Coleridge “O’er-master’d by the mighty spell”: a Lacanian perspective on Coleridge’s “indolence”

“Man’s desire is the other’s desire” is one of French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan’s well-known formulas (Žižek 36). This concept of desire, coupled with Lacan’s view of “psychoanalysis itself [as] a method of reading texts, oral (the patient’s speech), or written” provides a stimulating lens through which to examine the psychological profile of Coleridge in relation to his poem, “Christabel” (Žižek 5). Through a close reading of “Christabel” and its corresponding “Preface”, it is possible to interpret the heroine Christabel as a stand-in for Coleridge, where the mysterious Geraldine doubles as the equally malicious audience of critics seeking to silence Coleridge. Moreover, a footnote to the “Preface” in the Norton Critical Edition of Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose claims that Coleridge felt he was not free to complete the third part of “Christabel”. It seems to point a finger at the criticism received by the poem as being the guilty party, the villain whose “dull and treacherous hate” has triumphed over the poet as Geraldine seems to triumph over Christabel (Coleridge 177, Ln. 594). Because they plague Coleridge’s conscience, the abuse and charges of indecency or plagiarism that “Christabel” received may also exonerate Coleridge from his seeming inability to complete his poem.

For Coleridge to ask Byron, a poet of literary renown, for help in publishing “Christabel”, he likely had a desire to gain recognition for his own poetical prowess. From such a venture, Coleridge would have desired a successful public reception. The injuriously negative response of critics towards “Christabel” that resulted only provoked further revision and annotations on Coleridge’s part that strove to defend and justify the poem in an effort to please the critical reader. According to Lacan’s theory, the critics who are prone to attacking “Christabel” would be the “Other” to whom Coleridge responds, the “Other” whose desires for a less obscene poem become the editorial desires of Coleridge. The desire for a successful poem is therefore a desire that must answer to two sources of expectation, that of Coleridge on a personal level and that of Coleridge’s desire to satisfy outside critics. Rather than write the third part of “Christabel”, Coleridge spends his time creating paratext – including the “Preface” – in the attempt to shape the poem into literature worthy of critical praise.

(Preface to “Christabel”)

From a Lacanian perspective, man’s desire is perhaps too much the other’s desire in Coleridge’s case. Coleridge is continually preoccupied with the opinions of others as evidenced by his “Preface”. He indicates a need to guarantee to his audience that he intends to finish the poem when they accuse him of the contrary; and he makes a direct reference to the critics who accuse him of plagiarism, wanting them to be conscious of the fact that even “celebrated poets whose writings [he] might be suspected of having imitated…would be among the first to vindicate [him] from the charge” (Coleridge 161). The critics who distract Coleridge from his intentions to finish “Christabel” prevent him from finishing the poem, and Coleridge’s awareness of these circumstances is shown in his separate declaration that he would have written the third part “were [he] free to do so” (161). With this sentiment, Coleridge seems to view himself as an oppressed victim and this victimization makes Coleridge comparable in his situation to that of Christabel in the poem.

When Christabel finally sees Geraldine’s true serpentine form, she is unable to alert Sir Leoline to the potential danger that surrounds them, as she was “o’er-master’d by the mighty spell [of Geraldine]” (Coleridge 178, Ln. 608). Likewise, the criticism Coleridge suffers acts as a “mighty spell” that corrupts his ability to continue writing. If “Christabel” is a psychological extension of Coleridge, the narrative of the poem can signify his own story. Though he writes in the “Preface” that he has his “own indolence to blame,” for not completing “Christabel”, Coleridge’s portrayal of oppressed innocence in “Christabel” suggests that the criticism he received is essentially responsible for impeding his progress. Without an outward accusation in the “Preface”, Coleridge’s metaphorical image of a “bright green snake / Coil’d round [the] wings and neck” of a gentle dove in “Christabel” nevertheless reflects his own experience of having the freedom to express his poetical powers slowly choked from him (176, Ln. 537-8).

“I saw a bright green snake / Coil’d round [the] wings and neck.” “Christabel”, Part II, Ln. 537-8. (source)

The excuse of finding fault with his own indolence may be a pretext behind which Coleridge shields his hypersensitivity to negative public criticism. While critics may indulge a writer his “indolence” they would not welcome a returning attack from the writer. As a diplomatic tool, Coleridge’s self-deprecation in the “Preface” would garner sympathy and avoid further negative criticism for “Christabel” while the poem itself symbolically conveys the message that criticism, like Geraldine’s eyes, is often full “of malice, and…of dread” and is as dangerous and horrifying to the writer’s mental health as Geraldine is to Christabel (177, Ln. 574).

(Artistic renderings of Geraldine’s appearance 1, 2)


Works Cited

Halmi, Nicholas, et al. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Žižek, Slavoj. How To Read Lacan. Granta Books, 2006.

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