The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VI. Coleridge

§ 9. Christabel

The first part of Christabel was written almost immediately after The Ancient Mariner, and shortly before the little band of Stowey was broken up, never again to meet under such “indulgent skies.” The theme is of the same nature as in the preceding poem. It is handled with more artifice; but, just for that reason, perhaps with less of inspiration; certainly, with less of buoyant and exultant freedom. The “spring of love” that had gushed from the poet’s heart, as, for the first time, he saw and felt how “excellently fair” were the “outward shows of sky and earth” and how deep the meaning that lay hidden within, could never again gush “unaware.” And, when he speaks once more of the vision that had come in the first instant of his awakening, it is only to lament that it had been withdrawn almost as soon as it was given and had left nothing but yearning and self-reproach behind. In any case, the personal note, which is very strong in The Ancient Mariner and which some have thought has found its way too loudly into its closing verses, is deliberately banished from Christabel; or finds an echo only in the poignant passage about broken friendship, which he himself considered “the best and sweetest lines he ever wrote,” and in the epilogue to the second part, which is partly an obvious suggestion from the “breeze-borne” elfish nature of his son, Hartley, partly a lament over the difficulty—the impossibility, as it proved—of the task which he had set himself: the solution of which, unlike the hopes and longings of the child, was always to seek and never, alas, to find.

The same elaboration is manifest, also, in the metre. Never before had the four-foot couplet been used with such variety and subtlety of effect. As the author himself points out, that effect is largely produced by a frequent use of the anapæstic movement, which had already found its way into the ballad measure of The Ancient Mariner; as in the lines—

  • For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
  • Lay like a load on my weary eye,
  • And the dead were at my feet.
  • But it is here invoked still more persistently; as, indeed, in general, there is a subtlety, not to say a finesse, about the rhythmical movement of this poem, which would have been quite out of place in the rushing narrative and more homely metre of the other. It is one more proof of the wide gulf by which, in spirit and in total effect, the two poems are divided. Of the subtlety which went to the creation of the metre in Christabel there could be no clearer illustration than the failure both of Scott and Byron—the one in the opening lines of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the other in a cancelled introduction of The Siege of Corinth—to catch anything like the cadence of the rhythm which, avowedly, served for their model.

    It has been said that “the thing attempted in Christabel is the most difficult in the whole field of romance: witchery by daylight.” And nothing could come nearer the mark. The miraculous element, which lies of the face of The Ancient Mariner, is here driven beneath the surface. The incidents themselves are hardly outside the natural order. It is only by a running fire of hints and suggestions—which the unimaginative reader has been known to overlook—that we are made aware of the supernatural forces which lie in wait on every side. The lifting of the lady across the threshold, the moan of the mastiff bitch, the darting of the flame as the enchantress passes—to the heedful, all these things are full of meaning; but, to the unwary, they say nothing; they say nothing to Christabel. Yet, the whole significance of the poem is bound up with these subtle suggestions; though it is equally true that, if they were more than suggestions, its whole significance would be altered or destroyed. It would no longer be “witchery by daylight,” but by moonlight; which is a very different thing.

    To take a world not markedly different from that given to us in nature, and fill it with the presence, unseen but felt, of the supernatural; to tell a tale of human joys and sorrows, and make it seem “a story from the world of spirits”—this, indeed, was the aim of Coleridge. But no one was more keenly aware than he what were the obstacles to its achievement. “I have, as I always had,” he said about a year before his death, “the whole plan entire from beginning to end in my mind”—it may be suspected that this is one of many similar delusions—“but I fear I could not [now] carry on with equal success the execution of the idea, an extremely subtle and delicate one.” So subtle and delicate, in truth, that it is doubtful whether even a man of stronger will and more mastery of self could ever have ended the poem in the same tone in which it was begun. Even of the fragment, as it now stands, it can hardly be said that the second part carries out the design so perfectly as the first. The localisation of the scene in a familiar country may, as has sometimes been said, have something to do with this comparative failure. But it is due much more to other causes: to an almost inevitable inability on the poet’s part to maintain himself indefinitely in the doubly distilled imaginings which were the essence of his undertaking. Even in the earlier part, it would seem that the right note had not always come to him at the first effort. For, if we are to believe a contemporary reviewer—it may have been Hazlitt—in The Examiner (2 June, 1816), the original version of

  • A sight to dream of, not to tell!
  • was
  • Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue;
  • and there are other instances of the same kind. The reviewer scornfully remarks that the rejected reading was “the keystone to the whole poem,” and that it was rejected by the author for that very reason. In his heart, he must have known better. It is of the essence of the poem not to feed the mind with facts—still less, with gruesome facts—but to spur the imagination by a sense of mystery. It is manifest that the original reading renounces the latter purpose for the former. And, if this be the case, it is clear that Coleridge would have ruined his poem by retaining it.

    The sketch of the projected continuation, which Gillman gives on the authority of the poet, reads poorly enough. But it is impossible to say what it, or any other raw material, might have become under the transforming breath of inspiration. Still, temperament and opium between them had so clouded the sense of fact in Coleridge that it would be rash to pronounce whether this was really the plan which he had in his mind from the beginning, or nothing more than the improvisation of the moment.

    How did Coleridge stand towards outward nature? and what was his place in the poetic movement of his time? It is impossible to leave his work, as poet, without a few words on each of these crucial, but widely different, matters.