Supernatural Elements in Christabel
There was an agreement between Wordsworth and Coleridge that the latter should treat the supernatural in such a way that it would appear to be natural. And Coleridge kept the agreement to the full. He discarded crude methods of treating the supernatural and presented it as a psychic phenomenon. We find in him no such blood-curdling description of ghosts and goblins or of the mysterious rites performed by the witches as we find in Horace Walpole or Mrs. Radcliffe. His treatment is subtle, psychological and gossamer-like, and as such he secures that willing suspension of disbelief in the supernatural that constitutes poetic faith. In treating the supernatural he took it upon himself to make it convincingly actual and real, so that it might not tax the reader’s faith.
Coleridge does not attach the supernatural to anything concrete and definite. Unlike earlier romanticists he understands that indefiniteness rather than definiteness is the source of all the most soul-catching mysteries. So he invests the supernatural with the air of suggestion and indefiniteness, which not only stirs the reader’s imagination, but also throws him into a state of vague fear and suspense. In Christabel he leaves much of the matters of his story as vague and indefinite.
“The precise character of Geraldine; how far she was evil; the nature of her spell; the reason for its failure-such matters are left as vague and indefinite as the flickering shadows cast by the great fireplace in the hall.”
But it suggests the eeriness and remote horror of the scene much more effectively than can be done by any elaborate machinery. The trick of carrying on the narrative through questions and answers is very much to his purpose. In Christabel questions are asked to which answers are suggested or hinted at, but never clearly stated, as in the following lines:
“And what can ail 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?”
But these indefinite answers not only charge the reader’s mind with apprehension or expectancy, but also gives the narrative a certain incantatory and mysterious turn.
Coleridge places much importance on the creation of a proper supernatural atmosphere. “This consists”, as a critic says, “in wrapping round the tale shades of such emotional feeling and apprehension as would make it alien from the world of known and normal things.”
The opening of Christabel well illustrates Coleridge’s art. The story is opened at midnight, the time when charms and enchantment are undertaken and when ghosts appear and stalk about. This midnight hour is accompanied with the mysterious activities of owls, cock and the baron’s mastiff bitch. They seem to scent the approach of a visitant from the other world. The subtle hint at the presence of the spirit of Christabel’s dead mother (“some say, she sees my lady shroud’) completes the other worldly atmosphere and we are made to feel that something supernatural is going to happen. Thus by a process of slow and attentive elaboration the poet makes us psychologically prepared for the appearance of Geraldine.
In order to make the supernatural convincingly real her presents it as a phenomenon of the mind. He reveals the effect of the supernatural through hints as to the doubt and uncertainty the supernatural causes in the mind of the persons who are subjected to its influence. A vague fear crosses Christabel’s mind at the sight of Geraldine’s unearthly beauty, and she crosses herself out of doubt and fear beneath her cloak. The effect of Geraldine’s spell is shown in the fearful dreams of Christabel.
One of the methods Coleridge employs to make the supernatural convincingly real is to transform a simple natural object into a sort of supernatural phenomenon. Christabel amply illustrates this method. The full moon which looks both small and dull, the lingering of winter in spring, the one red leaf hanging loosely on the topmost branch of the oak tree, the sudden blaze coming out from the dying brands and the angry moan made by the sleeping bitch at the approach of Geraldine-in each of these cases a natural object has been transformed into a sort of supernatural phenomenon.
Medievalism adds much to the supernatural atmosphere. The spirit of romance on which supernaturalism thrives can be best evoked by taking the imagination to the dim, distant past. In Christabel, he takes us to the old medieval days and lets us see their castle with its moat, gate, tower-clock and bitch, and breathe their religious and superstitious air.
By all these methods Coleridge has succeeded in making the supernatural convincingly real and thereby effecting “that willing suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith.”
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