'Tis the middle of night by the castle clock, And the owls have awakened the crowing cock; Tu—whit! Tu—whoo! And hark, again! the crowing cock, How drowsily it crew. Sir Leoline, the Baron rich, Hath a toothless mastiff b****; From her kennel beneath the rock She maketh answer to the clock, Four for the quarters, and twelve for the hour; Ever and aye, by shine and shower, Sixteen short howls, not over loud; Some say, she sees my lady's shroud.
Is the night chilly and dark? The night is chilly, but not dark. The thin gray cloud is spread on high, It covers but not hides the sky. The moon is behind, and at the full; And yet she looks both small and dull. The night is chill, the cloud is gray: 'Tis a month before the month of May, And the Spring comes slowly up this way.
The lovely lady, Christabel, Whom her father loves so well, What makes her in the wood so late, A furlong from the castle gate? She had dreams all yesternight Of her own betrothèd knight; And she in the midnight wood will pray For the weal of her lover that's far away.
She stole along, she nothing spoke, The sighs she heaved were soft and low, And naught was green upon the oak But moss and rarest misletoe: She kneels beneath the huge oak tree, And in silence prayeth she.
Right off the bat, we can tell that something strange is going on here. Owls are certainly known for their late-night shenanigans, but they usually keep it down enough that the roosters can sleep through it. Tonight, however, the owls are calling so loudly that the roosters wake up and start to crow.
"Tu-whit! To-whoo!" is a more elegant way to mimic an owl, though it doesn't leave much room for "who?" jokes.
Line 3 may seem like a simple onomatopoeia, but it can actually tell us quite a bit about the setting of the poem. There are a lot more owl species than there are licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, but only one actually makes the distinctive tu-whit, tu-whoo sound and that's the tawny owl. Tawny owls are the most common owl species in Britain, though not found at all in Ireland or the smaller British islands.
This tells us that the story takes place on the main island of Britain. (For more on this, check out "Setting.") It also tells us that it's likely to be during the early spring mating season, since it takes both a male and a female tawny owl to make the full call. You see, the female provides the tu-whit and the male the tu-who.
The calls of owls are also believed to be bad omens, so Coleridge is essentially giving us the eighteenth-century equivalent of a content warning disclaimer.
Line 6 lets us know who the castle in line one belongs to: Sir Leoline, a wealthy baron.
Apparently the dude has a "mastiff," which is a very large breed of dog. Though modern audiences might be more familiar with the English Mastiff, Coleridge is likely talking about a Tibetan Mastiff since this was a very popular breed in Victorian England when Coleridge was writing. Mastiffs make great guard dogs, though this one seems to have a bad habit of howling in the middle of the night.
The end of line 7 can make a modern reader snicker, but here the word "b****" simply describes a dog of the female sex, one likely to have given birth to a litter of puppies at some point in her doggy life. It's still common British terminology, while Americans are more likely to view the word as a slur.
The fact that the b**** is "toothless" is a bit strange, though. This could mean that the dog is very, very old and is in need of some doggy dentures. Or it could be a symbol, used to indicate that the dog is mostly harmless.
Toothless or not, the amount of slobber a toothless dog of that size could produce would still keep us in check.
Without teeth, the dog apparently had to give up a job in security and take on a job as the timekeeper for the castle. Classic chiming clocks ring out a different short chime for each quarter-hour, and then run through the entire chime once before ringing out the number that corresponds with the hour. The dog doesn't have much of a singing voice, so she just lets out a single howl for each quarter-hour and then twelve more to let us know that it is precisely midnight, or "the witching hour," when this takes place. That's one talented pooch.
Line 11 could be straight out of a modern pop song if the language weren't quite so archaic. "Ever and aye, by shine and shower" just means forever and ever, whether it rains or it's sunny.
Clearly Coleridge wanted us to remember what time it is because he's telling us yet again that it's midnight. Twelve howls for the hour plus one howl for each quarter-hour equals sixteen howls—that's a lot of howls.
The stanza moves along fairly smoothly until this last line, which makes us do a bit of a double-take. The poem has just been talking about dogs and clocks and reminding us of the time, but suddenly it introduces the idea of a shroud. It leaves a lot of questions: Who is the lady in question? And why would some people say that the dog is seeing her ghost? Midnight is certainly a good time for a ghost to be hanging around, but why is she here now? We have to keep reading to find the answers to these questions…
If it seems to you like the entire second stanza is basically just talking about the weather, you're not alone. It's technically spring, but it's so early in the spring that the cold of winter is still hanging around. It's chilly, but it isn't really that dark (even at midnight) because there's a full moon.
The important thing is not what this stanza is stating literally, but what it implies.
The full moon is probably the most important part because it has the biggest creepy factor, and Coleridge is trying to set up a creepy atmosphere. (Again, check out "Setting" for more.)
We've moved beyond the dog and the clocks and have discovered that Christabel is also out and about at this late hour.
So who might this Christabel be? There are several hints sprinkled through the stanza that answer this question. First, her father (mentioned in line 24), who loves her very much, is likely Sir Leoline, the wealthy baron mentioned back in the first stanza. Since he is the only man mentioned so far, it's a good bet that this is Christabel's dad.
Other hints just reinforce our guess that Christabel is the baron's daughter. For example, the speaker asks why she would be a whole furlong (which is 220 yards) away from the castle gate at this hour, so it is safe to assume that she should actually be inside that castle with Sir L., not somewhere else.
Our last hint is in line 28 when we learn that Christabel is engaged to a knight. Knights held important positions in feudal society and would often be titled members of the aristocracy. Even if a knight didn't already have a title, he would likely marry into a wealthy family and acquire one through marriage. Since Christabel's fiancé is a knight, it's safe to assume that Christabel herself would be the daughter of someone important.
Christabel has been woken up by nightmares about her fiancé being in danger, so she's decided to get up in the middle of the night to go pray for his wellbeing in the woods. Yeah…that seems perfectly normal, right? Vocab alert: the word "weal" in line 30 refers to the fiancé's welfare.
It wouldn't be unreasonable to wonder why this young woman is out in the woods at midnight to pray. Wouldn't it be easier to visit the chapel in the morning after a good night's sleep and a nice breakfast? Let's hope there's a good reason for all the trouble.
Since it's winter, there are no leaves on the trees. However, there are clumps of green from the moss and the mistletoe.
The oak tree is sacred to pagan religions, especially the Druids, as well as to Christians. Mistletoe is also highly symbolic. Druids were especially fond of the plant and considered it to be a direct link to their deities.
In this case, the oak tree with the mistletoe creates an irresistible combo platter of godliness that calls Christabel out into the cold to pray.