On This Day in 1815: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ and his letters to Lord Byron

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S T Coleridge by George Dawe c.1811-1812 (Wordsworth Trust)

S T Coleridge by George Dawe c. 1811-1812 (Wordsworth Trust)

Exactly two hundred years ago today, on the 15th October 1815, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to one of his sincere admirers. Coleridge was approaching his 43rd birthday, and had been through many personal trials and tribulations since the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798. The admirer was Lord Byron, who, following the success of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and his more recently published Eastern Tales (such as The Giaour and The Corsair) was securing his status as one of the eminent and respected poetic figures of his day.

This letter sparked the interchange that led to Byron expressing his admiration for Coleridge’s other-worldly and mysterious poem Christabel. With Byron’s support, the poem was eventually published in 1816. On the 15th October 1815 Coleridge writes of his dramatic compositions and his future ‘intentions of presenting three old plays adapted to the present stage’. This letter details his affection for Richard II (‘perhaps the most admirable of Shakespear’s historical plays’). He suggests that in his new rewritten version of the drama he will introduce a ‘new female character’, one of the faults of the original narrative being ‘the entire absence of female interest’. STC’s letter (which is characteristically rambling and yet charming) then goes on to muse on actors and actresses of the day, and he signs off: ‘Your Lordship’s obliged servant S. T. Coleridge’.

Byron’s reply on the 18th October instigates a discussion on Christabel, as yet unpublished, and still unfinished:

Last spring I saw Wr. Scott. He repeated to me a considerable portion of an unpublished poem of yours – the wildest and finest I ever heard in that kind of composition. The title he did not mention, but I think the heroine’s name was Geraldine. At all events, the ‘toothless mastiff bitch’ and the ‘witch Lady’, the description of the hall, the lamp suspended from the image, and more particularly of the girl herself as she went forth in the evening – all took a hold on my imagination which I never shall wish to shake off. I mention this, not for the sake of boring you with compliments, but as a prelude to the hope that this poem is or is to be in the volumes you are now about to publish. I do not know that even ‘Love’ or the ‘Antient Mariner’ [sic] are so impressive – and to me there are few things in our tongue beyond these two productions.

Coleridge replies:

            My Lord

The Christabel, which you have mentioned in so obliging a manner, was composed by me in the [year] 1797 – I should say, that the plan of the whole poem was formed and the first Book and half of the second were finished – and it was not till after my return from Germany in the year 1800 that I resumed it – and finished the second and a part of the third Book.

He then goes on to explain that ‘A Lady is now transcribing the Christabel’. The editor of Coleridge’s letters Earl Leslie Griggs has identified the lady as ‘probably Mrs. Morgan or Charlotte Brent’. However, the copy of Christabel sent to Byron was the one made by Sara Hutchinson, for whom Coleridge had expressed an unrequited love that caused pain and suffering for the poet and those close to him. Sara was the sister of Mary Hutchinson (Wordsworth’s wife). The idea of Coleridge sending off the transcript of the poem in her hand strikes me as a poignant recollection of Coleridge’s difficult personal life, at a time when Byron’s serious personal difficulties – including debt, scandal and a broken marriage – were just beginning. Coleridge goes on to mention Wordsworth (in 1808 Wordsworth had written a preface to the ‘White Doe’ acknowledging his indebtedness to Christabel) and muse on poetical form in this second letter.

Byron had not only praised Christabel but sent it to John Murray, asking him to publish it. Coleridge and Byron met in person on the 10th April 1816, where Byron again brought up the subject of Christabel and implored its author to publish it despite the work’s unfinished state. At this famous meeting Coleridge also recited ‘Kubla Khan’ to Lord Byron and another literary icon, Leigh Hunt, who was also present. Two days later Murray came to see Coleridge to arrange the publication of Christabel and ‘Kubla Khan’ along with ‘The Pains of Sleep’.

Christabel captured the imagination of those authors now known as the second-generation of Romantic poets: Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley would read the poem aloud one stormy night later that year (18th July 1816) at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. A crucial participant in this evening of ghost-tales and philosophical discussion was Mary Shelley, who within the same month would start to write the narrative that became Frankenstein.

…But the full story of that night is for another post, which may well feature on this blog in 2016!

From Christabel (Part I, lines 135-189)

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine,
I cannot speak for weariness.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.

Outside her kennel, the mastiff old
Lay fast asleep, in moonshine cold.
The mastiff old did not awake,
Yet she an angry moan did make!
And what can ail the mastiff bitch?
Never till now she uttered yell
Beneath the eye of Christabel.
Perhaps it is the owlet’s scritch:
For what can ail the mastiff bitch?

They passed the hall, that echoes still,
Pass as lightly as you will!
The brands were flat, the brands were dying,
Amid their own white ashes lying;
But when the lady passed, there came
A tongue of light, a fit of flame;
And Christabel saw the lady’s eye,
And nothing else saw she thereby,
Save the boss of the shield of Sir Leoline tall,
Which hung in a murky old niche in the wall.
O softly tread, said Christabel,
My father seldom sleepeth well.

Sweet Christabel her feet doth bare,
And jealous of the listening air
They steal their way from stair to stair,
Now in glimmer, and now in gloom,
And now they pass the Baron’s room,
As still as death, with stifled breath!
And now have reached her chamber door;
And now doth Geraldine press down
The rushes of the chamber floor.

The moon shines dim in the open air,
And not a moonbeam enters here.
But they without its light can see
The chamber carved so curiously,
Carved with figures strange and sweet,
All made out of the carver’s brain,
For a lady’s chamber meet:
The lamp with twofold silver chain
Is fastened to an angel’s feet.

The silver lamp burns dead and dim;
But Christabel the lamp will trim.
She trimmed the lamp, and made it bright,
And left it swinging to and fro,
While Geraldine, in wretched plight,
Sank down upon the floor below.


Works Cited:

S T Coleridge, Collected Letters ed. by Earl Leslie Griggs Vol IV 1815-1819 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959) pp. 596-607.

S T Coleridge, Christabel in Coleridge: Poetical Works ed. by Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912 repr. 1974) pp. 220-222.