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During the era in which Romantic literature thrived, society was conflicted by the age of reason. England in particular was plagued with economical and societal collapse. As a result, many writers attempted to escape their troubles by writing about fantastic, supernatural, and unexplainable tales .Though Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a Romantic writer, he participated in the gothic genre. His poem “Christabel” is a prime example of his supernatural work. It contains quintessential gothic characteristics, such as dark scenery, damsels in distress, and a hint of the supernatural. These Gothic elements make “Christabel” a Gothic poem hidden beneath a Romantic mask.
In order to pinpoint the Gothic characteristics of “Christabel,” it is critical to understand what Gothic literature is. Gothic settings commonly include dark and desolate areas, such as haunted castles, unknown regions, and the recesses of the human mind. These settings are often accompanied by ominous sounds, such as screeching animals, ticking noises, and other specific sound effects. “Christabel” uses many of these tactics. Scenes take place in darkened areas, while readers imagine the sounds of screeching owls, howling dogs, and ticking clocks.
Gothic plots generally entail robbed innocence for the purpose of money, lust, or power .These plots are frequently expanded upon by way of dreams .This is common in Gothic fiction, as the subconscious often knows more than the conscious. Dreams are effective in moving action forward because their meanings depend on their interpretation. In the case of “Christabel,” Saith Bracy’s (the bard) dream could have ended Geraldine’s hold over Christabel, had Sir Leoline interpreted it properly. Since he did not, the dream serves no purpose other than to heighten the tension and make Christabel appear more powerless.
Many Gothic villains have a piercing eye that holds people under its spell .Gothic villains are also commonly unexplained. Though it may be obvious that supernatural elements are at work, readers cannot define the exact evil. This is certainly the case for Geraldine. Coleridge implies that she may be a witch, or maybe a vampire. Witches are known for casting spells and controlling other people. Vampires usually require invitations before entering a private place, and they commonly have the ability to hold people under their thrall. All of these characteristics apply to Geraldine, so it is impossible to know who or what she is.
The Gothic nature of “Christabel” is evident throughout the poem. Gothic undertones are first noted as the poem begins with, “Tis the middle of night by the castle clock, / And the owls have awakened the crowing cock”(part 1, 1-2). These lines prepare the reader for the negative things that are to come. The ominous tone of the poem continues while Coleridge writes of dark clouds, a full moon, and chilly air. The negative connotation of these descriptions makes the reader feel uneasy. The feeling of dread increases while Coleridge describes Christabel’s reaction to the noise she heard. He writes, “Hush, beating heart of Christabel! / Jesu, Maria, shield her well!”(54-53). At this point, the reader expects the worst. Thus it is surprising to see that the terror came from Geraldine, the “damsel bright” who was “dressed in a silken robe of white”. The contrast of the darkness of the woods and the light innocence of Geraldine makes the reader think she must be pure.
The progression of the poem indicates that Geraldine is not what she first appeared to be. Though she gives off light, she is the dark element for whom the reader waited in the woods. Her words are contradictory, and she acts as a damsel in distress to mask who she really is. Geraldine is first introduced as a victim who was kidnapped by five men. Once Christabel offers her assistance, Geraldine acts strangely. When they get to the gate, Geraldine “sank, belike through pain”. Christabel physically drags her over the threshold. Upon first reading the poem, Geraldine’s inability to enter on her own may seem innocent. She has already informed the reader that she is tired, so it may not be noticeable that her fatigue only sets in at convenient moments. As the poem progresses, it becomes obvious that evil requires the assistance of innocence to gain entry into any area, including the human mind.
When the two ladies get to Christabel’s room, Geraldine learns that Christabel’s mother is dead. Geraldine first agrees that she wishes Christabel’s mother was there. However, her opinion promptly changes. Geraldine says:
‘Off, wandering mother! Peak
I have the power to bid thee flee.’
Alas what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she,
‘Off, woman, off! This hour is mine –
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman, off! ‘Tis given to me’.(205-213)
Once Geraldine rids the room of the mother’s spirit, she is free to take over Christabel; so long as Christabel allows it. Geraldine’s inability to initiate evil is apparent again when she warns Christabel of the consequences of her actions. Geraldine warns, “‘In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell, / Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!”(267-268) .Unaware of the truth in Geraldine’s words, Christabel heeds her warning. As a result, she is unable to warn her father of Geraldine’s evil. Instead, she must sit by and watch the evil Geraldine win over her father. By the time Christabel breaks free of her trance, it is too late. Her father is already smitten by Geraldine, and he chooses her in favor of his only daughter.
The events of “Christabel” are tragic and scary, but they are even more horrifying because Coleridge does not explain them. There is no way to determine if Geraldine is an evil being, or if she is only influenced by an evil being. As Coleridge never finished his poem, there is no way to be certain. Supernatural powers are certainly involved, but there is no way to know their full extent. It is this element of the unknown that makes “Christabel,” and Gothic literature in general, so horrifying.
1. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major authors, Sixth Edition.
2. English Romantic Poets, Edited by M.H. Abrams.
3. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, J.A. Cuddon.
4. The Short Oxford History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders, Second Edition.
5. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Edited by Margaret Drabble, Revised.
6. A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams, Eighth Edition.
7. Romantic Writings, Edited by Stephen Bygrave.
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