"Like a Lady of a Far Countree": Coleridge's "Christabel" and Fear of Invasion

Article excerpt

  The danger, either real or apparent, may suddenly burst upon an
  unprotected part of this island. --Havilland Le Mesurier, Thoughts on
  a French Invasion (1798)

"ONCE A JACOBIN, AND ALWAYS A JACOBIN" is a recurring phrase in a brief Morning Post article published by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1802. In this essay Coleridge defines "Jacobin" not only to show what Jacobinism is but what it is not in order to counter ministerialist attempts to associate principled opposition to the war at home with dangerous principles abroad. Of its indiscriminate use by radical-baiting anti-Jacobins, then, he observes, "It is a blank assertion, the truth of which would be strange, inexplicable, monstrous; a fact standing by itself, without companion or analogy" (Essays 371). The same might be said of Coleridge's unfinished poem "Christabel" (published in 1816 but begun in the spring of 1798 and left off in 1800). His essay's evocation of the purposeful ambiguity of the word "Jacobin" in the Pittite lexicon goes some way toward explaining the fascination this fragmentary gothic puzzler has always held for readers--and perhaps why attempts to explain the poem, including Coleridge's own, risk spoiling it. Since its original publication in 1816, reader reactions to "Christabel" have ranged from Shelley's shriek to Hazlitt's guffaw. (1) One likely factor is "Christabel's" unfinished state, though this circumstance has paradoxically become one of the poem's more highly-determined finishing touches--as has also been the case with Coleridge's other famously-puzzling fragment "Kubla Khan," which appeared alongside "Christabel" in 1816. At the same time, readers have noted enough intriguing details in the text of "Christabel" to indicate something in the fragment itself that either disturbs or amuses them, something suggestive enough to convey a sense of the poem as "strange, inexplicable, monstrous." The issue of "Christabel," the question of where it is going, concerns more than the obvious fact of its unknown ending. It also concerns where it comes from, which is to say a context in which it has originated and from which it takes at least some of its meaning.

According to Andrea Henderson, indeed, such a context is required "to ground this notoriously ungrounded poem" (884). For Henderson "Christabel" is both too much and too little concerned with politics, a paradox she nicely explains by means of New Historicist displacement, observing that "the piece has a high emotional charge but can propose no way to ground it" (898). Yet what if this is also true of the context behind "Christabel"? What if that context is the context described by Coleridge in his essay on the anti-Jacobin alarms and its status that of "a fact standing by itself, without companion or analogy"? Henderson reads "Christabel" as a series of sublimated responses to the French Revolution as it is focused in the enigmatic seductress Geraldine, arguing that for the other characters "the only alternative to stifling tradition is terrifying indeterminacy" (883). William Wordsworth describes such indeterminacy in Book 10 of the 1805 The Prelude when he describes Revolutionary France as a place where "passions had the privilege to work, / And never hear the sound of their own names" (812-13). Both Coleridge and Wordsworth could have found such ungrounded passions working on either side of the channel at this time, but in England they were as likely as not to originate in reactionary alarm. In 1798, the year Coleridge began his poem about a mysterious visitor at a castle, alarm spoke directly to fear of invasion.

II

In his essay on Jacobinism, Coleridge suggests that the Pitt ministry's anti-Jacobin campaign resides in indeterminacy: "Party rage, and fanatical aversion, have their birth place, and natural abode, in floating and obscure generalities, and seldom or never burst forth, except from clouds and vapours. Thunder and lightning from a clear blue sky has been deemed a miracle in all ages" (Essays 367). …