A Critical Note on Medievalism in Christabel by Coleridge

Christabel is one of the remarkable supernatural poems of Coleridge, revealing medievalism features. The poem is medieval as far as its setting, background, theme, and atmosphere are concerned.

The setting of the poem is essentially medieval in outlook. It deals with the story of a snake-like woman, an incarnation of evil, who casts an evil spell on Christabel on an embodiment of beauty, virtue, and innocence. In presenting this supernatural tale, Coleridge has successfully procured from his readers. “Willing suspension of disbelief” by giving it a medieval background. He has also made us believe in the authenticity of the narrative by this device. In the Middle Ages, people were suspicious and they believed in ghosts, magic, and witchcraft. Had the poet presented Christabel in the contemporary setting the readers would not have accepted the tale as true since they never believed in demons and its evil spell. Again, the atmosphere and characters also contributed to the medieval setting. Christabel lives in an old castle which is surrounded by forests on all sides. Her father Sir Leoline was a rich Baron and he had an old toothless mastiff that was in the habit of uttering short howls in answer to the castle clock. There is feudal accompaniment of heralds and pages. Sir Leoline has kept the bard Barag in his court to entertain him following the tradition of medieval courts. Christabel is engaged to a knight who is away from her. She dreamt of him in the preceding night and like a true lover, she goes into the nearby forest at midnight to pray for the welfare of her betrothed knight. The poem has a lot of references to the medieval aristocracy. Even Geraldine claims that her father belongs to a noble life.

There are frequent references to the piety of the Middle Ages in the poem. There are references to Jesus and Virgin Mary: ‘Jesu, Maria, should her well’, ‘Praise me the virgin all divine’; ‘He sware by the wound in Jesu’s side’ etc. Christabel is a pious woman (maiden); her dead mother’s spirit acts as her guardian angel to lead her to the path of virtue. The reference to the friar, Bracy’s desire to expel the evil spirit from the forest with music and ‘saintly’ song- all these suggest medieval piety. Another striking feature of the Middle Ages is chivalry. Chivalry refers to the spirit of adventure and the spirit of service to women. In response to Geraldine appeal for help in her misfortune, Christabel offers all the chivalry of her father’s horse. When the Baron hears of the wrong done of Geraldine, he ignores his old age and declares that he will punish the offenders:

“O then the Baron forgot his age,

His noble heart swelled with rage.”

The occasional reference to medieval art and architecture also contribute to the medieval atmosphere. Sir Leoline’s castle with its massive gates has courts, halls and chambers Shields and weapons are also preserved in the castle. The walls of Christabel’s chamber are decorated with carved figures of angels. A silver lamp hangs from the feet of an angel with a double silver chain, while the floor is decorated with carpets.

A further medieval note is added to the poem by the use of archaic words and phrases in the tradition of chances like Sire, naught, belike, yestermorn, yesternight, wildered drest, quoth etc. Old spellings commonly found in medieval poetry are also used in Christabel like ‘countree’ for country.

Thus an analysis of Christabel reveals its medieval qualities.


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