dove who is seized by a bright green snake. This dream suggested the presence of an evil spirit in the forest and he wanted to drive it away with his music.
But when Bracy narrated his dream to Sir Leoline, he interpreted it in a different way. He thought that the dove represented the Geraldine while snake symbolized the villains who had abducted her and said that very soon he and Geraldine’s father would crush the snake. While saying this, he kissed Geraldine on her forehead and at this very moment a very horrible thing happened. Christabel felt Geraldine’s eyes shrinking till they were reduced to the size of a snake’s eyes. This sight brought back to Cristabel the horrible vision of previous night and she finally realized that Geraldine was a witch.
Once again Christabel, made a low hissing sound, which her father interpreted as her contempt for Geraldine but actually she had not uttered this hissing sound intentionally. She was under Geraldine’s powerful evil spell and had developed some of her evil qualities. And not only she made the hissing sound but also bore the treacherous look ok hatred, which Geraldine had just cast on her. This spell lasted for a moment only and immediately Christabel fell at her father’s feet and requested him to send Geraldine away.
Since her power of speech was controlled by Geraldine, she could not explain her father that why did she wanted Geraldine to be sent away. Sir Leoline was greatly offended by the strange request made by his daughter. He considered her request to be highly improper and disgraceful. He scolds Bracy for wasting time and sends him to convey his message to Geraldine’s father and then turning away from Christabel, he led forth Lady Geraldine. This poem Christabel is one of the most important works of Coleridge.
We as readers greatly repent that he was not able to write all the five parts of the poem. This poem belongs to a special genre- the conventional tale of terror, which was very popular towards the end of the eighteenth century. When Coleridge started writing this poem, this trend of writing poems was already on the decline, but Coleridge not gave a new life to this style of writing but also wrote it excellently. Even though Christabel is written in bits and pieces but still it is one of the great master pieces of this kind of writing.
The poet has employed a lot of supernatural images while writing this poem but the way in which he has treated supernatural in his poetry is quite different from his contemporaries. The poem takes us to the middle ages with the castle clock striking the midnight hour and the bitch howling in answer to the castle clock. The middle ages are known for the supernatural beliefs of the people. Thus they provide a suitable setting for the kind of tale Coleridge wanted to write. As the poem proceeds, the poet accumulates details that help in weaving a subtle mystery.
In the poem Sir Leoline’s ferocious bitch is ‘toothless’ and she produces sixteen short howls in answer to the hours struck by the castle clock. In the beginning of the part one, there is a line, “some say, she sees my lady’s shroud” which introduces the supernatural. Since it was a common belief in the middle ages that some animals, dogs in particular, could see the ghosts so this minor detail does not amaze the readers so much. There is another mention of supernatural in the poem through these following lines- “Is the night chilly and dark? The night is chilly but not dark”
These lines produce a kind of magical and mystic effect on the reader’s mind and we accept with an unquestioning attitude, the slight change in the behavior of the various natural objects. From the very beginning of the poem, the natural objects are behaving in an abnormal manner. For example the thin grey cloud “covers but not hides the sky”. The moon is full and “yet she looks both small and dull”. We can see that the hooting owl, the howling bitch, the grey cloud and the full moon are all behaving in an odd manner and are giving an indication that something bad is going to happen.
Here Coleridge has created the kind of atmosphere that will make a suitable background for the supernatural events to follow. One of the most striking features about Coleridge’s style of writing supernatural poetry is that he very smartly procures from the mind of his readers that willing suspension of disbelief and even when we know that whatever he is narrating in his poetry cant be true but we willingly suspend our disbeliefs because the poet is narrating the poem in such a way that we want to believe whatever he is saying, leaving all our logics behind.
For example in the beginning of part one, lovely Christabel is shown praying under the oak tree for the welfare of her lover in the dead of the night, in a lonely forest and she is shown hearing a strange moaning sound and when she goes to the other side of the tree, she sees a “damsel dresses in a silken robe of white”. This woman’s bare neck and her blue veins visible on her unsandaled feet and the glittering gems which she had worn on her hair, indicate her unearthly nature.
The story of her abduction and her abandonment under the oak tree is full of improbabilities because it does not show any specific motive, as to why all this happened to her. But all this can happen to “A lady so richly clad as she beautiful exceedingly” This means that when the readers get to know that what a magnificent beauty, this lady was, then this description is enough to prevent any misgivings coming to the mind of the readers. So Coleridge procures from his readers willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith. All the supernatural events in the poem begin when the two lady’s enter the castle.
Geraldine collapsed on the castle door, maybe because it was covered by steel from both the sides and witches and ghosts are scared of steel. She is helped by Christabel to cross the castle door. As soon as she crosses the door, she gets perfectly fine, as if nothing had happened to her and when Christabel asks her to pray to Virgin Mary, for having rescued her from her misfortune, she refuses, saying that she is too tired to speak. Then the bitch makes an angry moan as both the women pass by her which was quite unnatural because bitch has never behaved in this manner before.
Inside the castle, the first proper hint of the real nature of Geraldine is given when already burnt pieces of wood, gave out a blaze of light for a moment, when Geraldine crossed the hall and Christabel is able to see her eyes, which are a serpent’s eye. And finally when Christabel is going to sleep, Geraldine reveals her bosom which is a horrible and pathetic sight to see and casts a spell on Christabel. Even, Bracy’s dream has a supernatural significance, where Christabel is depicted as a dove which is caught in the coils of bright green snake.
In order to make his supernatural more acceptable, wherever Coleridge suggests the occurrence of supernatural in his poetry, he also gives an explanation having a rational base. For example- Geraldine refuses to pray not because she is an evil spirit but because she cannot speak because of her tiredness. The bitch made an angry moan because maybe it got disturbed by the screeching of the owl. Geraldine’s words during her confrontation with the spirit of Christabel’s mother is interpreted by Coleridge as the result of her disturbed mind.
Finally when Christabel’s making a hissing sound when Geraldine is affectionately hugged by her father is interpreted as a sign of womanly jealousy rather than some cast spell on her. Suggestiveness is one of the most important features in Coleridge’s poetry. He deliberately keeps his descriptions vague and undetermined. According to him, if mystery is described in definite terms, then it ceases to be a mystery. So Coleridge just gives his suggestion and leaves the rest on the readers that whether they want to agree with him or not.
He just gives an idea of the background of the poem and leaves the readers to furnish the necessary details on their own. He does not want to impose his ideas and his poetry on his readers so he writes his poetry in such a way that even the readers use their creative powers to get a better hold of his poetry. For example in Christabel, the effect which the disgusting bosom of Geraldine, created on Christabel’s mind was shown through the following lines- “A sight to dream of not to tell O shield her, shield sweet Christabel”
These lines meant, that his bosom was more horrible than one can even imagine and may sweet Christabel may be protected from the danger that was approaching her. But Coleridge was not happy with the directness of his description and so when Christabel tries to remember the dreadful bosom, Coleridge cunningly uses the technique of suggestiveness and says that it was very sad that a gentle girl like Christabel should be subjected to such a frightful vision. Here, again he is trying to suggest that maybe Christabel had seen a horrible vision and he is trying to say that it can be Christabel’s misconception to think that Geraldine is a witch.