The author wishes to thank Sundeep Bisla, J. Jennifer Jones, Alan Vardy, and Nancy Yousef for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
4. The OED entry for “suspension” lists “willing suspension of disbelief” as a discrete usage, with credit for its invention given to Coleridge. The meaning of the phrase is defined as “the voluntary withholding of skepticism on the part of the reader with regard to incredible characters and events.”
5. Judith Halberstam characterizes the Gothic as “the crisis occasioned by the inability to ‘tell,’ meaning both the inability to narrate and the inability to categorize” (23). The proliferation of Gothic elements in Christabel has been the subject of a number of critical discussions. For recent considerations of Christabel and the Gothic, see Leslie Ann Minot, and Walter Minot and Jerrod Hogel.
6. During a hearing on the Iraq war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2007, then-Senator Hilary Clinton questioned the integrity of General David Petraeus’s testimony, remarking, “I think that the reports that you provide to us require a willing suspension of disbelief.” John McCain’s comment the next day that “It’s a willing suspension of disbelief that Senator Clinton thinks she knows more than General Petraeus” distended the phrase to the point of incoherence.
7. Many attempts to account for Coleridge’s failure to complete the poem look to structural and thematic difficulties that may have exacerbated his tendency towards procrastination. Walter Jackson Bate, among the first modern scholars to look beyond “bad luck and personal problems” as the impediments to the completion of Christabel, argues that “There was really nothing to prevent him during these three years (not to mention the next fifteen) from finishing the poem—except the nature of the poem itself” (74). John Beer, on the other hand, remains confident that a definitive ending to the poem could be imagined, yet admits that this is easier said than done in a “context which demanded that Christabel should remain ‘innocent’ in a very literal sense” (82). More recently, Susan Eilenberg has placed Christabel in the context of a structure of “dispossession” in Coleridge’s collaboration with Wordsworth: just as Christabel falls victim to Geraldine’s stronger influence, Coleridge gives way to what he perceives as Wordsworth’s superior poetic powers (99-100).
8. An immediate motivation for Coleridge’s gesture could very well be his sense that the unpublished manuscript of Christabel had been somewhat over-disseminated (or given over to misreading) in advance; chapter 24 of the Biographia Literaria describes it as having been “almost as well known among literary men as if it had been on common sale, the same references were made to it, and the same liberties taken with it, even to the names of the imaginary persons in the poem” (2.238).
9. My understanding of the implications of Coleridge’s insistence on the partial (as opposed to fragmentary) quality of Christabel is indebted to Sundeep Bisla’s discussion of mystery writing and copyright in the mid-Victorian period. Bisla’s study of British copyright law holds that the emergence of the mystery novel genre was a direct response to the contradictory legal position of British authors, marking “the general writer’s split desire to keep alive that metaphysical right of creation . . . and to, at the same time, establish that desired post publication identity as ‘author’” (194). Coleridge’s relationship to Christabel, in particular his concern with keeping a certain control over the text even as he allows it to be commercially disseminated, seems, in a number of ways, to anticipate what Bisla calls “authorship’s antagonistic relationship with publication” (221).