Coleridge’s Christabel: A song of Experience.

Lady Christabel gazing upon Geraldine’s loveliness in her bed chamber.

Coleridge’s Christabel provides the image of a Gothic figure formed from the last holdings of pure Romanticism. Christabel’s experience with Geraldine takes readers on a transformational and undeniably dark and eery journey throughout the poem. Her inner transformation through the realization of Geraldine’s evil can be paralleled with the recent historical fascination with the idea of the human fall and original sin that causes human imperfections.

This idea was seen previously in literature with William Blake’s”Song of Experience.”Blake’s poems contrast ideas of the human condition in its purest form of innocence and after the harsh reality of life takes its toll on a person. Specifically, the poem “On Anothers Sorrow” from Blake’s selection of Songs of Experience can be paralleled with Gothic vs. Romantic ideas found throughout Coleridge’s text as “Christabel is a typically Romantic poem in that it chronicles a fall from innocence to experience.” (Davison,168) The Gothic form offers an ability to represent traditional romantic notions, yet in an entirely innovative perspective as it allows the rose colored glasses to be removed from many of the dark issues of life’s experienced reality.

In Christabel,The poem begins in a dark setting, using the elements to set the scene with imagery such as setting of “the middle of the night” (Christabel, 652) and a contrast again of a romantic notion being near springtime contrasted with the foreboding darkness as “The night is Chill, the cloud is gray; ‘Tis a month before the month of May.” (653) From the start, readers are given an uneasy feeling of the gray and chilled atmosphere of the poem as it seems to differ drastically from the bright and cheerful character of Christabel we are presented with, seeming a naive beauty being “The lovely lady, Christabel, Whom her father loves so well.” (653) The image provides a sweet and dutiful daughter, but then just as quickly, readers are given a turn of character.

As Christabel dreams of her future husband in an obviously sensual way that causes her to “moan and leap” (653), she is already experiencing some self-conflicting issues of struggling to maintain her religious morality and experiencing this natural desire that seems to be unexplored by Christabel. She promptly goes to pray after her dreams of sexual temptations which is a recurrence throughout the poem, each time that Christabel strays from her virtue. After her own dream-like sensual experience with Geraldine, her praying again is evident in a plea for God to take away the mark of evil that has pressed upon her, that seem even surreal to herself through her plead “That He, who on the cross did groan, Might wash away her sins unknown.”(661) The personal choice of Christabel to pray could symbolize an outstretched hand, grasping to maintain or re-obtain her sense of innocence.

Christabel’s own song of despair and a cry for innocence to her Lord through prayer can be paralleled with the speaker’s lamenting of sorrow through experience and shared with God in “On Anothers Sorrow”. As Christabel repeatedly repents, she is lamenting her initiation into the realm of experience. The speaker in Blake’s poem whoever, provides justification and solace in this act by providing a solution that by sharing personal burdens with God, he experiences them with us “Till our grief is fled & gone/ He doth sit by us and moan.” (186)

The speaker in “on Another’s Sorrow” is clearly one of experience who once walked with untainted hope but laden with a grief that cannot be separated from experience itself. This seems to be his own spell cast by Geraldine as he (or she) is forced to go through life with an inability to escape the sorrows seen by questioning “Can I see a falling tear, And not feel my sorrows share”while Christabel is similarly cursed with the inability to break free from her inner torment and find redemption through the exposing the truth of Geraldine’s evil seduction.(Blake,186)Yet this cannot be, as “For what she knew she could not tell, O’er master’d by the mighty spell.”(Coleridge,606) Both Christabel and the speaker of Blake’s poem are unable to escape from their tainted purity, whether physically or emotionally,and must internalize their excruciating knowledge.

The figure of Geraldine represents, in a sense, “the fall” by being the taker of Christabel’s innocence and giver of experience. Be it witch, vampire, or another mystical creature, Geraldine represents a demonic/satanic symbol of evil as Christabel embodies Christ like virtues of purity and goodness. A profound and pivotal turning point in the text in which Geraldine’s true intent to seduce or tempt Christabel is when she disrobes in her bed chamber as “Her gentle limbs did she undress and lay down in her loveliness.” (658) As Satan is often alluded to having the ability to take the form of what may tempt each specific person the most effectively, so Geraldine smoothly plucks the chords of Christabel’s current weakness of sexual curiosity and and a life of suppressing all potential exploration of self-sexuality.The transformation of innocence to a young woman of experience is being completed as “the nature and gender of her seducer- another woman- has rendered the poem dangerously transgressive.” (Davison, 168) This moment represents a point of no return for Christabel, and may be interpreted as what allows Geraldine’s spell to be solidified as Christabel gives in to her temptation as “on her elbow did recline, To look at the lady Geraldine.” (658)

A similar theme found in the fallen transgressions of both Coleridge’s Christabel and the speaker of the poem in Blake’s “On Another’s Sorrow” is an almost spreading of knowledge from the tree of life and an unavoidable sharing in the giver of sin’s own shame or torment. This moment is apparent after Chritabel and Geraldine lay together unclothed and Geraldine seems to experience a sort of self-redemption through passing her curse onto the formerly innocent Christabel. Geraldine alludes to the dark knowledge she will bewitch Christabel into silently realizing as she tells her “Thou knowest to-night, and will know to-morrow/This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow.” This moment is found in “on Another’s Sorrow” when the speaker questions the inability to realize a sorrow without experiencing it with “Can I see another’s woe./And not be in sorrow too” (Blake, 186) By the conclusion of both poems, readers become assured that the answer is no. A song of experience for both Christabel and speaker in “On Another’s Sorrow” is a haunting melody learned from another’s pain and terrifying transformed into one of their own fall;from innocence to a tormented experience.

Photo Courtesty: Coleridge’s Christabel (19th century, Woodcut Illustration) –

Work cited: Coleridge, Samuel. “Christabel.”
Blake, William. “On Another’s Sorrow.”(From Songs of Innocence and Experience.)
The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. Wolfson, Susan and Manning, Peter. (Vol. 2A) New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 652-667. Print.

Davison, C.M. “The Gothic Romantics/Romanticizing the Gothic.”Gothic Literary Studies:History of the Gothic:Gothic Literature 1764-1824. Cathays, Cardiff, GBR: University of Wales Press, 2009.