Comparing Female Characters in "Christabel" and "The Eve of St. Agnes"

By Alina Saminsky
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

Despite both being the leading female characters in their respective pieces, Christabel from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel and Madeline from John Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes have many striking similarities. Throughout both poems, the two women are constantly referred to as pure, innocent, generally good girls.  They are praised by the other characters and by the narrators.  However, both women engage in behavior that defies their descriptions.  Occasionally, this behavior even disrupts gender roles, and the position of the girls in their respective texts is questioned.

There are many instances when Christabel is described as good.  First of all, she is constantly called lovely, or referred to as the lovely lady Christabel “whom her father loves so well” (Coleridge 3).  Christabel is adored by her father.  The narrator calls Christabel her father’s joy, his pride, “So fair, so innocent, so mild” (Coleridge 16).  Another aspect of Christabel’s goodness is that she is a devout Christian.  The girl is described as a “youthful hermitess… Who, praying always, prays in sleep” (Coleridge 10).  There is one instance where “Christabel devoutly cried/To the Lady by her side,/Praise we the Virgin all divine/Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!” (Coleridge 6).  By giving us details that Christabel is a good Christian, the reader can assume that she is a good person in general.  Later, after Christabel takes Geraldine back into her room and Geraldine undresses, the narrator yells “O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!” (Coleridge 8).  Christabel is apparently not allowed to look at Geraldine’s body, perhaps in fear of corrupting her innocence.  Yet the reader sees that Christabel is not as innocent as she is portrayed.

Christabel’s behavior throughout the poem is far from innocent, and at times could be called inappropriate.  The reader is first introduced to Christabel as she is sneaking out of the castle.  It is said that “she in the midnight wood will pray” (Coleridge 3).  Automatically, there is something strange about her behavior.  Why would a young woman who presumably has a church in her home go outside to pray?  Yet the narrator says that she goes “To make her gentle vows” (Coleridge 9), so she can’t be doing anything too bad.  As Christabel is leaving, the narrator mentions that “She had dreams all yesternight/Of her own betrothed knight” (Coleridge 3).  Not much is said about these dreams, but they can be perceived as either innocent or suspicious.  As Christabel meets Geraldine, she is afraid but welcoming to the stranger.  When Geraldine seems scared, “Then Christabel stretched forth her hand her hand/And comforted fair Geraldine” (Coleridge 5).  Christabel comforts Geraldine and offers to take her to her house and have her father take her home.  Yet Christabel stretching out her hand can also be referring to Eve stretching out her hand and taking the apple from the snake.  By stretching out her hand, Christabel is perhaps accepting evil and sin.  Later, when Christabel is taking Geraldine home, Geraldine seems to faint.  Christabel therefore “with might and main/Lifted her up, a weary weight,/Over the threshold of the gate” (Coleridge 5).  This image of one person carrying another over a threshold and into a home is suspiciously reminiscent of a husband carrying a wife into their new life together.  As Christabel is the carrier, she takes on the role of the man.  Although she does not do it intentionally, Christabel is already crossing some gender boundaries.

Once she finally gets Geraldine inside of her room, one of the first things that Christabel does is offer her some wine: “O weary lady, Geraldine,/I pray you, drink this cordial wine!/It is a wine of virtuous powers” (Coleridge 7).  What are Christabel’s intentions here?  Is she simply being friendly, or is she perhaps hoping that she can use the alcohol to manipulate her guest?  Then, Christabel undresses, sits down, “And on her elbow did recline/To look at the lady Geraldine” (Coleridge 8) as she undresses.  This interest in watching Geraldine undress seems quite uncharacteristic of Christabel, and in fact, that is when the narrator promptly jumps in to shield Christabel’s innocent eyes.

After a rather questionable evening, where it can be assumed that the two women did more than just sleep, Christabel awakens and “Grows sad and soft; the smooth thin lids/Close o’er her eyes; and tears she sheds” (Coleridge 9-10).  There are many different explanations for why she is crying.  Perhaps it is because she knows that she has sinned, which she admits on page 11: “’Sure I have sinn’d!’” (Coleridge 11).  These sins can include bringing Geraldine back into the castle, trying to manipulate her, sleeping with her, etc.  So she did a bad thing by sinning, but she feels bad about it so she is crying.  But at the same time that she is crying, “she seems to smile/As infants at a sudden light!” (Coleridge 10).  The most likely explanation for this unusual conduct is that Christabel is still under Geraldine’s spell.  As she begins to cry, the spell kicks in forcing her to smile dumbly.  On the next page, Christabel hopes that her sin will stay hidden: “and having prayed/That He, who on the cross did groan,/Might wash away her sins unknown” (Coleridge 11).  Yes she is praying for forgiveness, but she is also praying that no one finds out about what she did.  Would this be considered taking responsibility for what her actions?  Christabel also ponders the idea that her deceased mother is watching over her in Heaven.  She asks “What if she knew her mother near?/But this she knows, in joys and woes,/For the blue sky bends over all!” (Coleridge 10).  She is both happy and upset that her mother is watching her.  She is probably worried that her mother would not approve of her actions and be ashamed by them.  Christabel’s mother wanted her daughter to marry and have children.  That was her duty as a woman of that time.  Yet Christabel has just had this potentially lesbian encounter.

Later, the girls go to see Sir Leoline and Bard Bracy.  Bracy says that he dreamt of a dove who he called Christabel with a snake coiled around it’s neck.  This piece of imagery has both the positive aspect of the girl as the dove, and the negative aspect of the dove being possessed by evil.  It further adds to the confusion of the conflicting occurrences and mentions of Christabel’s character.  This confusion centers on the juxtaposition of the positive way the narrator describes the girl and her seemingly bad behavior.  The reader receives mixed messages, which are unfortunately not cleared up by the end of the poem.

These mixed messages also occur in the poem “The Eve of St. Agnes.”  The main female character, Madeline, is depicted as a good, innocent girl.  The first detail that Keats gives the reader is that Madeline is still a virgin.  The ceremony that Madeline is performing that night only applies to virgins, so the reader knows that Madeline is not experienced.  Next, Madeline is caring and gentle towards her maid, Angela.  When Madeline sees that Angela is on the stairs, “With… pious care,/She turn’ed, and down the aged gossip led/To a safe level matting” (Keats 23).  Yet although the girl is performing an action here, and elsewhere in the poem, she does not really speak except for about two stanzas when she is talking to Porphyro.  This non-speaking makes her seem quiet and passive.  The reader is also allowed access into Madeline’s room, which is described in great detail:

A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,

All garlanded with carven imag’ries

Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,

And diamonded with panes of quaint device,

Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,

As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;

And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,

And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,

A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings. (Keats 23)

A person’s room should somehow reflect that person’s personality, and according to Madeline’s room, she is religious, wealthy, feminine, and loyal to her family.  She basically sounds like she is everything that a girl in that time period is supposed to be.  Later, as Madeline is praying on page 24, she is described as “a saint… a splendid angel… so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint” (Keats 24).  So Madeline, like Christabel, seems to be a rule-abiding, loyal girl.

However, there are things that Madeline thinks and does that makes the reader rethink the praises sung of the girl.  On one hand, Madeline is just a curious, naïve girl who wishes to dream of her future husband, to have “visions of delight,/And soft adorings from their loves… Hoodwink’d with faery fancy” (Keats 19).  On the other hand, she hopes to dream of more than that: “Full of this whim… her heart was otherwhere:/She sigh’d for Agnes’s dreams… Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short… And all the bliss to be” (Keats 19).  What kind of dreams is Madeline hoping to have?  In the canceled stanza that Keats was forced to take out, he describes these dreams as consisting of “More pleasures follow’d in a dizzy stream” (Keats).  That is in fact how Madeline’s night ends up turning out, as it is implied that her and Porphyro have sex.  But the reader cannot be sure exactly what happens and how it happens.  The details are so vague, that it is confusing as to who initiated it, if there was consent, and if the act even did happen.

The reader does know, nevertheless, that Madeline thinks Porphyro will leave her: “Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.--/’Cruel! What traitor could thee hither bring?” (Keats 27).  By saying this, Madeline entraps Porphyro in a situation where he really has no choice but to stay with her.  She even calls herself “A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing” (Keats 27), making herself seem helpless.  She clearly is able to manipulate the situation so that Porphyro, if leaving was his intention, feels too guilty to go.  She then says that she would curse him, but “my heart is lost in thine” (Keats 27), which suggests that if it were not, Madeline would have cursed him.  What kind of a good Christian girl would curse someone?

After their interaction, the two lovers flee the castle.  Although Madeline is “beset with fears” (Keats 27) as she is running away with Porphyro, she still consents to go with him.  This does show that she is passive and non-confrontational, but if she fully was a pure, innocent character, she would have refused to go with Porphyro and stayed with her family like she was supposed to.  However, it can also be interpreted that since she lost her virginity to Porphyro, she must now marry him.  Porphyro is therefore like a husband to her, and she must obey her husband.  The messages that the author sends in this poem are mixed as well.  It is constantly unclear who is controlling the situation in any given moment.

In both of these poems, the two leading characters are described by the narrator as being stereotypically female.  They obey the rules, they are quiet and passive, and they are lovely and gentle.  It is quite a shock then, to see how these girls behave; often, their behavior could even be called stereotypically male.  They manipulate and control others, they have thoughts that young girls should not be having, and they are quite independent.  But how is the reader supposed to interpret these complicated details?  Perhaps the authors are trying to say that women can still be good women even if they do male things, or have male thoughts.  Or maybe they are trying to say that even the most feminine girls have some male aspects, and that is completely natural.  Either way, it is clear that both of these authors were progressive men who understood that gender boundaries could be quite flexible.

Coleridge, Samuel T. Christabel. 1907.

Keats, John. The Eve of St. Agnes. 1885.

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