literature frightens readers with specific sorts of terrifying and titillating content. Common gothic motifs include cemeteries, murder, ghosts, witchcraft, and supernatural phenomena. Coleridge’s poetry is Gothic because he uses frighteningly Gothic settings and because he focuses on altered states, the supernatural, and enchantment. According to The Norton Anthology, “Gothic
came to designate … the terrifying, especially the pleasurably terrifying.” Indeed, Coleridge’s Gothic poems are enjoyable because they are shocking. The walking dead in Rime of the Ancient Mariner
and the ancestral voices predicting war in Kubla Khan
are delightfully frightening.
Many believe that the snake is a frightening animal. In literature, snakes traditionally represent evil, temptation, and deceit. When the snake’s form is combined with that of a woman, it becomes an especially unnatural and shocking image. The fear of the snake is tempered by the pleasure derived from the woman’s beauty, so the snake woman is pleasurably terrifying and therefore Gothic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” and John Keats’ poem “Lamia” each feature a Gothic snake woman. Coleridge and Keats present their snake women in different ways, however. Coleridge’s poems tend to focus on darker aspects of imagination, and Geraldine reflects this. She represents the Gothic, evil aspects of snake symbolism, but her characterization goes no further than this. On the other hand, Keats’ Lamia is a more well-rounded character because she represents the deceitful and tempting parts of the snake as well as Keats’ ideas about imagination.
In “Christabel,” Geraldine is Gothic because she is a snake woman and a sorceress. Camille Paglia suggests that Geraldine is also a “classical vampire of great age” (Grossberg 148), and vampires are also Gothic. Vampires are associated with evil because they are supernatural creatures who prey on others for their strength. They wander the earth, unsettled, much like Coleridge’s ancient mariner. He preys on unsuspecting people to whom he can tell his story. He leaves his listeners bewitched and drained, much like a vampire leaves its victims. Even if Geraldine is not a vampire, she is a wanderer like the mariner, and she leaves Christabel bewitched.
We first have reason to suspect that Geraldine is not the innocent maiden she pretends to be when she and Christabel walk past the kennel and the mastiff growls at them. Because the dog has never made an angry noise in Christabel’s presence, we can assume that the dog growls at Geraldine. It senses that something is not right about her. This does not have a deeper meaning, though. It merely serves to build tension. Coleridge is not using Geraldine to reveal any meaningful truths; he uses her only to represent evil forces.
Then, in Christabel’s bedroom, the spirit of Christabel’s dead mother attacks Geraldine in order to protect her daughter:
“Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.”
Alas! What ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy? (Coleridge 199-203)
The mother is defending Christabel because she understands that Geraldine is evil. Geraldine gives her true nature away when she talks to Christabel’s mother. It is not natural to see and communicate with the dead, so something is very wrong with Geraldine. This passage frightens readers because it contains Gothic elements and it builds tension further. But, like the other passage described, it does not reveal any deeper truths. Coleridge is merely making his readers squirm because that is what Gothic literature is supposed to do.
Next, Geraldine climbs into bed with Christabel and embraces her. The two women are naked, and the passage is highly sexual. This is in keeping with Gothic literature: It frequently represents sexual and forbidden things. For example, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk presents a scandalous rape scene between a man of the cloth and his sister. Sex between Geraldine and Christabel would have shocked Romantic readers because homosexuality was strictly forbidden in their culture. Geraldine utters a spell that, along with her touch, prevents Christabel from speaking. She says she does this because Christabel is aware of “This mark of her shame, this seal of her sorrow” (Coleridge 258). Though more modern minds would not see this lesbian seduction scene as proof of good or evil because sexual orientation denotes neither, Romantic-era readers would have seen this as further proof of Geraldine’s evil nature. Like the other passages, this is not meant to impart any more profound meaning. It is merely meant to shock and titillate, like other Gothic literature.
Coleridge next says that Christabel fitfully dreams of her sorrow and shame. Christabel is upset because she had sex with Geraldine, and she is tainted because she is under a wicked enchantment. Geraldine is the source of Christabel’s grief. Meanwhile,
And lo! The worker of these harms
That holds the maiden in her arms”
Seems to slumber still and mild
As a mother with her child. (Coleridge 286-289).
Geraldine has no regret for causing Christabel’s pain. Instead, she seems to take pleasure in it, because she is more at peace now than at any other time in the poem. She is distressed in the garden and when Christabel’s mother attacks her, and later when she meets Leoline she wildly rolls her eyes. But now, while she holds the suffering Christabel, she seems perfectly content. Such sadism surely signifies an evil personality.
The next morning when Geraldine meets Sir Leoline, she knows that she can manipulate him. He wants to use her to win his estranged friend’s favor. Benjamin Scott Grossberg says, “The Baron seeks to eclipse Geraldine’s homecoming by making it a moment of reunion for him and Roland” (159). Meanwhile, Geraldine is trying to drive a wedge between Christabel and her father. She succeeds when seemingly kind Leoline brutally punishes his daughter. This event is straightforward and it gives us a one-dimensional impression of Geraldine. Everything in the poem tells us that Geraldine is evil and that she uses her seductive powers to cause harm, but she doesn’t represent anything deeper than that. Geraldine is a stereotypical snake image. Her purpose is to represent evil while frightening and exciting readers. She represents Colerige’s idea of the imagination only in that he believes the imagination is dark. Ultimately, this story does not break any new ground. It upholds the cultural status quo by implying that women get in trouble when they aren’t being watched (Chatterjee) and by associating homosexuality with evil.
Keats borrows Coleridge’s idea of the snake woman, but he presents her in a very different way. Lamia fits the Gothic description because she is a supernatural being, and at times she is frightening. Keats breaks with Coleridge, though, by using Lamia in a different way. Lamia differs from Geraldine because she is not evil and does not intentionally use her magical powers to cause pain or grief. Instead, Lamia represents the aspects of the snake that are associated with rebirth and creativity. Furthermore, Lamia has a deeper layer of meaning: She represents Keats’ ideas about the imagination. She embodies the fragility of imagination and demonstrates that even though imagined things aren’t real, they aren’t evil. Lamia, the stand-in for imagination, is favored over Apollonius, the character representing philosophy.
At first Lamia is a pathetic being: Her voice “destroys / All pain but pity” (Keats 35-36). She hates her frightening form and longs to be free of it, but she lacks the ability to change her situation. She says, “When move in a sweet body fit for life, / And love, and pleasure, and the ruddy strife / Of hearts and lips! Ah, miserable me!” She wants to be loved, but she knows that no one will love a scary snake lady. This relates to Keats’ ideas about the human soul: He says we are made up of “sparks of the divinity… but we are not Souls till we acquire identities, till each one is personally itself… how then are Souls to be made? ... How, but by the medium of a world like this?” (Keats 1273). Keats is saying that we aren’t truly alive until our personalities have been developed through experiences. Poor Lamia is not yet truly alive because she has not yet experienced life: She is trapped in her tomblike body, and she escapes it only with Hermes’ help.
It is significant that Hermes uses his staff to change Lamia’s form. According to Carl Jung, the end of Hermes’ staff depicts two serpents coiled together in sexual union with wings above them. The staff has an obvious sexual meaning and also a deeper meaning. Jung says,
"Hermes is Trickster in a role as messenger, a god of the cross-roads, and finally the leader of souls to and from the underworld. His phallus therefore penetrates from the known into the unknown world, seeking a spiritual message of deliverance and healing." (Jung 153)
The staff is a means of transcendence. Hermes’ staff is transporting Lamia from her life as a snake, which is the known earthly world, into a higher unknown life, represented by the wings on the staff. In this higher form, Lamia represents imagination. It makes sense that imagination is born out of a sorrowful being, because people commonly use their imagination to escape from painful situations.
When Hermes aids Lamia, she literally sheds her old skin and is reborn as a beautiful woman. Lamia is representing the aspect of the snake associated with rebirth. Joseph Campbell says, “The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness … constantly throwing off death and being born again.” Lamia is throwing off the tomb of her former body and the dearth of experience she’s has thus far; she is embracing a new form and romantic adventures. Lamia quickly develops a new personality to go with her new form. Her sadness and shyness are gone. She stops weeping behind bushes. Suddenly she is confident and dynamic, and she goes to find Lycius.
Lamia uses her creative powers to generate an imaginary palace in which she entertains her lover. Her means of creation matches Keats’ ideas about the imagination. Keats compares the imagination to Adam’s dream: Adam dreams of things, and they are true. Similarly, Lamia imagines beautiful things, and they appear to become reality. Though everything Lycius sees while he is with Lamia is a deception, it does not hurt him because it is not bad. Lamia uses her powers to generate only pleasure, because she sincerely loves Lycius and only wants him to be happy. Lamia represents the deceptive side of the serpent, but not the evil side.
Imagination as represented by Lamia proves to be fragile. When the philosopher Apollonius reveals the truth about Lamia, she vanishes. Mark Sandy says, “To recognize Lamia’s fictional status is to unravel her own mode of existence.” Imagination is a delicate and ephemeral thing, and it cannot stand up to philosophy. This does not mean that philosophy is better than imagination. Keats says
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade. (II 234-238)
Lamia is good; she is compared to an angel and a rainbow, which are both pleasant images. Philosophy is stronger than she is, but it is cold and cruel. It takes the mysteries and magic out of life. Without the enchanting and unknown things that imagination provides, life loses its luster and becomes unlivable. Indeed, Lycius was unable to live without Lamia. Apollonius meant to defend Lycius, but he killed him by depriving him of life’s greatest pleasures: Love and imagination.
It’s interesting that Keats criticizes Coleridge for pulling back from the deepest depths of the imagination, because Keats himself seems to do this when he uses Apollonius to banish Lamia. But he does this to demonstrate the poem’s theme: Imagination is a regenerative, deceitful, beautiful thing that is fragile against logic. Lamia reveals all of these things and in doing so demonstrates Keats’ ideas about the imagination. Geraldine, though fascinating, is ultimately a less enlightening character. Her evil nature shows us that Coleridge like to explore the darker aspects of imagination, but overall the reader does not learn as much from her. Coleridge’s “Christabel” is important because it establishes the idea of the snake woman, but Keats’ “Lamia” is more significant because takes the idea and expands on it in a more enriching way.
Works Cited or Consulted
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Anchor Books, 1991. 45.
Chatterjee, Ranita. Lecture. English 458. California State University Northridge.
April 11, 2005.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Christabel.” British Literature 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1996. 721-729.
Jung, Carl. Man and His Symbols. Ed. Dr. M.L. Von Fritz. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1964. 153-155.
Grossberg, Benjamin Scott. “Making Christabel: Sexual Trangression and Its Implications in Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’.” Journal of Homosexuality 41 (2001): 145-165.
Keats, John. “Lamia.” British Literature 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1996. 1298-1308.
Norton Anthology, The. Internet. May 3, 2005 http://www.wwnorton.com/nto/romantic/topic%5F2/welcome.htm
Sandy, Mark. “Dream Lovers and Tragic Romance: Negative Fictions in Keats’s Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Isabella.” Romanticism On the Net 20 (November 2000) May 2, 2005 http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2000/v/n20/005955ar.html
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