Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’; Gothic, unfinished, and liminal.




Throughout ‘Christabel’, Coleridge utilizes liminality as a literary tool in order to create the mysterious Gothic aspect of the poem. Liminality, derived from the Latin word Limen, meaning a threshold, is depicted in literature as a crossing-point and uncertain time of being ‘in between’. The poem commences on such ambiguous and uncertain grounds:

Is the night chilly and dark?

The night is chilly, but not dark.        15

The thin gray cloud is spread on high,

It covers but not hides the sky.

The moon is behind, and at the full;

And yet she looks both small and dull.

The night is chill, the cloud is gray:        20

’Tis a month before the month of May,

And the Spring comes slowly up this way.

Here, Coleridge paints the uncertainties and mysteriousness of ‘Christabel’ through the setting; this strange night which is “chilly, but not dark’, with a moon that is “full” and yet “looks both small and dull”, and the eerie gray cloud is portrayed to be”spread on high”, though it “covers but not hides the sky”. How could the cloud cover “but not hide the sky”? It is large enough to cover the sky, but not quite large enough to hide it, falling into the realm of the uncertain ‘in between’. Liminality proceeds then to encompass this passage by situating the setting “a month before the month of May” with “the Spring comes slowly up this way”, suggesting that while the season is not quite summer, it is not quite winter either.

Particularly since this poem is incomplete, the setting thus produces a major aspect of the narrative and the ambiguity of events. Through the setting envisioned in the passage below, the reader can establish ‘Christabel’ will be a dark and Gothic tale:

The night is chill; the forest bare;

Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?

There is not wind enough in the air        45

To move away the ringlet curl From the lovely lady’s cheek—

There is not wind enough to twirl

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,

That dances as often as dance it can,        50

Hanging so light, and hanging so high,

On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

Liminality plays a crucial part in constructing such a setting. For instance, it is evident13627235 a wind is present, but it is not “enough in the air to move away a ringlet curl from the lovely lady’s cheek”, and similarly, the “one red leaf” is not quite fallen but hanging “so light” and “so high”. Liminality ensures various aspects of the poem’s background are in-between and undecided, and thus seemingly unknown and mysterious.

As the plot develops, Christabel encounters the beautiful Geraldine at night, and innocently invites the seemingly troubled lady to her castle. Geraldine then seduces the virtuous Christabel, and via a curse prevents Christabel from telling the tale. Even though the seduction is crucial to the development of the plot and the unraveling of Geraldine’s mysterious character, this scene is ambiguous and hardly depicted in the poem. Later Christabel  reveals the time of the seduction “was the midnight hour” (Coleridge li 557), a time commonly regarded as liminally mediating between two different days, not fully belonging to either; this undecided setting further enhances the ambiguity of the seduction. Additionally, Christabel herself appears to be in a liminal state throughout the seduction; she is evidently conscious enough to realize Geraldine has committed an immoral and sinful act, yet she is not quite conscious enough to react to the seduction while it takes place. Christabel appears to be in a sleep-like state when Geraldine seduces her, neither fully awake nor fully asleep, which also enhances the overall ambiguity of the poem. Very little in ‘Christabel’ is evidently clear or coherent, it is essentially an unfinished poem that struggles to reliably validate its characters, events, and setting. For instance, how did Geraldine seduce and curse Christabel? Who is Geraldine? How could Christabel’s father so eagerly sell his only daughter for a stranger? Many questions remain unanswered with the poem’s conclusion, and respectively, many aspects of the poem remain liminal throughout.


Works Cited

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One thought on “Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’; Gothic, unfinished, and liminal.

  1. The liminal realm of the poem definitely evokes elements of the Gothic. There are existing tensions between the known and unknown, as well as the transition between seasons. Maybe if the poem was finished there would be a better understanding of where Coleridge was going with the poem. Despite all of that, the imagery of the poem is detailed enough to get a good image of those tension points and how they operate.


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