Originally intended for Lyrical Ballads, 2nd edition (1800), but excluded probably by Wordsworth's decision. Unpublished until 1816, although circulated in MS.

November 1794, Coleridge reading Schiller's Robbers. "Who is this Schiller? The Convulser of the Heart? Did he write his Tragedy amid the yelling of Fiends?" (CL, I, 122). Ashton comments: "he recapitulates his childhood experience of reading (especially the often frightening Arabian Nights), dreaming and imagining. Some of his own best poetry was to be in the sublime Gothic vein; he would excite himself into creating nightmare experiences in 'The Ancient Mariner' and 'Christabel', poems which he may be said to have conjured up as if 'amid the yelling of fiends'." (Ashton, p. 59). Its influence on Scott (The Lay of the Last Minstrel), Byron (The Siege of Corinth), Percy Shelley.

The poem is unfinished. Coleridge, November 1800: "I tried & tried, & nothing would come of it" (CL, I, 643).


Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Blackwell, 1996), pp. 184-5.

The mystery in 'Christabel' is whether the Lady Geraldine, who casts a spell on the heroine, is herself the innocent victim of an evil enchantment or a kind of incarnation of evil. What there is of the poem raises the question, but does not answer it.

In Part I Geraldine, whom Christabel finds in a wood by moonlight, says she has been abducted by 'five warriors' and has 'lain entranced' in some versions, or 'lain in fits' in others. She is invited into Christabel's father's castle, with repeated crossing of thresholds: 'they crossed the moat', 'over the threshold of the gate', 'they crossed the court', 'they passed the hall'. Once over the final threshold and inside Christabel's chamber, the strange lady engages in a muttered verbal tussle with the spirit of Christabel's dead mother. 'Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!' says Geraldine in an echo of one of Macbeth's witches, as she puts a malignant spell on Christabel, who thereafter is unable to warn her father about this dangerous guest.

Christabel has been initiated into guilt and needs to be saved. The question remains unanswered as to how this would have happened. Coleridge would presumably have had to decide not only whether Geraldine was evil in herself or under another's spell, but also how her influence was to be negated. At some point after 1816 he apparently told Gillman that in the continuation which he went on promising in every edition from 1816 on, except the last in 1834, Geraldine was to have been defeated by the return of Christabel's absent lover.

We can make a guess about why Coleridge found it impossible to finish the poem. At its centre is the heroine's initiation into what seems like sexual guilt. She acts hospitably and is violated by Geraldine. Famously, Christabel gets into bed and watches Geraldine undress. There follows the well-known stanza which caused Shelley to scream and which influenced Keats in the dream scenes of both 'Lamia' and 'The Eve of St Agnes':

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 -
[Are lean and old and foul of hue]
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! Shield sweet Christabel!

Coleridge was a prey to guilty nightmares of emotional and sexual desires. Such experiences lie behind the pseudo-sexual attraction-cum-repulsion in 'Christabel' which Hazlitt was the first to spot. The Gothic setting with its melodramatic and potentially comic elements -- the owls, the crowing cock, the castle clock, the mastiff bitch, the midnight excursion, the ghost of Christabel's mother -- is used by Coleridge much as the Gothic novelists used such trappings, as a distancing device to render the sexual and the sinful acceptable subjects.

It is likely that Coleridge was frightened at his own excursion in 'Christabel' into this territory, and that after his meeting with Sara Hutchinson [in November 1799] it became more impossible than ever for him to handle it in the poem. When he wrote Part I, he had not yet seen Sara. The undressing of Geraldine was perhaps a combination of the imagination of illicit pleasure and a memory from his brothel-visiting days in London as a student. Now he knew and loved Sara, with whom no consummation was possible except in the guilt-ridden imaginings confided to his notebooks. Restoring Christabel by means of a returning legitimate lover was perhaps too simple and happy a solution, given the tangled nature of his own feelings.


Paul Magnuson, Coleridge & Wordsworth: A Lyrical Dialogue (Princeton UP, 1988) 1. Day, In the Circles of Fear and Desire (1995); 2. Hoeveler, Gothic Feminism (1998)
At first sight Geraldine is not frightening, but rather an object of pity. Because she is in a landscape or context in which she cannot reasonably belong, she becomes an enigmatic figure. Christabel cannot interpret this figure because it does not belong where it is, and it thus becomes unintelligible. In the land of dream, which reflects an almost pagan and druidical darkness, the figure has no clearly intended meaning. . . . Geraldine's presence in the forest as the abducted bride is unexpected, and as the enigmatic figure she is unintended. Her figure is gratuitous and by implication suggests a failure in Christabel's intention, a disjunction between the dreamer or shaper and the figure she created. (p. 124) The figure of the double, transforms the self-Other relationship into a self-self relationship. Rather than finding the Gothic protagonist isolated in a hostile world, we see that the Other resolves itself into a version of the self, a fragmentation and externalization of identity that destroys the self as fully and as surely as the overt attacks of its nemesis. . . .Doubling, then, is not simply a convention, but is the essential reality of the self in the Gothic world. Once the protagonist enters that world, the identity begins to break up. The line between the self and the Other begins to waver, and the wholeness and integrity of the self begins to collapse. (Day, pp. 20-22)

'Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!'

[Geraldine's] initiating voice . . . echoes the witches in Macbeth, whose songs invoke a competing supernaturalism. With the voice of Shakespeare's figures, she regards Geraldine's mother as a 'wandering mother,' literally a spirit condemned to wander upon earth like Hamlet's father. The banishment of the spirit of Christabel's mother questions her angelic nature and interprets her wandering as a purgatorial quest, not as a purposeful guardianship. Geraldine's subversive voice interprets the mother's wandering to be similar to Christabel's in that both indicate, not a clearly determined purpose, but confusion and uncertainty. (pp. 126-7)

The female gothic author keeps disposing of the mother, only to reel her body magically back into the text for obsessive view over and over again, revealing that in both the psychoanalytic and the female gothic traditions the same wound, the same psychic trauma is being fingered, not simply once but repeatedly. That wound would appear to be located precisely in the loss of the matriarchy, the destruction of the mother as a figure of power or even a fantasy of power in a society that no longer values her role or importance. (Hoeveler, p. 25)


For further psychoanalytic approaches to "Christabel," see:

return to Gothic course

Document prepared October 10, 2000