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In their Lyrical Ballads, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth experimented with traditional forms by interpreting them in a fresh manner. Although they garnered little attention upon their publication, the Ballads stepped outside of the established boundaries concerning not only meter and form but subject matter and tone as well. Coleridge made use of four-foot couplets and ambiguous themes alike to contribute to the air of mystery and controversy in his various works. Coleridge differs from his colleague Wordsworth’s writings which depict the natural world with poems which focus mainly upon the supernatural. However, while Wordsworth attempted to uncover the remarkable aspects that could be found in the natural order of things, Coleridge tried to place the supernatural within the confines of reality, thereby making it more realistic. In his poem Christabel, he seeks to combine the supernatural with the natural by juxtaposing the fantastic within a realistic context. Coleridge introduces a supernatural presence, Geraldine, into the realistic world, thereby heightening her fantastic nature by contrasting her with Christabel, the natural figure.
Coleridge combines the supernatural with the natural to blur the lines between fantastic and reality, and as a result, leave the readers to choose between the sensibilities of disbelief and belief. He introduces the image of “witchery by daylight” through his character Geraldine, whose supernatural qualities are apparent even throughout the day, a time that is uncommon in usual Romantic works. Although she is introduced during the nighttime, under the moonlight, and seemingly preys upon Christabel during the night, her nature is continuously revealed the following day, under the sun. It is as though even the sun cannot hide her true evil nature, as she is given to attacking Christabel’s soul, giving her into fits of hissing and cold. Through this “witchery by daylight” Coleridge removes the mysterious fantasy image of the moonlight, and makes this supernatural aspect of his poem more real, by setting it in the day. This adds an even more chilling thought-that one is not even free from such things during the day as well as the night. Coleridge attempts to make the unrealistic aspects more realistic, thereby not excluding it from something that the readers could possibly experience. This enhances the unsettling atmosphere of the poem, as it is no longer clear that it is purely fantastic and something that cannot be experienced by normal men and women.
The character Christabel acts as a mediator between the reader and the supernatural. Just as she is a normal person existing in the physical world comprised of what she can judge from her senses, so are the readers. They can relate to her on a basic level in that all normal people, at some point of their lives, have believed that they have experienced a supernatural event. Just as this normal person Christabel has experienced great and inexplicable things, the audience believes that they have gone through something similar. This allows the supernatural events to become commonplace and more relatable to the common man. Through Christabel, the audience can vicariously experience these fantastic events, making them more believable in their eyes. Coleridge indirectly compares the two young women Christabel and Geraldine, the former representing one that is of the natural world, limited by what she can perceive through her senses, and the latter is the mysterious creature of the supernatural realm, arriving by moonlight and enchanting all those around her. Coleridge uses Geraldine’s effect on Christabel as a means of imposing this effect upon his audience as well.
The poem stepped outside of regular boundaries of accepted form, drawing upon unusual metrical patterns and hinting at the unseen. Coleridge did this in order to add to this idea of “witchery by daylight,” merely hinting at the supernatural elements found in such a naturalistic setting. He measured each line not by stress but by accents, creating an anapestic tetrameter:
BLCOKQUOTE[Tis the middle / of the night / by the castle / clock,
And the owls / have awakened / the crowing / cock;
And hark, / again! / the crowing / cock,
How / drow /sily / it crew. (lines 1-5)]
He hints at the unseen, at what cannot be understood by human senses, with the character Geraldine’s entrance. Her appearance itself is fantastical, and the air surrounding her is shrouded in mystery. Even the old mastiff, normally so quiet and unoffending, stirs and howls when she draws close, because she senses both that it is out of place for a stranger to arrive at the castle and Geraldine’s supernatural qualities. The latent sexuality of the piece also hints at something baser about the nature of Geraldine and Christabel’s relationship. Like other Romantic pieces, Christabel is full of ambiguity concerning sexual orientation, and hints at a sexual attraction between the two women. Christabel’s perception of Geraldine and dream can be considered as either her attraction for Geraldine or an ensuing fantasy or as Geraldine’s specter-like presence, haunting her dreams. In any case, Geraldine appears to enchant and entice those around her, including Christabel and the Baron. While Christabel’s appearance becomes more haggard and tired throughout the piece, Geraldine only becomes more beautiful, which suggests that Geraldine is feeding off of Christabel’s soul. This can also suggest that the supernatural figure Geraldine is taking strength and becoming more prominent in the piece, going so far as to revel in the daytime, a time when the realistic figure, Christabel, would take strength.
While outwardly, Coleridge’s intent for writing something like Christabel differs from Wordsworth’s, the two writers both attempt to combine elements of the supernatural and natural, whether by making the supernatural more “real” or by finding extraordinary qualities within the natural realm. Wordsworth’s poems describe the world in a purely natural state, and attempt to show that remarkable and extraordinary qualities can be found in such regular surroundings. He remains solely within the realm of what is natural and can be grasped by one’s senses and attempts to find supernatural qualities within such normality. Like Coleridge, Wordsworth attempts to blend the two worlds, but rather as a means of finding exceptional qualities of the realistic world. However, Coleridge’s pieces, Rime of an Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, and Christabel, describe events that are, whether blatantly or by hint, fantastic in their supernatural states. Throughout these supernatural poems, Coleridge intends to combine the natural and fantastic and as a result, touches upon realism. This, he describes in his Biographia Literaria, allows the readers to believe in them, if but only for a moment:
“so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment”
This adds to the effect of his piece Christabel and its ambiguous hints at Geraldine and Christabel’s relationship as well as Geraldine’s true nature. If the fantastic elements of a given work are almost believable for a reader, the work’s mystery is deepened. The entire theme of the piece becomes an ambiguity and something that could just be real in all of its wonder and magic. Through this ambiguity, Coleridge gives his audience an even greater impression of the supernatural, as it is no longer something that is completely separated from human sensibility, but is something that can be experienced.
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