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“Christabel” and the Vulnerability of Girls

  • Anya Taylor

Abstract

In a social system where young girls are forced to deny their individuality to keep their reputations, where they often must marry old, ugly, or nasty men for economic reasons in the bargaining of fathers and suitors over land, dowries, and ranks, where if they do not marry they must scrimp and manage as obscure maiden aunts (as Sara Coleridge, the daughter, remembers her Fricker maiden aunts doing), or marginally haunt the houses of their brothers or go into stranger’s homes as governesses, girls often go amiss. At puberty, the pressure of choosing or not being allowed to choose, of making a match, succumbing to adventurers, or being turned over to an unsympathetic, unloving, or even brutal man, not to speak of the unruly pressures of their own pubescent desires, can undermine the sturdiest of egos. Coleridge’s sympathy with women’s lives and his identification with the fragility of their boundaries as persons, leads him to explore this region of self-forming or self-losing. Pursuing the issues in poems to women who were seduced and destroyed, he begins in 1798 a long struggle to chart these disintegrations in his “Christabel,” a poem that circles around and around the perils of young womanhood. It is significant that the poem hears the heroine being silenced, crying out briefly for justice, then being abandoned, a pattern that began in “The Ballad of the Dark Ladie” where the girl’s last words cry out against incarceration in the dark.

Keywords

Sexual Initiation Negative Reading Naked Body Narrative Voice Companion Piece 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Karen Swann, “‘Christabel’ and the Enigma of Form,” Studies in Romanticism 23, 4 (Winter, 1984), 533–555, describes the readers puzzlement: “‘Christabel’ contrives to have these alternatives redound on the reader, who continually feels mad or just stupid, unable to ‘tell’ how to characterize the verse at any given point” (545). The poem is #176 in Poetical Works.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    In his preface, Coleridge insists on the originality of his poem, and adds “that the metre of Christabel is not, properly speaking, irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded on a new principle: namely, that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables. Though the latter may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accents will be found to be only four. Nevertheless, this occasional variation in number of syllables is not introduced wantonly, or for the mere ends of convenience, but in correspondence with some transition in the nature of the imagery or passion,” PW, preface to poem #176, 1, 482–483. Marjorie Levinson, The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 77–94, suggests that the meter derives from Coleridge’s close study of Greek meters, which he practices in his notebooks and marginalia. I discussGoogle Scholar
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    Stuart Peterfreund, “Coleridge and the Problem of Evil,” ELH 55, 1 (Spring, 1988), 125–152, discovers that Geraldine is “an anagram of Dire Angel.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Anthony John Harding, “Mythopoesis: The unity of Christabel,” in Coleridge’s Imagination: Essays in Memory of Peter Laver, ed. Richard Gravil, Lucy Newlyn, and Nicholas Roe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 207–217. But in “The Passions,” SWF 2, 1421, Coleridge argues that separating body and soul is “mischievous.”Google Scholar
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    Karen Swann, “‘Christabel’ and the Enigma of Form,” 533–555, sees all of the figures floating in and out of “the malady of hysteria, the womb whose vaporish fantasies were thought to block the hysterics speech” (548). Swann’s discovery of hysteria has important applications to Christabel’s silence. But Claire Kahane, Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman, 1850–1915 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), defines hysteria as the repressed rage from having to reject the maternal body; since Christabel had never known her mother, she had nothing to reject and no bond to break.Google Scholar
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    Tilottama Rajan, The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 26, suggests that “meaning” that is hidden in one work may be “made explicit somewhere else in the canon.” The reader, adding his “supplement,” “break[s] the hermeneutic circle at the level of the oeuvre, projecting into the individual text a set of meanings that it does not have in isolation, and perhaps even reversing the reading that emerges when the text is made its own context.” In applying to “Christabel” themes and ideas that appear in Coleridge’s own earlier and later writings I hope to be bringing to the surface meanings hidden in this one poem that are apparent elsewhere.Google Scholar
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    As in The Friend, 2, pp. 44, 71, 125. Other references to persons and things can be found in Anya Taylor, Coleridge’s Defense of the Human (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1986);Google Scholar
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    John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary (New York: Collier, 1962), pp. 150–152, explains that “the word ‘preternatural’ seems with him to carry a certain pejorative force, from which the word ‘supernatural’ is exempt, and it is not unlikely that he intended, when he wrote his poems, to distinguish between literature which simply made use of supernatural ‘machinery’ for the sake of sensationalism, and that which was concerned with the possible significance of extra-sensory phenomena as a revelation of the metaphysical.”Google Scholar
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    Marlon B. Ross, The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women’s Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 93–108, where he writes, for instance, that “As the ‘active’ agent asserts its power by permeating the ‘passive’ medium, it also gives itself to that medium and becomes possessed by it” (95) and “What Wordsworth joins, Coleridge subtly tears asunder” (101).Google Scholar
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    Donald-Reiman, “Coleridge and the Art of Equivocation,” SIR 25 (Fall, 1986), 325–350.Google Scholar
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    Diane Long Hoeveler, Romantic Androgyny: The Women Within (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979), pp. 176–188. She finds that the poem “reveals a fear and hatred of women” and “his conscious and unconscious opinion of them as perverse, sexually voracious, predatory, and duplicitous” (176). By contrast, Tim Fulford, Romanticism and Masculinity, interprets Coleridge’s androgyny as an impulse toward inclusiveness.Google Scholar
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    Madelon Sprengnether, The Spectral Mother: Freud, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990) illuminates the power of the mother. Countering Freud’s attention to the father and the phallus, she turns to the biologism of the mother’s body: “No longer an exile from the process of signification, the body of the (m)other may actually provide a new, material, ground for understanding the play of language and desire” (10). Sprengnether writes, “Whereas object relations theory stresses maternal presence (and plenitude) through the concept of mother-infant fusion, Lacan downplays the role of the biological mother to the point where she barely seems to exist in a corporeal sense” (183). The recognition that the mother is a real body with a face and a breast, a being whose absence would be a deprivation, fulfills Coleridge’s insights, and shows his connection to John Bowlby, D. W. Winnicott, and other Object Relations psychologists.Google Scholar
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    His capacity for friendship with women is in dispute. Heather J. Jackson, “Coleridge’s Women, or Girls, Girls, Girls Are Made to Love,” SIR 32, 4 (Winter, 1993), 577–600, argues that he takes a dim view of female intelligence, whileGoogle Scholar
  25. Reggie Watters, “Coleridge, Female Friendship, and ‘Lines Written at Shurton Bars,’” The Coleridge Bulletin (Spring, 2000), 1–16, believes that he welcomes companionate love.Google Scholar
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    Julie Carlson, “Gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, ed. Lucy Newlyn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 213.Google Scholar
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    Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 331–346.Google Scholar
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    To borrow a term from Mark M. Hennelly, Jr. “‘As Well Fill Up the Space Between’: A Liminal Reading of Christabel,” SIR 38 (Summer, 1999), 203–222, a witty application of Victor Turner’s anthropological work on initiations.Google Scholar
  29. 27.
    CM 2, 131, notes that Coleridge borrowed Henry Boyd’s translation of the Inferno from the Bristol library in late June 1796. “Soon after, he noted a project for a ‘Poem in one Book in the manner of Dante on the excursion of Thor—’” (CN 1, 170). Ralph Pite, The Circle of our Vision: Dante’s Presence in English Romantic Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), mentions Coleridge’s use of Henry Boyd’s translation in 1796 (p. 69), but finds Dantean images only in the late poems such as “Ne Plus Ultra” and “Limbo.” I believe that “Christabel” shows the influence of the 1796 reading of Dante.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 28.
    Jack Stillinger, Coleridge and Textual Instability: The Multiple Versons of the Major Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 80, writes “While the numerous substantive differences among the texts have their local effects and exemplify Coleridge’s rhetorical skills as reviser, none of the rewritten passages alters the plot (such as it is), the characters, or the themes of the fragment. The most interesting revisions occur not in the verse but in a series of Mariner-like glosses that Coleridge added in the margins of one of the annotated 1816s at Princeton.” For the smudging of the details about Geraldine’s breast or side, see p. 88. In Revision and Romantic Authorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 142, Zachary Leader argues against Stillinger that Coleridge’s revisions are efforts to achieve perfection rather than signs that the text is unstable and the meaning uncertain.Google Scholar
  31. 29.
    Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Cenci 3, 1, lines 26–28, in Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, eds., Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 262.Google Scholar
  32. 31.
    My understanding of the yearning and loneliness of daughters who lose their mothers comes from Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters: The legacy of Loss (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994). But even Edelman has no chapter on girls who never know their mother. Coppelia Kahn explores the effect of the absent mother on the hysteria of King Lear himself, but not on the daughters left in his erratic care in “The Absent Mother in ‘King Lear’” in King Lear: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Kiernan Ryan (New York: St. Martins Press, 1992), pp. 92–113.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    John Beer, Coleridge’s Poetic Intelligence (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1977), p. 233, writes that “if the acting self has lost contact with its own organic centre, it will be at the mercy of the energies that have invaded it, able only to mirror back a reflection of their form.”Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: How Narcissistic Parents Form and Deform the Emotional Lives of their Talented Children (originally published as Prisoners of Childhood), trans. Ruth Ward (New York: Basic Books, 1981).Google Scholar
  35. 38.
    Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), describe the “self-silencing,” fear of conflict, and “corrosive suffering” of girls at the onset of puberty.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 39.
    Karen Horney, “The Flight from Womanhood” (1926), “Inhibited Femininity” (1926–1927), and “The Denial of the Vagina” (1933), in Feminine Psychology, ed. Harold Kelman (New York: Norton, 1967), tries to readjust the study of woman’s development from a woman’s point of view. Coleridge in “Christabel” seems to be struggling with some such realization that male and female developments are not identical.Google Scholar
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    Cited by John Beer, “Coleridge and his Critics,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems (London: Dent, 1993), pp. 505–506.Google Scholar
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    George Felton Mathew in European Magazine (1816), in Coleridge, the Critical Heritage, ed. J. R. de J. Jackson (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970), p. 241.Google Scholar
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    James Engell, ed., Coleridge: The Early Family Letters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 52–55, 96.Google Scholar
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    Meena Alexander, Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 86, 87, 103, 118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Jessica Benjamin, Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 150.Google Scholar
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    Mary Moorman, ed., Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 43.Google Scholar
  43. 48.
    Richard Holmes, Early Visions (New York: Viking, 1989), pp. 281–286;Google Scholar
  44. Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834 (New York: Pantheon, 1998), p. 458: Might Wordsworth’s complete silence about “Christabel” after its 1816 publication hint at a resentment at some reference to his own absorption of his sister?Google Scholar
  45. 49.
    Susan Eilenberg, Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge, & Literary Possession (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 87–107, p. 99.Google Scholar
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    Jack Stillinger, Coleridge and Textual Instability: The Multiple Versions of the Major Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 78–91 and 189–215.Google Scholar
  47. 52.
    Tilottama Rajan, “Coleridge’s Conversation with Hermeneutics,” in The Supplement of Reading (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 114, writing about Coleridge’s effort to understand Charles Lamb’s experience in “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison.”Google Scholar
  48. 53.
    This malaise is probed by Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 1–90, as a turmoil.Google Scholar

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© Anya Taylor 2005

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