The Vampirism of Coleridge's Christabel

by JoHarrington

There was undoubtedly a vampiric theme developing in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 poem 'Christabel'. But more significant was the vampirism inflicted on it!

Coleridge never finished 'Christabel'. He attempted to do so twice - and left us two parts completed - but the conclusion remained locked in his head. The subject matter lay too close to home.

What stalled him consistently was the propensity of his fellow poets to steal ideas from it, then pass it off as their own work. The vampirism of his creativity was what had, in part, inspired the stanzas themselves, now they left him too weak and disgusted to go on.

Impoverished, both financially and emotionally, Coleridge turned to the most famous poet of them all. But Lord Byron apparently completed the feeding frenzy, sparking the whole vampire literary genre.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel

Noble Ladies and Lesbianism: Christabel and Vampires

Some of the ideas in Coleridge's unfinished epic will be very familiar to those entrenched in the subsequent vampire genre.

Image: ChristobelIt's never once stated that Geraldine was a vampire. But Samuel Taylor Coleridge never completed his poem. He never reached the great reveal.  But the old, well-worn tropes are all here. Many of them were heard for the first time in these verses.

The eponymous Christabel is a virtuous young lady. The daughter of a knight, she lives in a Gothic castle surrounded by a forest. She spends much of her time praying, and waiting for her marriage to another knight.

So much is made of her purity and innocence, that you have to wonder why she starts the poem out in the wood at night. There was a hint that she was sleep-walking, or else simply left the confines of the castle to pray.

The narrative brings us to a grand, old oak tree, against which Christabel pauses to rest and pray some more. She hears a moan coming from the other side of that broad trunk, and investigates.  There is another young woman, half-dead with weariness. Geraldine complains that she was snatched from the vicinity of her own father's castle by five men. There's an implication that she's been raped or otherwise abused. They tied her to a horse and brought her here. They'd abandoned her by the oak tree, but they were coming back.

Realizing that time is of the essence, Christabel doesn't bother fetching her knightly father. She assists Geraldine in reaching the sanctuary of the castle herself.  But not without some strange elements along the way.

The castle gates are made of iron. Geraldine meets them with such distress and pain, that Christabel has to bodily carry her through the gateway.  On the other side, as Christabel prays to the Virgin Mary in thanks for their salvation, Geraldine claims that she's too exhausted to follow suit. Yet she's immediately re-energized, once clear of the iron gates. The dog hates her. It growls a warning, as she passes.

Once inside the castle, the embers in banked fireplaces suddenly rise in flame, as Geraldine passes. She expresses unease in the presence of a carved statue of an angel. Moreover, she appears to see the ghost of Christabel's deceased mother, who has now become a guardian spirit for her daughter.

Christabel and Geraldine end up naked in the same bed.  The tone becomes deeply erotic, though it's not explicit precisely what happens there.  It's this scene which is quoted so often, as an early example of lesbian overtures in vampire fiction.

Image: Christabel from Andrew Lang's Blue Book
Image: Christabel from Andrew Lang's Blue Book

Next morning, Geraldine meets and sets about seducing Christabel's father too. The good knight realizes that the young woman is the daughter of an old friend. This is his big moment to heal that fractured friendship too.  He asks his resident Gaelic bard to escort Geraldine home, but the Celt is nervous. He's had a prophetic dream, in which a serpent is lurking in the woods, ready to attack Christabel.

At that moment, Geraldine turns to face the praying Christabel. Just for an instance, the strange woman has eyes like a serpent, and they sparkle. Aghast, Christabel realizes the evil nature of her new friend.  She joins Bachy the Bard in trying to warn her father, but he takes Geraldine's side.

And Coleridge's poem ends there.  Its promise was to be realized elsewhere, notably in Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, seventy years later.  But first it had to be published, and Coleridge was reluctant to even finish it. There was a psychological imperative here, which cut way too close to the bone.

Collections of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Work

These volumes include the unfinished 1797 vampire poem 'Christabel'.

Think of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and you're likely to conjure up an image of the Lake District, daffodils, Kubla Khan and Unitarian ministries. Maybe it'll slip into mind that Wordsworth was the Poet Laureate. Or that Coleridge came up with 'water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.'

You would be forgiven for not imagining two naked teenage girls in a dark Gothic castle. But then, you aren't Coleridge.

Half mad with opium addiction, suffering from ill health and paranoid as Hell, he turned his ire onto his oldest friend. Wordsworth was, in Coleridge's opinion, sapping the creativity from him. There are letters, anecdotes and Conversational Poems which all attest to how Coleridge felt. If words were whips, then he'd be in a constant state of self-flagellation.

Wordsworth was the better poet. Coleridge could never hope to pen anything which matched his friend's genius. That was the message loud and clear. But it was underscored with a darker reproval. Wordsworth was an energy vampire. A moment in his company sapped the stanzas from Coleridge's very soul.

Make no mistake, Coleridge IS Christabel.  He was suffering just as Christ and Abel both did. Wordsworth WAS Geraldine.  Seemingly the same, but domineering, seductive and ready to feed on all that Coleridge did.

It's no accident that Christabel featured a vampire, which enthralled those around it and left them weak.  Coleridge had traveled around Europe and been exposed to the aftershocks of the 18th Century Vampire Controversy.  He'd brought home more than the ideas about blood. He'd also noted that those Eastern European vampires sucked the very spirit from its victims.

And so did Wordsworth. At least in Coleridge's fevered mind.  He didn't finish Christabel, because he kept making friends with Wordsworth again. The impassioned paranoia which fueled his epic poetry continued to slip away.

Yet could there have been a spark of truth in his fears about that relationship after all?

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The year 1815 was not going well for Coleridge. In truth, neither had the previous decade or more, but by now he was desperate.

Hopelessly addicted to opium, in fading health and estranged from his family, the poet really needed money. His son Hartley was supposed to be attending school, but that required funds.

The publishers knew only too well how 'distressed' Coleridge had become. They were offering him tiny sums of money for life-time awards of exclusive copyright. In the past, they'd bid much more for a single print run.

This was the year in which he handed the manuscript of Christabel to Lord Byron. Coleridge hoped that he could raise a better price, if it was Byron who approached the publishing houses. Christabel was written and presented in a state of hopeless paranoia, but warranted nonetheless.

If Byron's Fragment of a Novel was the grandfather of the whole vampire genre, then Christabel was its grandmother. Yet the last thing that Coleridge wanted at that moment was to have another idea stolen from him. Christabel had already been plagiarized enough. 

With Lord Byron's assistance, the unfinished stanzas were published within months. In May 1816, the first preface to Christabel made blatant all of Coleridge's frustrations and fears. He hoped that the reading public would not accuse him of having stolen anything about the poem, but he couldn't fault them if they did.

Coleridge began by clarifying that the first part had been written in 1797, with the second following in 1800.  He went on to state,

'It is probable, that if the poem had been finished at either of the former periods, or if even the first and second part had been published in the year 1800, the impression of its originality would have been much greater than I dare at present expect. But for this, I have only my own indolence to blame.'

He continued to defend himself against possible claims of plagiarism, yet he intriguingly omitted the names involved.

Unlike his contemporary readers, we have the correspondence between Coleridge and Byron from 1815-1816. We know what was going on.  Coleridge had shown his half-completed poem to William Wordsworth, who had promptly stolen its unusual meter (four beats to a line, rather than the more common syllable based poetic rhythm). He had also let Sir Walter Scott read it. Coleridge had since heard reports of Scott traveling around the Continent, reciting the poem in public readings, as if it was his own.

Lord Byron calmly read the complaints, then requested a copy of the stanzas himself. It duly arrived in October 1815.

A lot of Coleridge's poetry was included in the telling of ghost stories, during that wild week in Villa Diodati. (Mary Shelley mentioned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner twice in Frankenstein.) The turn of Christabel came shortly after midnight, when Byron read it aloud to his drug-addled guests. When it was left on an unresolved cliff-hanger, the idea came for them all to write stories of their own.

Christabel's Gothic themes informed Byron's Fragment of a Novel, then John Polidori's The Vampyre in its turn. All they really did was change the noble ladies into gentlemen on a Grand Tour of Europe. It was Coleridge who had already had the idea to make his vampire no Eastern European peasant, but a member of the aristocracy.

And it was Coleridge who, feeling that he was the victim of a real life vampire, turned that into stanzas for a poem. Then watched helplessly as others fed on the very life of that poem. The world was ready for a new monster, and if anyone lit the fuse for the subsequent explosion of vampiric literature, then it was Coleridge.

Biographies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Updated: 05/16/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/30/2013

LOL I like your version too.

But we do know about Wordsworth. Coleridge told us so.

Jenny on 04/30/2013

Blood, blood everywhere, nor any drop to suck? Wordsworth wasn't a vampire. I think we would have known about it by now if he was.

JoHarrington on 04/29/2013

LOL! I see what you did there. Clever! I'm guessing that you're going on the basis that Wordsworth wasn't a vampire then.

Paul on 04/29/2013

Daffodils, daffodils everywhere, nor any vampires to see!

JoHarrington on 04/29/2013

Opium, opium everywhere, nor any sense to think. ;) Yes, he was quite the junkie. Most of the Romantic poets were.

Jenny on 04/29/2013

I didn't know Coleridge was drug addict.

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