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The Story Untold: Coleridge and his Creation
The story of pride and pain, the story told with the stifled sobbing and interrupted too fast, the piece created by Coleridge leaves much more mysteries than a reader can handle.
With the power of his imagination Coleridge makes the reader see the despair which the poem is shot through, yet he leaves very much to the imagination, leaving the real facts behind and telling only what lies on the surface. In spite of the fact that the poem was never completed, and despite Coleridge’s passion for talking mysteries, one can see the outlines of people and events on this beautiful canvas of poem.
With no end and with tangled beginning, the poem needs explanation of the author, which Coleridge realized well enough. In addition, the female character placed in the center of the story raised a number of debates among critics, which added to the mystery about the poem.
As Kroeber recalled, ”Often when Coleridge discusses Christabel, his poem becomes a lady whose character needs protecting or explaining.” (204). Indeed, unfinished and filled with various mysteries, the poem offers much food for the reader’s fantasy, yet it answers none of the questions the latter asks.
Among the contradictory and debatable issues of the poem, its characters are one of the most complicated issues to discuss. In spite of the fact that their number is not great, the complicacy of their natures offers many grounds for discussion. The two most contradictory and controversal ones, Christabel and Geraldine, fill the entire poem with the air of grief and compassion. To lift the veil of mystery over the two maids’ faces,
Feeding Vampires: Mother and Her Daughter
No matter how petrifying that might sound, Christabel and Geraldine can be positioned as a mother and her child. Draining the energy from her new friend’s veins, the Lamia of the XVII century England is a child hungry for warmth and feelings. It is obvious that this bloodthirsty child of the parents sunken in vice needs the energy of her victim as a baby needs its mother’s milk.
Surprisingly, this idea proves right if considering the characters closer. In spite of the fact that the terrifying lamia drains the soul of her new victim, leaving an empty shell of Geraldine, she does not treat the latter merely as a source of energy – on the contrary, Christabel displays keen interest in Geraldine’s life and becomes indignant with the people who brought suffer and sorrow to poor Geraldine.
As Hollinger argues,
When we envision the vampire feeding, we see the victim and predator, seduced and seducer: why not Madonna and the child? Is the vampire’s lust for blood an extension of a more natural desire for sustenance and is its quest for victims and for others of its kind really a search fro mother and family? (Hollinger 45)
Terrified himself o the terrible parallel drawn between motherhood and the vampire’s desire to be fed and warmed, Coleridge depicts the actions of Christabel as if observing the dreadful mischief from a secret lair. In spite of all the terror of the situation, the poet realizes that there is certain petrifying beauty in this scene – the beauty of a baby sucking its mother’s breast:
And lo! the worker of these harms,
That holds the maiden in her arms,
Seems to slumber still and mild,
As a mother with her child. (57)
Drawing the Line between a Victim and a Seducer
Expecting that the poet placed each tile of the story into its own place, the reader would be surprised to know that there are a number of ways to interpret the poem.
Although it seems obvious at first that it was insinuating Christabel who managed to subdue poor Geraldine to her will, further on it becomes evident that the problem is more than skin deep. Looking hurt and innocent, the girl found in the forest proves much more dangerous a guest than the family could have imagined. Considering Hoffmeister’s point of view, one can suppose that it was Geraldine who became the seducer of the daughter and her father:
In describing how Geraldine first seduced the daughter and then the father, the narrator reveals several subtle shifts in sexual roles: Christabel as bridegroom carrying Geraldine over the threshold; Geraldine embracing Christabel “as a mother with her child”; Sir Leonile embracing as a young bride “the wrong daughter of his friend” and resenting his own daughter’s “jealousy” (49)
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Who was the lamia, then? On the one hand, it seems that in the given situation Hoffmesiter sees what he wants to see in the poem, making it thus even more complicated – if this is actually possible, for Coleridge already tangled it to the hilt – and sees hidden implications where there is nothing to be concealed? It is obvious that Hoffmeister considers the description of passing through the gates of the castle and Geraldine’ fainting as the main proof that the girl is a lamia:
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. (Coleridge 47)
Still it seems that the hint is far too subtle. Even though Coleridge could mean that there was something wrong about Geraldine, he would have showed it in a more explicit way, judging from the manner in which he depicted Geraldine’s woes.
A Witch or a Child?
Of course, there is that certain piece of witchery in every woman – yet it seems that Coleridge’s character comprises the traits of both the most virtuous and the most sinful woman ever. Christabel, the angel that dragged Geraldine out of the depth of her despair, becomes suddenly filled with mysterious fire burning her from within – that does somehow remind of auto-da-fes of the Inquisition epoch.
However, Coleridge is far too delicate to mention this in his poem. Despite all the implications and the underlying idea of witchery, he mentions the very word only once, seemingly not connected to the idea of the poem. However, as the word is sounded, it gains certain shape and becomes one of the leitmotifs of the poem:
In Langdale Pike and Witch’s Lair,
And Dungeon-ghyll so foully rent,
With ropes of rock and bells of air
Three sinful sextons’ ghosts are pent (Coleridge 60)
Gaining even darker shades of mystery closer to the abrupt ending of the story, this idea of witchery becomes increasingly evident. Who could have thought that vice can take shapes of the most virtuous things and people? As Christabel breathes in the virus of sin, she is practically turning into a witch. As Twitchel marked,
The lamia myth takes on special importance in the scene where Geraldine and Christabel spend night together. For although there is no mention of any sexual act of bloodletting, we do see the results of some energy flow between them. (45)
Compared to Christabel, Geraldine is a lost and lonesome child. Her soul is restless, and she is looking for a shoulder to cry on and find oblivion in someone as strong as her. However, she does not see that her new friend is rather a monster in disguise, a witch to beware.
Although the story of Geraldine and Christabel is way too blurred to decide which of the maidens was a real monster in disguise and if any was at all, one still can read a piece of truth between the lines of the poem. Mysterious and weird, it drags the reader to the bottom of endless sorrow to see what compassion and sympathy is. With help of the controversial plot, the poet asks another important question: what is virtue and what is it worth? While the story unwinds in front of the reader’s eyes, a number of various relationships start to structure, among them the ones between a mother and a daughter, a victim and a seducer, a witch and an innocent child.
In his peculiar manner, Coleridge does not preach, but paints the pictures of his visions to show the reader, which is even more impressive than moralizing. Leaving the pleasure of wandering in the twists of the poem labyrinth to the reader, Coleridge creates the parallel world where the wildest and the most frightening fantasies become true for a moment – to prove that virtue is one of the most precious gifts.
Coleridge, Samuel T. The Poetical Works of S. T. Coleridge, Including Dramas of Wallenstein, Remorse and Zapolya, in Three Volumes. Vol. 2. London, UK: W. Pickering, 1828. Print.
Hoffmesiter, Gerhart. European Romanticism: Literary Cross-Currents, Modes, and Models. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990. Print.
Hollinger, Veronica. Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Print.
Kroeber, Karl and Gene W. Ruoff. Romantic Poetry: Recent Revisionary Criticism. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993. Print.
Twitchel, James B. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981. Print.