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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 707-730
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Coleridge's "Christabel" and the Phantom Soul
"Christabel" is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's longest poem, his least revised, the most satisfying to himself as its preface indicates, and his most troubling to readers. It is a poem that can drive readers "mad" or make them feel "stupid." 1 From its opening—"Tu -whit!—tu-whoo!"— its lulling, almost lobotomized repetitions—"Is the night chilly and dark? / The night is chilly but not dark" 2 —its shifting narrative voices, and its metrical hesitations and forward rushes, it lures listeners into its twilight. 3 Coleridge's opening section does to listeners what Geraldine does to Christabel: leaves them anxious and ungrounded. Critic after critic has tossed interpretations into the poem's "Dark fluxion, all unfixable by thought." 4 Each interpretation seems to work as well as the next, even if the interpretations are contradictory. Some see the heroine Christabel initiated into love; some see her as a more or less innocent Eve falling into the snares of a demon from preternatural realms or from Satan; 5 some see the poem as having no meaning besides the complex contradictions of language and voice, 6 as a Blakean examination of divided states of body and soul, 7 as a dream or many dreams with condensed or displaced images, 8 even as a meditation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 9 William Hazlitt called the poem "Obscene"; Tom Moore thought its gaps showed incompetence. 10 How do we cope with this tumult of uncertainty?
As one more reader transfixed like "a three year's child" 11 by the rhythms of this disturbing poem, I wish to see Coleridge's [End Page 707] deliberate (and perhaps even gleeful) construction of mystery in "Christabel" in the context of his wider philosophical and psychological investigations. The poem can be seen as a thought-experiment, enacting ideas that he elaborates in other poems and in prose writings. To set "Christabel" in the context of these ideas is not to thin out its maddening density, but to reduce its isolation. 12 As a thought-experiment, a germ of future thought, "Christabel" participates in Coleridge's continuing work on the development of the human person, on how selves are made and lost. The poem narrates incidents in the emotional life of a young woman; it shows her acting and being acted upon; its segments—written at different times—circle backwards to address questions that had been left unanswered. The poem, part of Coleridge's life-long meditation on the vulnerabilities of will and agency, is in many ways a female version of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
Some of Coleridge's concerns emerging early and taking different emphases throughout his life provide an encircling context to help explain the purposes of "Christabel."
1) The first element of the context that bears on "Christabel" is Coleridge's belief in the necessity of preserving a distinction between persons and things at a time when human beings were increasingly tabulated as numbers, averages, and groups. Coleridge argued against the use of a vocabulary that would reduce persons to things to be used, means to an end. Fully aware that persons are not always coherent to others or to themselves, that persons fragment and lose control, and that persons allow themselves to be used as things as their dependencies require, Coleridge advocates in different ways at different times the sacred distinction between persons and things; 13 the necessity of not using others as things; 14 or not letting oneself be used by abdicating the will. 15
2) A second context for gaining perspective on "Christabel" is Coleridge's interest in the interplay of souls and bodies, spirits and selves, in metamorphoses that merge substances. Such a flow of identities is familiar to contemporary American filmgoers who have watched the fusion of bodies and souls in Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin's "All of Me," but in Coleridge's day this interplay also had mesmerizing possibilities; ghosts, revenants, and diabolic possession...