“Christabel” and the Gothic

A couple of weeks ago,  as we studied in class John Coleridge’s poem “Christabel”, we noticed several elements of the Gothic movement which reminded me of a painting that I had studied a few times in class the previous years: The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli – a.k.a. one of the most famous British Gothic painters – although he was born in Switzerland.


 

The Nightmare, (1781), Detroit Institute of Arts


 

The first section of the first part of Coleridge’s long poem, between verses 23 and 32, sets a certain eroticism:

The lovely lady, Christabel,

Whom her father loves so well,

What makes her in the wood so late,

A furlong from the castle gate?

She had dreams all yesternight

Of her own betrothed knight;

Dreams, that made her moan and leap

As on her bed she lay in sleep;

And she in the midnight wood will pray

For the weal of her lover that’s far away.

Elements of eroticism, here in the verses “Dreams, that made her moan and leap / As on her bed she lay in sleep;”, can find an echo in the position of the woman on the picture and the position of the incubus sitting on her.

Later in the poem, as Christabel encounters Geraldine, we get a description of what sounds like a rape scene. (Verses 77 to 93)

My sire is of a noble line,

And my name is Geraldine.

Five warriors seiz’d me yestermorn,

Me, even me, a maid forlorn:

They chok’d my cries with force and fright,

And tied me on a palfrey white.

The palfrey was as fleet as wind,

And they rode furiously behind.

They spurr’d amain, their steeds were white;

And once we cross’d the shade of night.

As sure as Heaven shall rescue me,

I have no thought what men they be;

Nor do I know how long it is

(For I have lain in fits, I wis)

Since one, the tallest of the five,

Took me from the palfrey’s back,

A weary woman, scarce alive.

In this section, we are told that Geraldine was assaulted by five “warriors”, whose identity she cannot define but whose horses, she was, were white. These elements can be read also on the picture. The mystery around the identity of her assailant(s) can be found in the character of the creature, whose nature we cannot be certain of. There is also a white horse, peeking in between curtains in the background, with nightmarish eyes.

The incubus can also be intepreted differently as we read through the poem, for the actual nature of the Geraldine’s character keeps changing, from a woman dressed in white, to a supernatural creature who has to be invited inside Christabel’s chamber (a witch? a vampire?), or to a dog.


 

I did not want to list all the elements with which we can establish a link between the two works, but we can certainly consider, from those observations, that there is a common intertwining of erotic and supernatural elements, definitely characteristics of the Gothic, in both Fuseli’s Nightmare and Coleridge’s “Christabel”.

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