Coleridge's "Christabel" and the Phantom Soul
Taylor, Anya, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
"Christabel" is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's longest poem, his least revised, the most satisfying to himself as its preface indicates, and his most troubling to readers. It is a poem that can drive readers "mad" or make them feel "stupid." (1) From its opening--"Tu -whit!--tu-whoo!"--its lulling, almost lobotomized repetitions--"Is the night chilly and dark? / The night is chilly but not dark"(2)--its shifting narrative voices, and its metrical hesitations and forward rushes, it lures listeners into its twilight. (3) Coleridge's opening section does to listeners what Geraldine does to Christabel: leaves them anxious and ungrounded. Critic after critic has tossed interpretations into the poem's "Dark fluxion, all unfixable by thought." (4) Each interpretation seems to work as well as the next, even if the interpretations are contradictory. Some see the heroine Christabel initiated into love; some see her as a more or less innocent Eve falling into the snares of a demon from preternatural realms or from Satan; (5) some see the poem as having no meaning besides the complex contradictions of language and voice, (6) as a Blakean examination of divided states of body and soul, (7) as a dream or many dreams with condensed or displaced images, (8) even as a meditation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (9) William Hazlitt called the poem "Obscene"; Tom Moore thought its gaps showed incompetence. (10) How do we cope with this tumult of uncertainty?
As one more reader transfixed like "a three year's child" (11) by the rhythms of this disturbing poem, I wish to see Coleridge's deliberate (and perhaps even gleeful) construction of mystery in "Christabel" in the context of his wider philosophical and psychological investigations. The poem can be seen as a thought-experiment, enacting ideas that he elaborates in other poems and in prose writings. To set "Christabel" in the context of these ideas is not to thin out its maddening density, but to reduce its isolation. (12) As a thought-experiment, a germ of future thought, "Christabel" participates in Coleridge's continuing work on the development of the human person, on how selves are made and lost. The poem narrates incidents in the emotional life of a young woman; it shows her acting and being acted upon; its segments--written at different times--circle backwards to address questions that had been left unanswered. The poem, part of Coleridge's lifelong meditation on the vulnerabilities of will and agency, is in many ways a female version of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
Some of Coleridge's concerns emerging early and taking different emphases throughout his life provide an encircling context to help explain the purposes of "Christabel."
1) The first element of the context that bears on "Christabel" is Coleridge's belief in the necessity of preserving a distinction between persons and things at a time when human beings were increasingly tabulated as numbers, averages, and groups. Coleridge argued against the use of a vocabulary that would reduce persons to things to be used, means to an end. Fully aware that persons are not always coherent to others or to themselves, that persons fragment and lose control, and that persons allow themselves to be used as things as their dependencies require, Coleridge advocates in different ways at different times the sacred distinction between persons and things; (13) the necessity of not using others as things; (14) or not letting oneself be used by abdicating the will. (15)
2) A second context for gaining perspective on "Christabel" is Coleridge's interest in the interplay of souls and bodies, spirits and selves, in metamorphoses that merge substances. Such a flow of identities is familiar to contemporary American filmgoers who have watched the fusion of bodies and souls in Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin's "All of Me," but in Coleridge's day this interplay also had mesmerizing possibilities; ghosts, revenants, and diabolic possession were common superstitions, the topics of early anthropological research, and frequent invaders of dreams. Coleridge's plan to publish "Christabel" with an essay on the "Practernatural" may have aimed to justify his use of such spintualistic traditions to render human emotions. (16) For Coleridge such porous perimeters can be intimate, as when he writes his young friend Thomas Allsop "'we will exchange souls"'; (17) at other instances they are frightening, as when he describes "the absence of a Self. . . the want or torpor of Will" that is the "mortal Sickness" of his son Hartley (CL 5:232). In his late Opus Maximum he finds the word for a soul that evaporates for want of a connection with others: this is "the phantom soul" of my title. (18)
3) Related to the two previous contexts is the biographical reality that one of the most influential and brilliant men of the romantic age saw himself as weak and empty and that he proliferated images for his own absence of personhood. One of the most famous appears in a letter to Robert Southey from 1803, wherein he confesses, "A sense of weakness--a haunting sense, that I was an herbaceous Plant, as large as a large Tree, with a Trunk of the same Girth, & Branches as large & shadowing--but with pith within the Trunk, not heart of Wood/--that I had power not strength--an involuntary Imposter--that I had no real Genius, no real Depth /--/ This on my honor is as fair a statement of my habitual Haunting, as I could give before the Tribunal of Heaven / How it arose in me, I have but lately discovered/--Still it works within me / but only as a Disease, the cause & meaning of which I know" (CL 2:959). Watching himself experience this inner absence, he plays with botanical metaphors to amuse Southey with the spect acle of his insignificance. (19)
4) These fluctuations of power and weakness Coleridge often formulates in terms of gender. In "To W. Wordsworth (1807)," Coleridge calls William Wordsworth "Strong in thyself, and powerful to give strength" (p. 392, line 109), and describes himself as "passive" (p. 392, line 102) and "absorb'd" (p. 392, line 118). Marlon B. Ross shows that Coleridge, abased before Wordsworth's masculinity, "assumes a 'feminine' position in order to attain a distinctively 'masculine triumph,"' (20) a needy self-abasement that Donald H. Reiman explores as a continuation of Coleridge's adoring and resentful relation to his older brothers. (21) In a positive sense, Coleridge aspires to the androgyny that he finds in Shakespeare rather than to the masculine single-mindedness of Wordsworth, though Diane Long Hoeveler sees the androgyny in "Christabel" as a negative force. (22) In part because of his sense of himself as yielding, Coleridge is engrossed in the lives and feelings of his many women friends, who by nature or nurture mu st learn to yield; these affinities come to the surface in "Christabel."
5) Coleridge's search for "the cause and meaning" of feelings of emptiness takes him deep into child psychology. Why do some children develop a strong identity and others wither and collapse at the slightest trauma? While notes from 1796 already suggest a project on infants and infancy, (23) his fullest analysis of infant selfhood comes late in the 1820s, when he dictates to Joseph Henry Green his great final statement the Opus Maximum. In fragment 2 of the Opus Maximum, he examines mother and child bonding and argues that the nursing child who gazes at its mother's face does not gaze at a mirror but at an Other, whom the child learns to love and subsequently to leave. (24) A crisis of some kind occurs to startle the child into a separate identity: "The child now learns its own alterity, and sooner or later, as if some sudden crisis had taken place in its nature, it forgets hence forward to speak of itself by imitation, that is, by the name which it had caught from without. It becomes a person; it is and spe aks of itself as 'I,' and from that moment it has acquired what in the following stages it may quarrel with, what it may loosen and deform, but can never eradicate,--a sense of an alterity in itself, which no eye can see, neither his own nor others" (OM, p. 132). (25) If this bonding or the crisis that disconnects it does not occur, the child grows into a thing grasping after a world of things that will always recede. He or she becomes the "Mad Narcissus" (OM, p. 104) of Coleridge's age and of our own. The "Mad Narcissus" is the active side of "The Phantom Soul." Coleridge's scrutiny of early infant learning is revolutionary, 120 years in advance of John Bowlby and D. W. Winnicott. His interest in the formation of infant identity may inform the thought-experiment of the poem "Christabel" with its insistence on the girl's motherlessness, need, and vulnerability.
6) A last element of the context for "Christabel" is also related to the previous ones: it is Coleridge's lament that the yearnings that impel men and women cannot be satisfied. They lead to a chasm that he calls "self-insufficingness." (26) The hunger for love cannot be adequately returned in this world and so provokes imaginings of unearthly love. Yearning, craving, hunger, and need come increasingly to explain both loneliness and the aspiration to spiritual life; this "want" spreads through "Christabel" and many later poems. (27) In his 1826 essay "On the Passions," Coleridge specifically relates this hunger to puberty; he plans to quote from King John, from the Greek tragedians, from Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson to "prove Grief to be a Hunger of the Soul. "28
These ideas …
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Publication information: Article title: Coleridge's "Christabel" and the Phantom Soul. Contributors: Taylor, Anya - Author. Journal title: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Volume: 42. Issue: 4 Publication date: Autumn 2002. Page number: 707+. © 1999 Rice University. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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