Saturday, August 21, 2004

On Lesbianism in Coleridge's Christabel

It has become common to talk about the hint of lesbianism in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel. For instance, Camille Paglia (as might be expected, I suppose) notes it, and the notes to my Penguin Classics Complete Poems say, "Nineteenth-century commentators on 'Christabel' - including STC himself - divert attention from the central erotic aspect of the poem, with its inescapable suggestion of lesbian sexuality" (p. 507). What I would like to suggest is that we should pull back a bit from claims like this, not because Christabel does not admit of such interpretation, but because such interpretation goes beyond the (probably deliberate) indeterminacy of the text, to treat it as if it were more specific than it actually is. In other words: the lesbianism interpretation fits the poem; but it is not required by the poem, which is more evocative and suggestive than this interpretation, if pressed too exclusively, allows. It is possible (and even, perhaps, reasonable) to read the poem as being such that its central aspect is erotic, and the suggestion of lesbian sexuality is inescapable; but this requires suppositions beyond the text. In actual fact it is difficult to define a central aspect to this constantly shifting poem (Coleridge's own "witchery by daylight" is perhaps the best that can be done in this direction), and the suggestion of lesbianism is escapable.

Just one example: it seems common to interpret the 'sin' of Christabel (at line 381) as having something to do with a lesbian encounter. However, it is not even clear from the poem that Christabel has really sinned; Christabel suggests it with "Sure I have sinned!" but this could (for all the poem ever tells us) just be an incorrect inference. It isn't clear what Christabel means by 'sin'; she could, for instance, be referring to her having brought Geraldine across the threshold. Indeed, it isn't even clear that Christabel knows what she means by 'sin'; "Sure I have sinned!" could be said if (for example) you were to see your state as a punishment, but do not know what you have done that has deserved the punishment. Further, Coleridge emphasizes Christabel's innocence later in the poem; at line 599 he calls her "The maid, devoid of guile and sin," and this is essential to her being the dove held tight in the serpent's coils. There is a great deal the poem does not tell us, and thus considerable room for radically different interpretations.

Christabel is very characteristic of Romantic poetry in that it is more suggestive than definitive; it lets the mind lead itself on its own track of associations, guided but not coerced by the poetic words. There is no definite lesbianism in the poem (and no definite lack of it) only the somewhat misty, dreamlike chiaroscuro of witchery and poetic suggestion. (Have you ever had a nightmare in black and white? I once had one; and Christabel always reminds me of it.) Exploring these associations, even the sexual ones, is part of what a good literary criticism of Romantic poetry must do; but it is also important not to get pinned down by one interpretation. Such is my thought, anyway.

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