Study Guide

Christabel Form and Meter

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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;
(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.

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