Friday, 27 November 2015

Sinning Heinously Against Purity and Decency: Coleridge's 'Christabel' (1799-1801)

We never get to the end of Christabel, Coleridge's superbly eerie and sensual Gothic verse-tale. He planned five parts; wrote one in the late 1790s, and wrote a second in 1800 hoping that the whole would be included in Wordsworth's second edition of Lyrical Ballads. When Wordsworth cut Christabel, Coleridge grew discouraged. He never finished it. That makes it more than a little tantalising. In the first part, the lovely and virtuous heroine Christabel leaves her father's castle one cold and moonlit night, to go into the nearby forest and there pray for her lover, a knight who is 'far away'. In the forest she encounters something strange.

There she sees a damsel bright,
Dressed in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandal'd were;
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, 'twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!
Mary mother, save me now!
(Said Christabel,) And who art thou? [Christabel 1:60-68]
This is the beautiful lady Geraldine, who claims to have been abducted by some rough knights, to have escaped them and now to be seeking sanctuary. Christabel leads Geraldine back inside her father's castle, tip-toes past his room so as not to wake him, and invites Geraldine to sleep in her bed.

But when Geraldine disrobes Christabel sees ... well, it's not clear what she sees:
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!
Her bosom, and half her side what? Is withered and deformed? Is that of a beast rather than a human? Is she particoloured, or covered in scales, tattooed or diseased? We're not told. In one MS draft there is an extra line, which STC later cut: 'Behold! her bosom, and half her side/Are lean and old and foul of hue'. A later MS version of the poem changes this: 'Behold! her bosom, and half her side/Dark and rough as the sea-wolf's hide'. In the event STC preferred the poem to print without specificity. There's enough here to indicate that Geraldine is clearly something malign; and she lays an enchantment upon Christabel that prevents her from speaking.

Part 2 is set the following day: Geraldine and Christabel meet Christabel's father, Sir Leoline, in 'the Baron's presence-room'. He is impressed by Geraldine's beauty, and moved by her declaration that she is the daughter of one of Sir Leoline's childhood friends, Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine. The two men had fallen out, but Sir Leoline greets this as an opportunity to make-up with him, and orders his court bard, Bracy, to ride to the castle of Lord Roland and inform the peer that his daughter is safe. Bard Bracy demurs, citing a dream he had in which the Baron's pet dove, also called Christabel, was throttled by a snake 'green as the herbs on which it couched'.

Sir Leoline insists that Bard Bracy must go, nonetheless. Meanwhile Christabel catches a glimpse of Geraldine's eyes altering in her face:
The lady's eyes they shrunk in her head,
Each shrunk up to a serpent's eye,
And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread,
At Christabel she looked askance!—
One moment—and the sight was fled!
But Christabel in dizzy trance
Stumbling on the unsteady ground
Shuddered aloud, with a hissing sound;
And Geraldine again turned round,
And like a thing, that sought relief,
Full of wonder and full of grief,
She rolled her large bright eyes divine
Wildly on Sir Leoline.
Christabel overcomes the evil enchantment placed on her just enough to be able to beg her father to send this alarming woman away; but the old man grows angry at this imputation that he would slight his duties as a host, rebukes his daughter and leaves the chamber arm in arm with Geraldine.

That's as far as the story takes us. And, actually, story is the least of this poem: it generates its effect not through events but rather via a beautifully accumulative sense of erotic dread and uncertainty, a sensual evocation of the tropes and fittings of Gothic menace and atmosphere. In Part 1, do Christabel and Geraldine go to bed in the innocent way children will sleep together? The manifest content of the poem, with its stress on Christabel's purity, suggests so; but the latent content of the poem is positively dripping with secret sexual consummation, hidden pleasures and secret shame. When old Sir Leoline leads Geraldine out at the end of part 2, is he going to marry her? Has she used her weird lamia sklls to seduce him?

One hint as to what happens next is provided by a long note Coleridge wrote, in 1819, on the fly-leaf of the first (1816) printed edition of the poem (first reproduced by John Beer in The Review of English Studies in 1986):
I still cherish the hope of finishing this poem, and if by any means I can command two months' actual leisure at the sea side, I hope to finish it in the course of the present year. Enough at present to assure you, that Geraldine is not a Witch, in any proper sense of that word—That she is a man in disguise, is a wicked rumour sent abroad with malice prepense, and against his own belief and knowledge, by poor Hazlitt. Unhappy man! I understand that when one of his Faction had declared in a pamphlet ("Hypocrisy unveiled") the Christabel "the most obscene poem in the English Language" he shrugged himself up with a sort of sensual orgasm of enjoyment, and exclaimed—How he'll stare! (i.e. meaning me) Curse him! I hate him.—

When I reflect on such things, and know that to be real which otherwise I could not have believed possible, it is an unspeakable Comfort to me that I can with my whole heart obey the divine precept, Matth: V. 43, 44, 45, 46.—

S. T. Coleridge

Feb.y 3. 1819.

Beer's article goes into detail as to how former close friends Coleridge and Hazlitt had, by 1819, fallen out to the extent indicated here. The pamphlet does indeed disparage Coleridge's poem. You can read it for yourself here: Hypocrisy unveiled, and Calumny detected: in a review of Blackwood's Magazine (1818): :
If after all this, the sapient editors of Blackwood’s Magazine can hope to impose upon, gull, and deceive the public any longer, they are certainly deceived in the highest degree themselves ... to make this farfamed representation of virgin purity, of matronly and religious feeling, the more striking, they have taken care to inform us, in language too licentious to be repeated here, and fit only for some “ melodious advocate of lust,” that Raphael was enabled to pourtray this object of worship to catholic Europe, by studying the figures of his mistresses ... We may also add, as a summing up of their wretched inconsistencies, that the same writer, or at least his sworn brother, the LEOPARD, has praised Byron’s Parisina, and Coleridge's Christabel, poems which sin as heinously against Purity and decency as it is well possible to imagine. [Hypocrisy Unveiled, 50]
The 'Leopard' is one of the two pseudonymous Blackwood's contributors on which the pamphlet focusses its ire; the other being 'the Scorpion'. John Beer notes that this pamphlet provoked Coleridge to several reactions:
On 31 January Coleridge had written to Southey, 'Some Genius in a pamphlet entitled Hypocrisy unveiled written against Mr Wilson has pronounced poor Christabel "the most obscene Poem in the English Lang[uage]". It seems that Hazlitt from pure malignity had spread about the Report that Geraldine was a man in disguise.' ... Coleridge returned to the question of Hazlitt's 'frantic hatred' in a letter of 9 February to William Mudford: 'It was, as I am given to understand, this same Gentleman who against his own knowledge set about the report, that the GERALDINE in my Christabel was a man in disguise, and that the whole Poem had an obscene purpose, referring to me at the same time with a shrug of malicious anticipation—Curse him! how he'll stare!—And one of his clan has had the effrontery in a published Pamphlet to declare the Christabel "the most obscene Poem in the English Language". [Beer, 41]
So Coleridge, smiling as far as he can, though clearly with his teeth gritted, wants to imply that Christabel is not the most obscene poem in English. He is at least clear that Geraldine is not a man in drag. This assertion, though, casts doubt over one of the often-reprinted versions of the way the rest of the story was going to develop, recorded by James Gillman:
The following relation was to have occupied a third and fourth canto, and to have closed the tale. Over the mountains, the Bard, as directed by Sir Leoline, 'hastes' with his disciple; but in consequence of one of those inundations supposed to be common to this country, the spot only where the castle once stood is discovered, —the edifice itself being washed away. He determines to return. Geraldine being acquainted with all that is passing, like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, vanishes. Re-appearing, however, she waits the return of the Bard, exciting in the mean time, by her wily arts, all the anger she could rouse in the Baron's breast, as well as that jealousy of which he is described to have been susceptible. The old Bard and the youth at length arrive, and therefore she can no longer personate the character of Geraldine, the daughter of Lord Roland de Vaux, but changes her appearance to that of the accepted though absent lover of Christabel. Next ensues a courtship most distressing to Christabel, who feels—she knows not why—great disgust for her once favoured knight. This coldness is very painful to the Baron, who has no more conception than herself of the supernatural transformation. She at last yields to her father's entreaties, and consents to approach the altar with this hated suitor. The real lover returning, enters at this moment, and produces the ring which she had once given him in sign of her betrothment. Thus defeated, the supernatural being Geraldine disappears. As predicted, the castle bell tolls, the mother's voice is heard, and to the exceeding great joy of the parties, the rightful marriage takes place, after which follows a reconciliation and explanation between the father and daughter. [Gilmann, Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1838) 1:304]
If not a man, or at any rate transgender woman-man, aiming sexually to possess Christabel, then what?

I have a suggestion, although it may smack rather of anticlimax. But then again, could it be that Coleridge was thinking in terms of studied anti-climax from the beginning? There are aspects of this poem that point not towards the expert creation of an eerie mood so much as the deliberate clumsiness of comedy. Anya Taylor calls it 'a poem that can drive readers "mad" or make them feel "stupid."' From its opening-"Tu-whit!-tu-whoo!"— its lulling, almost lobotomized repetitions—"Is the night chilly and dark?/The night is chilly but not dark"—its shifting narrative voices, and its metrical hesitations and forward rushes, it lures listeners into its twilight' [Taylor, 'Coleridge's "Christabel" and the Phantom Soul' SEL 42:4 (2002), 707]. Perhaps this awkwardness of tone is gesturing less at the mystic-transcendental and more at the Northanger-Abbey-style deflation of Gothic pomposity?

Here is where I bring in Cervantes, an author we know Coleridge read and admired. Let's imagine him reading Don Quixote in the 1790s, something he would almost certainly have done in Smollett's celebrated translation (1755). It is well within the bounds of possibility that he also read the spurious sequel, Second Volume of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha: by the Licenciado (doctorate) Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, of Tordesillas, which was translated into English by William Augustus Yardley in 1784. Let's imagine he did, at any rate. So: we bear in mind the salients of Christabel Part 1: the protagonist ventures into a dark wood, hears a beautiful maiden in distress, believes her to have been abducted by knights and marked in some supernatural way by demonic or magical powers; bear in mind also that this demonic mark involves, in some way, physical deformity. Then read Chapter 5 ‘Of the Strange and Dangerous Adventure Don Quixote’s Valiant Squire Had the Hardiness to Undertake’:
Don Quixote and his companions were now about half way on their journey to the inn where they were to lie that night; when, palling by the side of a little wood of fir-trees, they observed a doleful voice issue from among them, as it were of a woman in distress. They halted, the better to listen to it; and, being near enough, heard these words distinctly—'Alas! unhappy woman that I am! shall I find nobody to relieve me in this extremity? ...' As soon as the knight heard these words, he said to his companions—'Behold here, gentlemen, the most glorious and most dangerous adventure I ever met with since I received the order of knighthood! The wood which we now see is enchanted, and very difficult to be penetrated; the wise Friston, my ancient enemy, has in it a spacious cavern, wherein he holds a great number of knights and princesses enchanted. To theft he has lately added the sage Urganda the Unknown; she is cruelly bound with mighty iron-chains to a vast mill'stone, which two deformed demons continually whirl about; and every time her body violently strikes the rock on which the mill-stone stands, the terrible pain she endures makes her cry out in the manner we have heard.' Information like the foregoing was perfectly new and strange to the alderman; who, being by nature not over wise, answered with the utmost simplicity—'Sir Knight, enchanters are not at all used in this country; and I do not believe there is any thing of what you say in this wood; all we can judge of it is, that some highwaymen have dragged some woman into the wood, where they have robbed and abused her. It behoves us to go in and see whether she is still in a condition to be helped.'—'Mr. Alderman,'answered Don Quixote very sternly, 'do not you know I do not love to contend, and especially with little aldermen, who ought to hold their peace before knights-errant!' Bracamonte, to prevent any contest, drew near the alderman, and in few words let him into Don Quixote's character; who, as one deeply concerned in Urganda's deliverance, had already drawn his sword, and was entering the wood; affirming, that to him alone it belonged to finish that adventure. [The History And Adventures Of The Renowned Don Quixote (1784) 3:85]
In the event Sancho Panza begs the honour of the adventure, and with much comic tremulousness he goes into the woods, whilst the maiden continues calling aloud for help: 'Holy Mother of God!' (compare Christabel's 'Jesu, Maria, shield her well!') Sancho eventually 'espied a woman naked to her shift.' However, 'this sight threw him into such a consternation, that, dropping down plumb from his ass, he took to his heels, without minding which way he went, yelling with horrible vociferation—' Help! 'Murder!—Now, master Don Quixote, your trusty squire is slain!' Though she is but a woman, Sancho sees her as a damned soul liable to have 'swallowed me down like a stewed prune; for she has not eaten any thing else these six thousand years'. Don Q, on the contrary, declares the woman to be 'Zenoba, that great Queen of the Amazon', frees her and takes her to the inn. Actuality is less exotic: her real name is 'Barbara Hacked-Face': some 'fifty years of age', disfigured on one half of her body: 'her right cheek adorned with the seam of a long wound, which extended even to her ear, and which had probably been inflicted in her younger days, for her holy life and modest conversation!'

Christabel takes Geraldine's scarred or deformed half-side to be a diabolic mark, and all readers, as far as I can see, have followed her in that. Conceivably, though, the whole poem is instead a riff upon this Quixotic episode; that when STC wrote 'that Geraldine is not a Witch, in any proper sense of that word' he might have been gesturing to such a revelation. We could take him at his word. We don't want to, though, because we are as invested in the fantasy version of this unfinished poem as any Quixote.

This would explain Coleridge's cagey responses to queries about how the poem was to develop, and explain why he didn't rebut Hazlitt et all simply by spelling out his plans for the poem. He wanted to keep his Scooby-Doo twist ending in reserve. But it might also explain why he never finished it: he had done such a good job of evoking Gothic mystery and supernatural erotic frisson, he couldn't quite bring himself to puncture the bubble he had himself blown. For readers now, the truly heinous sin would be the reading of the poem that denies its impurity and indecency.


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

    I always thought that meant she liked it

  2. Never till now she uttered yell
    Beneath the eye of Christabel.
    Perhaps it is the owlet's scritch:
    For what can ail that mastiff bitch?

    Aye - that's no ordinary screech owl, but Lilith (also Lamia, which you mention) - half the body of a snake. If there is a primal archetype of two women and a single man, then it would be Lilith, Eve, and Adam.