Tuesday, December 30, 2008


“There is amongst us a set of critics who seem to hold that every possible thought and image is traditional; who have no notion that there are such thing as fountains in the world, small as well as great; and who would therefore charitably derive every rill they behold flowing from a perforation in some other man's tank.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Preface to “Christabel”

"I have not included 'Christabel,' for the reason that 'Christabel' has failed completely to include itself. Wherever the mysterious tracts from which it rose may lie, they are off the road which leads to 'The Ancient Mariner' and 'Kubla Khan.' And we are following only where known facts lead. I wish I did know in what distant deeps or skies the secret lurks; but the elusive clue is yet to capture." — John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination

According to biographer Richard Holmes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge began writing his unfinished narrative poem “Christabel” in the spring of 1798. He continued to tinker with it — or at least claimed to be doing so — into the latter part of 1800, but in the end it remained, like “Kubla Khan,” a tantalizing fragment. Years later he outlined the poem's supposed conclusion to a contemporary, James Gillman, but Gillman's description throws little additional light on what was probably a doomed project from the beginning.

In all honesty, the ruins of “Christabel” don't bear up to comparison, in terms of memorable language, with “The Rime or the Ancient Mariner” or what we have of “Kubla Khan,” but the tale they sketch out is not without interest. Briefly, the story is something like this: Christabel, the young daughter of the Baron Sir Leoline, goes wandering in the woods one evening outside her father's castle, ostensibly to pray for “the weal of her lover that's far away.” While kneeling beneath an oak tree she hears a strange sound, and on rising she discovers another damsel, barefoot and dressed in a white silk robe. Interrogated by Christabel, she says that her name is Geraldine, that she is the daughter of a nobleman, and that the previous morning she had been taken from her home by five warriors, tied on a white horse, and forced to ride at breakneck speed before being abandoned by her kidnappers.

Taking pity on Geraldine's plight, Christabel brings her home, at one point heaving her swooning guest over the threshold of the castle. They retire to Christabel's chamber where, in an unmistakably erotically charged scene, Geraldine bids her rescuer undress, then herself disrobes, lays down by the girl's side, and pronounces, “in the touch of this bosom,” a spell of possession over her. The next morning Geraldine rises, now fully restored, and awakens a somewhat ill at ease Christabel, who prays “that He, who on the cross did groan / might wash away her sins unknown.” The two young women seek out the Baron, who gives an enthusiastic welcome to his guest, and is surprised to learn that she is the daughter of an old friend, one Lord Roland de Vaux, from whom he has become estranged.

The Baron vows to repair the wrong done to Geraldine, and orders his bard, Bracy, to seek out the castle of Roland de Vaux in order to report Geraldine's safety and, at the same time, declare his own desire to be reconciled with him. Bracy, in reply, temporizes, reciting a dream he has had, in which a dove (obviously meant to represent Christabel) has been seized in the embrace of a bright green serpent. In the meantime, Christabel catches a glimpse of Geraldine, as “the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head / each shrunk to a serpent's eye,” but then instantly falls into a trance, and herself begins to hiss like a snake. She throws herself at the Baron's feet and desperately begs him to send Geraldine away, calling on her dead mother as witness for her pure intent. This inexplicable treatment of a guest infuriates the increasingly obsessed and Lear-like Baron, who bids Bracy depart at once in search of Lord Roland. There, after a brief and inscrutable envoi, the poem breaks off.

Fragmentary and odd as it is, “Christabel” has not been without descendants. The poem reportedly influenced Poe and J. S. Le Fanu, as well as a lesbian romance novelist named Karin Kallmaker, who, writing under the pen name of Laura Adams, adapted it into a novel. Like the underground stream of the sacred river Alph, it sometimes surfaces in unexpected places greatly removed from its original headwaters. As far removed, for instance, as 20th-century Texas. The following are the lyrics to another “Christabel,” this one from the singer and songwriter Robert Earl Keen, who included it on his 1984 debut album, No Kinda Dancer:
It's been seven long days and seven hard nights
In a '62 Chevy with broke tail lights
An eastbound man in a westbound lane
A dishwater blonde about sixteen
Was standing on the shoulder with a ribbon in her hair
Her hand on her hip and her thumb in the air
And I pulled off the road and as she grabbed for the door
I knew the wind was cold 'cuz I'd seen it all before
And I was scared

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

Now the moonlight peeked in and out behind the clouds
Now and again on this godless child
And the radio was scramblin', cracklin' in the air
The ribbon she wore looked old in her hair
And I saw the moonlight sliver dead down on her face
I knew it was true she was in the wrong place
In the wrong time, in the wrong tale
I knew when I'd asked her she'd hiss, "Christabel"

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

She was after the man who had left her alone
With no father beside her and love longtime gone
And the snake deep inside her a hiss in her head
The rest that had been her was dying or dead
And she'd a taste for young women with pearly white skin
She spat on the floor when she spoke of the man
Who made her like this
Who had written her tale
This medieval maid they call Christabel

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

Then she breathed out the story of her lover to be
A knight's shining armor on a silvery steed
Who longed to be worthy so he sought the crusade
While she waited, breath bated, in linen brocade
But a pair of black eyes wove 'round her a spell
The snake they call Lydia seduced Christabel
And she cuddled her tender, she poisoned her soul
She stole her young body and made it her own

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

Now the knight would love Lydia in Christabel's arms
And Lydia would have him should he ever return
But Lydia was left with the story undone
No silvery steed, no castle, no throne
Half woman, half serpent, entwined in a spell
A barge black and fancy this medieval tale

And she faded at dawnin', the bird and the beast
Deep in the dreams of those bound for the east Like me

Things ain't never what they seem
When you find you're livin' in your own dream

Things ain't never what they seem …
In addition to the obvious changes in setting and style, Keen's version preserves some features of Coleridge's poem while blithely discarding others. Geraldine becomes “Lydia” — a distinct improvement, I think — Sir Leoline is barely alluded to, and the absent lover, whom Coleridge mentions only in an aside, becomes the motive for Lydia's possession of her victim, with whom she now shares a single existence. The suggestion of lesbianism is made briefly and bluntly (“a taste for young women with pearly white skin”), and there's a sly allusion to Bracy's dream in the reference to Christabel as both “the bird and the beast.” Most interestingly, Coleridge has himself become a character, the man “who had written her tale,” and, by abandoning it unfinished, leaves Christabel / Lydia to wander the highways and centuries searching for a lover who will never return.

Keen has slipped in some great little lyrical touches, while keeping to the general tumbleweed atmosphere. I love “I saw the moon sliver dead down on her face” — did he half-intend “slither,” one wonders? — and the surprising image of “the barge black and fancy” seems the perfect vessel to bear the ageless, deathless Christabel along on subterranean waters from another time.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Winter pieces (III)

As the year waned and the days grew shorter she spent most of her weekend morning hours in bed, asleep if she could stay asleep or just thinking with her eyes closed if she couldn't. She always kept the room a little cold around her; she liked it that way, didn't like having to throw off a layer of the covers that she kept tightly wound around her if she got too hot. In her third floor flat, with the storm windows shut tight against the occasional passing car and the shouts of the downstairs neighbor's children, she would be undisturbed as long as she liked; her friends knew not to call. By mid-morning light would fill the room but she didn't mind; it fell obliquely, filtered by the shades, and by the time she was finally ready to rise it would have taken the edge off the morning chill.

She would cast a glance at the cover of the paper, dropped on her doorstep before dawn, but then set it aside until evening, make herself some oatmeal or a couple of eggs and a cup of tea, and only then would she change out of her nightgown and robe into a pair of jeans, a layer or two of sweatshirts, an old and ample soft gray sweater, and take her winter coat down from the wooden hanger in the little hall closet where it hung alone. She would collect her sketchbook and a few pencils from the easel she kept by her rarely used fireplace, gather her gloves and hat, and go out. It would be too cold along the harbor, this time of year, so she would head inland instead, climbing to the outskirts of town, to the first ploughed-over cornfield, then walk another mile or so along the road until she came to the edge of the woods. There she would sweep the tail of her coat beneath her and sit on a stone wall crusted with patches of lichen, yellow and blue and grey-green, and with her back to the road she would sketch the oak trees, the frayed remains of an orchard that had been abandoned years before, and the crows that gathered to glean the fields.

She couldn't pick the crows out by sight, but she was pretty sure they were the same ones, from week to week; in any case, there always seemed to be the same number, a dozen or so in the acre's ground she had a view of. They must have been accustomed to the sight of her, but if so they acted no differently, never approached or gave a sign of recognition. She imagined they had their own concerns, and she was not part of them, or perhaps they noticed her but were too polite to intrude upon her solitude. But now and then it would seem to her that one, having drawn near, would considerately pose for her for a moment, just long enough for her to deftly trace its form with her pencil. If so, she didn't signal her appreciation but kept it to herself; it was her treaty with them, that she would never cross that line.

She would have only a few hours of daylight. When the outlines of the furthermost trees began to soften and the wind picked up and bit at her cheeks she would close her book and climb down from the wall, ready for a warm meal, the newspaper, and phone calls. At night she would dream of the crows and in her dream she would hear their histories and they would tell her everything that had happened and everything they had seen from the deepest beginning of time.