The Analysis of Sexual Imagery in Coleridge’s “Christabel”

Jasenka KAPETANOVIĆ
Univerzitet u Sarajevu
Filozofski fakultet u Sarajevu
Odsjek za anglistiku, II ciklus studija
jasenka.kapetanovic@gmail.com

Summary: This paper intends to discuss and analyse sexual imagery and its implications in Samuel Coleridge’s Christabel. The analysis focuses on social and gender roles present in England in 18th and 19th centuries, and on their fulfillment, or rather failing to do so, by the characters of Christabel and Geraldine. Successive analysis looks into speech, behaviour and gestures of the two main female characters, as well as into their dreams and the implied sexual events. This suggests that both characters have stepped out of their social and gender roles on multiple occasions, which highlights the significance of actions performed by the characters under the influence of supernatural atmosphere present throughout the text, such as implied sexual acts and urges.

Keywords: Christabel, Samuel Coleridge, textual analysis, sexual imagery, social roles, gender roles

Introduction

Christabel is considered to be one of the three greatest poems written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.[1] When it was published in 1816 the poem was preceded by a short Preface in which the poet states that he had written the first part of the poem in 1797 and the second part in 1800.[2] It is only a fragmentary piece of literature, yet still of great importance. Coleridge had previously made a claim to the members of his circle that he always conceives his works in whole, and there is no doubt that he intended to finish Christabel. Some critics thus consider that Christabel was “his ultimate failure as a poet” and deem it possible that Coleridge changed his mind about how the poem should be finished.[3]

The meter in the poem and its supernatural atmosphere are the elements which have continued to bring readership to the poem for decades. The meter in the poem was an experimental effort by Coleridge founded on a new principle. Coleridge formed the meter based on the number of accents (there are four accents in each line) instead of the number of syllables, as was done by his predecessors. The meter was abandoned only in certain transitions of the poem with the intention of emphasising the nature of the images or emotions described.[4] The supernatural atmosphere was achieved through the use of various elements of Gothic romance, such as the repetition of unanswerable questions.[5] This atmosphere brings forth various interpretations of Geraldine as a magical being, such as a serpent-spirit or a lamia.[6]

In this essay I will be discussing the sexual imagery in the first part of Coleridge’s poem Christabel. The analysis will proceed in a manner where I will discuss the characteristics of Christabel as a poem with certain sexual implications and the alterations in the traditional gender roles. I will be using both critical works and examples from the poem. I intend to present symbols and events in the poem which are of a sexual nature, and show how they work together to create a poem which can be understood on multiple levels.

The Analysis of Sexual Imagery in Coleridge’s Christabel

The poem opening is reminiscent of fairy tale introductions. It is the middle of the night and the clock has struck twelve. The cocks have been awakened by the owls howling. Midnight is the hour which symbolizes a new beginning, that of a new day; the cocks are symbols of the dawn and a new beginning as well.[7] These two symbols might be representations of Christabel entering a new part of her life after the following night’s events. Christabel, a young maiden, leaves the castle and goes into the wood on a chilly night to pray for her fiancé who is far away. She dreamt of him on the previous night and, though we are not given the content of the dreams, it may be presumed that the dreams were of sexual nature. According to lines 29 and 30 the dreams, “made her moan and leap,/As on her bed she lay in sleep”.[8] Her departure from the castle can symbolize both her defiance of her father as well as the social gender norms. In addition, her flight can symbolize her maturing from a girl to young woman as her blood is stirred with newly awoken sexual desire.[9] Once Christabel is in the woods, she “kneels beneath the huge oak tree” (line 37).[10] An oak tree is the largest and strongest European tree, and as such it is usually associated with masculine energy.[11] Although kneeling during the prayer usually signals humbleness and honour for God[12] , in the context of Christabel it is possible to interpret her kneeling before the symbol of masculinity as a sign of her submissiveness to men. A woman in 18th and 19th centuries England could have expected to be submissive, first to her father and then to her husband, in almost all aspects of her life. As Ibsen’s Nora utters in A Doll’s House, “I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. ˙(…)When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman–just from hand to mouth. (…)I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child.”[13] It will only be at the end of the 19th century when the situation for women will slowly begin to change.

While Christabel is praying, she hears moans from the other side of the oak tree. We may presume that she was scared not knowing who was there, or what might happen to her. The text describes the expected behaviour for someone who is scared – beating heart due to the adrenaline rush, calling for Heaven’s protection, and crossing her arms which in body language analysis, is commonly understood as shielding oneself from something. Christabel rises up to see a woman’s figure. This is Christabel’s first encounter with Geraldine and the sixth stanza provides us with the description of Geraldine:

“There she sees a damsel bright,
Dressed 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 unsandaled were;
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess,’t was frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she-
Beautiful exceedingly!”.[14]

In these lines Geraldine is described in bodily terms. Her neck, feet and arms are bare, while the rest of her body is covered with a white silken robe which points to her status in high society. Her neck is bare and stately making even her white robe look wan. In literature, an image of a bare neck is often connected with sensuality. Her bare feet are cold with veins showing and her hair is entangled with dispersed gems, both of which suggest she might have already had some kind of incident this evening. The poem continues with Geraldine telling Christabel in a sweet and faint voice about her kidnapping by five warriors. Her story contains gaps and inconsistencies, but she states that she is weary from the kidnapping. Though it is not said, it is implied that Geraldine was a victim of gang rape.[15] The word ‘rape’ comes from the Latin word for abduction or kidnapping,[16] as the abduction of the women was connected with forced sexual intercourse. It was often a practice to abduct a maiden from her father’s house in Rome, and mythologically, Rome itself was built upon the rape of the Sabine women.[17] Christabel is scared by Geraldine’s story, because she is a virgin waiting for her fiancée to return to England and marry her. Geraldine is possibly only a projection of Christabel’s fear of rape, a projection of her dream, or an aspect of her personality.[18] In any case, it is sure that Christabel was influenced by her encounter with Geraldine.

Christabel then invites Geraldine to her home, warning her to be quiet because everyone is asleep. Christabel then invites Geraldine “to share your couch with me”[19] , which might be understood as an invitation for sexual intercourse. Beds are often a symbol of marriage consummation and sexual acts. In this interpretation, it is unlikely that Christabel, as a female, would invite someone for sexual intercourse. What is even more uncommon is that the person whom she invites is a female as well. Christabel, again, breaks gender norms by being an active agent in her own sex life and breaks social norms by possibly sharing intimate moments with a member of the same sex. Christabel will continue to break the norms once she and Geraldine arrive at the castle – she will lift weary Geraldine and carry her over the threshold. Carrying a female over the threshold is a wedding customs, but generally it is the man who does the carrying. The two women continue moving towards Christabel’s room. They pass the mastiff bitch on their way and the dog makes angry moans when they pass it. The narrator of the poem informs us that the bitch had never made any similar noises before Christabel passes with Geraldine. Another unexpected event occurs on their way to Christabel’s room – a flame arises from a dying fire. Both of these events point towards Geraldine having unnatural abilities and there are different interpretations of her supernatural powers. Nethercot proposes that she was a serpent-spirit or a lamia;[20] Spatz states that she might be only a projection of Christabel’s subconscious representing the kind of woman she yearns to be or the woman she fears to become. Depending on Christabel’s attitude towards herself, Geraldine becomes good or bad, beautiful or ugly.[21] Nevertheless, Geraldine posseses a certain supernatural quality as exhibited by the Mastiff and the new flame.

Upon entering Christabel’s room, Christabel offers “wine of virtuous powers”,[22] which her deceased mother made, to Geraldine while telling her about how Christabel’s mother died and how she wishes her mother was still alive. Geraldine wishes the same, but then speaks in an odd manner telling Christabel’s dead mother to leave. Christabel tries to explain both Geraldine’s voice and her Geraldine’s unsettling eye with the trauma from the beginning of the evening. Christabel then proceeds to undress and go to bed while Geraldine prays. But Christabel sits up to see Geraldine rolling her eyes and shuddering, untying her robe and leaving herself exposed. Jonas Spatz suggests that Christabel was too excited about consummating their relationship to sleep.[23] Geraldine does not speak, but, when she sees Christabel looking at her she, “collects herself in scorn and pride”[24]. Although ashamed, Geraldine rushes to Christabel’s bed where she lies next to her and takes her into her arms, later referring to the embrace as “the lovely lady’s prison”[25]. She explains that she is under a spell, but that Christabel can resist the spell because of her care for Geraldine that evening. It is not known what kind of spell she refers to, if any at that. However, it is certain that Christabel is not used to seeing other women half naked. Though homosexuality was not a crime in the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, it was still frowned upon.[26] We know from the poem that Christabel’s mother died giving birth to her and there is no other mention of female cousins or maids, which points towards the conclusion that Christabel is not used to seeing naked female breasts. Yet another social (gender) norm is broken by a female character in Christabel. It is interesting that and ashamed Geraldine would rush to the bed after the incident since we would, perhaps, expect her to move away from Christabel, and not run to her embrace. We are not given particularities of what happened once the two of them were in bed. Anya Taylor proposes that it is possible that Christabel was actively courting Geraldine, since she carried her over the threshold as if she were a bride, intoxicated her with wine, and continuously urged her to secrecy.[27] When following this interpretation, a sexual act between the two of them is implied since it is the direct consequence of the courting rituals. If there were indeed a sexual act Christabel went from being a girl whose blood was stirring to a young woman who was aware of her sexual needs and desires. In other words, she has gone through the “initiation into mature sexuality”.[28] In the poem these events are followed by the narrator reporting how beautiful Christabel was kneeling before the oak tree and asking if it is possible that she is the same woman who is now being held by another maiden. The narrator also reports that Christabel gathers herself from the trance-like dream and begins to shed tears while she smiles because she has had “a vision sweet”.[29] It is possible, in the light of the aforementioned interpretation of the events between the two of them, to propose that Christabel was feeling the full weight of her actions from the previous evening. These memories cause her to cry yet simultaneously smile. Thus ends the first part of Christabel, leaving Coleridge afraid that the poem might disgust people.[30]

Conclusion

In this essay I discussed the sexual imagery in Coleridge’s poem Christabel. I chronologically analyzed the events and images, showing their sexual character or possible sexual implications. I have shown examples from the poem where Christabel and Geraldine break both the social and gender norms of 18th and 19th century England. Such representations of Christabel and Geraldine in terms of gender allowed for the sexual implications of the poem to be more profound. There are no explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse in the poem, yet there are many parts of text which imply dreams and events of sexual nature. Christabel is a poem which, due to its complex nature, can be understood on multiple levels. Whether Coleridge intended for Geraldine to be understood as a part of Christabel’s mind, as her lover, or an acquaintance; and in which degree he intended for the sexual elements to be present in the poem, remains unknown because of the poem’s unfinished nature. In its fragmentary state we are drawn to its supernatural atmosphere and sexual implications, and its implications are undeniable.


  1. Watson, G. (1966). Coleridge the Poet. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 85
  2. Coleridge, S. T. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/1998/v/ n10/005806arp003.html
  3. Watson, 1966, p. 105-106
  4. http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/1998/v/n10/005806arp003.html
  5. Watson, 1966, p. 113
  6. Ibid., p. 107
  7. Ferber, M. (1999). A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 46
  8. http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/1998/v/n10/005806arp003.html
  9. Taylor, A. (2002). Coleridge’s “Christabel” and the Phantom Soul. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1556293 p.711
  10. http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/1998/v/n10/005806arp003.html
  11. Kindred, G. The Oak Tree. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/ oak.htm
  12. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.allaboutprayer.org/kneeling-to-pray-faq.htm
  13. Ibsen, H. A Doll’s House. Retrieved December 10, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.classicreader.com/ book/2011/4/
  14. Coleridge, S. T. Christabel. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.online-literature.com/ coleridge/655/
  15. Spatz, J. (1975) The Mystery of Eros: Sexual Initiation in Coleridge’s “Christabel”. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.jstor.org/stable/461353 p. 112
  16. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=rape
  17. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://sights.seindal.dk/sight/720_Rape_of_the_Sabine_Women.html
  18. Taylor, 2002, p.712
  19. http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/655/
  20. Watson, 1966, p. 107
  21. Spatz, 1975, p.111
  22. http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/655/
  23. Spatz, 1975, p.112
  24. http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/655/
  25. http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/655/
  26. Marsh, J. Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.vam. ac.uk/content/articles/s/sex-and-sexuality-19th-century/
  27. Taylor, 2002, p.712
  28. Ibid., p.713
  29. http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/655/
  30. Taylor., 2002, p.715

Works cited

A    Print Sources

  • Ferber, M. (1999). A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Watson, G. (1966). Coleridge the Poet. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

B Internet Sources

  • Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.allaboutprayer.org/kneeling-to-pray-faq.htm
  • Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.etymonline.com/index. php?term=rape
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  • Kindred, G. The Oak Tree. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www. whitedragon.org.uk/articles/oak.htm
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  • Taylor, A. (2002). Coleridge’s “Christabel” and the Phantom Soul. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1556293

Works consulted

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  • Ulmer, W. A. “Christabel” and the Origin of Evil. Retrieved December 1, 2012 on the World Wide Web: http://www.deepdyve.com/lp/university-of-north-carolina-press/christabel-and-the-origin-of-evil-Hxgc0OfoFd

Analiza seksualnih elemenata u pjesmi Christabel Samuela Coleridgea

Sažetak

Članak namjerava prikazati i analizirati pjesničke slike seksualne prirode i njihove implikacije u pjesmi Christabel autora Samuela Coleridgea. Analiza je zasnovana na društvenim i rodnim ulogama kakve su bile u Engleskoj u 18. i 19. stoljeću, te Christabelinom i Geraldininom (ne)ispunjavanju tih uloga. Potom se analiziraju govor, kretnje i ponašanje ta dva glavna ženska lika, kao i njihovi snovi i implicirani seksualni događaji. To nas dovodi do zaključka da su oba lika izašla iz okvira društvenih i rodnih uloga u različitim situacijama, što dodatno naglašava značaj radnji, poput impliciranih seksualnih odnosa i poriva, koje u pjesmi vrše likovi pod utjecajem nadnaravne atmosfere koja je prisutna u djelu.

Ključne riječi: Christabel, Samuel Coleridge, tekstualna analiza, seksualne slike, društvene uloge, rodne uloge

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