“As Fills A Father’s Eyes With Light”
— Gender Politics in S.T.Coleridge’s Christabel
Christabel, a long narrative poem which is written by romantic poet S.T. Coleridge, describes a story between a female character Christabel, her father Sir Leoline, and the stranger Geraldine. One day when Christabel meets with Geraldine, Geraldine claims that she is abducted, Christabel believes and sympathizes her. To help Geraldine, Christabel takes Geraldine home, to Christabel’s surprise, Christabel’s father, Sir Leoline is enchanted by Geraldine. The poem is unfinished but partly predicted according to James Gillman’s record. It is said that Coleridge planned to write three additional parts, and the main plot is, Geraldine controls Sir Leoline’s mind, she impersonates Christabel’s fiance, and requires to marry with Christabel. When they are in church, Christabel’s real fiance comes, and Geraldine runs away in a hurry, then Christabel marries to her fiance successfully. While reading the poem, I found the depiction on the characters and the sexual tension interesting, so that I argue that, the female images in the poem are valued under male’s aesthetic appreciation; by gazing at the two different types of female characters, I found that female’s beauty functions mainly as sources of entertainment for men, furthermore, in a patriarchal society, male and female are unequal, men as the role of fathers have the power to manipulate female. In this essay, I am going to analyze the female’s images in the poem first, including both Christabel and Geraldine. It is also significant to look at the special relationship between the two female characters, for it shows the change of female’s emotion due to the absence of male. Then, I will explore how the male, especially Christabel’s father, Sir Leoline, manipulates Christabel’s fate, to show gender politics in a patriarchal society.
1. The Female Images in Christabel
Christabel is perfect, and is considered as a pure and naive incarnation. She is portrayed as a gentle and quiet maid, “she stole along, she nothing spoke, the sighs she heaved were soft and low.” The poet depicts the scene that Christabel prays for her lover, which is silent and peaceful. She is weak but kind, although Geraldine is a stranger to her, she helps Geraldine when she finds Geraldine is in trouble:
Then Christabel stretched forth her hand,
And comforted fair Geraldine:
O well, bright dame! may you command
The service of Sir Leoline;
And gladly our stout chivalry
Will he send forth and friends withal
To guide and guard you safe and free
Home to your noble father’s hall.
After Geraldine pours out her misfortune, Christabel decides to protect her and takes her home. The behavior shows Christabel’s kindness and innocence. The image of Christabel is known as the typical female in a patriarchal society: she is powerless and caught off-guard, easy to trust the strangers and be controlled.
Compared with Christabel, it seems that Geraldine is more complex. Coleridge spends a fair amount of ink on her appearance:
There she sees 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;
…A lady so richly clad as she—
The poet uses “bright”, “richly clad”, “beautiful exceedingly” to describe Geraldine, which indicates that Geraldine’s beauty is more dangerous and aggressive than thaT of Christabel’s. The description of her body is full of sexual attraction: her neck is “stately”, “arms were bare”. Then, when Geraldine comes with Christabel to her chamber, the narrator reveals Geraldine’s evil:
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
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!
These lines write that Christabel thinks about “weal and woe ”, indeed, she finds Geraldine’s body unusual and strange, at the same time, Geraldine’s evil is glamorous and lends enchantment for her:
And Geraldine again turned round,
And like a thing, that sought relief,
Full of wonder and full of grief,
She rolled her large bright eyes divine
Wildly on Sir Leoline.
She is good at flattering and seducing men by expression and enticing words, and she knows the way to seek men’s sympathy. She wins Sir Leoline’s trust, as a result, Christabel disagrees Sir Leoline, and they have conflicts on how to deal with Geraldine. In that way, Geraldine’s beauty comes with evil, and is in contrast with Christabel’s purity.
Based on the entirely different characteristics, the relationship between Geraldine and Christabel is conflicting but close. On the one side, due to Geraldine, Christabel is blamed by her father:
Yet he, who saw this Geraldine,
Had deemed her sure a thing divine:
Such sorrow with such grace she blended,
As if she feared she had offended
Sweet Christabel, that gentle maid!
From these lines, it is not hard to find, Geraldine feels the change of attitude of Christabel towards her, from sympathetic to alienated, even disgusted. The two women are in opposite, because Christabel wants to prevent her father from Geraldine, but Sir Leoline is deaf to daughter’s advice. It’s Geraldine’s sake that makes Sir Leoline be angry with Christabel. However, on the other side, the relationship between them is close and ambiguous. According to Grossberg’s explanation, the first time that Geraldine requested for Christabel’s hand, “Five warriors seized me yestermorn, / Me, even me, a maid forlorn: / They choked my cries with force and fright…” In Grossberg’s view, “Although there is no explicit sex, Geraldine is manhandled, bound, and tied to a perhaps phallic palfrey.” (Grossberg) Just because of the absence of male (Christabel’s fiance), Geraldine has the opportunity to seduce Christabel, and sleeps with her.
2. The manipulation of male to female
When Christabel feels threatened by Geraldine, she tries to ask for help from her father:
And when the trance was o’er, the maid
Paused awhile, and inly prayed:
Then falling at the Baron’s feet,
‘By my mother’s soul do I entreat
That thou this woman send away!’
However, Leoline does not believe in the daughter’s persuasion, he even feels that he is dishonored by her daughter, and considers Christabel’s words are because of “woman’s jealousy”. He oppressed her with the father’s power:
“ ‘Why, Bracy! dost thou loiter here?
I bade thee hence!’ The bard obeyed;
And turning from his own sweet maid,
The agèd knight, Sir Leoline,
Led forth the lady Geraldine!
It shows that Leoline is arrogant. Although Christabel persuades Leoline, Leoline does not listen to her. He requires Christabel’s absolute obedience, the fate of Christabel is totally controlled by him. As Ulmer says, “Leolin’s idealization of Christabel and need to keep her has conversely tended to infantilize his daughter, encouraging her to remain, as Rzepka comments, ‘the little girl he wants her to be.’” (Ulmer)
Except father, Christabel is also preserved by her mother. In the poem, Christabel’s mother dead, but her soul always exists to protect Christabel:
The brands were flat, the brands were dying,
Amid their own white ashes lying;
But when the lady passed, there came
A tongue of light, a fit of flame.
Christabel’s mother tries to warn Christabel by the fire, but she fails. However, the set of the mother’s soul is also a patriarchy-dominated cultural model. In Ulmer’s essay, he discusses, “Christabel’s belief in her mother as a guardian angel is a story presumably first told to her by Leoline. By making Leoline’s daughter the object and rationale of the mother’s ghostly presence, the story conveys his efforts to retain some connection to his wife through his daughter.” (Ulmer) That is to say, even the connection between Christabel and her mother is built by Leoline. Christabel’s dependence on her mother is also controlled by her father, the growth of Christabel has no relationship with “mother”. Here the function of female is weaken: female can be absent in the process of birth and education. Motherhood, can be displaced by men’s power.
In the end of Christabel’s story, Christabel is forced to marry to the disguised Geraldine, and her real fiance comes to save her eventually when they are in the church. There is an intriguing parallel here, Christabel’s fiance, the man, plays the role of redemption again in the text. Without him, Geraldine has tricked Christabel and Leoline, and they must have the tragic ending that they are unwilling to accept. In conclusion, the story of Christabel shows that power is divided by sexuality: male are in control of female. Under that social background, the relationship between Christabel and Sir Leoline is unequal. In the story, Christabel has no opportunity to save herself, and is lack of independence, so that she has to survive passively. In a male-dominated society, although male have some defeats, such as Sir Leoline’s self-conceit, the weakness cannot prevent them becoming the dependent objects: male are much more stronger than female in a patriarchal society; on the other hand, Despite Christabel has the consciousness of saving herself, she has no strength to take actions, has to accept her fate that arranged by male passively.
1. Grossberg, Benjamin Scott. “Making Christabel: Sexual Transgression and Its Implications in Coleridge’s ‘Christabel.’” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 41, no. 2, 2008, pp. 145-165.
2. Rzepka, “Christabe’s ‘Wandering Mother’ and the Discourse of the Self: A Lacanian Reading of Repressed Narration,” Romanticism Past and Present 10 (1986): 27-39.
3. Ulmer, William A. “ ‘Christabel’ and the Origin of Evil.” Studies in Philology, vol. 104, no. 3, 2007, pp. 376-407.
4. Halmi Nicholas, Magnuson Paul, Modiano Raimonda, editors. Coleridge’s Peotry and Prose. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004.