Samuel Taylor Coleridge


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Christabel Summary

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“Christabel” is a poem by English poet, critic, and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The long, unfinished lyrical ballad was published in an 1816 pamphlet, alongside one of his most famous works, “Kubla Khan.” In the poem, Christabel meets a mysterious figure, Geraldine. Geraldine tells her that she has been kidnapped from her home by a group of rogue men. As Christabel takes pity on Geraldine and brings her home, a series of supernatural events unfold, indicating that Geraldine is not the damsel in distress she has professed. The unfinished poem resonates with other works of Coleridge’s for its mystical and surreal depiction of a female subject.

The beginning of the poem depicts Christabel as being kind and of an innocent demeanor. One night, she ventures into the woods to pray. As midnight comes, another young woman, Geraldine, appears. Geraldine appeals to Christabel’s virtuous sensibilities, alleging that she was kidnapped by men on horses and then, inexplicably, abandoned beneath the tree. Not questioning Geraldine’s story, Christabel readily takes her in for the night. She also assures her that Sir Leoline, her father, will find the men who kidnapped her and protect her from further harm.

When the two women arrive at Christabel’s house, Sir Leoline is sleeping. Christabel invites Geraldine to sleep in her bed out of expediency. Both undress, and the following scene has many sexual connotations. When they go to bed, Christabel, seeing that Geraldine is uncannily beautiful, becomes perturbed. As she begins to fear her companion, Geraldine casts a spell on her that renders her mute whenever she tries to express what happens while they are together. The poem’s speaker does not describe what happens, giving the impression that the speaker is, or is at least relaying, Christabel’s inner voice.

The scene shifts to the following morning as Christabel and Geraldine continue to slumber. The speaker relates some information about Christabel’s deceased mother. Unable to get over his wife’s death, Sir Leoline has instituted a rule that mandates that the town’s bells shall ring a countless number of times each morning in her memory. The bells are important to him because they rang at the moment he woke up and found his wife died after giving birth to Christabel. Then, Christabel and Geraldine wake. Christabel has a bad feeling that something terrible has happened, but unable to express it, decides to go about her day as usual and introduce Geraldine to Sir Leoline.

Geraldine relates that she is the daughter of Sir Leoline’s best friend, who disappeared many years before. They had last parted ways after an argument (the argument’s subject is vague), and never sought each other out again. Leoline tries to take the opportunity to reconnect, via Geraldine, with his old friend. As he fondly remembers his friendship with Geraldine’s “father,” oblivious to what is happening with Christabel and Geraldine, Christabel is speechless as she observes Geraldine performing a strange, transformative ritual. The speaker does not specify whether the spell is witchlike or whether it is simply a display of her feminine wiles. Christabel begs her father to kick Geraldine out of their house, while Geraldine tries to convince him that she is helpless and lost. Leoline’s bard, his closest confidant, has warned him of a strange vision in which he learned that something terrible would happen to them and that it would involve the kind and innocent Christabel.

As the poem leaves off, a confused Sir Leoline turns somewhat mad, calling everyone out for being disrespectful. This frustrating ending to Christabel leaves much to the imagination; it is never determined what kind of transformation Geraldine is performing on Sir Leoline and his daughter, or what her motivations were in the first place. Nevertheless, the poem is treasured for its use of paradox and its acknowledgment of the reflexive relationship between language, or text, and the minds of the subjects that language describes.