A specific feature in medieval morality as also in medieval romances is the representation of the conflict between good and evil for the possession of the innocent soul of man. Firmly grounded on the Catholic conception of the temptation by evil to seduce the innocent and the consequent struggle between good and evil, such medieval literary works are found to have a moral didactic note.
S.T.Coleridge’s poem Christabel, Part I belongs to the modern world, but presents a theme that is typically medieval, with its medieval characters and setting. The poem has a good deal of commonness with medieval romances, although it is much sophisticated in its psychological and environmental impact. The poem has also something of the moral element of the morality play in its representation of the conflict between the good spirit and the evil for the possession of the soul of the innocent. The story of the poem is about the play of witchery by Geraldine, an evil spirit, on Christabel, a pious, innocent, young lady. She lived under the protection of her dead mother-a good spirit. The poem presents in the pattern of a medieval morality, the conflict between good and evil spirit.
As a poem, Christabel Part I is closely related to the medieval world and deals with supernatural suggestiveness, common to this world. The poem shows the way in which the evil spirit gets hold of Christabel, an innocent virtuous lady. Out of her feminine pity and tenderness, she accords protection and gives shelter to a strange woman who describes herself as a victim of abduction by a gang of roguish knights. This woman, Geraldine, however, is the incarnation of evil and her motive is to win Christabel’s innocent soul.
Coleridge, in his Christabel Part I, relates the way in which the evil spirit gets into the innocent with the latter’s help. There are several hints and well-drawn suggestions in this respect. Geraldine spreads her hand time and again to touch Christabel. The latter, after her initial hesitation, accepts her hand and promises to help her in her distress. Again, Geraldine collapses, just in front of the castle gate and she pulls her on the other side of the threshold. This is again, indicative of the way in which the evil spirit takes the help of the innocent to center the latter’s domain.
Of course, the evil spirit of Geraldine is not elaborated by the poet, but merely hinted at and suggested. This spirit finds an easy home in Christabel’s bosom, as she accepts Geraldine as fully trustworthy. There are, no doubt, vague warnings to Christabel against the nature of the strange lady on several occasions. First, the mastiff bitch yells before her, as she, along with Geraldine, passes the kennel. Again, when Christabel sings in praise of Virgin Mary, Geraldine offers an excuse of her fatigue for refraining from singing with her. There is also a sudden fit of flame from the dying brands, as Christabel and Geraldine are passing through the lonely and silent hall.
Geraldine’s evil nature becomes rather clear only when she reaches Christable’s bed-chamber. She collapses suddenly and begins to address the invisible spirit of Christabel’s mother. She seems to cry out to her to leave the place, as the time is alloted to her. Her whole conduct is unnatural, suspicious, and liable to interpret her as possessing the power to discern the invisible spirit. This is well indicated in the poet’s interrogation-
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
Of course, Christabel appears to take this as the effect of her companion’s troublesome experience of the day. The lady also soon regains her normalcy and claims that her desperation is all over.
The situation in Christabel’s bed-chamber bears out particularly the evidence of the conflict between evil and good. Geraldine, the incarnation of the evil spirit, is here in conflict with Christabel’s dead mother, a good spirit. While the former seeks to pollute her, the latter comes to protect her. Ultimately, of course, the evil spirit succeeds and Christabel’s mother has to give way to the evil spirit of Geraldine.
The poem, however, does not end with the success of the evil spirit. It has a didactic Christian note and that is brought out at the conclusion of Part I. The poet first shows Christabel lying miserably under the grip of Geraldine, an evil spirit. But he also emphasises the change of the situation with the coming of dawn. As the dawn comes nearer, the evil spirit begins to wane, and there is also a healthy change in sleeping Christabel. Her faith, innocence, and tender nature seem to be revived again. She gradually comes out of the trance of evil.
The poem ends with a didactic Christian note in which the poet affirms the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Christabel’s subjugation to the evil spirit is no permanent affair and the poet believes a change in her state, and returns to her former innocence after the spell of Geraldine is over. In the concluding lines of the poem, the poet asserts God’s ready and gracious help to those who are innocent, virtuous, and devoted.
But this she knows, in joys and woes
That saints will aid if men will call :
For the blue sky bends over all.
Also read; Summary of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner“