Back in high school I was that misunderstood kid who wandered graveyards and wore the long, dark skirts and combat boots. My idea of a hairstyle was washing my hair in the morning and leaving it to freeze during the twenty block walk to school. Almost every morning I arrived in homeroom with my black hair frozen solid. “The ice queen has arrived,” would chime my teacher. Fantastic. Lucky for me, I had a like-minded friend, R., who was just as freakish. We were young, we were outcasts, we were goths, though having grown up in Latino households, we never really labeled ourselves that way. I was called a goth chick for the first time in college by people from the midwest. When I looked it up, I definitely fit the bill. Black clothes, a penchant for anachronistic Romantic literature, Bauhaus, Skinny Puppy, Waterhouse, Michelangelo, a love of antiquity–yeah, OK, I was a total goth chick. Truth is I’ve never really outgrown it. Here I am, forty years old transforming myself into a fantasy novelist and an antiquarian book dealer–salivating over Dore illustrated books and first editions ofDracula and Undine. Some things don’t ever change.
I discovered Samuel Taylor Coleridge in ninth grade. R. and I found an old book of his poems in the library and were instantly hooked. The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner blew our minds, but it was Christabel that would have the lasting impact–the poem that we would always look back to and sigh.Christabel is lengthy and epic and disturbing and that is why we loved it [for a synopsis of the poem click here]. R. and I read this together and we’d often call each other Christabel and Geraldine. We were fascinated by Coleridge’s imagery–the dark wood, the howling of the mastiffs, the peculiar, pale woman lurking in the shadows. In short, we were in love.
While not the most famous of his works, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Gothic poem Christabel, first published in 1816, is perhaps his most controversial. Some scholars believe thatChristabel, like many of Coleridge’s poems was inspired by a fit of escapist, imaginative flight, but I believe it was much more premeditated–a morality play of sorts, or something perhaps more satyrical. I always found it interesting that the nameChristabel is a combination of the words Christ and Abel–both supreme examples of good in Christian dogma. On the surface, Christabel personifies this goodness. She is pure of spirit but also gullible and naive which leads her to trust too easily in Geraldine, which represents darkness and evil. Geraldine shies from the light and is associated with snakes, or some would say the devil or the phallus.
Coleridge once said that prayer was, “the effort to connect the misery of Self with the blessedness of God.” But in Christabel, what is the outcome of her prayer? Is it a release from shame and misery? No. Christabel receives no reassurance about the “weal of her lover”; her prayers of longing go unanswered by the protective spirit of her mother, and her prayers alongside her father who is enamored by Geraldine fall on deaf ears. Prayer seems only to imbue a sense of hope and a transcendental acceptance of suffering.
Maybe I am looking too deeply into it. Maybe Coleridge only intend this as some sort of erotic flight of fancy where he explores lesbianism and hermaphroditism. Geraldine appears as a woman, but when the robes come off, the reader is left with a great mystery as to what kind of “horror” she actually conceals. While Christabel’s father sleeps, his daughter is shuttered in her chambers with a monstrous apparition who takes her virginity. Is Geraldine half woman, half snake, or half woman, half man, or something else? Alright, maybe that is my erotic imagination kicking in, but judge for yourself.
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!
Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;
Ah! what a stricken look was hers!
Deep from within she seems half-way
To lift some weight with sick assay,
And eyes the maid and seeks delay;
Then suddenly, as one defied,
Collects herself in scorn and pride,
And lay down by the Maiden’s side!—
And in her arms the maid she took,
And with low voice and doleful look
These words did say:
‘In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,
Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!
Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow,
This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow;
But vainly thou warrest,
For this is alone in
Thy power to declare,
That in the dim forest
Thou heard’st a low moaning,
And found’st a bright lady, surpassingly fair;
And didst bring her home with thee in love and in charity,
To shield her and shelter her from the damp air.’
In Christabel good does not triumph over evil and I think that is by design. Until recently (1980’s) the poem was interpreted in one of two ways: as a Gothic tale of vampires and demons or as an allegory of Christian atonement. It wasn’t until feminist Camille Paglia came along that scholars began to look at Coleridge’s motivations a bit differently. Camille Paglia concludes that, “Coleridge the Christian was the first misreader of Coleridge the poet”, that “no poem in literary history has been so abused by moralistic Christian readings”, and that “far from demonstrating the success of Christian aspiration, [the poem] abolishes Christianity and returns the psyche to a primitive world of ethical opacity and sexually malignant spirit-presences”. In “Christabel,” Paglia writes, “Piety is blasted by a daemonic night wind. Heaven is conquered by hell. Virtue does not and cannot redeem the poem. The greatness of ‘Christabel’ arises from its lurid pagan pictorialism. It is an epiphany of evil”.
Many have disagreed with Paglia, but I for one, am not one of them. Christabel is a curious and bold “Mary Sue” who gets her just due and is thoroughly corrupted and even enhanced by her experience with Geraldine. When her father looks upon Christabel in the second part of the poem he is aroused and filled with “pleasure” at the sight of his daughter, but is also repulsed and moved to bitterness. Leoline’s reaction reminds me of that memorable passage in Dracula where Jonathan meets the count’s women:
“I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.” –Bram Stoker, Dracula
Sexuality in Christabel is as wondrous and it is horrific–a theme that can be found in the writings of many of Coleridge’s contemporaries: Wilde’s Dorian, Polidori’s vampire, Stoker’s Dracula, Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Marsh’s beetle, the list goes on.
Just as God and prayer don’t deliver Christabel from her torment, they don’t deliver Coleridge from his. Brush aside the strange and somewhat hallucinatory moonlit dreamscapes and you begin to see a portrait of a man filled with suffering. Coleridge began taking opium when he was in school in London. He experimented with it throughout his 20s and was seriously addicted by the time he settled in the Lake District at age 29. According to his biographer, Coleridge was repelled by sex, which he described as a “necessary evil” and was frightened by the erotic wiles of women. He despised his wife and his mother, and held no affection for his children. Coleridge struggled with the conception of love and the role in which sex played a part in it. His best relationship was with fellow Romantic, Wordsworth, with whom he grew so attached that it harmed his domestic affairs. It is no wonder that Coleridge’s poems reflect pathos and psychosis. Plagued by chronic rheumatic pain, addicted to opiates, and shunned by his best friend and confidant, Coleridge set to writing poems in which hope and prayers are never answered. If Christabel is representative of Coleridge’s pain, Geraldine is his laudanum; his panacea–his “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on Coleridge’s Christabel and it seems every time I read it I discover some nuance previously overlooked. Christabel’s ability to remain fresh so many years after it was written is its true power. Regardless of the author’s motivations, the poem continues to delight readers with its powerful imagery and incongruous themes.
In closing, I hope that you have enjoyed the beautiful artwork and the food for thought on this wonderful work of Romantic Literature.
Illustrations by Gerald Metcalfe.