Coleridge starts us out with some heavy alliteration in the first stanza of "Christabel." The harsh, hard C sounds in lines 1-10 ("castle clock" and "crowing cock") are almost alarming, as if the speaker wants to make sure that we're awake enough to pay attention. The rest of the stanza slips into a series of SH sounds in lines 11-13 ("shine and shower"), lulling us back to sleep. This flip-flopping of harsh and gentle keeps us on our toes and reflects the ambiguity that we'll experience through the rest of the poem (see "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" for many examples of that).
Another important sound element in the poem is the hissing S sound, which mostly shows up when Geraldine is around. It sounds much like the hissing snake that Geraldine is supposed to represent. In fact, the word "hissing" shows up twice: first in stanza 47, and then again ten stanzas later. The word "hissing" is, of course, an onomatopoeia. It might also be worth noting that Christabel's name itself is pretty ambiguous, containing both a hard sound at the beginning and a nasty hissing sound right smack in the middle.
Overall, when read aloud "Christabel" has a sing-song quality that is almost hypnotizing, like a lullaby. It's as if the forces of good and evil are working against one another in terms of the very sounds of the poem. These harsh and soft sounds work their magic on the reader as well as the characters. We're lulled into sleepiness and vulnerability by the forces of evil while the forces of good try to snap us out of it with its sharp warnings.
The title is—wait for it—the main character's name. That makes sense, right? Christabel is the first character whom the reader is introduced to, and the first part and its conclusion to that section stay focused completely on her. In the second part, we get more information about the people around Christabel: her dad, Sir Leoline, bard Bracy. We even get a bit about Geraldine and her father, Lord Roland. However, since the poem is entitled "Christabel," it seems safe to assume that the next two sections that Coleridge planned to write would have remained focused on Christabel's experience of what is about to happen. Think about how the evil queen and the seven dwarves play critical roles in the story, but the tale is still called Snow White because, as usual, it's all about the princess.
The whole poem—what there is of it—takes place either inside Sir Leoline's castle or in the wooded area just outside it. It all seems pretty straightforward—but we certainly know by now that straightforward is not how Coleridge works.
The castle is an orderly place where watchdogs keep time with the clocks and everyone observes the right prayers and customs at exactly the right time. The forest outside, however, is a wild, chaotic, and unruly place where mysterious and frightening things happen. Inside the castle, Christabel maintains her innocence, but that innocence is threatened the minute she ventures outside. Just like the annoyingly naïve girl in a horror movie, Christabel is dumb enough to invite evil inside, allowing it to threaten the innocence and peace of everyone in the castle. Christabel's is the trusting and silly weakness that allows evil to penetrate what was once the perfect fortress against such darkness.
That isn't to say that there aren't any safety measures inside the castle. Signs of Leoline's power and prowess on the battlefield decorate the hallways. Plus, Christabel's bedroom seems to resemble a Victorian version of a Hot Topic display, what with all its demons and angels and other Gothic decorations. All of this is meant to scare anything with bad intentions away if it happens to get inside the castle. And sure, it slows Geraldine down a bit, but—unfortunately for everyone in the castle—it doesn't really stop her from her sinister plans.
It is not really clear who the speaker is in this poem. In fact, there appears to be more than one speaker at times, since the tone shifts dramatically from the main sections of the poem to the conclusion sections. Whoever the speaker is, though, he or she (it's never totally clear which) is very morally upright and maybe just a tad melodramatic. There are places where the speaker's reaction to what is happening almost seems like an over-reaction, which leads the reader to suspect Geraldine of some foul play from the very beginning: "O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!" (254). The speaker's concern over Christabel is so extreme in places that we can't help but to think that this is intentional—Coleridge never intended for Geraldine's sinister nature to be in question. The only mystery is just what kind of creature Geraldine is and what she plans on doing to poor Christabel. Unfortunately, we'll never know—and neither will this unnamed speaker.
The main thing that makes this such a hard poem to figure out is the fact that it isn't finished. It's really difficult to even take guesses when so much of the material is missing. Add that to the overall length, the archaic language, and a healthy dose of both Christian and pagan symbolism, and you've got a serious climb ahead of you for this one. Of course, once you get up there, you'll find that there's even more to see from that height.
Coleridge had a rather complicated relationship with women. As is befitting the time, Coleridge believed that women were the inferior sex, and without the guidance of a man they would surely go astray. We see that in "Christabel." The title character is mostly left to her own devices, since her mother is dead and her father is said to be of poor health. Since she is left alone to make decisions about whether to let a strange woman into the house or not, it is only natural that she would make such a poor decision. Since women are so weak of spirit, it is also only natural that Christabel would fall under Geraldine's spell so easily.
On the flip side, and further demonstrating Coleridge's complicated feelings about women, Sir Leoline is also easily overcome by Geraldine's evil. Basically, even a big strong man can't resist a hot woman, especially when that big strong man is actually very small and broken inside because his true love died rather tragically by giving birth to a girl (who would be unable to become his heir because of feudal laws of the time). Complicated, contradictory, and a tad depressing, you say? It sure sounds a lot like Coleridge.
In his preface to the poem, Coleridge claims that he has basically made up the form and meter for this poem. This new poetic form, he claims, is about counting the accents in the words (in other words, where the words are stressed) instead of the syllables. We'll find a variety of syllable counts in the lines of this poem—anywhere from seven to twelve—but there are supposed to only be four accents in each line. Does that check out? Let's take a look at the first two lines of each part of the poem. In Part I we have these lines:
Tis the middle of the night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock; (1-2)
and in Part II we have the following lines:
Each matin bell, the Baron saith,
Knells us back to a world of death. (332-333)
There is a different syllable count for each of these lines: twelve and eleven syllables for lines 1 and 2 and then only nine and then eight syllables in lines 332-333. However, the emphasis that we've put in the lines above clearly shows that there are, indeed, exactly four strong stresses in the words of each line.
He seems to be quite proud of himself and believes that he is the very first to do something as clever as this. For a while, "Christabel" was considered a really important piece of work because of this. Unfortunately—and it's difficult to say this gently—nothing Coleridge says here is actually true.
In the early 1900s, two different scholars, Bridges and Snell, picked apart the poem and discovered that the vast majority of it is plain ol' iambic meter with four stresses. (An iamb is a two-syllable pair in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. It makes a daDUM beat.) If you want to get fancy, that would be called iambic tetrameter (tetra- means four). These scholars also knocked Coleridge off his pedestal a bit by pointing out that William Shakespeare and John Donne both used this meter before Coleridge was even a twinkle in his great-grandmother's eye.
So, Coleridge didn't quite pull off a revolutionary form here, but it seems that his intentions were ambitious enough, anyway. Just check out the various rhyme schemes he has working in this poem. He gives us rhymed couplets:
Four for the quarters, and twelve for the hour;
Ever and aye, by shine and shower, (10-11)
and alternating lines that share an end rhyme:
The lady sprang up suddenly,
The lovely lady, Christabel!
It moaned as near, as near can be,
But what it is she cannot tell.— (37-40)
and even more complex rhyming patterns:
The night is chill; the forest bare;
Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?
There is not wind enough in the air
To move away the ringlet curl
From the lovely lady's cheek—
There is not wind enough to twirl (43-48)
In all, the form of this poem shows us a poet who was aiming high, putting together lines of varying complexity (even if he was following others' leads) and weaving them together with different rhyme schemes. Of course, Coleridge never put the finishing touches on this near-masterpiece—shame.
There's no denying that Coleridge sprinkled lots of spooky stuff into the poem, but very little of it is random or solely atmospheric.
The first part in particular is packed with very specific symbols from pagan religions and other mystical traditions. Coleridge lived in a time with a stronger sense of superstition than we have now, so many of these symbols would have been a lot more obvious to his audience. However, some of these are classics and we can pick them out easily even today. Most of these appear in the first half of the poem, before Geraldine is able to work her spells inside the castle, which helps us understand who (or what) Geraldine might be underneath all that pretty illusion.
When someone asks for some lemons, it's no big deal. However, when someone asks for, say, three lemons, it makes us wonder what those lemons might be for and why they would need such a specific number of them.
In several places, Coleridge provides a very specific number for things. By now, we know he's such a sly dog that he'd never give us such a specific description without meaning something by it. Though a couple are more folklore-related, most of the numbers are religious symbols of some sort. That's no surprise, considering that symbolic numbers pop up quite a bit in just about every religious tradition in history.
One of the reasons why this poem can be difficult to get through is because Coleridge purposefully mixes up his symbols. He's not trying to make things difficult on purpose, though it may feel like it at times. Instead, he's trying very hard to demonstrate just how mixed-up the real world can be. He does this through lots of ambiguity—meaning he gives us a symbol of something good and then pairs it right away with something not so good. The idea is that the world is not just black and white. Coleridge wants to keep us lingering in that weird shady grey area, where there are few direct answers. We have to admit that he's done a pretty good job of keeping us spinning around in places.
This symbol only shows up a couple of times in the second part of the poem, but it's such an important and powerful one that we can't help but notice it. It's not terribly difficult to figure out what the intention is either. The snake represents evil or corruption, and the dove represents good or innocence. Coleridge isn't pulling any punches when it comes to communicating just what his intentions are here. What is most interesting about this symbol, though, is that Coleridge sets it up so the reader can easily understand its symbolic intention, but the character who needs to understand it the most completely misses the mark.
A bell may not be one of those symbols that is super-obvious, but there are so many in the poem that it's hard to ignore them. Overall, bells are a tool of communication. In many religions, they are used to call people to worship or to announce important events. Neither Christianity nor Paganism is any exception. Throughout the poem, the bells communicate a reminder of Christabel's dead mother. Sometimes this reminder is good, like when they ring as a reminder that Christabel's mom is lingering about and playing guardian angel. Sometimes they're bad, though, like when they serve as a daily reminder that Sir Leoline lost his wife in childbirth. Christabel herself lets us know how important bells are to this poem. After all, there's a bell right there in her name.
Let's be honest. "Christabel" deals with what the movie industry would call "adult themes."
However, it does so in a fairly tasteful way. Sure, there's a really steamy lesbian sex scene at the end of the first part, but that may all just happen in our dirty little minds. After all, the only thing the speaker tells us about is two naked women slipping under the covers together—end scene. For all we know, they could be playing chess with flashlights under there. Still, Coleridge sure does imply that there's some serious hanky-panky going on by having Christabel do the walk of shame in her head the next day.