This essay argues that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s notoriously disjointed poem “Christabel” displays a consistent concern with repetition: thematically, formally, and psychologically. By looking at the pervasiveness of echoes, I show how “Christabel” produces a coherent exploration of repetition, first in terms of paralysis, and later in terms of creativity.
In the Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge sums up the attraction of great poetry: “Not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure, possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry” (emphasis original, 167). With this declaration, Coleridge suggests that poetic experience, particularly meaningful poetic experience, is necessarily repetitive. Strangely enough, Coleridge’s own enigmatic “Christabel” demonstrates this genuine power by inspiring readers to return to it despite its incongruities and the general perception that it is a failed poem. In identifying repetition as integral to poetic experience, Coleridge’s definition of essential poetry offers an important clue to the work’s central concerns. While the dramatic narrative seems disjointed, the poem maintains its coherence by making repetition its theme.
Readers who have noticed the prevalent role of repetition in the first sections of the poem have generally accounted for it either in terms of the poem’s innovative prosody or in terms of its gothicism. The meter hearkens back to medieval prosody with its simple language, rhyming quatrains and dramatic story. It sounds like a fairy tale told in the third person, and inspires a historicizing impulse to locate “Christabel” alongside “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” within this oral tradition. Other critics look to the gothic tradition to show how repetitive themes and devices create an uncanny world of the unheimlich where characters double and history threatens to repeat. At the same time, “Christabel” has also been read as a gothic parody, a mimicry of contemporary popular gothic literature. While these two useful frames for understanding the poem point to the significance of repetition, they are limited by their focus on repetition as a medieval or gothic device rather than an epistemological issue. I argue that “Christabel” extends the formal exercise of repetition into a theme and even a philosophy of repetition that in turn accounts for its own apparent “failure” as an embodiment of a theory of the failure of repetition to live up to its task of ensuring meaning. Reports of the poem’s failure have generally been occasioned by the baffling Conclusion to Part II, which abruptly breaks with the dramatic narrative. To argue that the Conclusion to Part II is incongruous, as many critics have done, is to ignore the logic of a cohesive poem about the excess of repetition. The poem shows how repetition is essential, despite its inability to guarantee meaning, and the poem even revels in this wisdom; for, as Coleridge himself remarks, “Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly, that of the wildest odes, [has] a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes” (159).
Through the pervasiveness of repetition—formally, thematically, and psychologically—the poem exposes an incongruity between experience and meaning that materializes in the vain attempt to attain exact repetition. In Coleridge’s discussion of “Thought” and “Things” in his Notebooks, he writes about the importance of experience being connected to “the popular sense, and ordinary use of the word” (555). He elaborates further in a footnote on experience: “To have had a sight of a Thing does not justify us in saying, that we had experience of it. It must have had antecedents, from which we might anticipate it.—Ex-perior. Omne ex-pertum est re-pertum [I experience. Everything ex-perienced is re-experienced]” (555). For Coleridge, experience depends on previous experience, or in other words repetition. Yet repetition, according to Coleridge, does not establish an exact correspondence between experiences, but introduces difference. Coleridge theorizes that repetition paradoxically recalls conventional meaning because it takes on new associations. Poetic language provides the ideal site for exploring this disjunction between meaning and experience on a meta-level because tropes of repetition are extra-semantic elements of iteration and, when repeated, can serve as figures of disequilibrium.
In this essay, I trace the role of repetition in the poem, formally and thematically, and show how it takes on a cumulative weight that culminates in the meditative Conclusion to Part II. The Conclusion to Part II, I suggest, serves as the crux of the poem’s exploration of repetition because it reflects on the problems raised in the earlier sections in which the sheer quantity of repetitive techniques dismantles meaning and acknowledges this undoing as not only inevitable, but essential to poetic creativity.
The opening section of Christabel masterfully establishes an eerie netherworld that teems with uncanny repeating sounds and images, echoes that do not establish unity but produce disharmony and incongruity. Critics have exhaustively mined this lyrical section for its gothic effects, like the emphasis on liminal images that illustrate a disjointed world, a crumbling isolated castle in a forest haunted by the return of the repressed. This sequence of sounds and effects is not simply a means of depicting an eerie atmosphere, however, but also has farther-reaching consequences. The disorientation caused by this confusion of echoes undermines any assurance that distinct events can be defined by conventional sounds and images, signs that would ordinarily provide stability and knowledge. For example, formal elements like onomatopoeia (“Tu—whit!—Tu-whoo!” (3)) and alliteration (“the crowing cock”(2)) use aural repetition to announce a series of awakenings that occur out of order: at midnight, the owls and the cocks call to each other; spring comes slowly even though it is now April (and the poem is set on All Fools Day, April 1); there is a suggestion that the mastiff bitch sees “my lady’s shroud” (13).
This elemental disorder is magnified by chiasmus, which provides a formal, reverberative framework for the echoing sounds and images already present. Classical poetic theory defines chiasmus as a structuring device that creates harmony by bringing together oppositions in a unified form, whereas in “Christabel” Coleridge uses it to emphasize disharmony. A striking instance of chiasmus’ figurative excess occurs in Part I when the breakdown of a symmetrical structure underscores the thematic breakdown between sound and meaning:
The lady strange made answer meet,
And her voice was faint and sweet:--
Have pity on my sore distress,
I scarce can speak for weariness:
Stretch forth thy hand, and have no fear!
Said Christabel, How camest thou here?
And the lady, whose voice was faint and sweet,
Did thus pursue her answer meet:--
Although Lines 71-72 and 77-78 appear to repeat, their subtle differences call attention to the structure’s artificiality and the rupture between sound and sense. The lady, who “made answer meet,” attempts to join the content of her answer to her “faint and sweet” sounds. This endeavor to force together sounds and meaning becomes even more apparent in the chiasmic reversal whereby the language slightly shifts from the constitutive verb “made” to the simulative verb phrase “did thus pursue.” The inclusion of “did thus” emphasizes this differentiation by showing how chiasmus can hold the lines together by approximation rather than conjunction. Therefore the narrator’s declaration that she has to actively “pursue her answer meet” implies that while Geraldine’s voice might be hers, her language does not quite fit her meaning. This example of chiasmus embodies the poem’s driving concern with repetition and indicates that excessive repetition is more than a formal problem.
The poem begins to illustrate the complications that excessive repetition can cause when it impedes meaning with the introduction of Sir Leoline in Part II. Here the topos of repetition takes on another dimension when the narrator immediately points to Sir Leoline’s struggle with repetition, which is described as a compulsion that dominates his psyche; he cannot stop reliving the sudden loss of his wife in childbirth:
Each matin bell, the Baron saith,
Knells us back to a world of death.
These words Sir Leoline first said,
When he rose and found his lady dead:
These words Sir Leoline will say
Many a morn to his dying day!
Sir Leoline’s wounded psyche compels him to repeat and relive his wife’s death, behavior that sounds like the traumatic impulse that Sigmund Freud discusses in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. According to Freud, an individual who survives a shocking, unsettling event lacks an understanding of it as experience because an excess of stimuli overwhelms and floods consciousness. The event imprints itself on the individual, whose failure to process it as experience that produces knowledge manifests in pathological symptoms wherein consciousness incessantly restages the event in an attempt to assimilate what cannot be assimilated. Freud says, “[The patient] is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past” (Freud 18). The individual tries to master the event by repeating it, only to find each time that he is still unprepared so that he is again overwhelmed. The poem’s pointed description of Sir Leoline’s psychological inertia appears to anticipate Freud’s theory of trauma because of its insistence on the potential disjunction between the repetition of experience and the meaning of that experience. Aligning Sir Leoline’s repetition compulsion with Freud’s theory of trauma shows how central the theme of repetitive failure is in “Christabel.” The poem does not, however, share Freud’s concern in Beyond the Pleasure Principle to understand why people are constantly compelled to repeat painful experiences. Instead, the poem uses the example of Sir Leoline to demonstrate another dimension of repetition that fails to produce meaning. When the repetitive figures proliferate on every level, the pervasiveness of their echoes drives the poem to contend with and reflect on whether or not repetition can be productive. Here the pathos of a mourning father exemplifies the entrenchment of repetition and failure in the logic of the poem. The father’s pathos will later contrast with the ambivalent aggression of a delighted father in the Conclusion to Part II to produce a counter-traumatic logic that expostulates on the surprisingly generative role of repetition.
Sir Leoline inhabits a world of repetition and echoes where moving beyond the event to comprehend it seems impossible because he awakened too late when he heard the matin bell, arising to the unanticipated death of his wife and the birth of their daughter Christabel. A living memorial of his incomprehensible loss, Christabel’s presence constantly reminds Sir Leoline of this traumatic event. Even the name that Sir Leoline gave her demonstrates another manifestation of disjunction because the matin bell is simultaneously a call to life as well as, for Sir Leoline, the call to his wife’s death. The name “Christabel” foretells that she will echo the matin bell that calls him, endlessly, to awaken to his loss: “Christ” introduces a religious reference and “a” connects it to the “bell.” By insisting on the internal incorporation of the signifier “bell” in her name, I provide an alternative to the emphasis that some readers place on the form of “Christ-abel.”
Christabel’s name functions as both signifier and poetic device because, in addition to including the signifier “bel,” her name retains the phonetic sound “ell” that performs as onomatopoeia for the sound of a bell. Each time Sir Leoline hears “Christabel” or, for that matter, recognizes her as the sign called “Christabel,” he repeats the day that he woke to find his wife dead: “Each matin bell” recalls Sir Leoline to experience his loss anew and relive the event. Yet he still fails to integrate this experience—to claim it in his consciousness—as knowledge of an experience. That Christabel is now at a marriageable age suggests that Sir Leoline’s traumatic repetition has plagued him for a number of years, a fact the following lines affirm:
And hence the custom and law began,
That still at dawn the sacristan,
Who duly pulls the heavy bell,
Five and forty beads must tell
Between each stroke—a warning knell,
Which not a soul can choose but hear
From Bratha Head to Wyndermere.
Although the character Christabel does not immediately appear in Part II, her presence as the matin bell resounds and suffuses the section through the repeated “ell.” When the “ell” rings throughout the section, it recalls the significance of the bells and signals its excesses as a referent. Amongst other possible onomatopoetic sounds, like “ding-dong,” the poem authorizes its use of the phonetic intensive “ell” to represent the sound of the bell through repetition, thereby inventing its own onomatopoeia for the bell, which begins to reverberate throughout the poem. Each time the “bell” tolls it not only marks time, but also “knells us back to a world of death” (332). The introduction of the poet figure Bracy the Bard reiterates the insistence of the bells and, as Brennan O’Donnell observes, provides a commentary on the relationship between sound and meaning.
Saith Bracy the bard, So let it knell!
And let the drowsy sacristan
Still count as slowly as he can!
There is no lack of such, I ween,
As well fill up the space between.
Sound and image would ideally operate together in harmony, but the poem shows how this perfect union necessarily dissolves in its very propagation, which is illustrated by the way the excessive repetition of the bells inevitably dismantles meaning. Sir Leoline’s world of death becomes a world of repetition where even the poet figure appears to be a site for repetition rather than originality when Bracy echoes the bells—the initial matin bells have already awakened Sir Leoline when the bard takes up the narrative. Bracy’s pronouncement, “So let it knell,” emphatically calls attention to the bell’s importance and tries to posit an origin for the knell by referring to the sacristan. The bard’s ironic declaration underscores the semantic confusion caused by repetition. As a result, the echoes play a paradoxical role: they simultaneously reinforce the original knell and subvert it through a reiteration that calls its primacy into question. The bard’s focus on the sacristan’s dilatory impulse to “count as slowly as he can” betrays the inevitability that however slowly he counts off, echoes will still “well fill up the space between.”
Rather than lament the failure to control the proliferating echoes, the bard revels in their multiplicity and even indicates what to make of their excess. Unlike the haunted Sir Leoline, for Bracy, uncontrollable repetition becomes a site of inventiveness, which he indicates when he resorts to a spatial metaphor of containment that underscores the impossibility of capturing the pervasive echoes’ precise meaning. He describes the echo as something that can “well fill up the space between,” an ambiguous metaphor that raises the possibility that the “space between” is either the space between the first ringing of the bell and the second ringing, or between the first bell’s echo and another echo. The movement of the onomatopoetic echo “ell” that began the section as end rhyme becomes internalized in later lines, and reinforces the problem of determining the primacy and the impact of each sound.
The multiplicity of the bells destabilizes their ability to retain significance, especially when a phantom echo begins to toll.
In Langdale Pike and Witch's Lair,
And Dungeon-ghyll so foully rent,
With ropes of rock and bells of air
Three sinful sextons' ghosts are pent,
Who all give back, one after t'other,
The death-note to their living brother;
And oft too, by the knell offended,
Just as their one! two! three! is ended,
The devil mocks the doleful tale
With a merry peal from Borrowdale.
The sacristan's evil counterpart mocks his efforts with an emphatic reply, "one! two! three!" that seems to equal the matin bell’s force. If the echoes can be "give[n] back, one after t'other," then one can suppose that each echo haunts Sir Leoline with the same impact as the initial matin bell. Indeed the reverberations make it impossible to determine which sound is the matin bell that disrupts Sir Leoline’s sleep because the echoes call into question the assurance of signification, that one can determine an original sound and not mistake it for its ghostly echo.
Since the force of the echoes undermines the “first” bell, how to “read” the “space” between the bells becomes impossible to decide. Furthermore, the onomatopoeia of the bells interferes with its own significance because onomatopoeia has both a formal and psychological resonance that do not necessarily operate in unity. The question of which bell awakens Sir Leoline is more than a question of causality or specificity, but one of meaning; Christabel’s association with the bells as a signifier and onomatopoeia signals a disjunction between sign and meaning. When the excessive knell dismantles the unity between the peal as sound and sound that produces meaning, the bells become a series of unreadable echoes.
Even though Christabel’s name does not appear throughout this section, she still materializes precisely as a non-presence: as the haunting matin bell. When the character Christabel reenters the poem, she finds that even her characterological role is threatened by a double or echo; Geraldine usurps her role and awakens her, an echo that further destabilizes Christabel’s authority as a signifier and character while Geraldine’s now doubled presence also haunts Sir Leoline by recalling his youth and the loss of the childhood friendship of Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine. As Lord Roland’s daughter, Geraldine resurrects this scarred past with which, according to the narrator, “neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,/ Shall wholly do away,” (424-425). For Sir Leoline, Geraldine represents a chance to “return” to his youthful friend and re-forge that old alliance, yet another site of repetition. Moreover, his attraction to Geraldine manifests as inertia, an indication of Sir Leoline’s inability to move beyond the past.
The doubling and redoubling of signifiers is therefore not incidental, but enhances the topos of repetition, as when Geraldine hears the devil’s sounds, "That merry peal . . . ringing loud" and rises to awaken Christabel (361). Here Geraldine assumes Christ-a-bel’s function as the matin bell, performing the ringing with her utterance:
And nothing doubting of her spell
Awakens the lady Christabel.
'Sleep you, sweet lady Christabel?
I trust that you have rested well.'
Geraldine awakens Christabel with a repetition of the "ell" sound, a sequence of echoes that perverts and even impairs Christabel's authority as the matin bell. The repetition of “Christabel” at the end of lines two and three, the only time in the poem that such pronounced repetition occurs, underscores this loss of authority when Christabel echoes and rhymes with itself. Now under Geraldine’s spell, Christabel loses her performative power: she can neither "tell" Sir Leoline what happened, nor enact the forceful sound of the bell.
This development accounts for Sir Leoline’s repudiation of his daughter and his forsaking her for Geraldine since the Christ-a-bel has worn out its significance. Despite her apparent loss of performative force as onomatopoeia, Christabel (the character) still remains in the poem and ultimately appeals to her own presence as a reminder of her mother's death. At the end of the first section of Part II, Christabel confronts her father, who has embraced the viperous Geraldine. Christabel does not call on her authority as Sir Leoline's daughter in order to convince him that Geraldine is malignant. Rather, she invokes the memory of her mother as the appeal to the highest authority and, in doing so, reminds him that she is her mother’s living memorial, yet another double. She says:
‘By my mother's soul do I entreat
That thou this woman send away!'
She said: and more she could not say:
For what she knew she could not tell,
O'er mastered by the mighty spell.
Christabel communicates her abhorrence for Geraldine and, without explanation, demands that Geraldine be sent away. But her inability to provide a reason for this demand leads Sir Leoline to conclude that she is motivated by petty jealousy. This failure to communicate "what she knew" reveals a rupture in Christabel’s relationship with Sir Leoline because her status as his daughter is not enough to influence him. In addition, this failure to communicate furthers the eroded function of the echo, the "ell," which has been exhausted and "O'er mastered by the mighty spell."
The confrontation between Sir Leoline and Christabel also calls into question whether or not he can change his behavior by making an ethical decision and acting responsibly towards his daughter (and the memory of the dead). When Christabel demands that Sir Leoline act rather than remain passive, restricted by his traumatic neurosis, Sir Leoline tries to reassure her that "'All will yet be well'" (472). The possibility of such a futurity, however, rings hollow because the idea of a "yet" that Sir Leoline can foresee suggests that he can envision a world beyond his repetition compulsion. But onomatopoeia still haunts Sir Leoline, as this passage demonstrates when the "ell" echoes the sound of the bell and consequently recalls his awakening to the death of his wife. Therefore, when this passage repeats in the final confrontation between Christabel and her father, it already anticipates Sir Leoline's rejection of his daughter's plea.
As discussed earlier, Sir Leoline’s compulsion stems from the failure to experience and respond to an event. So when Christabel confronts her father she makes a demand that becomes an impossible ethical plea because Sir Leoline lacks the agency to answer her call. The poem emphasizes both the power of this summons and the father’s refusal to act.
. . . Thy only child
Lies at thy feet, thy joy, thy pride,
So fair, so innocent, so mild;
The same for whom thy lady died!
O by the pangs of her dear mother
Think thou no evil of thy child!
For her, and thee, and for no other,
She prayed the moment ere she died:
Prayed that the babe for whom she died,
Might prove her dear lord's joy and pride!
That prayer her deadly pangs beguiled,
And wouldst thou wrong thy only child,
Her child and thine?
Now Christabel recognizes her role and obligation to her dead mother and directly re-calls Sir Leoline, a summons no longer about re-experiencing a loss, but the re-call of a debt, a reminder of the ethical relation of the living to the dead.
The narrator announces this ethical call as a question: "Wouldst thou wrong thy only child, / Her child and thine?" Faced with an ethical dilemma, Sir Leoline can either remain true to his daughter (and wife) by abandoning the daughter of his friend or he can refuse Christabel's plea and honor Geraldine. Such an ethical choice, however, seems to be impossible since Sir Leoline has been passive throughout the poem; each time the bells recall Sir Leoline, he fails to respond to their summons. Christabel appeals to her father, but once again Sir Leoline fails to respond and instead forsakes her: "And turning from his own sweet maid, / The aged knight, Sir Leoline, / Led forth the lady Geraldine!" (653-655). Sir Leoline's "turning from" Christabel can be read as an act that finally enables him to break away from his repetition compulsion, but the doubling of characters undermines this interpretation. Geraldine usurps Christabel’s knell when she awakens her and, in addition, usurps the place of her mother. Sir Leoline's "turning from" is therefore still a type of return that does not free him from his compulsion to repeat. The dramatic narrative ends with the consequences of Christabel’s eroded significance as echoism and as a double for her mother, and portrays this erosion as inevitable.
The cumulative effect of repetition, which builds thematically and tropologically, calls attention to Coleridge’s investment in developing a philosophy of repetition. In exploring the idea that repetition does not necessarily produce meaning, the poem exposes the disjunction between experience and knowledge and embraces the unsettling effect of repetition as essential to poetic creativity. The Conclusion to Part II meditates on the implications of this insight by providing a kind of synthesis of Sir Leoline’s inertia from his compulsion to repeat and Bracy the Bard’s celebration of the potential originality of repetition through the figure of the mournful poet. Many critics discount the Conclusion to Part II because the poem abandons the dramatic narrative at an intense moment in the action. They prefer to argue that Coleridge never finished his poem, and sometimes speculate on how he intended to “finish” it. Other critics try to account for the poem’s unity by focusing on the theme of father-child relationships. In fact, the Conclusion to Part II first appeared as lines that Coleridge composed while watching his son Hartley, lines that he sent in a letter to Robert Southey on May 6, 1801. Some critics cite the letter as evidence that the Conclusion to Part II has nothing to do with “Christabel” and was merely appended to it because Coleridge had lost his inspiration and could not finish the poem. I would argue that the Conclusion to Part II abandons the characters and the strange events of the dramatic narrative without turning from the poem’s central theme of repetition. By looking inward, the Conclusion to Part II provides an ordinary scene with extraordinary insight: a father watches his carefree son—his young echo—and laments his inability to control his own creation while paradoxically reveling in this very inability.
Indeed, the Conclusion to Part II, as I will show, takes up the formal and thematic concerns with repetition as failure and solidifies its connection to the earlier parts of the poem by using the problematic relationship of father and child as its example. Rather than parallel each other, the two fathers, with their radically different experiences that cannot be reduced to each other, stay connected through chiasmus. Each father undergoes intense psychological turmoil in contrasting contexts: the dramatic portrayal of Sir Leoline’s traumatic relation to Christabel appears to be inverted by the father’s introspective idyll as he observes his dancing child. Yet even this formal structure is undone by repetition, as the Conclusion to Part II moves beyond generic (gothic ballad-domestic idyll) and thematic (traumatized father-lovingly ambivalent father) reversals to impart a self-reflexive discourse with remarkable acuity. The Conclusion to Part II meditates on the way that a figure can take on a life of its own and dramatizes the poet’s inability to sustain control over the product of his genius. As shown by the dissolution of the bells, such a rupture can have serious consequences, which the final section allegorizes in the troubled relationship of father to his child and, on another level, poet to poem. In taking up another poet-figure, the Conclusion to Part II examines the inability to control repetition and the production of meaning, an inability that Bracy the Bard seems to accept when he confidently declares, “So let it knell.” If rhetorical figures like onomatopoeia earlier dismantled meaning in the poem, then the Conclusion to Part II acknowledges this undoing as not only inevitable, but essential to Christabel and perhaps even to poetic creativity in general.
The Conclusion to Part II presents a young, light-hearted child who frolics in the unconscious innocence of childhood while the father laments his own limitations using the language of paradox. The child is almost ethereal, “a limber elf” and “a fairy thing” whose carefree image is juxtaposed with the meditative, self-consciousness of a father so overwhelmed by this “vision” that he struggles to put his feelings of love into words. The father can only voice his adoration using abusive language: “. . . he at last / Must needs express his love's excess / With words of unmeant bitterness” (663-665). Rather than find a language of love to depict the enchantment of watching his child, the father laments the habituation that causes him to resort to the language of “rage and pain.” The representation of the father’s struggle to articulate the depth of love that he feels for his child demonstrates the overwhelming force of his feelings as well as the power of poetic language. The father’s internal turmoil illustrates the gap between the magical experience of the unconscious child who can revel in the immediacy of the moment and the painful self-consciousness of the adult who endeavors to express his feelings even as he suffers from the awareness of his disconnection from the child. The father undergoes the poignant and excruciating process of attempting to find language that corresponds to his emotions, a challenge he embraces despite its futility; not only is the father aware of his limitations as a parent, but he also recognizes his limitations as a poet who fails to control the meaning of his poetry.
When read as an allegory of the poet’s struggle to control a poem that inevitably takes on a life of its own, the Conclusion to Part II synthesizes the insight of the earlier sections of the poem. The Conclusion to Part II returns to the bardic figure and uses the language of mourning to show that excessive repetition can be productive, albeit unexpectedly so. The father-poet watches the movement of his child-creation with ambivalent aggression and explores this unsettling insight, that he cannot control his creation. The poet can only sit idly and watch his offspring while intoxicating figures of speech overwhelm him. 
A little child, a limber elf,
Singing, dancing to itself,
A fairy thing with red round cheeks,
Makes such a vision to the sight
As fills a father's eyes with light;
The poet puts his brain-child, the figure of speech, into play even though he longs to maintain control over it. His creation is an “elf” or “fairy thing” in constant motion, whose pliability as a “limber” dancer cannot be contained as he bends or turns like the echoes of the bells in the earlier section. Even the figure’s movement has its own echo when “elf” repeats at the end of the first two lines and, as a result, assumes a unique self-identity or self-possession, “its-elf.”
The elf thus reproduces itself, taking on its own procreativity as it moves with reckless abandon. The elf seems to act without direction or purpose since it "always finds, and never seeks," which strikingly contrasts with the father’s anguished search for words he cannot find. When the vision of the dancing elf "fills a father's eyes with light," the poet experiences a sensory overload where all he can do is continue to create and attempt to describe the overwhelming effect of watching his creation as separate from himself.
And pleasures flow in so thick and fast
Upon his heart, that he at last
Must needs express his love's excess
With words of unmeant bitterness.
The account of the poet’s process—watching his offspring at some remove—suggests that he experiences this disconnection like a traumatic event in which consciousness is flooded by external stimuli. He tries to describe this overwhelming deluge: “pleasures flow in so thick and fast / Upon his heart . . .” however, he can only stress the uncontrollable and uncontainable power of such emotion. Even though the poet cannot control his offspring, he does not turn away but is compelled to continue to watch and try to communicate his experience of impotence. Haunted by this painful process, his creativity propels him to action by way of composing a poem: “he at last / Must needs express . . .” This overwhelming experience of the creative process exposes the poet’s failure to maintain an unbreachable union between himself and his creation. In addition, the effects of this failure reverberate and materialize in his attempts to represent this rupture or at least to represent the inexplicable feelings produced by this rupture. He cannot put his sensations into straightforward terms because his senses have been overwhelmed; yet, unable to resist their force, the poet voices “words of unmeant bitterness.”
The poem shows how the rupture between poet and creation is not only necessary, but even essential because it exposes the disjunction between intention and significance. Rather than abandon the poem as a failure to produce meaning, the poet dramatizes his internal conflict, his reluctance to relinquish the idea that he can sustain control of the meaning produced by repetition. The poet stages this recognition as a battle:
Perhaps 'tis pretty to force together
Thoughts so all unlike each other;
To mutter and mock a broken charm,
To dally with wrong that does no harm.
Perhaps 'tis tender too and pretty
At each wild word to feel within
A sweet recoil of love and pity.
Assertive language manages to “force together” what appears irreconcilable. But “perhaps” occurs twice in this section, a repetition that points to the poet’s struggle and even negates his authority because it sounds like resignation.
The poet’s internal conflict reveals a paradox: he would like to control his offspring, but, he recognizes the impossibility of retaining such authority. Although the inability to control meaning has already occurred in Part II with the dissolution of the bells, this insight arrives only afterward, as the poet reflects on it belatedly. In other words, the poet processes the significance of the loss of control over meaning after it has already happened, during this introspective reflection. The poet vainly attempts to reassert control when he tries “to force together / Thoughts so all unlike each other.” The oxymoron “sweet recoil” underlines the poet’s struggle with the disjunction between his intention and his creation, which he, surprisingly, celebrates.
And what, if in a world of sin
(O sorrow and shame should this be true!)
Such giddiness of heart and brain
Comes seldom save from rage and pain,
So talks as it's most used to do.
What seems to be a lament over his failure to control his creation generates a poem that surpasses this failure, an action that differs from Sir Leoline’s passivity. The poet points to a truth about poetic creativity, albeit an indirect truth that emerges from the juxtaposition of the Conclusion to Part II with the earlier sections. It becomes more explicit when the Conclusion to Part II echoes the earlier language that described Sir Leoline and his wounded psyche:
Within the Baron's heart and brain
If thoughts, like these, had any share,
They only swelled his rage and pain,
And did but work confusion there.
The father-poet in the Conclusion to Part II experiences “giddiness of heart and brain,” a description that recalls this earlier account of Sir Leoline: “Within the Baron’s heart and brain.” The explicit parallel of these two verse paragraphs continues with the repetition of the phrase “rage and pain.” In The Conclusion to Part II, “rage and pain” become a means of transmission as the father-poet lacks another language to convey his loving feelings for his child-poem. Sir Leoline’s “rage and pain” convey the psychological turmoil that ensued when he lost his wife. The preceding verse paragraph describes the pangs of childbirth that led to his wife’s death, striking a violent blow to Sir Leoline’s heart. This agonizing blow that rends Sir Leoline can be linked to the “pangs” that Sir Leoline’s wife suffered when she died in childbirth: his pain and rage are inextricably bound to the impact of this traumatic event that cleft a wound that will not heal. Sir Leoline communicates his tumultuous emotions, the confused response to the memory of his loss, by acting unjustly to his daughter despite himself. His melancholic inertia remains unproductive because he cannot escape a haunted past that remains ever-present. While the poem’s representation of Sir Leoline’s wounded psyche seems to anticipate Freud’s notion of trauma, it goes further to explore the poet’s struggle with creativity. Therefore even though repetition seems to produce silence or unchangingness, the poem nevertheless demonstrates an alternative.
In this case, the father-poet does not just shut down in the present and repeat his actions in the future, like Freud’s description of the compulsion to repeat, but he responds in the moment and reverts to type as an attempt to return to the norm. The ambiguous conclusion, “So talks as it’s most used to do,” suggests this return, but what remains unclear is that such a return to type yields meaning because it is founded on disorienting giddiness; utterance still appears divorced from meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “giddiness” originated from Old English and signifies “possessed by a God,” “insane,” or “literally elf-possessed.” Not only does the offspring take on a life of its own, the “limber elf…singing, dancing to itself,” but the creation seems to take hold of the poet, a reversal that recalls Geraldine’s usurpation of Christabel. The poet recognizes his limitations much like a father who sees the division between himself and his child. When the lines are read allegorically, as a poet’s meditation on failure, they produce a reflection on the nature of poetic creativity. The writer, condemned to a “world of sin,” still attempts to voice his ideas even though he knows he will fail to represent them directly, however, he revels in his failure because he recognizes it as a productive failure.
The Conclusion to Part II meditates on the limitations of poetic control, using the language of mourning to arrive at the insight that repetition, even disorienting repetition, is perhaps essential for creativity. It therefore reads as a commentary on the various manifestations of repetition in the poem as a whole. While one might expect repetition to reinforce convention and meaning, Sir Leoline’s compulsion to repeat does just the opposite. His paralysis offers an extreme example where he cannot experience an event that he already missed, and therefore can only restage it as a missed event. When the matin bell tolls, it recalls Sir Leoline’s failure to grasp the event and find meaning through repetition. The excessive repetition of the bells shows how even at the level of language, extra-semantic elements can impede interpretation. Bracy the Bard’s revelry in the proliferation of echoes, even to the point that they are indecipherable, suggests a wisdom that becomes explicit in the Conclusion to Part II. The giddy poet cannot control his offspring, but he can still compose a poem that meditates on this failure. The poet of “Dejection” appropriates the language and the unsettling structure of mourning as a way of reflecting on and ultimately celebrating his creativity.
Debra Channick is currently a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine where she is completing her dissertation, “Romantic Emulation and Aesthetic Citizenship,” which explores the way that writers during the French Revolution understand education in the arts as crucial to the negotiation of imitation and innovation in the development of the democratic citizen.
This essay is indebted to the patient reading and careful comments of Andrea Henderson and Hugh Roberts.
It is striking to note that such a difficult poem to comprehend, what William Hazlitt called “a standing enigma,” is used extensively as a primary example of usage in the Oxford English Dictionary for a wide variety of words, including: shield, unrobe, tairn, hermitess, knell, sacristan, heraldry, ken, and recoil.
For two early and important discussions of “Christabel” and the ballad form, see Arthur Nethercot’s The Road to Tryermaine and Charles Stork’s “The Influence of the Popular Ballad on Wordsworth and Coleridge.” See also Brennan O’Donnell’s astute “The ‘Invention’ of a Meter: ‘Christabel’ Meter as fact and fiction” for a careful assessment of Christabel’s prosody. See also Margaret Russett’s “Meter, Identity, Voice: Untranslating Christabel.”
For two exemplary discussions of “Christabel” and the gothic, see Harold Bloom’s The Visionary Company and Mark Hennelly’s “‘As well fill up the space between’: A liminal reading of Christabel.” Jerrold Hogle’s “‘Christabel’ as Gothic: the Abjection of Instability” carefully analyzes “Christabel’s” engagement with different kinds of Gothicism. Edward Dramin and Andrew Cooper depart from these critics to argue that Christabel critiques gothic literature and is best characterized as a gothic parody. See also Donald Reuel Tuttle’s “Christabel Sources in Percy’s Reliques and the Gothic Romance.”
For a careful and insightful study of Coleridge’s theory of desynonymy, see Paul Hamilton’s Coleridge’s Poetics.
See Bloom, Cooper, Dramin, and Basler.
In Coleridge’s Blessed Machine of Language, Jerome Christensen identifies chiasmus as a master trope in Coleridge’s prose that produces an overdetermined dialectic, which he calls an “eddy rather than a bridge” (27).
The matin bell is also associated with Christ’s ascendance from the sepulcher between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday and the expectation of his return.
Harold Bloom argues that her name refers to Christ-abel, which “indicates that her beauty has a particular innocence about it, being associated with the beauty of Christ” (207). This interpretation of her name would go along with a reading of the latter part of the name as Abel, especially as Coleridge was composing The Wanderings of Cain when he began to work on “Christabel.”
This is not an unusual claim to make about a “character” in Coleridge’s poetry. In the essay “Geraldine” Richard Rand convincingly conducts a similar reading of “Anna” in the poem On The Christening of a Child’s Friend, which was written the same year as Part I of “Christabel.”
Margaret Russet also notes the disjunction between sounds and meaning in “Meter, Identity, Voice: Untranslating Christabel” where she says the “asymmetries of tonal causes and semantic effect are prefigured in the onomatopoetic stanzas that describe eerie distortions of ordinary sounds” (788). Russett goes on to look at “Christabel’s” metrics and its “plagiarism” by poets like Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron to arrive at an exploration of the relationship between “voice and literary property.”
In the introduction to Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth eloquently discusses the impossible attempt to “claim” a traumatic event as one’s own.
O’Donnell says: “Coleridge provides in ‘Christabel’ the ironic example of Bracy the bard. Bracy enters the poem commenting on the impossibility of controlling the meaning of sounded messages” (19).
Coleridge returns to this spatial image of sound when he concludes his discussion of poetry in Chapter 18 of the Biographia Literaria. Coleridge innocuously compares the effect of poetry to an echo when he says the effect of poetry is, "As when, for instance, the hills are made to reflect the image of a voice" (364). Coleridge’s spatial metaphor separates sound from space and implies that a poem’s meter and ideas do not necessarily operate in unison.
This point has already been argued by Karen Swann, who says that Christabel and Geraldine are doubles for each other and for Christabel’s lost mother: “Tales, glances, and verbal tags circulate between Christabel and Geraldine throughout the poem: each is a ‘lady,’ each makes ‘answer meet’ to the other. These exchanges could be said to obey the law of ‘the mother’” (548).
Humphrey House cites the different times of composition and the shifts in settings and tone to support his claim that the poem is “inescapably a fragment” and disregards the Conclusion to Part II (122). In The Road to Tryermaine, an exhaustive study of the sources of “Christabel,” Arthur Nethercot also ignores the Conclusion to Part II. According to Walter Jackson Bate in Coleridge, the Conclusion to Part II was "tacked on" (73). Maurice Carpenter supports Bate's point of view in the Indifferent Horseman assertion and says of the Conclusion to Part II: "They [the lines] had nothing to do with the poem, but he was tired, and sick of the gimcrack magic" (174).
Critics look to descriptions about how Coleridge planned to finish the poem from Coleridge's friend James Gilman and his son Derwent. According to Derwent, Christabel suffers for her lover who is far away while Geraldine is simply a spirit rather than a goblin or witch. In contrast, Gilman claims that Coleridge planned to add at least two additional cantos. Geraldine plays the role of a witch who uses her arts to disguise her appearance and impersonate Christabel's lover. Her plan is foiled when Christabel's real lover appears, wedding bells toll, and a total reconciliation occurs between father and daughter. For a discussion of Derwent's version see House 315-316.
See for example Geoffrey Yarlott’s Coleridge and the Abyssinian Maid, Wendy Flory’s “Fathers and Daughters: Coleridge and ‘Christabel’” and Dennis Welch’s “Coleridge’s Christabel: A/version of a Family Romance.”
Coleridge composed the poem at different times. He wrote Part I in 1798, Part II in 1800, and added the Conclusion to Part II in 1801. The tone of Coleridge’s preface and comments on “Christabel” are reminiscent of his discussions of his other famous fragment “Kubla Khan.” Although it was originally intended for publication in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798, the poem was not formally published until 1816 alongside “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep.”
Anthony John Harding’s compelling account of the poem in terms of Romantic mythopoeisis leads him to insightfully conclude that the Conclusion to Part II is perhaps not only about the relationship between father-child, but a meditation on language. He asserts, “the Conclusion to Part II appears to be a commentary, not on a moral truth (at least in the first instance), but on a truth about speech and about its frightening disconnectedness from willed thought and meaning" (45). Harding does not focus on the Conclusion to Part II, and instead offers his own might-have-been: what Christabel would have said had she been able to speak to Geraldine. Harding’s perceptive claim that the Conclusion to Part II provides a commentary on the rupture between speech and meaning is helpful in thinking about how it relates to the earlier sections.
The distinction here between the adult removed from the immediate, unreflective experience of nature and the child’s innocent and unconscious experience recalls “Frost at Midnight” where the speaker says: “For I was reared / in the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars. / But thou, my babe ! shalt wander like a breeze . . .”
In chapter eighteen of the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge discusses his poetic theory and emphasizes the intoxicating power of poetic figures; see 351-352.
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- Bloom, Harold. The Visionary Company. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961.
- Carpenter, Maurice. The Indifferent Horseman. London: Elek Books, 1954.
- Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
- Christensen, Jerome. Coleridge’s Blessed Machine of Language. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. H. J. Jackson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Top of Form
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- Dramin, Edward. “'Amid the Jagged Shadows': Christabel and the Gothic.” Wordsworth Circle. 13.4 (1982): 221-228.
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- Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. and Ed. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961.
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- Harding, Anthony John. “Mythopoeic Elements in ‘Christabel.’” Modern Language Quarterly. 44.1 (1983): 39-50.
- Hennelly, Mark. “‘As well fill up the space between’: A liminal reading of ‘Christabel.’” Studies in Romanticism. 38.2 (1999): 203-222.
- Hogle, Jerrold. “‘Christabel’ as Gothic: the Abjection of Instability.” Gothic Studies. 7.1 (May 2005): 18- 30.
- House, Humphry. Coleridge: The Clark Lectures 1951-1952. London: Richard Clay and Company, Ltd., 1962.
- Nethercot, Arthur. The Road to Tryermaine. New York: Russell & Russel Inc., 1962.
- O’Donnell, Brennan. “The ‘Invention’ of a Meter: ‘Christabel’ Meter as Fact and Fiction.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 100.4 (2001): 511-536.
- Rand, Richard. "Geraldine." Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 280-315.
- Russet, Margaret. “Meter, Identity Voice: Untranslating ‘Christabel.’” Studies in English Literature. 43.4 (2003): 773-797.
- Stork, Charles Wharton. “The Influence of the Popular Ballad on Wordsworth and Coleridge.” PMLA. 29.3 (1914): 299-326.
- Swann, Karen. “Christabel: The Wandering Mother and the Enigma of Form.” Studies in Romanticism. 23.4 (1984): 533-553.
- Tuttle, Donald Reuel. “‘Christabel’ Sources in Percy’s Reliques and the Gothic Romance.” PMLA. 53.2 (1938): 445-474.
- Welch, Dennis. “Coleridge’s Christabel: A/version of a Family Romance.” Women’s Studies. 21.2 (1992): 163-184.
- Yarlott, Geoffrey. Coleridge and the Abyssinian Maid. London: Methuen, 1967.