Those of you who know me know how much I love the romantic writers, and Coleridge is among my favorites. Although this is considered an “unfinished” poem, it is still too long to include in this post. But for those who need, here is a link to an online version. I recommend you read it if you are not familiar with the poem.
This poem is, in my opinion, one of the great literary expressions of the supernatural. Basically, it tells the story of a young maiden, Christabel, who meets a woman, Geraldine, who turns out to be a vampire. It is the subtlety of the imagery and the beauty of Coleridge’s verse that make this such a great poem.
Coleridge opens the poem by establishing the time, which appears to be just past midnight.
‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.
Christabel, a virgin maiden, goes off into the woods alone. She engages in a pagan ritual. She prays at an ancient oak tree, draped with moss and mistletoe.
She stole along, she nothing spoke,
The sighs she heaved were soft and low,
And naught was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe:
She kneels beneath the huge oak tree,
And in silence prayeth she.
As she is praying, she becomes aware of someone on the other side of the tree. When she looks to see who is there, she encounters a mysterious woman who is described as enchantingly beautiful.
There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest 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 unsandl’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—
The woman tells Christabel her name is Geraldine and convinces her that she was the victim of rape. Christabel takes pity on her and invites her back to the hall where she lives with her father. When they arrive there, Geraldine is unable to cross the threshold. This could be because vampires are unable to enter a home without invitation from the master, or there may be some protective spell guarding against evil. It is only after Christabel helps her across the threshold that she regains her strength.
They crossed the moat, and Christabel
Took the key that fitted well;
A little door she opened straight,
All in the middle of the gate;
The gate that was ironed within and without,
Where an army in battle array had marched out.
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.
Once inside, Christabel offers prayers to the Virgin Mary. She encourages Geraldine to do the same, be she refuses.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine,
I cannot speak for weariness.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
When Geraldine enters Christabel’s bedchamber, she senses a guardian spirit watching over her. The spirit appears to be that of Christabel’s deceased mother. Geraldine banishes the protective spirit, claiming her right to the maid.
But soon with altered voice, said she—
‘Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have 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.’
As Geraldine undresses, Christabel sees the mark of the vampire upon her breast.
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!
It is then implied that Geraldine drank some of Christabel’s blood. Later, when Christabel awakens, she notices the change in Geraldine, who is now fed and strong.
And Christabel awoke and spied
The same who lay down by her side—
O rather say, the same whom she
Raised up beneath the old oak tree!
Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair!
For she belike hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep!
And while she spake, her looks, her air
Such gentle thankfulness declare,
That (so it seemed) her girded vests
Grew tight beneath her heaving breasts.
When Christabel brings Geraldine to meet her father, Sir Leoline, he becomes entranced by her. She convinces him that she is the daughter of one of Leoline’s old friend, Roland, with whom he had a falling out. Leoline vows to avenge her for the sexual assault, and thereby reestablish the lost friendship with Roland.
Leoline asks Barcy the Bard to convey his message to Roland, but Barcy is reluctant to do so. He had a prophetic dream which led him to believe that there was evil in the hall. This is a long passage, but for me it was the most important in the poem, so I am including it here.
And Bracy replied, with faltering voice,
His gracious Hail on all bestowing!—
‘Thy words, thou sire of Christabel,
Are sweeter than my harp can tell;
Yet might I gain a boon of thee,
This day my journey should not be,
So strange a dream hath come to me,
That I had vowed with music loud
To clear yon wood from thing unblest.
Warned by a vision in my rest!
For in my sleep I saw that dove,
That gentle bird, whom thou dost love,
And call’st by thy own daughter’s name—
Sir Leoline! I saw the same
Fluttering, and uttering fearful moan,
Among the green herbs in the forest alone.
Which when I saw and when I heard,
I wonder’d what might ail the bird;
For nothing near it could I see
Save the grass and green herbs underneath the old tree.
‘And in my dream methought I went
To search out what might there be found;
And what the sweet bird’s trouble meant,
That thus lay fluttering on the ground.
I went and peered, and could descry
No cause for her distressful cry;
But yet for her dear lady’s sake
I stooped, methought, the dove to take,
When lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coiled around its wings and neck.
Green as the herbs on which it couched,
Close by the dove’s its head it crouched;
And with the dove it heaves and stirs,
Swelling its neck as she swelled hers!
I woke; it was the midnight hour,
The clock was echoing in the tower;
But though my slumber was gone by,
This dream it would not pass away—
It seems to live upon my eye!
And thence I vowed this self-same day
With music strong and saintly song
To wander through the forest bare,
Lest aught unholy loiter there.’
What strikes me about this passage is that the bard recognizes the mystical power of poetry. He offers to stay because he knows that the power of his spoken word can banish evil.
Although this is an unfinished poem, I think it ends well and the open ending allows the reader to project his or her own interpretation on what the outcome will be. Christabel, realizing Geraldine’s evil nature, entreats her father to banish her from the home. He turns on her, probably from a combination of pride and enchantment. He stubbornly insists on sending Barcy forth, and then departs with Geraldine.
He rolled his eye with stern regard
Upon the gentle minstrel bard,
And said in tones abrupt, austere—
‘Why, Bracy! Dost thou loiter here?
I bade thee hence!’ The bard obeyed;
And turning from his own sweet maid,
The agèd knight, Sir Leoline,
Led forth the lady Geraldine!
I couldn’t help seeing Leoline as an incarnation of King Lear. He turns away from the true, loving child and falls prey to the wicked. It is also the weakness of men to fall for the archetypal temptress. He has done what many a man has done before and since.
Coleridge, like his romantic contemporaries, was fascinated by the occult and the supernatural. He definitely draws on those influences in this poem. While it is an “unfinished” piece, it is still very good.