In “Christabel” Coleridge has taken on a task of momentous proportions, and it is from the difficulty of this task that his dilemmas arises. He realizes the hopelessness of an open exploration of aspects of sexuality at that time for social and sociological reasons, and therefore he uses the story of Geraldine as a powerful and complex metaphor through which to both hide and reveal his understandings. The difficulty of his task lies in the conundrum of discussing a highly suppressed (on the individual and the societal level) emotion. If one directly deals with the topic, if one straightforwardly expresses ones opinion, then the reader and the society will reflexively tend to reject it without serious contemplation, on the other hand, if one uses just the right balance of subterfuge and subtly, then one can introduce and discuss the issue in a highly effective, though circumspect, manner. The tension between effectiveness and straightforwardness (which are usually considered linked) must have been extremely difficult for Coleridge to deal with and must have made the poem difficult to carry forward. Of course the poem discussed much more than simply sexuality, but sexuality, in all its forms, is the unstated subject nevertheless.
Ultimately, this method of skirting and confronting the issue proves to reach the reader on levels that a direct approach never would. It allows the poem to be accepted by mainstream society, but more importantly, it uses the readers fascination and disgust for sexuality to make the message powerful. The reader, while extensibly dealing with less loaded issues, is unconsciously forced to deal with subtle hints and references to sexuality through the diction and the (structure) of the poem. So the reader is ultimately, and inadvertently, forced to face suppressed sexuality without ever overtly choosing to. It is the crafting of this complex and unconscious aspect of poetry that must have both challenged and perplexed Coleridge to no limit. The end of the poem is a restoration, an explanation, and, as a restoration, a suspiciously easy way to conclude. It leaves the reader unsatisfied, and so the reader must provide her own satisfaction by coming to grip with the poem’s unresolved issues. It is in the crafting of the poem to hide, and therefor reveal, its subject with which Coleridge struggles.
The burying of sexuality must have been Coleridge’s most problematic task. How does one convey something to the reader without the reader being forced to directly confront it? On the macro scale this infiltration of theme was achieved by the story itself. Christabel, Geraldine, and Sir Leodine are all introduced as a vehicle in which and through which the issues are dealt with. The general plot at first seems simple and appropriate to the medieval genre in which it was written. Christabel, while praying in the forest for “the weal of her lover that is far away,” meets Geraldine, a beautiful maiden who has been kidnapped. Christabel takes Geraldine back to her fathers Castle and, after a nights sleep, presents her to her father who, rediscovering a lost friend, and plans to return her. But on the micro scale strange aspects of Geraldine, and strange reactions by Christabel keep rearing up.
In the night Christabel, while watching Geraldine undress sees a “sight to dream of not to tell” and then the narrator breaks in and explicitly warns the reader that danger looms “Oh shield her! Shield sweet Christabel.” The interruption of the narrator without any seeming physical threat to Christabel seems to beg the reader to search for an answer. The reader might remember the dog’s ominous moan, or the moaning of the trees (for moaning, with all its connotations of pleasure and pain seems to follow Geraldine). Geraldine becomes almost a magical figure who exerts power over all around her and she refers to how she “worketh a spell.” But I question, indeed challenge, that Geraldine can be simplified into merely a witch. Perhaps she is modeled after Helen of Troy, whose beauty caused her such torment, and her beauty is her power. “Thou knowest tonight, and wilt know tomorrow/ This mark of my shame and this seal of my sorrow” (she could be blaming her beauty for her kidnapping). And yet she is unquestionably sinister. She is the incarnation of the snake that holds the dove in its embrace in the dream she later relates. She seems to bewitch Christabel into “dull and treacherous hate.” She reveals the sexuality of Christabel’s father to Christabel. When Christabel pleads for Geraldine to be sent away, her father turns away. But does Christabel want Geraldine to be sent away because of Geraldine or because of what Geraldine uncovers in her, some form of attraction and fascination?
This sort of question is always implicit. How much of the actions and tensions of the poem appear external but are actually internal? And how does one end a story such as this? This problem is enormous. Coleridge answers it by avoiding the trap of a satisfying (end), and opts to leave the reader dissatisfied enough to confront and question the issues raised, which ultimately is Coleridge’s goal. Coleridge must have grappled with this poem in his efforts to add this very complexity.
Christabel was difficult to carry forward and complete because there necessarily had to be a tension between form and content, between what was explicit and what was implicit. The tensions are especially problematic when one tries to end such a poem. To what extent should the end be satisfying to the reader, and to what extent should it force the reader to respond? Coleridge was discussing very difficult and complex issues that are still unresolved. But the core of the poem, and its power, derive from Coleridges unblinkingness. The intensity of his fixed stare. He does not skirt the issue of sexuality because he wants to, but because he must in order to maximize his effectiveness. The poem forces him to do something which seems a contradiction: he needs to hide in order to reveal. The poem requires much of the reader, who must grapple with the issues Coleridge skillfully draws out, but it required even more of Coleridge who paradoxically manages to draw a straight line with curves.
About the Author
Phineas Upham has an extensive educational background in both economics and philosophy. He contributes writing in these fields and curates articles from other authors for Scholastic Daily. Visit his website at PhineasUpham.com.