The poem begins in the middle of the night in April. The female mastiff of the rich baron Sir Leoline howls at the sound of the clock striking twelve. The unnamed speaker of the poem predicts that the dog is howling because she somehow sees the shroud of Christabel, the baron’s only daughter, in the woods. On the previous night, Christabel dreamed about the knight she is supposed to marry. She has gone to the woods on this night to pray for him. While she is praying at an oak tree, Christabel suddenly springs up because she hears a moaning noise, but she can’t tell from where or from whom the noise comes. Christabel realizes that the noise comes from a strange woman who is on the other side of the oak tree. The beautiful woman is a “damsel bright” and is dressed in a white robe. Christabel asks the woman who she is, and the woman asks Christabel to have pity on her because she is nearly too weary to speak. The woman extends her hand to Christabel and asks her to have no fear. The woman says that her name is Geraldine and that she is the daughter of a noble man. Geraldine says that on the previous morning, five warriors kidnapped her and tied her to a white palfrey. The five warriors, none of whom Geraldine recognized, rode behind the palfrey on white horses. After one night passed, one of the warriors untied Geraldine from the palfrey, muttered something to the other warriors, and then placed Geraldine underneath the oak by which Christabel was praying. Geraldine says that she has no idea how long she has been by the oak since she is extremely weary and scarcely alive. Geraldine says that the warrior who untied her said that he and the other warriors would soon return to the oak. The castle bell’s striking of the midnight hour led Geraldine to fear that the warriors would come soon to retrieve her. Geraldine asks Christabel to protect her from the warriors. Christabel takes Geraldine’s hand and comforts the weary woman by telling her that Sir Leoline will provide Geraldine with the necessary means to help her return safely to her father’s home.
When Christabel and Geraldine reach Christabel’s home, Christabel asks Geraldine to sleep in Christabel’s room for the night so as to not awaken the sleeping household. Christabel especially does not wish to disturb her father, since he is very ill. When the two women cross the castle’s moat and Christabel opens her home’s iron gate, Geraldine falls as if in great pain. Christabel picks Geraldine up and carries her over the gate’s threshold. Once they are over the threshold, Geraldine rises and moves as if she is no longer in pain.
When the two women cross the hall’s court, Christabel praises the Virgin Mary for rescuing Geraldine from danger. Geraldine says that she is too weary to speak and share Christabel’s praises. After the two women cross the court, they pass by Sir Leoline’s female mastiff. The sleeping dog does not wake up, but she does angrily moan in her sleep as Christabel and Geraldine pass by. The poem’s speaker notes that the mastiff has never previously made any angry noises while in the presence of Christabel.
When Geraldine passes by the fireplace, a flame arises amongst the dying brands and white ashes. Christabel once again asks Geraldine to walk as softly and quietly as possible, especially as they pass by the Baron’s room before getting to Christabel’s room.
The two women finally enter Christabel’s bedroom. The poem’s speaker describes Christabel’s room as furnished with “strange and sweet” carved figures, such as a lamp fastened to an angel’s feet. Although the room is dimly lit by the moon, the carved furniture can be clearly seen. When Christabel brightens the lamp, Geraldine sinks to the floor. Christabel tells Geraldine to drink a cordial wine that Christabel’s mother made from wild flowers and which contains “virtuous powers.” Geraldine then asks if she would be pitied by Christabel’s mother. Christabel says that her mother died at Christabel’s birth. Christabel says that according to the friar, her mother said on her death bed that she would hear the castle bell strike twelve o’clock on Christabel’s wedding day. Christabel exclaims how she wishes that her mother were here now. Geraldine echoes that she wishes that Christabel’s mother were here as well. An unsettling look then appears in Geraldine’s eyes and Geraldine cries in a strange, hollow voice for Christabel’s mother to leave because this hour belongs to Geraldine. Christabel kneels by Geraldine’s side and looks up to heaven and claims that Geraldine’s kidnapping must be the cause of this strange behavior. Geraldine then wipes her brow and faintly states that the strange spell that came over her has now passed.
Geraldine drinks the wine, her eyes begin to brightly glitter, and she rises from the floor and stands upright. Geraldine says that the gods and angels love Christabel and for the sake of this love and because of the way that Christabel has taken care of her, Geraldine will try as best as she can to repay Christabel. Geraldine then says that she has to pray and that Christabel can go ahead and get undressed. Christabel undresses herself and lies down to sleep. Yet Christabel is so worried about Geraldine that she cannot sleep and instead sits up in bed and watches Geraldine praying. While praying, Geraldine suddenly shudders and undoes the belt around her waist, causing half of her body to be exposed. At first, Geraldine does not move or say anything when her dress falls. Then she opens her eyes and sees Christabel looking at her. Geraldine hurriedly and shamefully lies down in the bed next to Christabel and takes Christabel in her arms. Geraldine says that a spell is working in her and that this spell is in control of Christabel. Geraldine says that Christabel still has the power to fight against this spell because of her attempt to save Geraldine.
*Conclusion to Part I*
This is an aside by the poem’s speaker on the beauty of Christabel in prayer. The speaker remarks on how beautiful Christabel looked when she was praying by the oak tree in the woods and how she looks just as beautiful as she prays in her sleep tonight. He also notes that Christabel is once again “fearfully” dreaming tonight. The speaker also observes how calmly Geraldine sleeps as she holds Christabel in her arms. Christabel eventually awakens from her dreaming “trance” and her body and face appear to relax and she begins to smile and cry at the same time. The speaker assumes that Christabel must have had a good dream or a “vision sweet.”
Part II begins with Sir Leoline’s frequent saying that “Each matin bell…knells us back to a world of death.” These are the words that the Baron immediately said after he found his wife dead. Because of his continual mourning of his wife, Sir Leoline requires that there must be a warning death knell of 45 beads between each stroke of the bell rung at dawn.
Geraldine awakens upon hearing the dawn bell. She puts on her white clothes and awakens Christabel. Christabel awakens out of a drunken-like sleep. Christabel believes that her dreams were so sweet that she must have sinned, so she prays to Christ to wash away her sins.
Christabel then takes Geraldine to meet Sir Leoline. Sir Leoline hugs Christabel and gives a cheerful welcome to Geraldine. Yet when Geraldine tells him about her kidnapping and then says that her father’s name is Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, Sir Leoline turns pale. Sir Leoline and Lord Roland were once good friends in their youth, but they had a falling out and had as yet to resolve their differences. As Sir Leoline gazes at Geraldine, his good memories of his boyhood friendship with Lord Roland return, and Sir Leoline furiously declares to punish the warriors who wronged Geraldine.
Sir Leoline cries and takes Geraldine in his arms. Geraldine suddenly sees a frightening vision fall upon Christabel’s soul. Geraldine shrinks, shudders, and utters a hissing sound. Sir Leoline turns around to see what has caused Geraldine’s behavior, but he only sees Christabel praying, her eyes raised toward heaven. Geraldine immediately recovers and Christabel assures her father that Geraldine will be alright. Geraldine becomes embarrassed and prays in a low voice to be sent home soon to her father’s mansion. Sir Leoline charges Bracy the bard with the duty to accompany Geraldine to her home and to play his harp to signal her return. Sir Leoline also charges the bard with delivering Sir Leoline’s apology to Lord Roland to resolve their differences.
Geraldine falls to Sir Leoline’s feet and thanks him. Then Bracy the bard asks that he not leave today because of a dream he had about an ailing bird named Christabel. In his dream, Bracy followed the bird to find out what was ailing it and saw a bright green snake strangling the bird. Because of the previous night’s dream, Bracy tells Sir Leoline that he will spend the day searching the woods for something that may endanger Christabel.
Sir Leoline does not take Bracy’s warning dream seriously and assures Geraldine that he (Sir Leoline) and Lord Roland will crush any snake that is found in the woods. Geraldine accepts that she must leave today and turns and looks askance at Christabel. In this askance look, Geraldine’s eyes become serpent-like for a moment and then Geraldine returns to normal. However, Geraldine’s serpentine glance causes Christabel to go into a dizzy trance, stumble, and make a hissing sound. Geraldine immediately turns to Sir Leoline with a look of asking for forgiveness for what she has done to Christabel.
Christabel comes out of the trance and then silently prays. She falls at Sir Leoline’s feet and begs him on her mother’s soul to send Geraldine away. Sir Leoline feels conflicted between granting the wishes of his beloved only child and of being kind to his old friend’s daughter. Sir Leoline’s confusion of what to do eventually turns into rage towards his daughter for her inhospitable and dishonorable behavior towards Geraldine. Sir Leoline then orders Bracy to take care of Christabel and Sir Leoline accompanies Geraldine on her way out.
*Conclusion to Part II*
This last stanza of the poem warns against the excesses of emotion.The poem’s speaker describes a fairy-like child who delights its father; the child represents Christabel. The speaker notes that the father experiences such an overflow of delight in his child that this excessive love can quickly turn into excessive bitterness and unkindness. The speaker then notes the close connection between opposing emotions, such as happiness and pain.
“Christabel” revolves around the juxtaposition of sin/evil versus religiosity/devoutness, and sexuality versus purity. The obvious characters who represent these juxtapositions are Christabel (who represents devoutness and purity) and Geraldine (who represents sin/evil and sexuality). Christabel frequently prays throughout the poem and one of the most prominent furnishings in her bedroom is the carving of an angel. In addition, Christabel is patiently waiting for and could be seen as “saving” herself for her betrothed knight. In contrast, Geraldine claims that she does not have the strength to praise the Virgin Mary for being rescued by Christabel.
Geraldine likewise represents sin and a lack of devoutness through her serpent-like looks and her hissing noises; this behavior alludes to the snake that tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden. In addition, Geraldine has been roughly “handled” by five strange men and she often exhibits shame and a sense of impurity when she is around Christabel. Christabel’s rescuing of Geraldine can be read as a pure woman saving a fallen woman. Although Geraldine is constructed to be Christabel’s foil so that her “impurities” can enhance the sense of Christabel’s goodness and purity, Geraldine herself interestingly embodies the aforementioned juxtapositions. For instance, although Geraldine symbolizes impurity and evil, she wears a beautiful white robe that symbolizes purity. Furthermore, the scene that exemplifies Geraldine’s embodiment of these juxtaposing qualities is the one in which she is praying by Christabel’s bed. In the middle of her prayer, Geraldine is overcome by the orgasm-like gestures of her eyes rolling around, the drawing in of her breath, the shivering of her body, and her sudden unclasping of her belt to remove half of her white robe. Thus, sin and sexuality overtake devoutness and purity.
The theme of mysticism, which is prominent in one of Coleridge’s most fantastical poems “Kubla Khan,” is also prominent in Christabel. Geraldine is overtaken by a mysterious spell several times during the poem, and near the end of the poem, she somehow transfers the effects of the spell to Christabel. Once Christabel physically recovers from the spell, she still seems transformed. Christabel’s kindness and consideration for Geraldine have disappeared and she begs her father to cast Geraldine out of their home. Christabel goes from selfless to selfish. The ways in which the spells taint Geraldine and Christabel suggest the destructive powers of mysticism.
In the essay “Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ and the Phantom Soul,” Anya Taylor claims that the poem is “part of Coleridge’s life-long meditation on the vulnerabilities of will and agency” (708). The two young female characters in “Christabel” are certainly vulnerable to the overwhelming powers of the supernatural world.
The theme of the power of nature, which is present in much of Coleridge’s work, also appears in “Christabel.” For example, Sir Leoline’s mastiff immediately senses the evil and danger that Geraldine brings. The mastiff howls when she senses that Christabel is near Geraldine in the woods; the dog angrily moans when Geraldine passes by in Sir Leoline’s home. The animal’s “sixth sense” suggests the power of the natural world.