The Immaterial “Christabel”: Reading Revision Before and After Publication

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This article takes up the act of retreating or withdrawal as a way of reading the unpublished and published versions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Christabel." Although Coleridge intended to publish "Christabel" in the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads in 1800, the poem was withheld from publication until 1816 and further revised by Coleridge until 1834. Rather than reading revision as clarifying authorial intention, or seeing less revision as creating more indeterminacy, I see Coleridge's revisions to "Christabel" as representing revision in a third sense: considerable revision that appears insignificant but instead compounds the indeterminacy of the text's writing. Taking up Coleridge's addition of The Conclusion to Part the Second as well as the modifications to the primary scene of unreadability between Geraldine and Christabel, I argue that Coleridge's repeated retreating and returning to these scenes are symptomatic of a traumatic relation that cannot be read in terms of authorial intention, but rather, in the words of Catherine Malabou, as an involuntary retreat that "the psyche cannot stage . . . for itself" (Malabou 9).

The Immaterial “Christabel”: Reading Revision Before and After Publication

Marc Mazur
University of Western Ontario

1.         The idea for this essay emerged because of an article by Catherine Malabou in the journal Public entitled “Is Retreat a Metaphor?” (2014). Retreat, it is true, is an act, but a negative one that negates even the decision to retreat, because “there can be no retreat,” in Malabou’s words, “without a retreat of the retreat itself, no retreat without a re-doubling, to the extent that the only gesture or move retreating can perform is to perform nothing, that is, to retreat” (“Retreat” 35). For Malabou, the retreat cannot be economized. Retreating does not, then, perform the move of withdrawing, as in the negative ebb to the positive flow of the ocean, and neither is it a remove from the profanity of the world towards some posited purity in absolute privacy. In contrast, the retreat demonstrates effectively “what it is not, that is . . . [not] a form of presence, be it God, substance, or reality” (“Retreat” 35). Much like what Derrida says of literature, there is in the retreat, “a chance of saying everything without touching upon the secret” of the retreat, for in the act of retreating, the retreat itself remains perpetually barred (“Retreat” 29).

2.         Though not mentioned in Malabou’s article, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe had earlier theorized an alternative version of the retreat in Le Retrait du Politique (1997). Their position remains tentatively hopeful, for the “retreat,” according to Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, “makes something appear or sets something free,” not “according to the rule of a nostalgic lamentation for what would have drawn back . . . but according to the hypothesis that this retreat must allow, or even impose, the tracing anew of the stakes of the political” (131). Rather than take a position, they argue for a “de-position” as a sort of Aufhebung that thinks the limits of the political and the philosophical while still holding both in reserve for something yet to come (94). The hopefulness that is sketched out by this idea of the retreat relies on the possibility of retracing a new ground for the political, as both theorists argue in another essay, “The Jewish People Do Not Dream”: “[t]o draw back [se retirer] is not to disappear, and is not, strictly speaking, any mode of being. . . . [T]he retrait is the action of disappearing appearing,” which means that one does not merely “appear in disappearing,” but rather one “appear[s] as disappearance” (qtd. in Sparks x).

3.         In her own way, Malabou recognizes Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe by means of Derrida, as she mentions that Derrida notes, in “The Retreat of Metaphor,” that the limits that separate authenticity and inauthenticity have become “absolutely porous” (Malabou, “Retreat” 37). Malabou continues that this results in an “aporia [that] does not equate [to] an impossibility,” but rather allows for the possibility to “still invent a new meaning for a retreat, . . . open a new possibility of withdrawing . . . [for] something yet to come,” or as Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe would say, clear the ground for a new encounter at “the incision” of the retreat (Malabou “Retreat” 37, Nancy & Lacoue-Labarthe 133). However, Malabou herself withdraws performatively, as her text moves from the conditional tense of the “I would have liked to dwell” towards, as she says, an other Catherine, one enveloped involuntarily that “suddenly become[s] motionless and speechless, “ one that “would lie in bed often with her eyes open but with a blank facial expression,” only to return again to the anxious hopefulness of the conditional tense (“Retreat” 36). If Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy wish to retreat as a means towards de-positioning, Malabou’s performance demonstrates the fragility that underscores de-position’s purposelessness; the retreat cannot be intentional, according to Malabou, for from where would one have the authority to withdraw, to retreat from the political in order to re-treat it?

4.         While Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe are concerned with re-treating the political––which Malabou categorizes along the lines of several voluntary and intentional retreats of past figures such as Maurice Blanchot, Alexander Grothendiek, and Thomas Bernhard––Malabou’s concern is with the retreat as something that is accidental, making retreat impossible as a result of its traumatic immediacy. For Malabou, the retreat, then, is not something chosen because the subject is indifferent to the retreat. She writes that “indifference” is “undecided, unvoluntary, non-chosen,” while its “rhetoric comprises figures of interruption, pauses, caesuras––the blank spaces that emerge when the network of connections is shredded or when the circulation of energy is paralyzed” (“Retreat” 41). She further elaborates this position of indifference in Ontology of the Accident (2012), where she distinguishes indifference from sorrow: indifference “is the suffering caused by an absence of suffering,” a suffering in which pain “manifests as indifference to pain, impassivity, forgetting, the loss of symbolic reference points” (Malabou, Ontology 18). Finally, in The New Wounded (2012), the retreat’s affective mode of indifference is linked to the indifference that arises after neuronal trauma or the trauma of the accident, as distinct from the definition of trauma offered by traditional psychoanalysis. Trauma, which is associated with “permanent or temporary behaviors of indifference or disaffection,” “thus designates the wound that results from an effraction––an ‘effraction’ that can be physical (a ‘patent’ wound) or psychical. In either case, trauma names a shock that forces open or pierces a protective barrier” (Malabou, New Wounded 10, 6). Whereas Freud may emphasize that trauma is endogenous to the psyche, Malabou expands on Freud’s analysis by including the exogenous causes of trauma by integrating recent studies in neurology. In this sense, Malabou’s definition of trauma recognizes that the alterations to the ego that are caused by external trauma have the potential to “manifest themselves as an unprecedented metamorphosis of the patient’s identity,” effectively creating a new person that is cut off from their past selves (New Wounded 15). Trauma, then, becomes something “the psyche cannot stage . . . for itself” (Malabou, New Wounded 9). Because of this change that results in an indifference or disaffection, any agency linking the subject to the retreat has been shattered, so that there is no longer any possibility for re-treating the political. In the case of the traumatic event that is exogenous to the psyche, one cannot speak of the intentional retreat; rather, one can only identify the involuntary retreat that is seen in the destructive negativity and unproductivity of trauma, which nullifies the circulation of desire.

5.        Because Coleridge withheld “Christabel” from publication for seventeen years, it is not only necessary to re-analyze the act of withholding as a retreat of a voluntary kind, but also to consider the retreat as that which is indifferent with regard to the imperative towards productivity implied by the act of publication. The non-publication of “Christabel” poses a problem because it begs the question: what was Coleridge trying to preserve by withholding “Christabel,” and from what was he retreating? Furthermore, it leads us to ask: can we even read the decision to withhold a text from publication? And if so, how can we read the negativity of that which appears only by not appearing, that is the immaterial, which is and is not there? And yet, because we cannot read that which is not there, I intend to read the different versions of “Christabel” before and after publication as a way of developing the concept of the retreat; for, if Derrida is correct to state that the line between the public and the private is absolutely porous, the unpublished versions that come before the first published edition in 1816 mark a way of reading Coleridge’s retreat from publication in the sense of Malabou’s failure of the retreat more than Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe’s re-treating the political.

A Practical and Theoretical Approach to Revision

6.        Before turning to an analysis of “Christabel,” it is necessary to outline its textual history. Thanks to the work of Jack Stillinger, whose Coleridge and Textual Instability (1994) lays the groundwork for all further studies on the versions of “Christabel,” we have available the most well-composed textual and compositional history of the poem. Stillinger outlines the poem’s textual history from its earliest stages all the way to the final versions that Coleridge was involved in revising:

For “Christabel,” which Coleridge began writing in 1798, expanded in 1800, and then tinkered with, but never completed, all the rest of his life, we have or can reconstruct some eighteen versions, but almost certainly there once existed several more than that in sources now lost. To begin with, we know of nine manuscript versions (or partial versions earlier than the first printed text of 1816: a holograph fair copy of the equivalent of 1–655 (that is, part 1, the conclusion to part 1, and part 2) at Victoria College, Toronto (CoS 52); transcripts of the same span, 1–655, by Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson among the Wordsworth papers at Dove Cottage, Grasmere (CoS 51), Sara Hutchinson (at Yale, CoS 53), Sara Fricker Coleridge, the poet’s wife (at the University of Texas, Collection, CoS 55 and 58), and an unidentified copyist (at the Bodleian Library, CoS 59); readings from a now-lost holograph reported by John Payne Collier in his preface to Coleridge’s Seven Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton (1856); and the quotation of 656–77, which later became the conclusion to part 2, in Coleridge’s letter to Southey of 6 May 1801 (CL, 2:278). The first printed text, in the Christabel volume issued by Byron’s publisher, John Murrary, in May 1816 (1816), can count as the tenth version. There are at least five subsequent versions constituted by changes and additions that Coleridge and others entered by hand in copies of 1816 [(CoS 60, CoS 61, CoS 62, CoS 63, CoS 64)]. The last three versions are the texts in 1828, 1829, and 1834. (Coleridge 79)
Stillinger’s position regarding the versions is two-fold. First, because Coleridge revised his texts so many times throughout his life, Stillinger argues that “the longstanding practice of identifying definitiveness with ‘final authorial intention’ is no longer defensible” (Coleridge 10). Second, Stillinger suggests that a practical theory of versions should adopt an approach of “textual pluralism,” which would make “every separate version” have the right to “its [own] separate legitimacy,” so that “all authoritative versions [would be] equally authoritative” (Coleridge 121). This position, similar to those propounded by “James Thorpe in the 1960s and then developed and championed . . . in Germany by Hans Zeller, in the United States by Jerome McGann, Donald Reiman, [and] Peter Shillingsburg,” would thus displace final authorial intention, and finally take into account the fact that authors revise (Coleridge 121).

7.        Revision, therefore, becomes a sign that allows one to read the differences in versions as not better or worse, because these versions are legitimate, discrete authoritative works in themselves. Stillinger compares writers who revise—such as Coleridge—to writers who revise very little, for example John Keats. What is most remarkable about the latter is “Keats’s facility in drafting upon, or for, an occasion” all at once, and the fact that “there is practically no evidence that he wrote his longer or more ambitious poems in any other way” (Coleridge 102–03). On the other hand, Coleridge’s revisionary practice is a way for Stillinger, according to his “Old Critical and . . . New Textual point of view,” to read authorial intention into the revisions Coleridge made to his texts (Coleridge 100). The spontaneity with which Keats wrote his poems stands in contrast, for Stillinger, to Coleridge’s inveterate revising. For instance, Stillinger quotes a letter Coleridge wrote to Joseph Cottle on February 1797: “‘I torture the poem, and myself, with corrections; and what I write in an hour, I sometimes take two or three days in correcting,’ such as is the case with ‘The Religious Musings, [which] I have altered monstrously’ (CIL, 1: 309)” (qtd. in Stillinger Coleridge 104). In this sense, Coleridge’s mode of composition required of him to become both “critic and interpreter of what he had initially created without a plan, and now, in these subsequent stages of writing, added authorial intention that was not consciously present in the original composition” (Stillinger, Coleridge 107). In order to account for revision while still maintaining authorial intention, Stillinger thus states that one can read revision as adding in authorial intention to a text that seemingly showed an unclear authorial intention at the outset of composition.

8.        That Coleridge revised “Christabel” many times is clear from the many versions before and after publication. And yet, the revisions Coleridge made to “Christabel” were so minimal, changing a word here, a comma there, [1]  that they lead Stillinger to revise his own thesis in Coleridge and Textual Instability (1994) about Coleridge’s revisionary practices. This is made clear in a footnote that Stillinger adds as he theorizes the revisions Coleridge made to “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan”:

If there is a causal relationship––in Coleridge’s not rewriting the two poems [“Christabel” and “Kubla Khan”] to add authorial intention in the way I have described––then perhaps a tentative generalization is in order: the more revision in a Coleridge poem, the greater the likelihood of receiving determinate (authorial) meanings––and, conversely, the less revision, the greater the indeterminacy. (Coleridge 246)
However, the differences and repetitions involved in returning, retracing, or re-treating “Christabel” show that there is something that perhaps gripped Coleridge in a third sense that even Stillinger, despite the modification he makes to his own argument, has not yet taken into account. For if the quantity of revision in a Coleridge poem should indicate more determinate authorial intention, and if less revision indicates a more indeterminate intention, Stillinger does not account for the fact that in “Christabel” there is considerable revision that appears insignificant but still compounds the indeterminacy of the text’s meaning. If we invert Stillinger’s argument, this third sense of revision is defined by changes whose negativity turns over and over again around an insoluble secret which retreats from the author, thereby substituting the fetish of revision for clarification. Despite his claiming that he had a clear intention in his mind, “Christabel” appeared to have a libidinal hold on Coleridge that he could not quite shake, as can be seen in his inability to truly revise the poem, that is, not until his first attempt to relinquish it by giving it over to the public by means of its publication in 1816. In this manner, the endless revisions delayed ever having to end the poem, and thus prolonged Coleridge’s libidinal relation to the text, since, in the words of Žižek in Looking Awry (1991), desire “does not consist in its being ‘fulfilled,’‘fully satisfied,’” but “coincides rather with the reproduction of desire as such, with its circular movement” (7).

Revision, Retreat, and the (Un)public Sphere

9.         Coleridge, as many know, had at best an ambivalent relationship with the public sphere in England. “The word ‘public,’ he claimed, was ‘of pernicious effect by habituating every Reader to consider himself as the Judge & therefore Superior of the Writer,’” and Coleridge believed, in the words of Lucy Newlyn, that “readers were . . . appealed to as an infallible judge: he dismissed them himself, sweepingly, as ‘the half-instructed Many’” (qtd. in Newlyn 52). Coleridge’s general dismissal of the growing reading public [2]  can seemingly be read as a dismissal of his early communitarian ideals such as his scheme with Robert Southey to establish a Pantisocracy; this dismissal, it would seem, is further reinforced by his later desire for the establishment of the “clerisy” class in On the Constitution of Church and State (1829). As Jon Klancher notes in The Making of English Reading Audiences (1980), Coleridge’s “clerics were meant to be . . . masters of interpretation,” that is, they were meant to take possession of what could be read, “to rule in and rule out the possible readings of social and cultural discourse,” effectively mirroring Coleridge’s relationship with his own texts as simultaneous critic and interpreter (5, 136). However, as Newlyn argues, “[i]f Coleridge’s ideas about literary ownership reflected his political ambivalence, more generally, towards the idea of property, they can also be read as paradigmatic of the transitional status of the author at the time Biographia was published” (69). What Newlyn shows is that Coleridge’s anxiety over the reader is not merely an anxiety concerning his work’s reception by the public sphere; his anxiety was both internal and external. The unpublishability of “Christabel” directly threatens Coleridge’s idea of a class of readers that have the ability to judge and interpret texts, and, therefore, represents a danger to himself and to the very community of the clerisy that he envisions. Coleridge’s retreat can then be read as symptomatic of his growing anxiety over the poet’s failure to critically engage with and direct the constitution of that public sphere, because “Christabel” is as much about a neurotic obsession over an unconstitutable negativity as it is a repression of that negativity, confronting its readers with a poem that remains consumed with an anxiety regarding its own publishability. Taken this way, Coleridge’s decision to finally publish the poem in 1816 may be read not only as a historical fact, but can be read through the lens of Lacanian anxiety, as Žižek argues, because “it is not the lack of the object that gives rise to anxiety but, on the contrary, the danger of our getting too close to the object and thus losing the lack itself”; taken this way, Coleridge’s anxious revisions provide insight into the complex relation that anxiety has to desire at the level of publication, as “[a]nxiety is brought on by the disappearance of desire” (8).

10.        Through withholding a work from publication, the negative right to retreat not only disturbs the notion of work as a material object, but also deconstructs the insistence of public sphere theorists––such as Jürgen Habermas and Clifford Siskin––that literature must be interpreted as a work of writing under a discourse of the professionalization of the author. Even in its early conception, “Christabel” was defined by its own unpublishability. The poem was originally planned for the second volume of the 1800 version of the Lyrical Ballads, but instead was replaced with Wordsworth’s “Michael,” which Wordsworth quickly finished off in order to fill in the gap. The reason for the replacement is not known, but we do know that Wordsworth, in a letter to his publishers, Longman and Rees, stated, “upon mature deliberation I found that the Style of this Poem was so discordant from my own that it could not be printed along with my poems with any propriety” (qtd. in Gamer and Porter 31). After 1800, Coleridge circulated and performed versions of “Christabel” for friends and family, and, as Christopher Laxer notes, the poem gained popularity among the British reading public due to the fact that Coleridge “controlled all access to his poem and could frame the perception of it in any way he liked” (169). However, while Laxer argues that Coleridge held on to “Christabel” because “publication itself shines a destructive and leveling sort of light” (176), one could argue that Coleridge began to lose control over “Christabel” well before its publication, at both the level of writing as well as at the level of performance. Indeed, Walter Scott did not hear it first from Coleridge, but from Sarah Stoddart in 1802, showing that well before its publication the poem had already begun to circulate outside of Coleridge’s immediate control. Furthermore, the impression that “Christabel” left on Scott was seen not only in its metrical resonances in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, but also in Scott’s recitation of the poem, which, it turns out, was how Lord Byron had “first heard the poem . . . at his publisher Murray’s house on Albermale street,” which in turn is the reason for Byron’s involvement in putting Coleridge in touch with Murray, who later published the poem in 1816 (Laxer 170). Indeed, Coleridge, when he first wrote the Preface to “Christabel” for its initial publication, “feared his own work would appear derivative of precisely those poems and poetic identities that it had helped to shape” (28), as Tilar Mazzeo notes in Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period (2007). Mazzeo continues, “Christabel” “had been widely circulated in manuscript among the literary coterie, and, as Coleridge knew, the poem had influenced the compositions of some of his more celebrated contemporaries, including Lord Byron and Walter Scott” (27). For this reason, Coleridge ends his preface to “Christabel” with a “doggerel version of two monkish Latin hexameters”:

‘Tis mine and it is likewise yours;
But an if this will not do;
Let it be mine, good friend For I
Am the poorer of the two.
(Preface 162) [3] 
From one perspective, Coleridge’s decision to withhold “Christabel” from publication can be read as an attempt to preserve a relationship between author and text. But every time Coleridge returns to the text, it signals a further loss of authority. It is important to note that the decision to remove the poem from Lyrical Ballads arose out of an agreement between Coleridge and Wordsworth, allowing us to read this decision to quarantine the poem not only as a means to preserve Wordsworth’s style, but also to preserve Coleridge’s own. While “Wordsworth’s exclusion” of the poem, argues Jerome Christensen, “registers the threat that [“Christabel”] represented as text (and, in the character of Geraldine as performative theory of the rhetorical power of texts) to the Lyrical Ballads as book,” the non-publication of “Christabel” was also extended to Coleridge’s other publications, when Coleridge did not include the poem in the quarto volume containing “Fears in Solitude” (217). And when “Christabel” was finally published alongside “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep,” it is telling that Coleridge did not try to publish the poems as a book, but rather, as Stillinger has called it in Romantic Complexity, “a pamphlet,” a medium of print that, ever since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because of the influence of Calvin and Luther, was overwhelmingly political (Romantic Complexity 163). The pamphlet, as Laurel Brake argues, is profoundly dialogic and in “dialogue with other agents of print and speech,” and to quote Orwell in Brake’s essay, “it is written because there is something that one wants to say now . . . in essence it is always a protest” (3).

11.        And yet, the pamphlet is also closer to the fragment [4]  or even the manuscript than to the serialized publication or the book, since pamphlets were “normally unbound . . . [and] not always aimed at public, or wide circulation” (Brake 8). Indeed, as is shown in a letter Coleridge wrote to Sarah Stoddart in 1803, Coleridge’s intention to publish “Christabel” remained always in flux. Insofar as he considered publishing it, his plan was at least never to put it in a “guinea volume,” as Karen Swann notes: Coleridge “[refused] Sotheby and the ten gentlemen [that accompanied him], [so that] Coleridge [stood] on his literary principles” and would rather have “Christabel” published on Ballad paper (397). Thus on the one hand, the pamphlet, like the ballad sheet, is still aligned with the publicity of print and is categorically different from the private circulation of manuscript culture. But, on the other hand, if the pamphlet remains a medium of print that is devoted to protest, it also troubles the Habermasian conception of the public sphere, which, as Lee Morrissey argues, is based on the false “presumption of a mutually reinforcing relationship between literary criticism and democracy” (2). Instead, the publication of “Christabel” in the form of a pamphlet participates in and simultaneously questions the very form in which the public sphere is constituted, inasmuch as Coleridge attempts to publish a text that thematizes its own retreat from the circulation of a symbolic order. The medium of the pamphlet invites readers to consider the relationship between literature and the public sphere as one that is not mutually reinforcing, but rather unstable and even antagonistic, since the pamphlet’s engagement with the political does not have the transparency of a Habermasian communicative rationality. Much like de Man’s conception of language, which “combines a logical side, which it is possible to decode, and a ‘tropological’ or metaphorical side, which stays as a ‘residue of indetermination’ after a decoding of the grammar has occurred,” Morrissey argues that literature opens the political to that which is left unread, which results in the paradox: “the avoidance of one side of the meaning is unavoidable” (9). As opposed to Coleridge’s hope that the clerisy would be able to become critic and interpreter for the public sphere, the revisions he made to “Christabel” before and after publication thus commit him to a different conception of the political and the public sphere that remains under erasure. Because of the act of revision, as well as the choice of publishing in the form of the pamphlet, the boundary between the published and the unpublished, or the public sphere and the (un)public sphere remains in question, leaving open the indeterminacy that ungrounds them both.

(In)conclusions and Indifference

12.        While the published version offers one interpretation of the life of the text, if we go back to the other versions of the poem, what Jean Bellemin-Noël calls the avant-texte, these can be read genetically [5]  so as to “reconstruct the configurations of unconscious desires that [allow] themselves to be seen” in “Christabel,” which opens the possibility to reconstruct the “unconscious discourse [that] slips into conscious discourse” (6). While it has been noted that Coleridge rarely changed “Christabel” in significant ways, the one major revision comes in the form of The Conclusion to Part the Second, which was originally from a letter addressed to Robert Southey dated May 6th, 1801, and which was later transposed into the first published version in 1816. The Conclusion to Part the Second of “Christabel” is so strangely placed that it somehow appears out of place. Indeed, if we compare the 1816 version of the poem with its prior versions, there is no Conclusion of any kind, so that the avant-texte provides us with a more formally fragmentary and unstable poem; even the first of two transcripts by Sarah Stoddart ends with the words, “A fragment” (Stillinger, Coleridge 214). In a poem so obscurely uncertain of itself, the Conclusion appears as yet another failed attempt made by Coleridge to close off the poem and make it ready for the public. And yet, this crossing-out or repression of the poem’s fragmentary condition indicates an attempt at “a mechanism of production” (Bellemin-Noël 6), because “[negation],” as Freud has noted, “is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed; indeed it is already a lifting of the repression, though not, of course, an acceptance of what is repressed” (235–36). Because the transcripts leave the reader with Sir Leoline leading forth Geraldine, and because the narrator of The Conclusion to Part the Second appears unwilling to admit the psychological trauma that is central to the text yet exceeds the limits that The Conclusion attempts to impose, Christabel seems more abjected in the first published version of 1816 than in the various earlier versions. Rather than concluding the poem, then, The Conclusion to Part the Second disfigures the very possibility of completion, for it replaces the thematic of the mother and daughter relationship found in The Conclusion to Part the First and substitutes the Wandering Mother for the Name of the Father. When Christabel confronts Sir Leoline, entreating him to send Geraldine away, we do not see a resolution, but instead the Baron is revolted by his own daughter, as the narrator explains, “[i]f thoughts, like these, had any share, / They only swell’d his rage and pain, / And did but work confusion there” (“Christabel” 625–27). This rage Sir Leoline feels is fueled by Christabel’s perceived incongruity with the symbolic order, which the father wishes to establish by means of exchanging Geraldine for the renewed friendship of Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, a friendship long lost that left a hole in both men’s hearts “[l]ike cliffs which had been rent asunder” (“Christabel” 410). Since “never either found another / [t]o free the hollow heart from paining” (“Christabel” 407–08), Geraldine functions as a means of re-establishing discourse between the two men, and thereby restoring the homosocial bond with Lord Roland by means of the feminine signifier. As Kristeva says of the father’s relation to the abject in Powers of Horror (1982), “a representative of the paternal function takes the place of the good maternal object that is wanting,” resulting in discourse “being substituted for maternal care” (45). What The Conclusion to Part the Second effectively represses is not merely Christabel, but the conflict that is staged at the end of Part the Second, that is the conflict between speech and the unspeakable. Taken this way, the repression of Christabel’s inability to speak results in the text’s missed opportunity to engage with the retreating retreat, which then haunts the poem in Coleridge’s repeated attempts to revise the poem.

13.         Arguably the narrator of The Conclusion to Part the Second is “Coleridge,” inserting himself to limit the poem by means of form and genre, and is separate from the narration that is present throughout Part the First, The Conclusion to Part the First, and Part the Second. While both narrators are characterized by a tendency to repress that which they cannot accept, the first narrator appears at least willing to show but not tell, while the second narrator appears to downplay the experience of Christabel altogether, and instead shifts the perspective to the experience of the father as a kind of substitute for the authority of the writer. That The Conclusion to Part the Second also originates from a letter Coleridge wrote to Southey is yet another indication of Coleridge’s new presence at the end of the poem. Much like the way The Conclusion to Part the Second focuses on the role of the father as a means of further shifting focus away from “Christabel”’s unfinished ending, the fact that Coleridge replaces the more descriptive narration of the first narrator with a theorization on the “words of unmeant bitterness” (“Christabel” 652) indicates a retreat away from the unconscious of the text; for even in The Conclusion to Part the First, the narrator appears unwilling to tell but still knows of the “sorrow and shame” (“Christabel” 296) that had taken place between Christabel and Geraldine. Even in the Biographia, Coleridge attempts to downplay the spectral presence of the unknown in “Christabel”, describing it rather as a “work . . . that pretended to be nothing more than a common Faery Tale” (238). The Conclusion to Part the Second also presents Coleridge explicitly attempting to impose the generic form of the fairy tale to “Christabel,”

A little child, a limber elf,
Singing, dancing to itself,
A Fairy thing with red round cheeks,
That always finds, and never seeks (“Christabel” 644–47; my emphasis)
But what is it that Christabel finds? On the contrary, is she not seeking something at the beginning of the poem? One can see the split in the narration between that which comes before and after The Conclusion to Part the Second, as the first narrator even admits his confusion as to why Christabel is seeking something that “makes her in the wood so late, / A furlong from the castle gate” (“Christabel” 25–26), while the second narrator, “Coleridge,” seems to have a slightly sadistic relation to Christabel’s desolation, as can be gleaned from the assertion that it is “tender too and pretty / [a]t each wild word to feel within / A sweet recoil of love and pity” (“Christabel” 672–74). But while the narrators of the poem fail to recognize that Christabel seeks recognition––which she finds in the figure of Geraldine, though negatively––they, along with Geraldine as “A sight to dream of, not to tell!” (“Christabel” 248), and the Wandering Mother that only Geraldine seems capable of seeing and interacting with, are symptoms of Coleridge’s repression of the absence that the text does not or cannot speak. For the first narrator describes the traumatic encounter but does not seem to realize that it has taken place, whereas the second narrator attempts to sentimentalize the poem as a means of containing the trauma that comes through at the level of writing; for the second narrator is not willing to give voice to the trauma of the text, though it is recognized negatively by means of the addition of The Conclusion to Part the Second, which represses the ending of Part the Second . This traumatic absence comes through, and “even contrives,” to quote J.C.C. Mays, “to become a metrical event” in the tale, so “that the true subject of the poem is only part-contained in words” (72). For instance, the em-dash that occurs when Christabel first hears the moan on the other side of the old oak tree, “It moan’d as near, as near can be, / But what it is, she cannot tell,—” (“Christabel” 41–42) the break in narration at line 42 implies the unknown known of the text, that is, in the words of Joel Faflak, the “de-humanizing generation of affect that resists intellectual or textual containment” (145).

14.         Whereas Coleridge’s non-publication of “Christabel” could be read as a voluntary retreat, a decision to withhold the poem from the public as a means to contain its fragmentary condition, the publication of the poem presents the reading public with the involuntary retreat of Christabel as subject. This involuntary retreat clashes with the assumed Romantic retreat of the poet from the world of politics into nature, as Christabel does not retreat as a placeholder or reserve to re-treat the political “world of death” (Coleridge 321). Christabel’s withdrawal signals a way of reading the retreat at a further remove from historicist narratives that read Romanticism as an intentional retreat away from the public, because “Christabel” as text and Christabel as character both present specifically involuntary examples of the retreat that do not conform to preconceived Romantic shelters in the natural or the transcendental, thus forcing us to re-think these issues more generally. Consequently, the difference between the voluntary and involuntary here shows that the initial retreat of non-publication still implies a will to power, a hope for completion, and for an end to the infinite project of writing that is implied in Coleridge’s Preface to the poem. There, he writes,

But as, in my very first conception of the tale, I had the whole present to my mind, with the wholeness, no less than with the liveliness of a vision; I trust that I shall be able to embody in verse the three parts yet to come, in the course of the present year. (Preface 161)
It is telling that by the last version that Coleridge revised, which was printed in 1834, this sentence was not included in the text’s Preface. Instead, what we are left with is Christabel’s involuntary withdrawal from language “in the touch” of Geraldine’s “bosom” that becomes the “lord of [Christabel’s] utterance” (“Christabel” 255–56).

15.         This scene has its parallel with Hegel’s description of the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). There, Hegel argues that once the difference between master and slave is achieved, the dialectic gives way to a new moment when “servitude in its consummation will really turn into the opposite of what it immediately is; [because] as a consciousness forced back into itself, it will withdraw into itself and be transformed by independent consciousness” (117). It is then that the difference is negated once again, resulting in a negation of the previous negation, which is meant to provide the grounds for liberated consciousness. Christabel’s withdrawal, on the other hand, appears to show that the involuntariness of that retreat presents itself as an effraction that results in disaffection, neutrality, and the inevitability of abjection. Instead of the liberation of consciousness Hegel describes, Geraldine is not present for her, because she is rather another symptom of absence, so that Christabel’s encounter with Geraldine eliminates and voids recognition as evidenced by the effect of Geraldine’s “serpent’s eye” upon Christabel.

The maid, alas! her thoughts are gone,
She nothing sees––no sight but one!
The maid, devoid of guile and sin,
I know not how, in fearful wise,
So deeply had she drunken in
That look, those shrunken serpent eyes,
That all her features were resign’d
To this sole image in her mind:
And passively did imitate
That look of dull and treacherous hate. (“Christabel” 585–94)
Rather than interiorizing Geraldine as other in the way that Hegel expects, Christabel internalizes Geraldine’s absence, because Geraldine represents in the text an absence in the form of the Lacanian objet petit a. In Žižek’s words:
[T]he object a is always by definition, perceived in a distorted way, because outside this distortion, “in itself,” it does not exist, since it is nothing but the embodiment, the materialization of this very distortion, of this surplus of confusion and perturbation introduced by desire into so-called “object-reality. (Žižek 12)
It is for this reason that the narrator shies away from telling the reader what Christabel herself sees, because Geraldine must never be looked at directly; for if seen, Geraldine could no longer be the “lord of thy utterance” and the mechanism by which language continues to circulate and thus perpetuate the symbolic (“Christabel” 256).

The Textual Abject

16.         “Geraldine,” as Coleridge told Henry Nelson Coleridge in July of 1833, “so far as she goes, is successful”; but the success, the achievement that is Geraldine, stands in contrast to Coleridge’s failure to complete the three parts yet to come.

[T]he reason for my not finishing Christabel is not that I don’t know how to do it; for I have, as I always had, the whole plan entire from beginning to end in my mind; but I fear I could not carry on with equal success the execution of the Idea– the most difficult, I think, that can be attempted to Romantic Poetry–I mean witchery by daylight. (Table Talk 1: 409–10)
The missing parts to “Christabel” have become a kind of trope at the level of composition for reading the poem as a failure, partly due to Coleridge’s habit of constantly telling people that he had “the whole present to [his] mind, with the wholeness, no less than with the liveliness of a vision” (Preface 161). But the publication of “Christabel” alongside “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep” indicates a thematic ambivalence with respect to making known the unknown that these texts seem to communicate at the level of affect. For instance, the affect in “Kubla Khan” is nostalgic, as the narrative voice asks itself if it is possible to accomplish its desire, the narrator questioning, “[c]ould I revive within me / Her symphony and song / . . . I would build that dome in air” (“Kubla Khan” 42–43, 46); and, in “The Pains of Sleep,” what is communicated is the affective anxiety that comes from desiring to withdraw from “[d]eeds to be hid which were not hid, / Which all confused I could not know, / Whether I suffered, or I did” (“The Pains of Sleep” 27–29). Until the pamphlet’s first printing, one could read the retreat from publication as a desire to withhold—to be with and to hold on to—these poems, both out of a desire for completion and because of Coleridge’s fascination with the poem, for Coleridge was in many ways compelled to recite “Christabel” “in societies of the most different kinds” (Biographia 238). And yet the act of publication, if we take the verb “to publish” literally in its meaning “to make something public” or “to make something known,” can be read as Coleridge’s attempt to retreat from his relation to the poem, as he literally gives over “Christabel” to the public, which would be in line with Peter Melville’s approach to reading Coleridge’s poetics “through the fort-da mechanism” (107). If the figure of Geraldine is the success of “Christabel,” perhaps the failure to write the next three parts is due to the effect of representing that “witchery by daylight,” resulting in a text that is mesmerized by but can never actually speak its desire. As objet petit a, Geraldine stands for the absolute negativity of the Real, but, by the same token, remains a part of the text so as to generate desire in all its manifestations. In this sense, Geraldine guarantees the libidinal economy of the text, but one that, as Kristeva argues, “maintains the symbolic order through exclusion” (Kristeva 10). Coleridge’s pleasure in reading aloud can then be read against the grain as the pleasurable pain of jouissance, as he even remarks in the Biographia Literaria concerning the experience of the “enkindling Reciter,” that it “is equally possible” that “a reader left to himself should sink below the poem, as that the poem left to itself should flag beneath the feelings of the reader” (Biographia 239–40). As Coleridge was well aware, it was possible for a reader to be enlivened by the performance of a poem, but the affective potential of a poem may be too overwhelming in solitude; as such, Coleridge’s decision to publish comes from the need for the distance of publication, of relinquishing the text to a public, to preserve the desire for completion by retreating from the poem itself, in the same way that he discusses the possibility of pleasurable pain at the end of the poem:
And pleasures flow in so thick and fast
Upon his heart, that he at last
Must needs express his love’s excess
With words of unmeant bitterness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Perhaps ‘tis tender too and pretty
At each wild word to feel within
A sweet recoil of love and pity. (“Christabel” 650–53, 668–70)
However, the act of publication does not rid Coleridge of his relation to “Christabel,” as is shown in the revisions that he makes in the versions after publication, specifically those found in the five marked copies of the 1816 version, and furthermore from the eleventh version to the eighteenth version. For none of these additions clarify the text. Significantly, the prose glosses, like those added to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), further obscure and contribute to the fantastic elements of the text: for instance, the annotations that Coleridge made to lines 249–55 in 1824, “As soon as the wicked Bosom, with the mysterious sign of Evil stamped thereby, touches Christabel, she is deprived of the power of disclosing what has occurred” (169). Indeed, Coleridge’s lifelong revision of the poem exemplifies a relationship to the text that is emblematic of what Tilottama Rajan calls the “textual abject” (45). In her article, “Mary Shelley’s ‘Mathilda’: Melancholy and the Political Economy of Romanticism” (1994), Rajan distinguishes the “textual abject” from Kristeva’s concept of the abject, thereby transposing it into a means of reading Romanticism’s tendency to re-cover, “both in the sense of redeeming and of covering up, the abject by absorbing its affect into narrative and explanatory structures” (45). The textual abject, as opposed to the Kristevan abject, is introjected instead of being cast out, because the relation becomes internal to the subject in contrast to the way that Christabel at the end of the poem is left abjected from the text’s libidinal economy. Indeed, the text itself retreats from the abject by casting it out in so many unreadable moments, and repeats Coleridge’s lifelong return and rejection of the poem, whose traumatic core he cannot confront except by retreating from the facticity of Christabel’s final abjection.

17.         While the primary scene of unreadability wherein Geraldine reveals herself to Christabel has been “read” many times as a lesbian fantasy or as a demonic enchantment which threatens Christabel’s purity and innocence, these prurient readings arguably remain under the same fantasy that Coleridge himself perpetuates by re-turning and re-treating the text so as to re-cover a relationship to the symbolic order, to quote Žižek once again, which spares him “the encounter with the real of [his] desire” (60). Prior to publication, Coleridge never changed the scene, but neither could he narrate Geraldine’s body. Instead, he leaves us with a fragmented body, “Behold! her bosom and half her side—” (“Christabel” 246), but somehow this body should be “full in view” (“Christabel” 245). Another em-dash gives rise to the narrator’s decision to cover over the encounter, so that this is a “sight to dream of, not to tell” although one that “is to sleep by Christabel” (“Christabel” 247–48). It is here, after the publication of the 1816 version, that Coleridge makes one of the most substantive changes to the poem, as is shown in marginal and interlinear annotations in copies of the 1816 version of the text, where he replaces on “And she is to sleep by Christabel” with “O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!” (Stillinger Coleridge 85). In later additions [6] , the poem would add six lines after “shield sweet Christabel!”

Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;
Ah! what a stricken look was hers!
Deep from within she seems half-way
To lift some weight with sick assay,
And eyes the maid and seeks delay;
Then suddenly as one defied
Collects herself in scorn and pride,
And lay down by the maiden’s side!— (“Christabel” [1834] qtd. in Stillinger Coleridge 255–62)
The most common interpretation of these changes is that they result from a public outcry against the poem; however, if we read the published text against its avant-texte, the dramatic interruption of the narrator, “shield sweet Christabel,” covers over the indifference present in the punctuation of earlier versions in the lines such as “And she is to sleep by Christabel,” as well as “And lay down by the maiden’s side” (“Christabel” 248, 250). In contrast to the earlier versions, the later versions intimate a much more dramatic and anxious narration, the lines cut vertically with multiple exclamation marks, which constantly interrupt the text. However, the exclamation marks interrupt in a way that is different from the horizontal em-dashes, which present moments of unspeakable silence, in much the same way that Derrida describes the secret as that which “is without content, without a content separable from its performative experience” (24). Reading the versions genetically from the earliest versions before publication to those after publication allows readers to see the changes Coleridge makes to the passage as not merely with a view to the public’s reception of the poem. Rather, the revisions themselves stand in for Coleridge’s failed attempts at solving the problem that arises from keeping the encounter of Christabel and Geraldine in reserve. This foreclosure that prevents Coleridge from disclosing this moment of the text is thus performative of the economy of the text, an economy ungrounded by its own recourse to negativity, and which retreats from that thing which cannot be re-invested in the economy: the secret as absolute reserve.

18.         This absolute reserve remains a “sight to dream of, not to tell” and thus arrests Coleridge in such a way that he spends most of the second part of the poem trying to de-mystify the foreclosed disclosure. Unlike Christabel and Bard Bracy, where the former can see but cannot tell while the latter can tell but cannot see Geraldine for what she is not, Sir Leoline sees “this Geraldine,” and deems “her sure a thing divine” (“Christabel” 463–64). For the Baron, Geraldine becomes the empty signifier upon which he can re-constitute a relation to the public sphere with Lord Roland, and forget the loss of his wife and a present life that he calls explicitly, “a world of death” (“Christabel” 321). Whereas Coleridge, in On the Constitution of Church and State (1829), outlines the balance of the State by means of three estates, specifically the Barons (the land-owners), the merchants (the distributive class), and the clerics (those in charge of the cultivation of civilization), “Christabel” offers a narrative that shows the limits of reason in the prose text, showing a much more affective and repressive imbalance foregrounded in the later political text. In Church and State, Coleridge argues that the state relies on the “balance of the two great correspondent, at once supporting and counterpoising, interests of the state, its permanence and its progression” (Church and State 21; my emphasis). For Coleridge, this harmony plays itself out between the two houses, “the first consisting wholly of barons or landholders, permanent and hereditary senators” and “the second comprising the merchants, the manufacturers, free artizans, and the distributive class” (Church and State 21, 33). The copula that ties these two together, according to Coleridge, is the clergy or clerisy. The national clerisy are to be made up of people who are to “remain at the fountain heads of the humanities, in cultivating and enlarging the knowledge they already possessed, and in watching over the interests of physical and moral science,” and this community is to be distributed throughout the country, as was previously stated above (Church and State 34).

19.         If we use Coleridge’s schemata from Church and State as an optic for the characters of “Christabel,” we can see corresponding figures of permanence and clerisy in Sir Leoline and Bard Bracy respectively. Indeed, Bard Bracy’s position in the text is to interpret in the same way Coleridge describes the objectives of the clerisy: “to preserve the stores, to guard the treasures, of past civilization, and thus to bind the present with the past; to perfect and add to the same, and thus to connect the present with the future” (Church and State 34). In contrast with the “custom and law” (“Christabel” 326) that Sir Leoline represents, Bard Bracy’s interpretation of his dreams positions him as a proto-analyst of the internal state of the psyche, but at the same time, his role seems to extend towards the external as well, as is evident in his desire to delay Sir Leoline’s order to seek out Lord Roland so as to go out and investigate the woods. As Bracy states, “[t]his day my journey should not be,” (“Christabel” 528) because the dream is a sign that there is something wrong with the world.

So strange a dream hath come to me;
That I vowed with music loud
To clear yon wood from thing unblest,
Warn’d by a vision in my rest! (“Christabel” 529–32)
When Sir Leoline only “Half-listening hear[s]” (“Christabel” 553) Bard Bracy’s dream interpretation, his indifference to the Bard’s request represses the role of the clerisy as analyst of the mind and of the world, and, in fact, goes further by mistaking Bracy’s interpretation to mean that Geraldine was “Lord Roland’s beauteous dove,” and vows “With arms more strong than harp or song, / Thy sire and I will crush the snake” (“Christabel” 557–59), the snake being his actual daughter, Christabel. As opposed to the ideal of the clerisy Coleridge sets out in Church and State, “The bard obey[s]” (“Christabel” 640) the orders of Sir Leoline, and thus represses the role that balances the order of permanence with that of progress, which leaves a world out of balance and Christabel alone and silent at the end of the text. That Bracy is able to interpret the dream but fails to intervene in the world demonstrates that the clerisy and the poet alike assume a politics of the future like that of the narrator of the poem, “That saints will aid if men will call: / For the blue sky bends over all” (“Christabel” 318–19). However, if it is a prayer, it is one that does not inspire hope, but that echoes out into a poem characterized by what Malabou calls the theatre of absence, “the privileged expression of affective impoverishment and destructive metamorphosis” (“Retreat” 41). The invocation of the social at the end of “Christabel” reveals, on the one hand, an incapacity to move beyond the fantasy that relies on a future-oriented return to a public sphere, and on the other hand, it shows that this attachment requires a sacrifice to the future that Christabel represents as the abject that must be excluded. But, like the prayer that echoes out into nowhere, Coleridge’s three parts yet to come fail to materialize because “Christabel” returns Coleridge back to the point of abjection, and provokes his return to the unspeakable moment at the end of Part the First instead of proceeding further into the fantasy of the social. This unspeakable moment, the trauma from which Christabel withdraws, enacts Coleridge’s desire to go back into the past of the text rather than keep moving forward, for indifference destroys the possibility of fantasy, as a result of the deep effraction, the wound from which Christabel suffers but cannot communicate. It is perhaps, for this reason, that so many readers return to “Christabel” because, in the words of Bard Bracy, it “would not pass away––” and “seems to live upon [the] eye” (“Christabel” 546–47).

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[1] In fact, Coleridge’s modifications only become more aggressive after publication, after the text is given over to the public. In this sense, Coleridge’s withholding shows a markedly different form of revision that attempts to maintain a personal connection in the unpublished versions that is separate from and yet still attempts to maintain a connection with the symbolic order. The effect of publication shows revisionary practices that are more concerned with impersonal pronouns, and increasingly shifts towards a more mediated and generic gothic poem that attempts to retreat from the destructive limits the poem transgresses before publication. BACK

[2] Coleridge’s intentional withholding of “Christabel” from publication can be read more generally in terms of Romanticism and its relation to “publics” and “counter-publics.” For instance, the intentional act of withholding a work from publication shows that the unpublished is at times dialectically related to the published in the same way that spheres of the counter-public attempt to respond to the hegemony of the public sphere. Andrew Franta’s argument in Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public (2007), “that the regime of publicity could be employed to manipulate the very notion of representation—not by transforming debate into consumption but by bypassing debate altogether,” signals that Coleridge’s anxiety over the public’s power to bypass interpretation altogether was an all too common concern (33). For more research concerning the relation of the public sphere and Romantic authors see the special forum issue on Romanticism and its Publics in Studies in Romanticism, vol. 33, no. 4,Winter 1994; Bennett, Andrew. Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity. Cambridge UP, 2006 ; St Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge UP, 2004; Franta, Andrew. Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public. Cambridge UP, 2007. BACK

[3] All quotations of Coleridge’s poetry are from Nicholas Halmi’s edition of Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition (2003), unless otherwise indicated. BACK

[4] Because Romanticists have long approached “Christabel” as a fragment poem, it is important to mention some of the most important work on the Romantic fragment, such as Marjorie Levinson’s The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form (1978) and Thomas McFarland’s Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin: Wordsworth, Coleridge, the Modalities of Fragmentation (1981). However, rather than considering the fragment as an intentional form, I argue that “Christabel” evokes the externally unintended, unanticipated, and traumatic sense of Malabou’s use of the term “effraction,” which requires a shift of focus away from the fragment as an unfinished project towards something more akin to the project’s disintegration, which is radically more negative. BACK

[5] The avant-texte is, according to the work of Jean Bellemin-Noël, “the totality of the material written for any project that was first made public” (31), so that any return to those pieces that remained unpublished represents an attempt to read the collection of manuscripts, notebooks, and other texts in the space surrounding a published text psychoanalytically rather than for continuity. The concept of the avant-texte is related more generally to the field of genetic criticism, a mode of textual studies and textual history that moves the study of manuscripts away from merely establishing a fair or accurate copy of a text. Reading genetically moves one away from reading for the “final” text, and provides readers a way of dialectically relating the avant-texte to the published or public text in order to re-construct the writing process. BACK

[6] Specifically, CoS 60, CoS 61, CoS 62, CoS 63, CoS 64. See Stillinger, Coleridge and Textual Instability 79. BACK