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“Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Paganism, Vampires, and the Supernatural

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

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.

Poetry Foundation: Christabel

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;
Tu—whit! Tu—whoo!
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—
Beautiful exceedingly!

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.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 14

Tibaldi

Tibaldi

This episode corresponds to the oxen of the sun section in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus’s men slaughter the sacred cattle of Helios for food. In Joyce’s novel, the scene takes place in a hospital maternity ward where the men there are having an unruly discussion about pregnancy and childbirth. Essentially, they are profaning the sacred act of creating life, similar to the way Odysseus’s men profaned the sacred cattle by using them as food.

So far, this was the most challenging section to read, but also brilliant, in my humble opinion. I felt validated though when I found out I was not alone in seeing this as the hardest part of the book.

The style of Episode Fourteen, one of the most difficult in the novel, consists of imitations of chronological stages in the growth of the English language, beginning with Latinate and Middle English prose up to the chaos of twentieth-century slang. The progression of language is, in turn, meant to correspond to the nine-month gestation period leading to human birth. The imitations of the styles of different time periods and prominent writers seem parodic because the styles are somewhat exaggerated (some more so than others). The ultimate effect is to drive home the point that has been made more subtly in Episodes Twelve and Thirteen: narrative style contains built-in ideology that effects what is reported and how it is reported. Joyce shows this by allowing each different style to gravitate toward its normal subject matter.

(Spark Notes)

Throughout the episode, Joyce employs lots of imagery and metaphors associated with childbirth and cattle, solidifying the connection between this episode and the one in Homer’s epic. There are so many and they are embedded in such dense text, I could write a small book just exploring them. As such, I decided to just mention them and leave them to you to explore and interpret as you read through the episode. Instead, I want to use the rest of this post to look a little closer at two paragraphs that really struck me. They are long, but I’m including them here for those who need.

The voices blend and fuse in clouded silence: silence that is the infinite of space: and swiftly, silently the soul is wafted over regions of cycles of cycles of generations that have lived. A region where grey twilight ever descends, never falls on wide sagegreen pasturefields, shedding her dusk, scattering a perennial dew of stars. She follows her mother with ungainly steps, a mare leading her fillyfoal. Twilight phantoms are they yet moulded in prophetic grace of structure, slim shapely haunches, a supple tendonous neck, the meek apprehensive skull. They fade, sad phantoms: all is gone. Agendath is a waste land, a home of screechowls and the sandblind upupa. Netaim, the golden, is no more. And on the highway of the clouds they come, muttering thunder of rebellion, the ghosts of beasts. Huuh! Hark! Huuh! Parallax stalks behind and goads them, the lancinating lightning of whose brow are scorpions. Elk and yak, the bulls of Bashan and of Babylon, mammoth and mastodon, they come trooping to the sunken sea, Lacus Mortis. Ominous, revengeful zodiacal host! They moan, passing upon the clouds, horned and capricorned, the trumpeted with the tusked, the lionmaned the giantantlered, snouter and crawler, rodent, ruminant and pachyderm, all their moving moaning multitude, murderers of the sun.

Onward to the dead sea they tramp to drink, unslaked and with horrible gulping, the salt somnolent inexhaustible flood. And the equine portent grows again, magnified in the deserted heavens, nay to heaven’s own magnitude, till it looms, vast, over the house of Virgo, And, lo, wonder of metempsychosis, it is she, the everlasting bride, harbinger of the daystar, the bride, ever virgin. It is she, Martha, thou lost one, Millicent, the young, the dear, the radiant. How serene does she now arise, a queen among the Pleiades, in the penultimate antelucan hour, shod in sandals of bright gold, coifed with a veil of what do you call it gossamer! It floats, it flows about her starborn flesh and loose it streams emerald, sapphire, mauve and heliotrope, sustained on currents of cold interstellar wind, winding, coiling, simply swirling, writhing in the skies a mysterious writing till after a myriad metamorphoses of symbol, it blazes, Alpha, a ruby and triangled sign upon the forehead of Taurus.

(p. 414)

So there is a lot going on here. First off, we see liberal use of oxen imagery and allusions to birth. These are then connected to cycles, particularly cycles of rebirth, or metempsychosis. This is all connected to the collective unconscious, represented by the sea and also the heavens. The bull imagery is likely an allusion to Apis, the Egyptian bull deity who served as an intermediary between humans and Osiris.

Apis is named on very early monuments, but little is known of the divine animal before the New Kingdom. Ceremonial burials of bulls indicate that ritual sacrifice was part of the worship of the early cow deities and a bull might represent a king who became a deity after death. He was entitled “the renewal of the life” of the Memphite god Ptah: but after death he became Osorapis, i.e. the Osiris Apis, just as dead humans were assimilated to Osiris, the king of the underworld.

(Wikipedia)

We also have a lot of goddess symbolism woven into the section. Virgin birth and Immaculate Conception are hinted at, as well as the goddess Venus (represented by the daystar) and the Jewish Shekhinah from the kabbalah, who is the veiled and hidden aspect of the godhead.

Finally, the section is full of clear zodiac references. These tie into the overall theme of the cycles of birth and regeneration while strengthening the connection between human existence and the divine cycles as reflected in the heavens. Life and consciousness, like the zodiac, is an eternal cycle, and is sacred. The zodiac represents our spiritual and psychic connection with the universe. Joyce draws on all these various symbols to emphasize how sacred life is, and how childbirth is a key part of the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

zodiac

The next episode is the longest in the book, approximately 180 pages. It is written in the style of a play script, so it should go fairly quickly, but it may take me a little longer to finish that section and get a post up. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my thoughts.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section14.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apis_%28god%29

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