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The pictographic arrangement of "text" and "sex" in the title of this article embodies my critical focus as well as my methodology. The typographic intersection of "text" and "sex" emblematises my bibliographic reading of the friction between sexuality and textuality in contemporary parodies of Coleridge's "Christabel" (1816). Where sex and text cross paths, a fruitful scene of interpretation emerges. In this critical space, sexuality is an arena of interpretive conflict between two groups of readers: contemporary parodists and the Coleridge family. The former attempts to more closely align the supernatural and sexual poles of the poem, while the latter endeavours to textually and editorially robe the sexually suggestive elements of "Christabel."

The friction between sexuality and textuality is the result of the rub—the contact—between the poem's oral and textual transmission and the corpus of criticism that has attended "Christabel" for more than 180 years. From William Hazlitt in 1816 to Camille Paglia in the 1980s to Laura Adams in 1998, readers of "Christabel" have been alternately intrigued and aggrieved by the sexual and gothic representations of the Christabel-Geraldine relationship. There is "something disgusting at the bottom of [Coleridge's] subject," Hazlitt declares; while Paglia reprimands humanistic scholarship for its failure to engage what she sees as the poem's "blatant lesbian pornography." And in her novel Christabel, Adams transports Coleridge's poem to the late twentieth century, exploring the gradual evolution of the love affair between Christabel and Dina (Geraldine). [1]

But to suggest that there has been a point of contact between textual study of the poem and the near-200 year corpus of commentary over-states the case. Critics have invested little energy in consideration of the connections between the poem's transmission and reception history and various textual witnesses' depictions of the Christabel-Geraldine relationship. In unpacking the sexual and gothic elements of "Christabel," critics have been largely silent about the relationship between the poem's textual history and sexual interpretations. [2] This inattention is problematic; the result is that a significant element of the poem's textual and critical history has been neglected: Coleridge's attempts to counter and suppress the sexual (even lesbian) code of "Christabel" that contemporary parodists expose and ridicule. [3]

"Christabel" caused a clamour soon after its release from John Murray's press on 25 May 1816. Reviewers' reactions were generally negative and dismissive—or exasperated and perplexed, as the anonymous Champion reviewer's distressed interrogation of "Christabel" reveals:

What is it all about? What is the idea? Is Lady Geraldine a sorceress? or a vampire? or a man? or what is she, or he, or it? [4]

The circularity of the Champion reviewer's commentary demonstrates the poem's frustrating indeterminacy: "what is it all about" gives away to more specific thematic and interpretive inquiries about genre, ontology, biology, and sexuality only to return to the general "it." Indeed, as Henry Nelson Coleridge's Quarterly review of Coleridge's 1834 Poetical Works evinces, questions about "Christabel" only lead to more questions:

The thing attempted in 'Christabel' is the most difficult of execution in the whole field of romance—witchery by daylight; and the success is complete. The reader feels the same terror and perplexity that Christabel in vain struggles to express, and the same spell that fascinates her eyes. Who and what is Geraldine—whence come, whither going, and what designing? What did the poet mean to make of her? What could he have made of her? Could he have gone on farther without having had recourse to some of the ordinary shifts of witch tales? Was she really the daughter of Roland de Vaux, and would the friends have met again and embraced?… We are not amongst those who wish to have 'Christabel' finished. It cannot be finished. [5]

The Champion reviewer's and Henry's questions are links in a explicatory chain that are both anchored in Christabel's words to Geraldine upon their first meeting: "And who art thou?" This is not, however, simply an inquiry into identity. Like the Hermit's question of the Ancient Mariner ("What manner of man art thou?"), Christabel's question concerns ontology. "Who and what is Geraldine?" "What is he, or she, or it?" Contemporary parodists were quick to answer these questions. For them, Geraldine is a protean figure—at once, supernaturally sexual, sexually supernatural, and suggestively hermaphroditic.

I. An Overview of the "Christabel" Parodies

Between 1816 and 1832, no less than seven verse parodies of "Christabel" were published. [6] The parodies, considered in combination with the 15 "Christabel" continuations published between 1815 and 1909, position the poem as one of Coleridge's most often emulated works in the nineteenth century. [7] The appeal of Coleridge's poem is its incompletion: only two of a projected five Parts were written. The poem's frustrated entelechy hampers interpretation but invites speculation and continuation. The conventions of the gothic romance allow us to conjecture the future course of the three unwritten Parts: a "fairy tale" resolution may be proposed—the disruptive, supernatural Geraldine is exposed and expelled, for instance, and a moral, Christian, heterosexual order is restored to the world of Langdale Hall. [8] Christabel and "her lover that's far away" reunite and marry. This, of course, matters little to the parodists. "Christabel" parodists follow few, if any, rules and conventions, which is the very point of parody. Literary parody is not simply parasitic—as the common image of the mechanisms of parody leads us to believe. [9] As a negotiating metaphor of parody, the parasitic is of limited value. In the case of "Christabel," the full structure of the trope (a parasite connected to and dependent upon a host text) misconstrues parody's invasive power. Parodies of "Christabel" operate on a molecular level, entering into and intermingling with the flesh and bone of the poem.

Of the "Christabel" parodies, the first is the most incisive. The anonymous Christabess appeared soon after "Christabel" in 1816, and the volume's title page [Figure 1] provides a telling glimpse into the anonymous parodist's handling of Coleridge's poem. [10] The title Christabess brings to mind the ophidian imagery of "Christabel"—Bard Bracy's dream of a snake coiled around the neck of a dove (530-48), as well as Geraldine's snake-like eyes. [11] The onomatopoeic ending of the suffix "bess" also recalls Christabel's snake-like hissing in Part II: she "drew in her breath with a hissing sound" and "Shudder'd aloud, with a hissing sound" (447, 580). But "bess" also deflates the aristocratic substructure that informs the poem's gothic conventions, perhaps cutting up the religious title "Abess," just as it brings to mind milk maids—who were, by 1816 in the history of English literature, commonly named "Bess." Christabess, unlike Christabel, is not the daughter of a noble-man: Christabess transforms Sir Leoline into "Tom Bottomly, the Tinker Fat" (7). Too, as a short form of "Elizabeth," the suffix puts Queen Elizabeth and prostitutes into the same breath; both were colloquially referred to as "Bess." [12]

Figure 1

Christabess (1816), Title Page. Enlarged.

Don't think, because 'tis understood
By men of sense, 'tis therefore good;
But let your meaning so be plann'd,
that blockheads can't misunderstand.

Permission Pending

-> See the list of figures

The ironically derogatory subtitle—"a right Woeful Poem, Translated from the Doggerel by Sir Vinegar Sponge"—is also noteworthy. The Old English typeface of "Woeful Poem" bibliographically ridicules Coleridge's poem, exaggerating the Cloister Black typeface of the half title page of the 1816 "Christabel" [Figure 2]. Moreover, the exaggerated and embellished Old English typeface of "Woeful Poem" lampoons Christabel's "woes" (190, 233, 317). The phrase recalls Wordsworth's emphasis on the "woe" (the "rueful woes") of "Christabel" in The Prelude. [13] In Christabess, content and typography intersect—the physical appearance of the typeface (with its air of antiquity) intimates the medieval setting of "Christabel" while "woeful" hints at the recurring gothic atmosphere of distress in Coleridge's poem.

Figure 2

"Christabel" (1816), Detail of Half Title Page. Enlarged.

-> See the list of figures

Christabess displays a heightened awareness of the physical appearance of the 1816 "Christabel" volume, parodying not only the typography but also the poem's larger section divisions (preface, two Parts, and two Conclusions) as well as more minute details of diction and imagery.

The preface, for example, closely copies Coleridge's. Christabess maintains Coleridge's pre-emptive strike against anticipated charges of plagiarism, while the historical and geographical circumstances of composition are altered for comic effect. Coleridge's comments on the originality of "Christabel" are exaggerated, presenting the poet as boastfully self-important—even, as unwittingly courting hubris:

I have now only to insist that the metre of Christabess is perfectly regular, although I am aware not one of my readers will find it so; but they will instantly attribute it to their own shallowness of intellect, when they are informed that I have, out of my profundity of genius, entirely created a new system of my own. [14]

The indented lines in the opening of the Conclusion to Part I (a recapitulation of the Part I scene of Christabel praying beneath the oak tree)—

It was a lovely sight to see

The lady Christabel, when she

Was praying at the old oak tree.

 Amid the jagged shadows

 Of mossy leafless boughs,

 Kneeling in the moonlight,

 To make her gentle vows;

Her slender palms together prest;

Heaving sometimes on her breast.


—are reproduced in Christabess, while Coleridge's verse is collapsed into bathetic half-rhymes:

O goodly sight! I fancy yet

I see the lovely Christa' sit

Beneath the tree to rest a bit,

 And see her head recline

 Upon her little fist,

 And see the moon-beams shine

 Upon her heaving breast

O gentle sighs that swell her breast,

And almost seem her sash to burst!


The references to nudity in these lines may also be explained—and more clearly historically grounded—by the title page of Christabess. The presence of the publisher's name—"J. Duncombe"—hints at the Christabess parodist's risqué treatment of "Christabel." The London publisher John Duncombe was known as "a purveyor of middle-class erotica." [15] Duncombe's catalogue includes many collections of bawdy and sexually charged bar-room songs. Christabess fits right in. The parody is a physically and sexually graphic reworking of the Christabel (Christabess) and Geraldine (Adelaide) relationship.

Christabess charges the bedroom scene of "Christabel" with a voyeuristic sexual electricity. The parody freights the scene of Geraldine embracing Christabel in Part I with sexually suggestive terms and imagery:

And, lo! the worker of the spell

Hugs the maid, and sleepest well;

Sleepest—or else she seems to sleep,

Like a Ram beside a Sheep. [16]


Combined, the em dash hesitant syntax of the line "Sleepest—or else she seems to sleep" and the simile "like a Ram beside a Sheep" convey sexual activity. The simile recalls Iago's comment about Desdemona to her father, Barbantio, early in Othello, when Iago describes Othello as "an old black ram… tupping your white ewe." (I.I.88). Adelaide's hair, it is worth noting, is "black and long," and "coal black"; Christabess's legs are "snow white" (21).

The innuendo of Christabess quickly turns into voyeuristic romp, as Christabess watches Adelaide undress:

                 …she sat upon her bum,

And peep'd behind the curtain sly;

And in the corner of the room,

There she saw the maid untie

A piece of hempen cord, that bound

her alabaster belly round!

Down dropt her shift, and——O dear me!

She's naked!—naked!!—naked!!!—see!—

But, reader, turn away your view,

She's not to sleep with me or you.


Christabess apes Coleridge's technique of indirect description in "Christabel," by instructing the reader to "turn away." In the 1816 "Christabel," readers are not given a view of Geraldine undressing; rather,

Her silken robe, and inner vest,

Dropt to her feet, and full in view,

Behold! her bosom and half her side—

—A sight to dream of, not to tell!

And she is to sleep by Christabel.


Voyeurism in Christabess soon leads to sexual interaction. Echoing Geraldine's spell—"In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell" (255)—Adelaide casts one of her own: "In the tip of this titty there dwelleth a charm"(22). The two women fall asleep, and dreaming, Christabess'

 …eye in anguish roves,

Like a little Gipsey witch,

With her lover in a ditch,

Who cries thro' fear of what she loves.

And if she lay there quietly,

Perchance it is because that he,

Having been there with her before,

Cannot fright her any more.


The language is that of sexual violation, but the narrator of Christabess anticipates and plays with such a sexual interpretation:

Was this the fate of her I sing?

O gentle reader, no such thing!

Think'st thou she bent to lawless will?

No, reader, she's a virgin still.


The handling of the bedroom scene of "Christabel" in Christabess is characteristic of the parody's brand of satire—a facetious manipulation of the events and figures of "Christabel" and of Coleridge's language. For example, after several drams of gin (the "wild flower wine" of "Christabel" comically distilled in Christabess), Adelaide sinks by the bed-post: "Oh she was lovely, sweet, and plump, / Egad—and such a noble rump!" (20). The author of Christabess ironically ascribes to Adelaide a physical characteristic more suited to Christabess, given her last name of "Bottomly." And Bard Bracy's dream descends into the ridiculous, as "Billy Brown" tells of a snake "wound" around the neck of a "dying duck" under an old oak tree. Unable to separate the snake and duck, the "snake, duck, and all sunk in the ground." Billy recounts that, then, there "came a voice" that told him "to mark the spot where stood my foot" by the oak tree; he comments that while "I thought I mark'd the spot," he, upon waking, "found I'd mark'd the bed" (38-39).

Similarly absurd is the treatment of Coleridge's Conclusion to Part II. Christabess is unique among "Christabel" parodies in offering a full parody of the Conclusion. Coleridge's "little child, a limber elf, / Singing, dancing to itself" (656-57) is transformed into

A little chubby, funny brat,

Bellowing after this and that—

A plaguesome thing with blubber'd cheeks

That always gabbles—never speaks;

And while it makes its mother glad,

Drives its father almost mad,

That he enraged in language keen,

Vents threats which he can never mean.

"Hah—hold your tongue, and waddle off,

"Or else I'll cut your doodle off,"

Perhaps, sometimes, a pretty maid,

If hid from view, is not afraid

To dally, play, and feel a charm

In little things that do no harm;

It may, perhaps, be very pretty,

To tickle fancy with a whim,

To figure Love, or fancy Pity,

Until the eyes in tear-drops swim.

But, ah! such hearts are seldom seen—

Such pretty giddiness is gone;

Each only feels for number one,

Not even that, except in pain.


Christabess seeks to clarify the Conclusion to Part II with a reading that highlights domestic and parental themes. [17] In the case of Christabess, however, the lines offer a literal rendition of the paradoxically violent language of parental affection—"A very metaphysical account of Fathers calling their children rogues, rascals, & little varlets——&tc——," as Coleridge describes it. [18] It is difficult to say if Coleridge was aware of Christabess and the "little chubby, funny brat." Walter Hamilton suggests that Coleridge "quoted [Christabess] as an admirable parody," but there is no evidence to support such a claim. More than likely, Hamilton may be confusing Christabess with a parody that appeared in Blackwood's in 1819. [19]

Two other parodies of "Christabel" appeared in 1816. Unlike the unknown Christabess author, James Hogg offers more tonally subdued parodies of "Christabel" in The Poetic Mirror. As an anonymous reviewer in the Augustan Review remarks, Hogg's "The Cherub" and "Isabelle" tackle "the raving doggerel and wretched prose of 'Christabel,' and the glitter and rapturous fancies of the early poetry of the author." [20]

The resemblances between "Christabel" and "The Cherub" are stylistic—and, generally, minor. Modelled upon Coleridge's largely anapestic tetrameter, "The Cherub" presents a female angel who physically resembles Christabel. Like "Christabel" (321, 569), the Cherub is "beauteous," and the Cherub's hair ("ringlets of wavy gold") recalls Christabel's "ringlet curl" (46-47). [21]

"Isabelle," on the other hand, draws heavily upon "Christabel." Structurally, it resembles a Part and Conclusion of "Christabel"—in Hogg's case, 138 lines. The parody is characterised by a shifting, even wandering, narrative perspective. At one point, for example, the events of the poem seem to be glimpsed through the eyes of the deceased, and, at another, through the eyes of a dog. Where Christabess satirically and sexually excoriates "Christabel," "Isabelle" is more tonally restrained—preferring a less sarcastic approach that apes yet gently mocks Coleridge's style.

Coleridge's "mastiff bitch," for example, becomes a "cut-tail'd whelp":

What ails that little cut-tail'd whelp,

That it continues to yelp, yelp?

Yelp, yelp, and it turns its eye

Up to the tree and half to the sky,

Half to the sky, and full to the ground.


Hogg displays an interest in Coleridge's portrayal of the supernatural, and particularly of the perception of the presence of the supernatural in the natural world, by focussing on the process of question and answer that strives phenomenologically to draw readers into the poem's events as they unfold (a topic that I shall return to). In "Isabelle," as in "Christabel," gothic atmosphere, suspense, and mystery are generated through a series of questions and answers:

Can there be a moon in the heaven to-night,

That the hill and the grey cloud seem so light?

The air is whitened by some spell,

For there is no moon, I know it well.


Hogg applies this technique more generally in "Isabelle," as well, demonstrating an interest in Coleridge's construction of simile and its relationship to the development of setting. Describing a cloud, for example, Hogg enacts the process of matching the cloud with a like object:

There is a cloud that seems to hover,

By western hill the church-yard over,

What is it like?—'Tis like a whale;

'Tis like a shark with half a tail,

Not half, but third or more,

Now 'tis a wolf, and now a boar.


Here, Hogg apes Hamlet. Following the player's rehearsal, the scene closes with a brief exchange between Polonius and Hamlet, as the madness-feigning prince stalls Polonius's message from Gertrude for an immediate interview:

Hamlet. Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?

Polonius. By th' mass and 'tis—like a camel indeed.

Hamlet. Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius. It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet. Or like a whale.

Polonius. Very like a whale.

Hamlet. Then I will come to my mother by and by.


Hogg figures Coleridge as Polonius—an unimaginative fool, easily swayed. The passage is typical of Hogg's style throughout "Isabelle"—as he pokes fun at, rather than scourges "Christabel" and Coleridge.

A more sarcastic treatment of "Christabel" appeared in the June 1819 issue of Blackwood's. "Christabel, Part Third" is signed "Morgan O'Doherty," the regular Blackwood's pseudonym of the Irish journalist and poet William Maginn (although the name was an occasional aegis for other Blackwood's writers). "Christabel, Part Third" is not by Maginn, however, but by the Musselburgh physician and writer David Macbeth Moir. [22]

Coleridge found "Christabel, Part Third" funny—as Thomas Allsop records:

I laughed heartily at the continuation in Blackwood, which I have been told is by Maginn: it is in appearance and in appearance only, a good imitation; I do not doubt but that it gave more pleasure, and to a greater number, than a continuation by myself in the spirit of the first two cantos. [23]

Coleridge conveys as much to William Blackwood in a letter of 30 June 1819. Prompted by reports that the parody displeased him, Coleridge was eager to set the record straight:

A very slight personal acquaintance with me would have enabled the Editor to take for granted that I should not be offended with the droll Christabelliad. None of Mr O'Doherty's readers will peruse it with less pain, few with greater pleasure. I should indeed be wanting both to myself and to common-sense if I did not regard it as a compliment, and that of no ordinary kind, for, not to mention the names with which my own stands in juxtaposition, it would be strange if a man of O'Doherty's undoubted genius should have employed so much wit, humour, and general power of mind on a work wholly without worth or character. Let only no poison of personal moral calumny be inserted, and a good laugh is a good thing; and I should be sorry by making a wry face, to transfer it from the Lady Christabel to myself. [24]

An appreciative response by Moir to Coleridge's letter appeared in the July issue of Blackwood's. [25] This congenial atmosphere is surprising, given Moir's caustic handling of Coleridge and "Christabel," and given Blackwood's opinions of "Christabel" after 1819. [26] A 1821 Blackwood's piece, for example, again by "Morgan O'Doherty," included a proleptic obituary of "Christabel" that called for Coleridge to write his friends of the death of "Christabel": "he must, without delay,scribble four dozen of letters, inviting his friends to her funeral,—let him employ a patent coffin, as she is a restless and unruly subject." [27]

For Moir, Coleridge is equally a "restless and unruly subject." Coleridge is a deranged poet and philosopher capable of composing only when dreaming:

Listen! ye know that I am mad,

 And ye will listen!—wizard dreams

 Were with me!—all is true that seems!—

From dreams alone can truth be had—

In dreams divinest lore is taught,

For the eye, no more distraught,

Rests most calmly, and the ear,

 Of sound unconscious, may apply

Its attributes unknown, to hear

 The music of philosophy!

Thus I am wisest in my sleep,

For thoughts and things, which day-light brings,

 Come to the spirit sad and single,

But verse and prose, and joys and woes

 Inextricably mingle,

When the hushed frame is silent in repose! [28]

In the background of Moir's comments on dreams are the preface to "Kubla Khan," and Biographia Literaria—the latter published two years before "Christabel, Part Third," and reviewed unfavourably in Blackwood's. [29] In his critique of Bertram in chapter 23 of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge discusses the power of the poet to open readers to "dramatic possibilit[ies]"—that is, to the fantastical and the supernatural, to "the wildest tales of ghosts, wizards, genii, and secret talisman." Coleridge writes that "the poet does not require us to be awake and believe; he solicits us only to yield to a dream; and this too with our eyes open." [30] Here, dreaming furnishes Coleridge with a metaphor to describe the phenomenological process by which readers can be drawn into the fictive and linguistic worlds of literature. The dream metaphor (and Coleridge's more general use of dreaming as an explanatory metaphor in Biographia Literaria) informs Moir's sardonic attitude toward Coleridge's claims for compositions like "Kubla Khan" that came to him while sleeping. A result of such dream-inspired composition is that Coleridge's writings are indecipherable, mixing prose and poetry unsuccessfully and "inextricably." [31]

"Christabel" is similarly disparaged by Moir. He scores the gothic opening of "Christabel" as a Babel-like cacophony that moves from the antiphonal exchange of tolling clock and clamouring animals to a lone lowing cow:


Tempest or calm—moonshine or shower,

The castle clock still tolls the hour,

And the cock awakens, and echoes the sound,

And is answered by the owls around—

And at every measured tone

You may hear the old baron grunt and groan;

'Tis a thing of wonder, and fright, and fear,

The mastiff-bitch's moans to hear—

And the aged cow in her stall that stands

And is milked each morning by female hands

(That the baron's breakfast of milk and bread

May be brought betimes to the old man's bed

Who often gives, while he is dressing,

His Christabel a father's blessing.)

That aged cow, as each stroke sounds slow,

Answers it with a plaintive low!


Moir deflates the gothic atmosphere (the "fright" and "fear") that opens "Christabel" with innocuous imagery: a dairy cow, and a parenthetical glimpse into the daily domestic routine of Langdale Hall. It is a strategy typical of "Christabel, Part Third" as Moir derides the mystery and suspense of Coleridge's poem by grounding the supernatural elements of "Christabel" in the banal and the ordinary.

But Moir's treatment of "Christabel" is also lascivious. There is a strong current of sexual scandal, as Christabel is impregnated by Geraldine (who, we learn, is a man in disguise):

As she wandered down the dell

None said 'twas the lady Christabel.—

Some thought 'twas a weird and ugsome elf,

Some deemed 'twas the sick old Baron himself,

 * * *

(For his shape below was wide to see

All bloated with the hydropsie.)

 * * *

Thy cheek is pale, thy locks are wild—

Ah, think, how big thou art with child!—

 * * *

For who that saw that child of thine

Pale Christabel, who could divine

That its sire was the Ladie Geraldine?


Ironically, in presenting Christabel as pregnant, Moir situates "Christabel" as a thematic (yet chronologically antecedent) rejoinder to one of the literary works that Coleridge's poem influenced: John Polidori's The Vampyre—first published in the New Monthly Magazine in 1819. [32] The impregnation of "Christabel" recalls Lord Strongmore's seduction of Miss Aubrey. [33] After "gain[ing] her affections," the vampire Strongmore reminds Aubrey's brother—who attempts to thwart the marriage between Strongmore and his sister—that "your sister is dishonoured." [34] The portrait of Christabel impregnated by a man marks the extreme of Moir's spoof of "Christabel."

The events of "Christabel, Part Third"—ranging from the domestic and innocuous to the sexually and supernaturally shocking—are governed by a narrative of gothic distress, and in particular by the tale of Christabel, a damsel in distress, as she wanders the woods late at night. Moir stands "Christabel" upon its head, closing the parody with a ghost-like Christabel:

Does thou wander to the field of graves

Where the elder its spectral branches waves?

And will thy hurried footsteps halt

Where thy mother sleeps in the silent vault?

 * * *

Thither go not, or I deem almost

That thou wilt frighten thy mother's ghost!


Where the parodic energy of Moir's "Christabel, Part Third" concentrates on an ironic deflation of the gothic figure of the damsel in distress, William Frederick Deacon targets the supernatural. A London journalist and poet, Deacon published two parodies of "Christabel." The first, "The Baron Rich.—Part II. By S. T. C." appeared twice in 1820, and was reprinted in 1825. [35] The second parody, "The Dream, A Psychological Curiosity" appeared in Deacon's 1824 volume Warreniana, with Notes, Critical, Explanatory, by the Editor of the Quarterly Review. [36]

Physical violence and the supernatural as a disruptive force characterise Deacon's parodies. Indeed, the action of "The Baron Rich" is governed by these elements. The parody divides into two sections: a protracted view of the natural world in a state of disarray (as humans and animals wake in the night, their sleep having been disturbed by the tolling clock and calling animals), and the appearance of Satan. (The sections are separated by the "Song of the Old Bitch.") Throughout both sections, Deacon pays little attention to the original context of Coleridge's language. For example, the scene of Christabel "moan[ing] and leap[ing]" as she sleeps in Part I of "Christabel" is applied to the mastiff bitch who "in her sleep / …begins to 'moan and leap'" (105). "Bard Bracey," following his attempt to silence the mastiff bitch barking in the middle of the night,

 …swears as often as he can;

And like a 'little limber elf,'

Singeth and danceth to himself.


Here Deacon combines the "one red leaf" of Part I—"The one red leaf, the last of its clan, / That dances as often as dance it can" (49-50)—with the Conclusion to Part II—"A little child, a limber elf, / Singing, dancing to itself," (656-57). His interest in Coleridge's language is casual, presenting a loose allusional framework in which the diction of "Christabel" provides general points of reference for readers. Deacon's focus on Coleridge's language is more global than local. His interest in the figures of "Christabel," however, is more highly refined.

As he exaggerates the opening scene of "Christabel," Deacon offers an extended fight scene between the mastiff Bitch and Bard Bracey, who has been ordered outdoors to quiet the dog [Figure 3]:

The bard came forth in his night-cap he,

And he was as skinny as bard mote be

 * * *

And away he went with a hem and a haw!

To make the old mastiff lie still in her straw.

 * * *

He kick'd her once—he kick'd her twice,

But the old bitch snapp'd at his fingers thrice;

Then Bracey kick'd her again, times four,

But the old bitch snapp'd at his fingers the more.


The scene continues, ending with Bracey bitten by the dog, and the dog revealing itself as an agent of evil in its brief "Song of the Old Bitch":

"There's a cloud in the sky,

And it's wandering by,

And in it I'll lump,

With a hop, ship, and jump,

For I'm a warlock of evil, I trow—"

(Here the bitch ended with, bow—wow—wow.) [37]


The mastiff bitch is a central figure of Deacon's "The Baron Rich." Deacon's extended treatment of the dog brings to mind Hazlitt's comments in his Examiner of "Christabel" review that

We wonder that Mr. Murray, who has an eye, should suffer this 'mastiff bitch' to come into his shop. Is she a sort of Cerebus to fright away the critics? But—gentleman, she is toothless. [38]

The seemingly minor and "toothless" dog is pivotal to the physical action of "The Baron Rich." Deacon playfully promotes a minor figure into a major one in the face of critics' derision toward the "mastiff bitch." The dog is the vehicle with which Coleridge's treatment of the supernatural is satirised. In "Christabel," the dog serves as a barometer of the supernatural—its growling while it sleeps functioning as a gauge of the potential presence of the otherworldly (the ghost of Christabel's deceased mother). In "The Baron Rich," the dog is itself otherworldly. Following the "Song of the Old Bitch," the dog "vanish'd" and re-appeared as Satan:

In popp'd father Satan in shape of a cat.

And he skipp'd thro' the key-hole with terrible pother,

A match in one hand, and his tail in the other;

And said to the Baron, with funeral glee,

'Come, leap thro' the window, and fly with me;

For I'm the mastiff that kick'd up a rout,

And my broomstick is waiting to carry you out.'


The devil and the Baron travel to hell, arriving "at five o'clock, just in time for dinner." The "Baron Rich" ends with a retrospective view of the Baron's encounter with the devil: five years after his encounter with the devil, the Baron is still "tormented" by his experience.

Figure 3

Illustration, Encyclopeadia of Anecdote and Wit (1825).

Reprinted with permission Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

-> See the list of figures

Deacon equals his satire of Satan and the supernatural in "The Baron Rich" with his second parody, "The Dream," which, again, sees the supernatural and violence as guiding thematic principles. The "Advertisement to the Reader" of "The Dream" recalls Moir's "Christabel, Part Third." Like Moir, Deacon is sceptical of Coleridge's comments on visionary versification—on poetry that comes to a poet while dreaming:

Dreams… are to be estimated solely in proportion to their wildness… A friend of mine, who is a most magnificent dreamer, imagined but the other night that he had invited a flock of sheep to a musical party. Such a flocci, nauci, nihili absurdity will, I am afraid, puzzle even our transcendental philosophers to explain, although Kant, in his treatise on the Phaenomena of Dreams, is of opinion that the lens or focus of intestinal light ascending the oesophagus at right angles, so that the nucleus of the diaphragm reflecting on the cerebellum the prismatic visions of the pilorous, is made to produce that marvellous operation of mind upon matter better known by the name of dreaming.


Deacon's critique of Coleridge's comments on the creative process (and of his syntactically complex prose style) is fuelled by the nonsensical, rendered in terms that mock the language and philosophical foundations of one of Coleridge's chief metaphysical influences, Immanuel Kant. By 1824, Coleridge had been frequently and unfavourably criticised for the Kantian elements of his work. [39] Deacon mocks the process by which the substance of everyday life creeps into poetry; in this case, the boxing match "between Cribb and Molineaux" that the author had been reading about in the newspaper furnishes Deacon with an organisational structure for part of his parody (117). [40] The first half of "The Dream" is dominated by the supernatural as Deacon extends the opening scenes of Part I of "Christabel" into an interview between Warren—"the manufacturer rich"—and a "spirit"; the second, by a round-by-round commentary on a boxing match between the devil and Warren.

Deacon revisits familiar terrain in "The Dream," reworking the appearance of the devil in "The Baron Rich":

Beside his counter, with tail in hand,

[Warren] saw a spirit of darkness stand;

I guess 'twas frightful there to see

A lady so scantily clad as she

Ugly and old exceedingly.


Deacon inverts the figure of Geraldine, who Coleridge describes as

 …a damsel bright

Drest in a silken robe of white,

That shadowy in the moonlight shone:

The neck that made that white robe wan,

Her stately neck, and arms were bare;

Her blue-veined feet unsandal'd were,

And wildly glittered here and there

The gems entangled in her hair.

I guess, 'twas fearful there to see

A lady so richly clad as she—

Beautiful exceedingly!


The description continues, echoing Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner." The "spirits of darkness"—referred to as the "old mother Nightmare-life-death"—is:

In height her figure was six feet two,

In breadth exactly two foot six,

One eye as summer skies was blue,

The other black as the waves of the Styx,

Her bloodless lips did aught but pair,

For one was brown and one was fair,

And clattered like maid in hysteric fit.


Like Moir, Deacon presents the supernatural as absurd. "Old Mrs. Life-in-death" and Warren travel to hell, where, upon meeting Satan, Warren and Satan argue about boot blacking. In the early nineteenth century, Robert Warren was the manufacturer of a popular and well advertised boot blacking [Figures 4 and 5]. [41]

Figure 4

As John Strachan has established, Warren's were aware of Deacon's book and used an edited version of "The Dream"-the title and opening paragraphs of which are reproduced below-in an advertising handbill which the British Library dates around 1830; see introduction to Warreniana in Parodies of the Romantic Age, eds. Graeme Stones and John Strachan, 5 vols. (London: Pickering, 1999) vol. IV, pp. vii-xl.

By courtesy of the British Library.

-> See the list of figures

Figure 5




Ten minutes to ten, by St. Dunstan's clock,

And the owl has awaken'd the crowing cock;



If he crows at this rate in so thrilling a note,

Jesu Maria! he'll catch a sore throat.

Warren, the manufacturer, rich,

Hath a spectral mastiff bitch,

To St. Dunstan's clock, tho' silent enow,

She barked her chorus of bow, wow, wow;

Bow for the quarter, and wow for the hour,

Nought she cares for the sun or the shower;

But when, like a ghost, all array'd in its shroud,

The wheels of the thunder are muffled in cloud,

But when the moon, sole chandlier of the night,

Bathes the blessed earth in light,

As wizard to wizard, or witch to witch,

Howleth to heaven this mastiff bitch.

Buried in thought, O' Warren lay

(Like a village queen on the birth of May).

He listed the tones of St. Dunstan's clock,

Of the mastiff bitch, and the crowing cock;

But louder, far louder, he listed a roar

Loud as the billow that booms on the shore:

Bang, bang, with a pause between,

Rang the weird round at his door, I ween,

Up from his couch he leap'd in affright,

Op'd his gray lattice, and look'd on the night;

Then put on his coat, and with harlequin hop

Stood like a phantom in midst of the shop,

In midst of his shop he stood like a sprite,

Till, peering to left and peering to right,

Beside his counter, with tail in hand,

I guess 'twas frightful there to see

A lady so scantily clad as she,

Ugly and old exceedingly.

By courtesy of the British Library.

-> See the list of figures

Satan challenges Warren that

 …though brilliant your blacking, the water of Styx

Is blacker by far, and can throw, as it suits,

A handsomer gloss o'er our shoes and boots.—


Warren disagrees, and after a heated exchange, he and Satan agree to a fist fight—of which Deacon jests:

Gentles, who fondly peruse these lays,

Wild as a colt o'er the moorland strays,

Who thrill at each wondrous rede I tell,

As fancy roams o'er the floor of hell,

Now list ye kindness, the whiles I rehearse

In shapely pugilistic verse.


After five rounds of boxing, one in which Satan receives a bloody nose ("the blood from his peepers, went drip, drip, drip)," Warren wins. During Warren's victory celebration, Satan leads "the shadowless spectres" in a chorus of "Buy Warren's Blacking." "The Dream" ends where it began in the "advertisement," with mention of dreams and sleep. In the closing stanza of the parody, the bard is awakened by "the voice of the crowing cock" and "the toll of Saint Dunstan's clock." The events of "The Dream" were themselves part of a dream, and "the bard hath awoke from the 'Pains of Sleep'" (128).

Deacon's parodies mark the supernatural pole of "Christabel" parodies, while Christabess and "Christabel, Part Third" mark the sexual. The five other parodies fall between. [42] The parodists' strategy—as my molecular metaphor early in this article suggested—is that of penetrating the atomic structure of "Christabel"—diction, tone, image, metaphor, atmosphere, as well as typography and layout. Parody, however, also operates on a subatomic level—on the level of rhetoric and descriptive technique. It is here that we witness parody's trespass of literary property and propriety—jumping the fence late at night to steal a skinny dip in someone else's pool, and leaving without closing the gate.

II. "And must she sleep by Christabel?": Sex, Hypophora, and the Supernatural

Language is the fuel that feeds literary parody's satirical fire. Yet to study the parodic imitation of a writer's diction is to observe the mimetic operative mode of parody functioning on a microscopic level. To do justice to such a study requires examination of the macroscopic as well. In the case of "Christabel," Arthur Nethercot offers just such a macroscopic study in The Road to Tryermaine, where he delineates a tripartite paradigm of the thematic concerns, and aesthetic, ideological and historical focuses of "Christabel" parodies and completions. Parodists follow one or all of three avenues of approach: scandal (sexual), the supernatural, and the moral and didactic. [43] While Nethercot's model offers a fruitful global view of parodist's general handling of "Christabel," it is at the expense of a detailed consideration of the relationship between the macro- and micro-, and the global and local. (And even then, as a macroscopic study, Nethercot's consideration of the impact that genre, biography, and the history of the poem's transmission and reception has upon the parodists, is inadequate.) The parodists focus simultaneously on the relationship between the diction of "Christabel," the poem's reception and transmission, the gothic genre, and Coleridge. The poem as Coleridge composed it, the poem as it is perceived in popular culture, and the poet himself blur together, forming a common subject for the parodists.

If language is the fuel of parody, its consumption is characterised by adoption and alteration for comic effect. Coleridge's onomatopoeic hooting owl, for example, is a favourite subject of the parodists. In Christabess, the hooting owl becomes a braying donkey: "And the donkey hath waken'd the girl up stairs; / Ee—eau!——Ee—eau!" (7). In "Isabelle," Hogg transforms the owl into a "Rail"—"harping, harping in the brake, / Craik, craik——Craik, craik" (143). In Deacon's "The Dream," a crowing cock calls: "Cock-a-doodle-doo, / Cock-a-doodle-doo"; and, the mastiff bitch "barketh a chorus of bow wow, wow" (118). In the "Baron Rich" the cock sounds (illogically) like Coleridge's owl: "the crowing cock his shrill clarion blew, / To whit! to whoo!"—confounding even further the disarray of the natural world (101). It is Gerald Griffin, however, who takes the parody of Coleridge's owl to its extreme:

Did you not read the sonnet to an owl, No. II?

Not a whit of thy tuwhoo,

Thee to woo to thy tuwhit,

Thee to woo to thy tuwhit,

With a lengthen'd loud halloo,

Tuwhoo, tuwhit, tuwhit, tuwhoo—o—o! [44]

The parodists reduce the owl of "Christabel" to the acoustic playfulness and simplicity of a children's song—language that is seemingly non-sensical, as it aspires to a level of verisimilitude, emulating phonetically and sonically the calls of animals.

But the "Christabel" parodists' manipulation of Coleridge's language also speaks of a more refined critique of Coleridge's handling of gothic conventions. The manipulation of religious language in "Christabel," for example, demonstrates the parodists' attempt to debase the pious Christabel. This is, in turn, part of the larger parodic program of undermining the poem's gothic elements. "Jesu Maria, shield us well," a distinctive epithet of "Christabel" (and one echoed by Scott in theLay of the Last Minstrel), stands as a call for divine protection, and for the return of a natural and Christian order to the world. In the mouth of the narrator, the phrase conveys an exasperated and disbelieving fear of the poem's events: "Hush, beating heart of Christabel! / Jesu, Maria, shield her well!" (55-56) and Geraldine "look'd askance at Christabel—/—Jesu, Maria, shield her well!" (570-71). (Indeed, the invocation to Jesus is used, generally, in "Christabel" as an appeal to divine authority—to the order of a Christian world. In swearing "by the wounds in Jesu's side" (421), Leoline demonstrates the seriousness and conviction of his pledge to punish Geraldine's captors.)

In Deacon's "The Dream" "Jesu Maria" is altered to "Miserere Maria"—a cry of despair by Warren that causes the "spirit of darkness" to draw back momentarily (122). Warren continues with the prayer "For Mary, sweet Mary, hath power to fright, / And palsy the souls of the daemon of night" in an effort to protect himself from "Mrs. Life-in-death" (101). Christabess corrupts the phrase further: Christabess, frightened that the moaning she hears near the old oak tree may be "some rogue," cries "O gemini"—a vulgarisation of Jesu domine (10). This vulgarisation continues in Christabess with Christabess asking Adelaide, upon discovering her by the oak tree, "Lud-a-mercy! who are you?" (11). "Lud" is a crude reduction of Lord, a comic version of the title of legal officials, and the aristocracy.

The parodists' vulgarisation of the religious language of "Christabel" is emblematic of their larger project of perverting (in both the religious and sexual senses of to debase, and to lead astray) the gothic genre and the Christabel-Geraldine relationship. In its simplest form, parody attempts to hobble the rhetorical elements of "Christabel" that contribute to the development of gothic tension, mystery, and suspense. Deacon, for example, parodies Coleridge's use of the rhetorical figure of antimetabole—a chiastic figure in which a phrase is repeated, but, in the second instance, in reverse order.

In "Christabel," antimetabole unites content and form, advancing the gothic atmosphere of the poem, as well as developing character. The figure appears several times, one of which occurs in Part II, as Geraldine's spell—"Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!" (256)—takes effect:

 …Christabel awoke and spied

The same who lay down by her side—

O rather say, the same whom she

Rais'd up beneath the old oak tree!

Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair!


The phrase "Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair" enacts the spell through repetition as it assumes control of Christabel's thoughts. Another instance is found in Part I, as Christabel and Geraldine enter Christabel's dark bedroom:

The silver lamp burns dead and dim;

But Christabel the lamp will trim.

She trimm'd the lamp, and made it bright.


Here antimetabole contributes to the gothic atmosphere of "Christabel," underscored by the incantatory rhythm of Coleridge's stressed-based anapestic tetrameter metre. The final example of antimetabole in "Christabel" serves several purposes. In Part II, Coleridge writes of Sir Leoline, following Christabel's request to have Geraldine removed from Langdale Hall:

Within the Baron's heart and brain

If thoughts, like these, had any share,

They only swell'd his rage and pain,

And did but work confusion there.

His heart was cleft with pain and rage.


And in the closing line of the Conclusion to Part II, Coleridge writes:

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.


The double antimetabole of "rage and pain"—dispersed across the two passages—highlights the disintegration of Leoline's psyche, and further underscores his bellicose nature. But the lines also serve a more formal function as they rhetorically connect the Conclusion to Part II with the rest of the poem.

The collapse of Coleridge's antimetabolic phrase by Deacon affects the disintegration of a controlling rhetorical component of "Christabel." In "The Baron Rich," Deacon writes of the "old mother Nightmare-life-death" that "In height her figure was six feet two, / In breadth exactly two foot six" (107); and, in "The Dream":

The Baron has put on his night-gown and cap,

To know the reason of this mishap;

The Baron has put on his cap and night-gown.


The second instance is deliberately non-sensical. Although lacking the comic absurdity of the description of "old mother Nightmare-life-death," the repeated phrase deadens the gothic rhetoric and spell-like metre of "Christabel."

To parody antimetabole is to begin to parody the more subtle and complex rhetorical elements of Coleridge's writing. It represents in miniature the parodists' more refined parodic targeting of the figurative and descriptive techniques that Coleridge employs in "Christabel"—not just his choice of words but how he uses them. But the "Christabel" parodists are also influenced by the poem's reception history—by the poem as Coleridge wrote it and as it was perceived and circulated. The parodists' transformation of Coleridge's language from the formal, aristocratic, proper, and religious, to the colloquial, vulgar, and secular, as well as their efforts to defuse the poem's rhetorically-loaded gothic conventions, manifests itself more subtly in the parody of Coleridge's hypophoric method and self-conscious narration.

Hypophora—the rhetorical figure of asking and immediately answering a question—provides an apt rubric with which to discuss the series of questions and responses in "Christabel." [45] In "Christabel," as in the "Ancient Mariner," sequences of questions and answers fuel the self-aware quality of both poems. [46] In both poems, the questions focus on the supernatural, and participate in the process of question and answer that phenomenologically draws readers into the supernatural events of "Christabel" as they unfold. The First Voice in Part VI of the "Ancient Mariner," for example, asks:

But tell me, tell me! speak again,

Thy soft response renewing—

What makes that ship drive on so fast?

What is the ocean doing?


When these questions are left unanswered, the First Voice reiterates: "But why drives on that ship so fast, / Without wave or wind?" (422-23). The First voice sounds like a reader who is unwilling to suspend disbelief, to possess "poetic faith." The First Voice, to use Coleridge's metaphor from Biographia Literaria, is a reader who does not "yield to a dream" depicted in literature.

In Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes of the original intention of the 1800 Lyrical Ballads that

my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. [47]

Through the First Voice in the "Ancient Mariner," Coleridge questions this method of "transfer." He interrogates the supernatural at the level of representation. The First Voice questions the logic of the supernatural. What is the nature of the "roaring wind" that appears but "did not come anear," that "never reached the ship"? (309-10, 327). What made "the ship [move] on? "Yet never a breeze up-blew… / Yet never a breeze did breathe" (328, 336, 374). Although Coleridge eventually answers these questions with the addition of a marginal gloss, the questions lead to a paradoxical treatment of the supernatural. The insistent questioning of a supernatural occurrence scrutinises the logic of gothic conventions even as it advances an atmosphere of suspense and mystery.

Like the First Voice of the "Ancient Mariner," the narrator of "Christabel" also questions the poem's gothic logic. In the case of "Christabel," however, Coleridge leads the reader to suspend disbelief as he works his way through an increasingly unstable hypophoric sequence:

Is the night chilly and dark?

The night is chilly but not dark.


 * * *

The lovely lady, Christabel,

Whom her father loves so well,

What makes her in the wood so late,

A furlong from the castle gate?

She had dreams all yesternight

Of her betrothed knight;

Dreams, that made her moan and leap,

As on her bed she lay in sleep;

And she in the midnight wood will pray

For the weal of her lover that's far away.


 * * *

Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?

There is not wind enough in the air

To move away the ringlet curl

From the lovely lady's cheek—


 * * *

[Christabel] folded her arms beneath her cloak,

And she stole to the other side of the oak.

What sees she there?

There she sees a damsel bright….


 * * *

Mary mother, save me now!

(Said Christabel,) And who art thou?

The lady strange [Geraldine] made answer meet,

And her voice was faint and sweet:—

 * * *

Have pity on my sore distress,

I can scarce speak for weariness.

Stretch forth thy hand, and have no fear,

Said Christabel, How cam'st thou here?

And the lady, whose voice was faint and sweet,

Did thus pursue her answer meet:—


Geraldine's failure to answer the question "who art thou?" marks a shift in Coleridge's employment of an interrogative mode in "Christabel." He collapses the hypophoric series of questions and answers, revealing what Susan Wolfson refers to as "the dark potency of questioning":

the dark potency of questioning—not a sly plot by the mind but a possession of the mind by indecipherable mystery—is the imaginative core of Coleridge's two great narrative poems, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and 'Christabel'. [48]

Coleridge broadens the function of his gothic hypophora as the questions progress. As the questions accumulate in the disintegrating hypophoric sequence, their function shifts from being "a sly plot by the mind" to being an attempt to possess "the mind by indecipherable mystery." Coleridge gains readers' sympathies for "the wildest tales of ghosts, wizards, genii, and secret talisman." Thus, these questions reflect on the representation of the supernatural as a topos of the poem.

The first four questions of Part I of "Christabel" simultaneously present and interrogate setting, character, plot, atmosphere, and an indication that something is amiss in both the natural world and in Christabel's world. It is midnight but it is not dark, and why is Christabel in the forest at midnight? The final two questions (67-76) mark a distinct shift from a narrative or authorial inquisitor to a voice internal to the poem—Christabel. No longer does an authorial presence ask and promptly answer questions for the reader; rather, Christabel and the readers are left to find their own answers. But there is an increasing informational distance between Christabel's questions and their answers, and it is in this gap that Coleridge attempts to phenomenologically draw readers into the process of telling the poem's story. The final two questions present not only the "sly plot of the mind" of Coleridge, but an attempt to "possess the mind," laying the groundwork for Geraldine's possession of Christabel—first, through her tale of abduction, and then through a magic spell. In turn, readers are to be similarly possessed by the gradual disclosure of the poem's plot. Because answers to the final two questions are not as factually simple or direct as the first four, readers—by continuing to read the poem, and by seeking answers to these final questions—display what Coleridge deems the "willing suspension of disbelief for the moment," evincing a "poetic faith" that answers are forthcoming.

The gothic hypophora of "Christabel" is subverted and perverted by the parodists. It occasions buffoonery. In Christabess, for example, the narrator asks "Does it rain to-night?—are you asleep?" and immediately and illogically answers "It does not rain, but I'm asleep" (8). Similarly, Deacon writes in "The Baron Rich": "Am I asleep or am I awake? / In very truth I oft mistake, / …that I were asleep" (106).

But the parodist's subversion of Coleridge's hypophoric technique is also motivated by a more licentious impulse than merely achieving a good laugh. Christabess and "Christabel, Part Third," in particular, appropriate the self-reflective infrastructure of "Christabel"—Coleridge's hypophoric execution of supernatural and gothic conventions, and the poem's self-conscious narrator. Both become the means by which the parodists sexualise the Christabel-Geraldine relationship.

From her earliest appearances in Christabess, we see in Christabess a sexually charged doppelganger of Christabel. Wandering the woods at night, the Christabess narrator asks:

That Blooming sphinx, Miss Christabess,

Whom her daddy loves to kiss,

Hath she not yet come home to bed?—

What whim is in the numbscull's head?

She dreamt, last night, some stuff, perhap,

About the gawky soldier chap,

Something that made her kick and leap,

And hug the bolster in her sleep;

And that's what keeps her up so late, I think,

For love I wot won't let her sleep a wink.


Christabess appears as a sexualised and demonised version of Christabel. There is the suggestion of incest in the colloquial and snide remark "Whom her daddy loves to kiss"—changed from Coleridge's more formal "whom her father loves so well" (24). The image of Christabess hugging her "bolster," her pillow, is similarly suggestive. She does so because her dreams "about the gawky soldier chap" "made her kick and leap." Christabess' actions recall Christabel's, who

 …had dreams all yesternight

Of her own betrothed knight;

Dreams, that made her moan and leap,

As on her bed she lay in sleep.

27- 30

Coleridge seems to have perceived the "moan and leap" lines as too sexually suggestive. [49] He excised the last two lines in the above passage from all versions of "Christabel" published after 1816. Coleridge also took steps to suppress the lines in existing copies of the 1816 volume, cancelling them by hand in dedication copies to James Gillman, David Hinves, and an unknown recipient at Ramsgate.[50]

The sexualisation of "Christabel" in Christabess extends to Adelaide as well. Upon meeting Christabess for the first time, she is wearing "nothing save her chemise":

With heaving breasts, and tearful eyes,

And shift but half way down her thighs;

Oh! had the finder been a he!

Gentle reader, you, or me!—

Vexing; an't it—"damnably."—


The self-aware narrator of Christabess is also keenly aware of readers, anticipating and subverting their horizons of expectation that we are about to witness a sexual scene. But the potential for such a scene is frustrated by gender; the narrator expects a heterosexual encounter only—"Oh! had the finder been a he!"

The expectation of graphic nudity and a heterosexual encounter continues in Christabess with a parody of the bedroom scene of Part I of "Christabel." Adelaide speaks to Christabess about their preparations for retiring to bed—hinting at anticipated sexual activity:

And then she smiled, and thus she spake

To lovely Christa' Bottomly:

"My pretty little virgin bright,

"I love you for your kindness sake

"And, Oh! how we will hug to night.

"With all the skill I have I'll try

"To yield your little heart delight,

"And I'll unlace your stays, she said,

"For I'm in haste to be in bed."


Adelaide helps Christabess undress—unlacing her "stays," her under-bodice—and a naked Christabess "nimbly 'twixt the sheets jumpt she" (21). Adelaide, however, hesitates. She is no longer "in haste" to retire for the night. Instead, Adelaide

 …tore a song,

To curl her hair so black and long;

Nor did she seem, as first she said,

So much in haste to come to bed;

And Christabess almost began

To fancy t'other was a man.

Again we are reminded of the expectation of a heterosexual encounter—an expectation that Christabess only flirts with but that Moir enthusiastically develops with delight in "Christabel, Part Third":

For who that saw that child of thine

Pale Christabel, who could divine

That its sire was the Lady Geraldine?

"Christabel, Part Third" is thus transformed from a parody of the poem as Coleridge penned it to a parody of a poetic entity comprised of layers of cultural accretion. Lingering in the background of the portrayal of the sexualised (and pregnant) Christabel in Christabess and "Christabel, Part Third" is a rumour that Coleridge believed Hazlitt circulated about "Christabel"—that Geraldine is a man in disguise.

Coleridge did not let the rumour go un-checked. But what is significant about Coleridge's complaint against Hazlitt is that he recorded it in the flyleaf of the 1816 edition—in a dedication copy to his son Derwent. Bibliographically, the 1816 volume participates in the transmission and reception of "Christabel," serving as a vehicle of complaint:

I still cherish the hope of finishing the poem... I hope to finish it in the course of the present year. Enough at present to assure you, that Geraldine is not a Witch, in any proper sense of that word. That she is a man in disguise is a wicked rumour sent abroad with malice prepense, and against his own belief and knowledge, by poor Hazlitt. Unhappy man! I understand that when one of his Faction had declared in a pamphlet ("Hypocrisy Unveiled") the Christabel "the most obscene poem in the English language" he shrugged himself up with a sort of sensual orgasm of enjoyment, and exclaimed—How he'll stare (i.e. meaning me) Curse him! I hate him.—[51]

Coleridge's venom is not surprising. [52] Hazlitt's Examiner review clearly spells out his opinion of Coleridge and of "Christabel."

Hazlitt felt that Coleridge was trying to hide, if not to silence, elements of "Christabel." To substantiate his accusation that there is "something disgusting at the bottom of [Coleridge's] subject," Hazlitt provides enticing evidence—another version of "Christabel":

Christabel's dread of [Geraldine] arises from her discovering… [that Geraldine is a "witch"], which is told in a single line, which line, from an exquisite refinement in efficiency is here omitted. When the unknown lady gets to Christabel's chamber, and is going to undress, it is said:

Behold! Her bosom and half her side

A sight to dream of, not to tell

And she is to sleep by Christabel!

The manuscript runs thus, or nearly thus:

Behold her bosom and half her side—

Hideous, deformed and pale of hue.[53]

The manuscript Hazlitt refers to is one of two transcripts made by Sarah Stoddart in 1805. Hazlitt came into possession of Stoddart's copy after their 1808 marriage. Significantly, Hazlitt misquotes (or mis-remembers) both Coleridge's published version and Stoddart's transcript. In Coleridge's, he alters the punctuation, changing a period to an exclamation mark in line 248: "And she is to sleep by Christabel." The change heightens the anxiety and impropriety of the scene, suggestively investing the verb "sleep" with a stronger sexual sense. As well, Hazlitt alters the line "Are lean and old and foul of Hue" in the Stoddart manuscript to "Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue." The line, Hazlitt argues, "is necessary to make common sense of the first and second part. 'it is the keystone that makes up the arch'." [54] The altered lines commingle the monstrous and the sexual. [55] A naked but horrifically scarred and discoloured Geraldine stands before Christabel. The exposure of Geraldine on both fronts does not sit well with Coleridge.

Following the release of "Christabel" in 1816, Coleridge's editorial management of the poem corroborates Hazlitt's insinuation that he is trying to silence "something disgusting." The bedroom scene is frequently revised, although the revisions are not as wide-sweeping as those of, say, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "Dejection: An Ode." [56] Of the lines that Coleridge repeatedly returned to in "Christabel," one in particular speaks of his attempts to silence the poem's sexuality—line 248 of the 1816 edition, "And she is to sleep by Christabel." In the 1800 holograph, the line reads "And she is to sleep with Christabel." "With" becomes "by" in 1816. Both words denote proximity—a relative nearness. "With," however, connotes a greater degree of physical involvement, of interaction or participation. "With" is more hands on than "by." Unlike "by," which indicates a defined location, "with" implies mutual even simultaneous or overlapping co-existence. "With" conveys the sense of relative nearness that "by" denotes, but also suggests an intermingling that "by" does not.

So the "with" of 1800 becomes "by" in 1816, and the shift gestures at Coleridge's attempt to physically separate Geraldine and Christabel as they share the same bed. But Coleridge questions the 1816 configuration—whether the two women should even be in the same bed at all. In a dedication copy of the 1816 edition to David Hinves, Coleridge strikes out the line "And she is to sleep by Christabel." In its place he pencils in "And must she sleep by Christabel?" The italicised "she" calls attention to its antecedent—Geraldine—and returns us to the Champion reviewer's list of questions:

What is it all about? What is the idea? Is Lady Geraldine a sorceress? or a vampire? or a man? or what is she, or he, or it?

Coleridge only adds to the list—and must Geraldine sleep by Christabel? Coleridge's further revisions of the line answers the question: he is uncertain. In the Hinves copy, Coleridge deletes his own emendation, striking the line out—"And must she sleep by Christabel?" These accreted changes provide a glimpse not so much of the creative process, as they do of self-censorship in process—of Coleridge silencing the potential sexuality of "Christabel." In this case, the silence remains; Coleridge does not replace the omitted line in the Hinves copy. Nor does he return to the line "And she is to sleep by [or, with] Christabel" in editions after 1816. Even there, it is suppressed: Coleridge deleted the line in dedication copies to James Gillman, Joseph Green, Ludwig Tieck, and to an anonymous recipient of Ramsgate. Unlike the Hinves dedication copy, in these copies Coleridge deletes the line and replaces it with the line "O shield her! Shield sweet Christabel!" With this new line, Coleridge diffuses the sexual and supernatural threat posed by Geraldine into a more general unknown, anxious terror that Christabel needs to be protected from. But Coleridge's efforts—as the parodists demonstrate—come too late: the 1816 edition provided ample sexual fodder, and Coleridge's revisions are not lastingly committed to print until the 1828, 1829, and 1834 Poetical Works.


Following Coleridge's death in 1834, the Coleridge family inherited the post of protecting "Christabel" from those who would reveal the poem as a homo- and hetero- sexual work. In their various editorial and creative endeavours, successive generations of the Coleridge family undertake a project that can be described through reference to Geraldine's spell in Part I:

In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,

Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!


In the case of "Christabel," members of the Coleridge family stand as lords of the poem's utterance—a poem they see as supernatural and moral, not as sexual.

Coleridge's son-in-law Henry Nelson Coleridge, for example, has a guiding editorial hand in the 1834 Poetical Works. Moreover, he champions and defends Coleridge's genius and the originality of "Christabel" in a Quarterly review of the 1834 Poetical Works, and in his edition of Coleridge's Table Talk (1835). [57] Other family editors follow suit: Derwent and Sarah edit Coleridge's poetry, and an 1870 edition contains a note by Derwent that explains the poem as a moral exemplum, as a tale of vicarious suffering. [58] Ernest Hartley Coleridge also stresses the supernatural and moral, as well as genre in a number of editions of the poem in the early twentieth century. [59]

The Coleridge family editors are matched by family poets. Coleridge's son Hartley writes of the incompletion of "Christabel" in "To Christabel Rose Coleridge." He closes his verse tribute to his daughter with the question, "Who of Christabel can close the story?" [60] Hartley answers his own question in another poem, "Ada of Grasmere"—a story of the supernatural, and a never realised heterosexual romance. [61] Derwent's Wife, Mary, emphasises the supernatural in her poem "The Witch"—a portrait of a Geraldine-like figure, the ghost of a dead witch wandering the earth. [62] Sara Coleridge's Phantasmion, A Fairy Tale reveals the thematic and imagistic influence of "Christabel," opening with a scene of a "young boy," Phantasmion, "laughing and talking to himself." [63] And Ernest Hartley Coleridge continues "Christabel" in his poem "Christabel, Part III, or (haply) Part I." [64] The poem offers a glimpse into the background of Geraldine's supernatural character and ends on a hopeful note. Christabel's "lover that's far away" has returned, and, we are left to conjecture, will expose Geraldine, marry Christabel, and restore a heterosexual, Christian order to Langdale Hall.