How does Coleridge generate terror and horror in this part of the poem? Is it more terrifying or horrifying?

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2072

‘Christabel’ (1816) is a mystifying Gothic poem in its uncanniness, raising more questions than answers. The fragmentary nature is fundamental to the obscurity and uncertainty present with the female characters: Geraldine and Christabel. The passage employs horror and terror effects such as the supernatural concerning Geraldine’s identity and the setting of a forest, both of which produce a sinister atmosphere, revealing an impending sense of doom. Ann Radcliffe’s distinction between terror and horror is ‘the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them’ (Radcliffe, 168). Terror thus is characterised by an emphasis on psychological suspense, hinting at the supernatural. The passage is more terrifying because of an omnipresent sense of ambiguity with Geraldine’s identity; Coleridge never explicates the events or reveals the truth with Geraldine and her supernatural nature, and this obscurity affects the exaggerated imagination.

In the passage, the length of stanzas reflects Geraldine as an enticing figure who visually dominates through structure, which shows her as a threatening force. Geraldine, at first, is not particularly menacing in appearance or speech and is characterised as a person of pity. Her sorrowful tone invites sympathy and horror because she creates an image of a defenceless, frail woman seeking assistance. However, in the third stanza, from lines 79 to 103, where she narrates parts of her story, her presence cannot be ignored–not for the reader or Christabel. The shorter stanzas echo the building, yet subtle tension between the women, however, the abruptness of the second lengthier stanza immediately strikes out, mirroring caution when encountering Geraldine, especially because of her mysteriousness as a stranger. Also, the third stanza visualises Christabel’s submissiveness as she is drawn into Geraldine’s influence. Geraldine, an object of terror, strikes forcibly; she overpowers through the stanzas, and thus her sudden, strong presence is difficult to disregard–she retains attention in a mesmerising approach that is terrifying.

The sense of vulnerability catches readers off-guard in using rhythm. The metre varies from seven to twelve beats, but there is a hypnotising, musical quality to the pace that has an ominous undertone. The musical rhythm is also enhanced through rhyme, for example, the phrases, ‘line’ (Coleridge, line 79) and ‘Geraldine’ (Coleridge, line 80), where the accents are stressed. This unusual effect lulls readers into vulnerability, creating a foreboding ambience that ignores the quality of danger. However, the passage, via the use of sound in language, provides warnings:

‘They choked my cries with forces and fright’ (Coleridge, line 83).

The harsh consonant sound ‘C’ and ‘F’ of ‘choked’, ‘cries’, ‘force’ and ‘fright’ attempts to warn readers; instead of being susceptible to vulnerability, the reader is cautioned not to be drawn in, and so there is a ‘strange mixture of horror, pity, and indignation produced’ (Radcliffe, p.166). Therefore, the shift between musical rhyme and harsh sounding words are jarring which stresses uncertainty. The sexual imagery evoked is horrific because the aggressiveness and power the men exhibit indicates Geraldine as a victim of sexual abuse. The gothic feature of the unprotected, abused woman rouses indignant fury, however, the vagueness with Geraldine’s identity generates conflicting emotions within the reader; this conflict is both horrifying because of her alarmingly violent story, yet also terrifying because of the hypnotic influence that draws in Christabel which has a sinister undertone. We fear for the alarming force awaiting Christabel that is undefinable throughout the poem.

The forest setting, where Christabel encounters Geraldine at night, signifies conventions of the Gothic, generating a profound sense of fear for its effect in obscuring danger and mystery. The forest is symbolic of a chaotic, wild and unruly area liable to strange and dark events. Hence, a phantasmagorical element is cast with the forest which is essential in inducing terror because the vastness of a wooded area means that supernatural occurrences are probable. The forest is likened to the sublime whereby despite its beauty in unruliness, the forest’s immensity is truly terrifying as Christabel is exposed to indefinite dangers with no form of defence. Also, for Geraldine to be discovered at night in the forest ascertains a small threat she may pose to Christabel because of the obscurity the forest shrouds–Geraldine is ‘working evil in the darkness of mystery’ (Radcliffe, p.165). Furthermore, the Romantic, natural imagery depicts an air of mystery and fasciation involved the forest:

‘And once we crossed shade of night’ (Coleridge, line 88).

The darkness of the ‘night’ denotes evil and danger, and therefore this stillness fixes a mood of apprehension because Geraldine is an unfamiliar figure who produces dark shadows that are unclear and indeterminate. Consequently, terror in the forest relates to the unknown which the ‘night’ keeps hidden.

The juxtaposition of light and dark renders the tainting of purity. For instance, ‘palfrey’s white’ (Coleridge, line 84) and ‘bright dame’ (Coleridge, line 106) are contrasted with dark imagery including ‘night’ and ‘the cell’ (Coleridge, line 117). Geraldine described as a ‘bright dame’ by Christabel is ironic and disturbing because Geraldine, a supernatural creature, embodies impurity and darkness, particularly as she derives from the forest. Purity and innocence, characterised through Christabel, is set against fear of the unknown–a gothic feature. Therefore, an innocent girl defenceless against unknown dangers, implied by her ‘sins’ left unknown, is a vivid image that evokes horror; she is powerless to Geraldine’s control, placing her in harm’s way which is further terrifying as the danger is never specified, we only know of its existence.

Most of the terror and horror generated is associated with the obscurity that veils Geraldine’s supernatural identity. For example, the symbol of the ‘oak’ (Coleridge, line 97), the tree which the men placed Geraldine, suggests her ambiguous supernatural identity. The ‘oak’ denotes old age because of the time to grow, and therefore the ‘oak’ links a pagan and druidical darkness to the figure of Geraldine, portraying her as otherworldly; it is terrifying that ‘Christabel’ affirms the existence and power of the other-worldly yet in the poem, it is unfamiliar which overall adds terror. Also, as well as the sacredness of oak, the wood was used as the ultimate weapon for vampire hunters to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart, killing the creature. The significance of this method alludes to Geraldine’s supernaturalism: a vampire. The feeling of terror strengthens as Coleridge never reveals her identity in the rest of the poem, but subtle imagery and our exaggerated imaginations believe Geraldine to be a malignant being.

Moreover, the passage specifies numbers and colours, further obscuring Geraldine’s identity. For instance, Geraldine narrates that, ‘Five warriors seized me yestermorn’ (Coleridge, line 81) and ‘their steeds were white’ (Coleridge, line 87). In folklore, a pack of ‘five’ men on ‘white’ horses are believed to catch vampires, thus accentuating the element of danger towards Geraldine’s strange supernatural air. The religious imagery of ‘white’ and the number ‘five’ reveal a sinister tone because in Christianity the number five signifies God’s grace, demonstrating the ‘warriors’, rather than being aggressive and vicious men, to be a blessing, salvation brought to eradicate the evilness of Geraldine. The colour symbolism of ‘white’ portrays purity and devotion and with the men’s horses, they represent the forces of good. Accordingly, Geraldine, as the hunted supernatural creature, exudes hints of danger that can be harmful to Christabel, creating an atmosphere of alertness and wariness where readers are terrified, especially as Geraldine’s ulterior motives are ambiguous and never revealed.

Geraldine’s uncertainness continues with the use of sibilance that creates a soft hissing sound. This effect is disturbing as there is an eerie undertone. For example, when Geraldine is narrating the ‘s’ sound is prominent:

The lady strange made answer meet,

And her voice was faint and sweet: —

Have pity on my sore distress,

I scarce can speak for weariness: (Coleridge, lines 71-74).

Words such as ‘strange’, ‘sweet’, ‘sore’, ‘scare’ and ‘speak’ have a hissing sound, allegorising the snake Geraldine represents. The religious imagery associated with the snake in the Garden of Eden; the snake symbolises evil and corruption, and when connected with Geraldine, Coleridge subtly exposes her reptilian nature and therefore we should be suspicious. Similarly to the snake seducing Eve, Christabel is dragged into a sense of ignorance with little resistance. Hence a mood of terror and trepidation enfolds which remains in the latter part of the poem where Geraldine has a powerful, yet unexplainable, hold over Christabel.

Additionally, repetition is employed in lines 72 and 77 when describing Geraldine’s tone of voice as ‘faint and sweet’. The term ‘sweet’ is arresting because her voice is enticing to the ears. The repetition, therefore, emphasises Geraldine’s alluring power whereby through tone of voice Christabel cannot walk away hence there is an ominous undertone; Geraldine is a symbol of uncanniness and the supernatural, but her obscure identity and lack of specificity causes terror as a result, especially as the poem’s theme of incompleteness remains.

The concept of liminality involves the crossing of thresholds and borders which is significant in inducing an atmosphere of dread. For example, the baleful tone present in the last stanza designates the looming menace that hangs over the rest of the poem, hinting that Geraldine is not who she appears to be:

And Christabel with might and main

Lifted her up, a weary weight,

Over the threshold of the gate:

Then the lady rose again,

And moved, as she were not in pain (Coleridge, lines 130-134).

This section is particularly puzzling in its eeriness. A liminal reading of Geraldine’s ‘crossing’ strengthens her nature as a supernatural creature because she requires Christabel’s help to cross the ‘threshold’; although, when this occurs, she immediately drops her pretence of a ‘maid forlorn’ (Coleridge, line 82), demonstrating that readers should be sceptical. This brief occurrence raises questions of a charade, signified through the semi-colon that separates lines 132 and 133. There is no break between Geraldine’s distress over her incident and her exposure in lacking pain, ultimately revealing that Geraldine has achieved her desire–the crossing of the ‘threshold’–and there is no need for her charade any longer; this charade also resonates in the latter part of the poem when Christabel realises Geraldine’s control. Consequently, Geraldine’s liminal entity depicts her ambiguousness and indeterminate attributes that terrifies the reader as the sense of not knowing affects our exaggerated thoughts, horrifying us with our imagined events.

Furthermore, the alliteration in the quote ‘weary weight’ and ‘might and main’ stresses both the heaviness of Geraldine and the strength that Christabel uses to carry her across the ‘threshold’. The double consonant sound ‘w’ is successful in adding weight to Geraldine’s figure. When Geraldine ‘moved, as she were not in pain’ her movement evokes a threatening mood to arise because the line’s brevity depicts the sudden chill of fear with the realisation that Christabel may be in danger of harm. The combination of presenting Geraldine as fatigued and ‘weary’ then overturning this, heightens our horror for the lack of warning and never determining the conceived danger Christabel will experience.

The passage in ‘Christabel’ produces both horror and terror. Poetic devices such as sibilance, religious imagery and colour symbolism combine to generate a sense of horror and dread that resonates with the menacing atmosphere because we anticipate harmful dangers to arise. Although we never discover Geraldine’s real nature, the ominousness in tone and the mystery of the forest setting hint at a form of supernaturalism, possibly a vampire. Liminality reinforces Geraldine’s uncertain supernatural identity, creating a suspenseful mood where Christabel is lured into danger without knowing. Therefore, as ‘obscurity leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate’ (Radcliffe, p.169), we become alarmed with the horrors of our exaggerated imaginations via the poem’s fragmentary nature. The passage produces the effect of terror as well, specifically the supernatural and fear of the unknown which causes the ambiguity that shrouds not only the two women but the lack of information provided with the events. Yet, the poem is more terrifying because the obscurity that veils Geraldine’s identity and the mysterious, hypnotic quality of her character haunts readers.


Halmi, Nicholas, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano, eds, ‘Christabel’ (1816) in Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose (New York: Norton, 2003), pp.158-179

Radcliffe, Ann, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826) in Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook 1700-1820, eds. E.J Clery and Robert Miles (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 163-172

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