Coleridge left relatively few comments on the symbol in his notebooks and critical writings; but it has a privileged place in his poetry. For him symbol was a means of attaining self-knowledge, and not just a literary device superior to the allegory. As his notebook entries tell us, Coleridge's conception of symbolism emerged from his experience of love and helped him work out personal problems in his relationship with Sara Hutchinson.
Coleridge's symbols, at all times, are conducive to a unity of some kind. From the moment a particular object acquires symbolic function, it loses its separate identity. It becomes part of, and modified by, a whole. No longer identical with its corresponding counterpart in the physical world, it is lifted onto an ideal plane of existence. In a sense, the symbol represents the means by which the phenomenal world can be redeemed of its otherness and its forbidding physicality, and brought into a closer communication with the self. As objects are permeated by a higher power and absorbed into a spiritual totality, they are recognized by the self as kindred entities, and transformed into characters from which the self composes the language of its own aspirations.
Coleridge has artistically explored how the self finds symbolic meanings in objects of nature: "In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering thro' the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, rather than observing anything new. Even when that latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phenomenon were the dim Awakening of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature…"
The symbolism in 'Christabel' brings out the eternal conflict of several binaries: good and evil, innocence and experience, life and death. Coleridge could have some idea on the unconscious as well, even before Freud, just as Baudelaire had apprehended Modernism long before it. The chilly night, the howls of the toothless mastiff bitch, moonlight coming from thin grey cloud, the lack of breeze – everything creates an eerie atmosphere right from the opening. The structure is of a nursery rhyme, but the mood is not; it anticipates and befits the symbolic encounter shortly to take place between Christabel and Geraldine.
The nocturnal wood also serves as an ideal setting of their first meeting. The forest has long literary associations with mystery, evil and death; and would later be marked as a Jungian archetype for the unconscious. The Oak, on the other hand, was a traditional symbol of wisdom and experience, beyond which lies what the poet has called "Vast Unknown." The embodiment of evil and experience, Geraldine naturally comes from "the other side" of the oak tree. Her deadliness is suggested again and again through her soft but ghostly voice and stricken look. Cleverly Coleridge never mentions what Geraldine actually stands for, and left the reader to freely interpret. But she is associated with an unknown fear: of evil, of experience, of looking deep into one's own self. The mazy and dimly lighted castle, where the tow ladies pass "now in glitter, now in gloom", is also an artistic symbol of the evil, the mysterious, and the unconscious.
Almost like the guardian spirit of Christabel, nature repeatedly tries to prevent Geraldine from casting her wicked spell. But she successfully pursues Christabel to take her to the bedchamber. With all the beautiful engravings and the statue of an angel, this room is a clear symbol of Christabel's sweet childlike heart, the innermost space of her mind. She thus loses her innocence and peace of mind, the blessings of her mother's spirit, and at the end of the Part II, the love and trust of her father as well. The tear in her eyes bewail that loss, as she sleeps with open eyes, "dreaming fearfully, fearfully dreaming."
At the end of the night, "a star hath set, a star hath risen." Apart from the literal meaning of the evening and the morning star, this also symbolically marks a new chapter in Christabel's life with the end of innocence and the beginning of experience. She is still quite innocent, but is now "in a wilderness", helpless, and confused. The sexual undertone of the encounter marks it as Christabel's stepping into the adult world, where her father who hitherto loved her "so well" would suspect her of feminine jealousy. She knows that she has sinned, though almost unknowingly. She has now tasted knowledge, and has fallen, with the only hope of redemption: "That saints will aid if men will call." Geraldine's faint, ghostly voice is also like the hissing of a serpent, or Satan in a serpent's disguise.
Apparently, 'Christabel' seems to be a fanciful narrative with a somewhat abrupt end. It is only the symbols that elevate it far above common understanding. Coleridge suggests a lot, but writes little; he mystifies his intended meaning that comes to the reader "dim-glimmering thro' the dewy window-pane."
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