Study Guide

Christabel Analysis

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Sound Check

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    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.

  • Setting

    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.

  • Speaker

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    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.

  • Calling Card

    The Mysteries of Womanhood

    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.

    And if you're feeling short-changed by the abrupt ending of "Christabel," we recommend checking out "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" and "Dejection: An Ode."

  • Form and Meter

    Christabel Meter (Or Is It?)

    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;

    and in Part II we have the following lines:

    Each matin bell, the Baron saith,
    Knells us back to a world of death.

    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,

    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.—

    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

    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.

  • Celtic Druidism and Other Pagan Traditions

    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.

    • Line 29: The forest is a sacred place in many pagan religions, especially in Druidism. Druids really dig trees. In fact, they believe that the forest is a temple. Now, why would Christabel, a character who appears to be Catholic in the story, choose to pray in a manner more befitting a Druid? It seems that this is Coleridge's way of exposing Christabel's innocence and naïveté early on in the poem. In her effort to not disturb her father, who does not sleep well, she goes outside to pray instead. Unfortunately, though she intends to engage in a pious and Christian act, she inadvertently engages in a pagan one instead because she doesn't know any better. Worse yet, by doing this (inadvertently or not), she makes herself even more vulnerable than usual to the (pagan) evils that lurk in the woods.
    • Lines 33-34: These lines specifically tell us that the tree Christabel is praying under is oak and that there is mistletoe on it. No big deal, right? Well, actually it is kind of a big deal for Druids, who believed that both the oak and mistletoe were sacred. Mistletoe, being a parasitic plant, appeared to grow without any roots or other connection to the earth. If a plant doesn't have a connection to the ground, then, logically, it must have connections to the heavens instead, making mistletoe a highly sacred plant. They also believed that these plants took on the qualities of the plants they grew on, and so the mixture of the holy oak and the sacred mistletoe together makes for a really powerful place. It's important to note that pagans would feel that this area would be quite safe, but Coleridge paints a picture of just the opposite, which tells us what he thinks of the pagan belief system.
    • Line 35: Coleridge is not being subtle here. He wants us to remember that this is not just any tree, but an oak tree, complete with all its pagan and spooky symbolism.
    • Line 42: Now it's not just an old oak tree, it's a "huge, broad-breasted" one. This will not be the first time Coleridge mentions breasts in this poem. In fact, this may be a bit of foreshadowing of what's to come later on in Christabel's bedroom.
    • Line 63: Geraldine's bare feet connect her directly to the earth. We're pretty sure hip Romantics referred to feet as "Druid sandals." Okay, maybe not, but it sounds good.
  • Pick a Number

    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.

    • Line 10: The numbers here tell us that it's midnight. The poem opens right at the start of the "witching hour," that hour of the night where the veil between the world of the living and the world of the spirits is thinnest and when witches and other spooky folks have the most power. This is yet another neon warning sign that something bad is about to happen.
    • Line 12: We already know that it's midnight, and that the dog howls once each quarter-hour plus  twelve times for the hour—just like a clock tower. Seems simple enough, right? Well, maybe not. Just as Coleridge gives us a little math lesson to remind us that twelve plus four is sixteen (thanks for that, Sammy), he drops the bomb that there's a ghost hanging out with the dog. Reading forward a little, we understand that this ghost is Christabel's mother. Placing the number and the appearance of Christabel's mother so close together (especially when her sudden appearance seems like a total non-sequitur) makes us feel like the speaker is trying to tell us something. In the Bible, the number sixteen shows up as a symbol of God's never-ending love. Here, it may symbolize a mother's never-ending love and protection for her child, even after that mother is dead.
    • Line 49: The number one is singular, of course, but it is also contained in everything else (we can't have two sandwiches without having one to start with). Here the one leaf represents the presence of two opposing forces within one thing—spring and winter, life and death, good and evil. It's telling us that within us of all there exists the potential for both good and evil. Hey, it looks like one isn't so lonely after all.
    • Line 81: In Christianity, the number five represents God's grace. In some folklore, it's only a pack of five men on white horses who can hope to catch a vampire. Again, this gives us a pretty big hint about Geraldine's true nature.
    • Line 201: Bells are a traditional part of a wedding day, so talking about bells being rung on that day is no big deal. However, Christabel specifically says that the bells will be rung twelve times on her wedding day, which could be considered in a couple different ways. First, as a Christian symbol, the number twelve is supposed to be a sacred number. It symbolizes God's power and authority. Ringing the bells twelve times on a wedding day would be a blessing for the couple, letting them know that their bond has been made with the authority of God. That would probably make Christabel's mom happy, even in the afterlife.
      What probably won't make Christabel's mom happy is that it's possible that Coleridge intended for us to understand that Christabel is already married—to Geraldine. Remember the beginning of the poem when the narrator tells us the bells rang twelve times to mark midnight? Christabel's mother was there to hear them too if the dog really is seeing her ghost. To add to this weirdness, Christabel even carries her bride over the threshold of the castle in lines 131-132.
      It's not a literal marriage, of course, but it does appear that, literal or not, the couple consummates that marriage that night as well. Christabel's mother doesn't show up again as a ghost after she's shooed away by Geraldine in the room that contained their wedding bed. It's layers like this that make this poem so interesting, and very likely explains why Coleridge worked so hard on it yet never finished it. This level of complexity is hard work.
    • Line 305: One single hour is all Geraldine needed to completely corrupt poor Christabel. Specifically, that one hour was the witching hour, so that probably helped make the job easier.
    • Line 341: This one is a bit tough. We know it's important, since the Baron has specified such a specific number of beads (or prayers) that the sexton must pray each morning with the bells. Still, why 45? The number has no real significance in Christianity, paganism, or anything else, really. Perhaps Christabel's mother was 45 when she gave birth (which could help explain why she died, since older mothers are at higher risk for complications during pregnancy and childbirth even today). All the same, it seems highly unusual for a woman that age to be giving birth at that time. Perhaps its significance is in the fact that the number isn't significant at all. It may be a symbol of how Sir Leoline is just a little bit crazy due to the grief of losing his wife. Only a mad man would be so very specific with something so wildly arbitrary.
  • Ambiguity

    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.

    • Line 2: Owls and cocks are bird versions of Bert and Ernie—they are polar opposites. Owls are night birds and birds of prey. Roosters are day birds and basically scavengers (or moochers if you think like a farmer). Owls are also wild, while cocks are generally domesticated.
    • Line 7: A mastiff is a gigantic dog, and can be fairly frightening. They aren't particularly aggressive, but they do not take kindly to someone threatening their territories or their masters. Because of their role as a guard dog and because of their massive size, they are often thought of as masculine. However, Coleridge cuts this awesome animal down to size by telling us that it's female, old, and toothless. This dog is the very epitome of having a bark worse than its bite.
    • Lines 14-15: Chilly and dark is spooky, but the narrator assures us that it's only chilly, not dark. So, again, this is not a complete submission to evil, just a partial one.
    • Lines 16-17: It's cloudy, but still clear enough to see the moon. The weather is very much a "could be worse!" kind of situation.
    • Lines18-19: The moon is full, which could be nice and eerie, but, no, she's still small and dull.
    • Lines 21-22: Oh boy, it's spring! Wait. No, it's still cold outside—bummer.
    • Line 30: Using the word "lover" creates a feeling of intimacy in the relationship between Christabel and her betrothed knight. However, he's also far away, which creates both a physical and emotional distance.
    • Lines 49-52: This one last leaf reminds us that the story is taking place in that weird place of seasonal transition when the calendar says it's spring, but the weather and the trees say it's still winter.
    • Lines 58-68: This whole stanza is full of back and forth symbols. The lady is frightening, but she's dressed in the purest of white. She has a stately air about her, indicating that she's probably a noble, like Christabel, but her arms and neck are bare, which is a little shocking for a woman during this period of time and, well, because it's cold.
    • Lines 71-72: The narrator calls the lady strange, but then in the very next line we learn that her voice is soft and sweet, which is unexpected.
    • Lines 129-134: First the lady is in pain, and then she isn't. The ambiguity here is to call attention to the threshold and how it affects Geraldine. There's more to meet the eye here than a quick fall and her leaping up shouting, "I'm fine!"
    • Lines 147-148: The evil isn't strong enough to wake the dog up, but it is definitely there in a gentle scent because the dog begins to growl in her sleep.
    • Lines 163-165: The shields and weapons of Sir Leoline tell us that he is a seasoned warrior, a contender. However, Christabel lets us know that he does not sleep well, so maybe he's not such a tough guy after all.
    • Line 171: Death is dead, so he wouldn't breathe much, right? That makes us wonder how exactly death would be stifling a breath in the first place. Obviously, death is just very nearly dead, but not quite dead yet.
    • Lines 175-177: This one really makes our heads spin! First the moon shines, then it doesn't shine in the room at all, but then we're told that Christabel and Geraldine can see just fine anyway. Whew. Perhaps this reflects Geraldine's thoughts as she moves back and forth from the thoughts of a lady to the thoughts of a witch.
    • Lines 178-181: Here the narrator gives in and admits that there's some weirdness happening. Christabel is sweet and innocent, but for some reason she has creepy carvings all over her room. Whose idea was that? Her bedroom gives us a hint that maybe Christabel isn't 100% sweet and innocent either. Maybe Geraldine doesn't have to be completely evil to seduce the young woman.
    • Lines 292-293: Sleeping and dreaming with open eyes is, um, not normal. What the narrator is trying to say is that he saw everything clearly, but he thought he was dreaming because what he saw was just too scary and weird.
    • Line 302: In many ways, it is this line that is the mother of all ambiguous statements in the poem. It really helps us grasp the point of all the weird wishy-washy, back-and-forth commentary. On one hand, we can see the star as the sun and it seems that simply a night has passed by. However, what this setting and rising star represents is death and birth. Christabel as a whole is a bit of a symbol here, since she herself exists in this place of both birth and death (seeing as her mother died while giving birth to her). Now, however, she experiences yet another death and birth—the death of her innocence and the birth of her sin.
      This scene is further illustrated if we look back to the last three lines of the previous stanza (299-301) and see that the speaker likens Geraldine to a mother with her child in her arms when she's holding Christabel as they both sleep. A little later, in line 318, the narrator again uses the metaphor of an infant to describe her. Geraldine has given birth to Christabel's dark self—yipes.
    • Lines 313-319: Christabel is at once relaxed and upset. She is crying, but she also smiles. She's obviously struggling with this new version of herself. Perhaps she feels relieved to let her true colors shine through. At the same time, she still struggles with the feeling that being with Geraldine is wrong, according to what she has been taught her entire life.
    • Lines 352-359: Sextons, though their titles may make us giggle a bit, are not particularly sinful. It's quite the opposite, really, since they are meant to take care of the church. They aren't holy men, but, generally speaking, the church isn't interested in letting overly sinful folks take care of their business.
      Beyond their sin is the fact that these particular sextons are dead. Still, they're able to add to the ringing of the bells every morning. This presence of both life and death reminds us that Sir Leoline has created a serious downer of an environment for all of his people by reminding everyone of their mortality (and the mortality of their loved ones) every morning. The people exist in a strange place where they are all still alive, but it's difficult to live life joyfully or gratefully when visions of the Grim Reaper are painted for you every single day when you wake up—eesh.
  • The Snake & the Dove

    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.

    • Lines 531-548: Bard Bracy is recounting his dream about seeing a white dove struggling the forest. It is important to note here that Bracy specifically tells Sir Leoline that the bird was called by his own daughter's name, meaning that the bird clearly represents the innocence of Christabel.
    • Lines 549-554: As the dream continues, Bracy realizes that there is a snake attacking the dove. Western audiences would probably immediately understand the snake as the bad guy here, considering the whole Satan-as-a-serpent thing. However, the fact that the snake is green throws a flag on the play.
      You see, beyond poetry, Coleridge is considered to be highly influential in bringing German philosophy into English-speaking culture. Fascinated with German philosophy, he learned the language in his mid-20s and was a voracious reader of German books and poetry. So what's all this got to do with a green snake? Well, shortly before Coleridge began writing "Christabel," a fellow named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a story called Das Märchen. The story is kind of complicated and definitely weird, but what's important is that the green snake is critical to the story. The green snake in Das Märchen represents a kind of bridge between the real world and the inner world of the other characters. The overall moral of the tale, so the speak, is that we cannot be happy until we are free to be who we truly are on the inside.
      Knowing Coleridge's interest in German literature and philosophy, and knowing that Goethe was a popular poet and essayist at the time, it isn't much of a stretch to connect the snake in Das Märchen and the snake here in "Christabel." The snake, then, may not represent evil, but that same ambiguous sexuality issue that Christabel may be wrestling with throughout the poem. Perhaps Christabel is truly attracted to women. Because she would be persecuted for that at the time, she is struggling with the feeling that this "evil" act with Geraldine is only her true self being exposed. The snake, then, is a symbol of evil to the speaker, but it's actually a symbol of her innermost secrets for Christabel.
    • Line 571: Here we see the effects of Geraldine's spell on Sir Leoline. While bard Bracy made it abundantly clear that the snake is Geraldine, the baron believes that the evil is actually the men who kidnapped her. Frankly, we don't even believe that there were any men at all, but the baron has the last word and sends Bracy out to find Geraldine's dad, anyway.
    • Lines 583-587: Christabel is able to see through Geraldine's spell and sees the woman for the evil snake she really is. Of course, Christabel is overcome with shame. Plus, she's the victim of an enchantment designed to keep her mouth shut. This combination of these things makes her confused and dizzy. Christabel keeps making snake noises too, which may be her way of communicating what she sees, despite the spell. Geraldine makes sure that Leoline isn't tipped off, though, by focusing her snakey voodoo on him.
  • Bells, Bells, Bells

    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.

    • Lines 23-24: This is the first time we see Christabel's name in the poem, and the second line states that she is very much loved by her father. Though the bells that we see later remind Leoline of his dead wife, this living, breathing bell reminds him of the love that still exists in the world.
    • Lines 200-201: On her death bed, Christabel's mother told the friar that he should ring the bells twelve times on Christabel's wedding day so that she might hear about her daughter's happiness all the way up in heaven.
    • Lines 332-359: Leoline commands the bells to be rung every morning to remind everyone just how miserable he's been since his wife died. The bard tells us that the bells can be heard far and wide every morning, which probably doesn't help Leoline's popularity much with all his third-shift peasant workers.
    • Lines 361-362: Here the bells are trying to do their job of chasing off all the bad guys, but they don't do a very good job. Geraldine pulls a Swifty and just shakes it off.
  • Steaminess Rating


    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.