Generally speaking, Romantic poets are not known for being spooky. They're more the "kick back, check out the natural scenery, and wonder what it all means" kind of crowd. Somehow, though, Samuel Taylor Coleridge pulls spooky off in his poem "Christabel." It has been said that sometimes the scariest things are the monsters that we can't see (remember how creepy The Blair Witch Project was?), and this certainly holds true in this case because we never really get any clear answers about what's going on. Not only can we not see the truth while we read the poem, but we'll never know what the truth is because, well, the poem was never finished.
The part of the story that we do have describes a rather innocent young woman, Christabel, offering shelter to another woman who claims that she has been kidnapped. The rescued woman manipulates and seduces poor Christabel, puts her under a spell, and then proceeds to seduce Christabel's dad—eesh. This sounds like the plotline of a late-night made-for-TV movie, but only if that movie were expertly scripted and the director gave up on filming just when things started to get good. Oddly enough, even though Coleridge never finished it, the poem has managed to maintain an impressive popularity, especially with the Goth crowd. Even Poe was a fan, and he is pretty much the King of Goth.
Though Coleridge eventually published it in pamphlet form in 1816, "Christabel" was originally supposed to be published, along with some of Coleridge's other poetry, in a collaborative work with his very good friend William Wordsworth. While the other poems made it in, Wordsworth decided that "Christabel" just didn't fit the tone and purpose of the publication, so he left it out. That excuse sounds perfectly reasonable to us, but poor Coleridge was devastated by the decision. He even had a bit of a Victorian meltdown over it—and by Victorian meltdown we mean he wrote a few stern letters and whined to his wife about it.
His inability to finish the poem didn't really help his self-esteem either, and he questioned his abilities as a poet because of it. It's just too bad Coleridge couldn't have seen into the future, because he would probably be quite pleased to know that we still study his work (even the unfinished bits) almost two centuries after his death.
Yes, we said fruitcake. Stay with us for a second on this. You see, every holiday season there are all these fruitcakes around that no one seems to actually eat. In fact, they are so reviled in some places that they have become the butt of many a holiday joke. You know why people give fruitcakes at the holidays? Because it's a tradition, even though no one wants them and it's pure torture for most people to have to actually eat them.
So what does fruitcake have to do with this poem? Well, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is wrestling with a whole lot of traditional thinking in "Christabel"—women's roles in society, homosexuality, and religion, just to name a few. Coleridge has a lot of questions, and he doesn't like most of the answers that his society and church give him. However, he has to take those ideas and live by them because, well, that's how the world works. If he questions these ideas outright, or if he lives by different beliefs, then he will suffer the social and, in some cases, legal consequences.
In other words, the dude has to eat the fruitcake, even if he thinks those neon-green-colored cherries seem a bit unnatural. It's just the way things are. And people really don't like people who rock the boat.
This poem, in many ways, is Coleridge working through his questions about his beliefs without rocking the boat too hard. We're guessing that's a pretty familiar place to you, too. We all wonder why things are the way they are, even if we do so quietly and to ourselves. Even in its unfinished state, then, we can take "Christabel" as a lesson: asking "why" is a pretty important thing to do. If we see injustice or simply outdated thoughts in those around us, we should take our cue from this poem and speak up. Just, you know, make sure you finish your thought.
All Coleridge, All the Time
The Friends of Coleridge is an organization that preserves and promotes Coleridge's work and maintains his cottage in Somerset, UK as a museum and literary tourist hot spot.
The Poetry Foundation has a ton of great info on STC, as well as links to his work.
Spin the Victorian Web
This is a great resource for all things Coleridge, as well for information about the time in which he lived.
Coleridge on Auction
Check out this digital copy of the catalog showing all of the American and British literary items that were recently auctioned off by Christie's of New York. About 35 of the items relate to Coleridge.
Photopoetry is Apparently a Thing
Here's an artistic interpretation of the poem.
Here's a short and…interesting take on the poem.
A Long Listen
It takes about 30 minutes to read through all 677 lines of "Christabel," but someone's got to do it.
If Coleridge were into electronica and had a thing for moody music sampling, we bet this is the song he would write.
Adaptation Isn't Just for Novels
It's not exactly 100% true to the poem, but the general idea is there in this 1984 song from Robert Earl Keen.
Portrait of the Artist
This detail is from the portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. It was painted in 1795 when Coleridge was about 23 years old by Dutch artist Peter Van Dyke.
Coleridge Family Home
This is a photo of the sprawling estate home owned by the Coleridge family from 1796 until 2006.
Stone Cold Coleridge
Coleridge's likeness, along with two friends, is captured in this bronze statue by Thomas Woolner at Christ's Hospital, a boarding school he attended.
Check out this selection from Coleridge's personal journals and notebooks.
The Complete Poems
If this cliffhanger leaves you empty, check out the rest of Coleridge's (finished) poetry.
Even 200 years later, "Christabel" still finds its audience.