Christabel is not only a fragment, it is a sequence of poems
composed at different times and in different places.

E.H. Coleridge(1)
Christabel is more a series of poems than it is a single fragment.
Harold Bloom(2)

A Stemma of the Palimpsestic "Christabel"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Christabel" is, in several senses of the word, a palimpsest. Like an ancient vellum or parchment upon which several layers of writing have been recorded, the poem is a structure of tissues. Structurally and narratologically, the poem's two Conclusions function as layers of their Parts, linking the sections of the poem together by recapitulating and forwarding the poem's psychological and physical action; the Preface forewords not only the two Parts of the 1816 printed edition but the three Parts that Coleridge promises are forthcoming; and the spoken and internal dialogues of the narrator, Geraldine, Christabel, Leoline and Bard Bracy overlap and compete with one another. But it is the textual transmission of "Christabel" that most strikingly figures the poem as palimpsestic.
During the period 1800-1816, as many as ten manuscript witnesses of "Christabel" existed. Of these, as many as four were holographs. Charles Lamb and John Stoddart, for example, each possessed a holograph of the poem. Of these four holographs, only the late 1800-early 1801 copy survives. The remaining witnesses are transcripts by various hands: two by Sarah Stoddart; a joint transcription by Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson, preserved in the "Christabel Notebook"; a synoptic copy in John Payne Collier's diary; and, one transcription each by Sara Coleridge, Sara Hutchinson, and an unknown (Bodleian Library) copyist. Added to this list is Coleridge's 6 May 1801 letter to Robert Southey, in which the lines that eventually become the Conclusion to Part II first appear. A stemma of these versions, as well as of the 1816 and 1828 printed editions (including six annotated and dedications copies of 1816), would appear as follows:

Textual Transmission Stemma

Four of the transcripts are close copies of the extant late 1800-early 1801 holograph. Sara Coleridge, the Bodleian copyist, and the team of Dorothy Wordsworth-Mary Hutchinson more than likely had access to the extant holograph. Similarly, Sara Hutchinson also worked from the surviving holograph, or from the copy of it made by Wordsworth and Hutchinson. The diary record Collier makes of several versions of "Christabel" betrays in its resemblances to the 1816 and 1828 printed editions an entry date later than the November 1811 date assigned by Collier. The extant holograph appears to have been the fair copy for the 1816 printed edition, which serves, in turn, as the fair copy for the 1828 printed edition. (An annotated 1816 edition can be found at the British Museum and Princeton University.) Coleridge dedicated 1816 editions to James Gillman, Joseph Henry Green, David Hinves and Ludwig Tieck).
Although the above stemma provides a compelling view of the widespread textual transmission of "Christabel," a more complete history of the poem's cultural transmission reveals a chronology of composition, manuscript circulation, transcription, recitations, parody and continuation, annotation, pre-review, pre-sequel, reception and printing that challenges the simple model of temporal linearity displayed by the stemma. The poem's passage from manuscript to print is not a singular diachronic sequence: like an ancient palimpsest upon which earlier writings are not entirely effaced by superseding inscriptions, "Christabel" emerges in the period 1800 to 1816 as a composite work in which multiple layers in the textual strata of the poem are often simultaneously visible.

Coleridge's History of the Reception and
"Publication" of "Christabel" in Biographia Literaria

The concurrent circulation of an increasing number of differing versions of "Christabel" betrays an anxiety even when Coleridge appears to boast of the poem's popularity during its 19-year manuscript life (1797-1816) in Biographia Literaria:
During the many years which intervened between the composition and the publication of Christabel, it became almost as well known among literary men as if it had been on common sale, the same references were made to it, and the same liberties taken with it, even to the very names of the imaginary persons in the poem.(3)
Coleridge images the poem as a prostitute here--"as if it had been on common sale" circulating among "liberty taking" "literary men" (Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey and William Wordsworth).(4) But if Coleridge's image fortuitously anathematizes "Christabel," his brief reception history of the poem in chapter 24 of Biographia Literaria also suggests an orismological instability in the critical terminology fundamental to literary study. It raises the question: what does "publication" mean?
For Coleridge, publication means to print. This limited sense of the term is reaffirmed later in chapter 24 of Biographia Literaria when Coleridge boasts of his many successful recitations of "Christabel" "before the publication" of the poem. The semantic range of the term "publication" is problematic. While Coleridge employs the word to designate the printing of the poem, his brief reception history--in blurring the distinction between printed and manuscript versions of "Christabel" as it does--conveys the more general sense of "to publicize." The stratified publicization of manuscript and printed textual tissues of "Christabel" from 1800 to 1816 is well-suited to treatment in a modern electronic palimpsestic form--hypertext.

Hypertext and Palimpsest

Coined by Ted Nelson in the 1960s, a "hypertext" is a computer information system comprised of nodes--textual units--connected by a complex of electronic links. It is "a combination of natural language text with the computer's capacity for interactive branching, or dynamic display... of a non-linear text... which cannot be printed conveniently on a conventional page."(5) Hypertext, however, is not so much non-linear as it is multi-linear, as Nelson's own language ("branching") suggests: electronic links allow for a multi-sequential or a multi-linear structure--a historical time line or family tree, for example, that traces multiple strands or branches (of, say, political, military, cultural and social events, or people's lives) as they occur simultaneously.(6) Such a structure forms a "docuverse," a world-wide network of interconnected information that Nelson has attempted to realize in the "Xanadu Project"--an electronic library of the world's libraries.(7) On the origins of the project's name, Nelson writes:
I choose the name 'Xanadu' for its connotations in literary circles. As the mysterious palace in Coleridge's poem 'Kubla Khan'--a great poem which he claimed to have mostly forgotten before he could write it down--Xanadu seemed the perfect name for a magic place of literary memory.(8)
The allusion to Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" in the name of Nelson's hypertext system is telling. As Edward Barrett observes, "the Coleridgean reference... [is] no mere grace note":
Nelson's conception of hypertext is highly Romantic: the computer tracks the mind as it inter-links seemingly disparate text objects and facilitates that motion of the mind through highly developed annotation features; programming, in other words, permits the sculpting of imaginative insights.(9)
Imbricated within Barrett's description is a modern adaptation of a metaphoric sense of "palimpsest" common to the Romantic period.
Coleridge, for example, writes in the 1828 preface to The Wanderings of Cain of the poem's composition that "I have in vain tried to recover the lines from the palimpsest tablet of my memory."(10) Thomas De Quincey offers a similar but more complete treatment of the palimpsestic brain in his 1845 essay "The Palimpsest of the Human Brain." Beginning with a brief history of ancient Greek papyri and vellums, and the Medieval practice of recovering early texts that have been (partially or wholly) effaced by superseding texts, De Quincey queries:
What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest, oh reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet, in reality, not one has been extinguished... Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious handwritings of grief or joy which have been inscribed upon the palimpsest of your brain.(11)
De Quincey finds in the figure of the palimpsest the very structure for imaging and understanding human experience, emotion, and memory that twentieth-century hypertext designers and theorists find in a hypertext system: a paradigm with which to map the organization, workings and processes of the human brain; and a model with which to chronicle the cultural, historical and textual determinants in the social construction of information.

Hypertext and the Study of Literary Transmission

For a study of the transmission of "Christabel," hypertext has significant implications. Hypertext furnishes a dramatic medium in which to demonstrate the dissolution of authorial and textual divisions between author, reader and work, that occur during the "publication" of the poem from 1800 to 1816.(12) But if Coleridge's skeletal reception history of "Christabel" in Biographia Literaria evinces an orismological instability with the notions of "publication" and "publicization," a more complete narrative of the events in the poem's transmission exacerbates the precarious instability of authorial and textual autonomy. It blurs the aesthetic distances between poet, readers and poem, problematizing the axiomatic nature of key critical terms for literary study: who "authors" and who "reads" the poem? Indeed, how does the history of the poem's transmission (when electronically re-enacted in hypertext form) reveal the challenge to the identity and definition of author, reader and text that the publication of "Christabel" actuates? Coleridge's casual handling of the term "publication" in Biographia Literaria raises these questions. Who publicizes? What group constitutes "a public"? What is publicized? A hypertext history of "Christabel" answers these questions isomorphically. It interdigitates content and form, performing its argument on the level of representation; that is to say, it renders the order of events in the multi-linear chronology of the genesis and publication of the multi-versioned "Christabel" in the structure of its nodes and links.

A Note on the "Transmission Tree"
and "Christabel Chronology"

The "Transmission Tree" node is a hypertext-linked stemma of the textual and cultural transmission of "Christabel." As a spider-web overview of the major nodes in this study of "Christabel," it imbricates the strictly textual stemma of the poem's transmission within a diagrammatic representation of the oral, recitation and manuscript circulation of "Christabel"--as the poem moved among an ever-expanding circle of readers from 1800 to 1816. Those figures who significantly influenced the poem's path to press and reception are listed by name in the "Transmission Tree." A diachronic list of the events referred to in this hypertext can be found at "Christabel Chronology." For the purposes of this study of the transmission of "Christabel," the year 1800 marks a chronological starting point.

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  1. E.H. Coleridge, ed., Christabel: A Facsimile of the Manuscript (London: Henry Frowde, 1907) 1. (back)
  2. Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1961; revised and enlarged 1971) 212. (back)
  3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) II, 238. (back)
  4. I am indebted to Lucy Newlyn for this interpretation of Coleridge's comment. (back)
  5. Nelson as quoted by Jeff Conklin, "Hypertext: an Introduction and Survey" IEEE Computer 20 (1987) 17. The term "hypertext" has been, as Conklin notes, attached to a variety of electronic information applications. Conklin offers a broad survey of hypertext systems in the 1980's while Jay Bolter offers a more complete history in Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991); and George P. Landow explores the impact of hypertext on post-modern literary theory and on literary education in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). See also George P. Landow and Paul Delany, eds., The Digital Word: Text-Based Computing in the Humanities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993) for a discussion of the impact of computer technology on text analysis. Jerome J. McGann explores information technology, literature and literary study in "The Rationale of Hypertext" in Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory, ed. Kathryn Sutherland, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) 19-46. For a comprehensive bibliography on hypertext and hypermedia applications and theory, see http://gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~scottlib/hyperbib.htm. (back)
  6. Among other topics, William Dickey explores hypertext's "effective illusion of the simultaneity of experience" in "Poem Descending a Staircase: Hypertext and the Simultaneity of Experience" Hypermedia and Literary Studies, ed. Paul Delany and George P. Landow (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) 143-52. (back)
  7. Nelson quoted in Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing 23 and 102. Nelson offers a more complete discussion of hypertext (with some commentary on the "Xanadu Project") in "Opening Hypertext: A Memoir" Literacy Online: The Promise (and Peril) of Reading and Writing with Computers , ed. Myron C. Tuman (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), 43-57, and in his Literary Machines (Sausolito, CA: Mindful Press, 1993 [1]). (back)
  8. Literary Machines (Sausolito, CA: Mindful Press, 1993 [1]) 30. (back)
  9. "Introduction: Thought and Language in Virtual Environment" The Society of Text: Hypertext, Hypermedia and the Social Construction of Meaning, ed. Edward Barrett (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989) xii. (back)
  10. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge , ed. E.H. Coleridge, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1912; Reprinted 1975) I, 287. (back)
  11. The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson, 14 vols. (New York: AMS, 1968) XIII, 346, 348. (back)
  12. I do not enter into a discussion of hypertext as a cognitive and textual space that causes this disruption because my primary focus involves an application of hypertext in order to re-enact the disruption that the transmission of "Christabel" causes between author, reader, and text(s). Although reading my hypertext argument may itself be disruptive, it is not intended to emulate the dizzying degree or designed disruption of, say, hypertext fiction. Additionally, claiming that hypertext represents a "cognitive space," let alone "a palimpsestic cognitive space," requires greater clarification than I have room for in my present discussion. For considerations of hypertext as a cognitive space, see the following: Jay Bolter's history of writing, computer technology, and artificial intelligence in Part III, "The Mind as a Writing Space," of Writing Space 169-238; Edward Barrett's "Introduction: Thought and Language in a Virtual Environment" in The Society of Text, xi-xix; Kathryn Sutherland's discussion of the re-configuration of literary epistemology--textually and theoretically (particularly, post-modernism)--by electronic technology in "Looking and Knowing: Textual Encounters of a Postponed Kind" Beyond the Book: Theory, Culture and the Politics of Cyberspace, ed. Warren Chernaik, Marilyn Deegan and Andrew Gibson (London and Oxford: The Centre for English Studies, University of London, and Office for Humanities Computing, 1996) 11-22; Parts 3 and 5, "Computers and New Forms of Critical Thinking" and "Computers and New Forms of Knowledge," in Literacy Online , ed. Myron C. Tuman, 118-64, 219-63; Jean-François Rouet, et al., eds. Hypertext and Cognition (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996); and, Vannevar Bush first explored the issue in his article "As We May Think" in The Atlantic Monthly 7 (1945) 101-108. The article is reproduced electronically (with permission) by Denys Duchier at: http://www.isg.sfu.ca/~duchier/misc/vbush/vbush-all.shtml . Ted Nelson also reproduces the article as a chapter in Literary Machines (Sausolito, CA: Mindful Press, 1993 [1]) 1.39-54. (back)

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