Coleridge’s “Christabel,” Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and Early English Vampire Poems

I am preparing for my next discussion in “Folkloric Transformations: Vampires and Big Bad Wolves” at Signum University, and we have assigned Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s turn-of-the-century poem, “Christabel” (1797-1800). This 677-line poem comes out of Coleridge’s attempts to re-stage English metre, reaching back with folkloric feeling into the religious and cultural atmosphere of feudal England. In the poem, sweet Christabel is praying beneath an oak tree wound in mistletoe and sees then a woman who claims to have escaped brigands or rapists. Christabel offers help to the woman, even though there are portents of danger about the stranger. Christabel brings the lady into her bed for warmth and succour, and only then begins to be awakened to the danger:

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel! (245-254)

What did fair Christabel see? A wound? A mark? Ugliness? Beauty? Both and neither? Some disrobing of sexuality? Whatever it is, it is danger. The chorister cries out for the shielding of Christabel as she has tried herself to shield this mysterious wanderer. And not just this once, for Sir Leoline, her father and her shield, has failed her. He has fallen under the stranger’s gaze, enthralled and unwilling to protect his dear daughter, who begs him, in the only way she can, for protection:

And when the trance was o’er, the maid
Paused awhile, and inly prayed:
Then falling at the Baron’s feet,
‘By my mother’s soul do I entreat
That thou this woman send away!’
She said: and more she could not say:
For what she knew she could not tell,
O’er-mastered by the mighty spell (613-620).

What is Christabel’s fate? We can only guess, for Coleridge never finished the poem. For us to read it in the vampire tradition is a choice–and one that we expect our students to challenge us on–but there are hints throughout the text that suggest the stranger is not just an enchantress, seductress, and interloper, but also feeds on the life of Christabel.

Another Romantic poem that reaches back into the medieval world is John Keats‘ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (1819)–taking the title but not exactly the theme from the courtly love tradition. Keats’ more recent treatment is a dream-remembrance (or warning) of a fairy encounter in the woods, while the older 15th-century poem is a dream-vision dialogue. C.S. Lewis, in praising the older poem as “an admirable exercise in poetical style” and a poem that integrates the “dialectical charm” of intellectual and romantic pursuits, quotes the opening:

Half in a dreme, not fully wel awaked,
The golden sleep me wrapped under his wing (see C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, ch. 6, section IV)

In one sense, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” like “Christabel,” is a Lilith’s fair, a story as old as Eve, where fear of the life-devouring seductress is wound into the English folk tradition. Should this elf-thrall’n piece be in the vampire tradition? And is this winding together of traditions parasitic, like mistletoe around an oak, or as natural as English ivy? Again, there is enough interpretation open to readers to argue for themselves. Here is the poem from the originally published 1819 version:

“La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad,” by John Keats
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
       And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
       And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
       Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
       On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.

There are other, less obvious works among the Romantics. A kind of Gothic literary challenge emerged during a 1816 meeting of Lord Byron, Dr. John William Polidori, and the Shelley’s–the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley is the clear winner of the ghost story contest. Her Frankenstein is a literary classic, a work of mythic and lyrical beauty. It is vampiric, though not a vampire tale, and is one of the great foundation pieces of our modern science fiction. Historically-speaking, I have some concerns about the beautiful and compelling film, Mary Shelley. Mostly, I still feel like the 1816 story still has yet to be really told in film.

Lord Byron has left a scrap from the contest, a vampiric “Fragment of a Novel” in prose. While I have never been caught by the tale, his earlier “The Giaour” is brilliant, and quite thrilling in places:

But thou, false Infidel! shall writhe
Beneath avenging Monkir’s scythe;
And from its torments ‘scape alone
To wander round lost Eblis’ throne;
And fire unquenched, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem (759-768).

Wow, what a section of lines! Part of the reason I like teaching is because, in conversation with the students, the text comes alive to me in all kinds of new ways. I am looking forward to that experience with the tale that set a genre going, The Vampyre, by Dr. Polidori. The Vampyre is a short (my edition is 46 pages) novelette that is more responsible than any other piece I know in English for creating the 19th-century vampire tradition of the sophisticated, aristocratic, blood-sucking fiend. Combining Gothic elements with a Romantic heart, The Vampyre is a thinly veiled retelling of Lord Byron’s “Fragment,” with Byron as the villain, Lord Ruthven–a lascivious but seemingly loyal travelling companion of a young gentleman, the orphaned Aubrey. Lord Ruthven is, it seems in the story, a psychological vampire, and successfully traps Aubrey within a web of fears, concern for decency, moral imperative, and knightly honour. As the story goes, we see that Ruthven is also a literal vampire, and all of Audrey’s world begins to sink into peril.

Honestly, Polidori’s tale is terribly written. I loathe reading it as prose–even as I am able to admit that there is a Gothic genius and some good horror instincts at play. Scholars and teachers have dismissed this terrible prose styling and strange word choice–when you are confused in this story, it may not be because you are a weak reader–as intentional because it is riffing off of Lord Byron’s reputation. Perhaps. It is still pretty terrible at points.

In this way, it stands in contrast to Mary Shelley’s work from the same moment in history: Polidori’s The Vampyre created a relatively tight literary genre where most works have exceeded the original in literary quality, mythic depth, effective horror, and imagistic imagination; by contrast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has created a widespread and ever-expanding literary genre that has done wondrous things but has never really surpassed her work. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are flawed, but far superior as literature and entertainment to the best 3 lines of The Vampyre. Even recently, vampire fiction has been able to blow past Polidori’s standard, such as Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. I am working through Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and in the best of those books, she is able to do mythically what Mary Shelley did in Frankenstein. Though the stories sometimes drift, the way Rice can retell our culture’s great stories in popular vampire fiction really astounds me.

There is no real way to close off this discussion. I have mentioned a handful of English pieces that are part of an ever-emerging folk tradition, but there are dozens of others. Let me finish, then, with a short vampiric poem from one of the progenitors of the European Romantic tradition. This little piece by Goethe shows the ambiguity of vampiric poetic interpretation, as well as how the lore goes back to chivalrous tales. It also invites a contrast with later vampire prose fiction in the tradition of Dracula, which has moved far beyond the fear-of-Eve myth that seemed to intrigue the Romantic poets and the pre-Raphaelite artists I’ve featured here.

“The Bride of Corinth (From my grave to wander),” by 
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  

“From my grave to wander I am forc’d
Still to seek The God’s long-sever’d link,
Still to love the bridegroom I have lost,
And the life-blood of his heart to drink;
When his race is run,
I must hasten on,
And the young must ‘neath my vengeance sink.

“Beauteous youth! no longer mayst thou live;
Here must shrivel up thy form so fair;
Did not I to thee a token give.
Taking in return this lock of hair?
View it to thy sorrow!
Grey thou’lt be to-morrow,
Only to grow brown again when there.”

“Mother, to this final prayer give ear!
Let a funeral pile be straightway dress’d;
Open then my cell so sad and drear,
That the flames may give the lovers rest!
When ascends the fire
From the glowing pyre,
To the gods of old we’ll hasten, blest.”

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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6 Responses to Coleridge’s “Christabel,” Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and Early English Vampire Poems

  1. Charles A Huttar says:

    “po[r]tents of danger”?

    Fascinating, in your wide range. In my “The Art of Detection” (Mythlore 2014) I linked some of this material (Coleridge, Keats) with the Green Witch of Narnia’s underground.

    Like

    • Ah, yes, I’m a homonymphobe! If I can mix up words, I will do.
      Students mentioned the Silver Chair and Christabel, in particular. I suspect, though Lewis knew these poets (and used them as a standard of comparison), they are all drawing on similar images that go further back.

      Like

  2. Charles A Huttar says:

    Let me venture a response to your question, In one sense, “Should this elf-thrall’n piece [the Middle English poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci”] be in the vampire tradition?” In a word, No. But the question itself reveals a tendency often encountered in criticism to group together under a single label motifs that have a sort of family resemblance, thereby obscuring or blurring the differences, which may (depending in the overall purpose of your argument) be at least as important as the similarities; and which, whatever your purpose, is only part of a larger truth that deserves to be told. Taxonomy (think phylum, class, order, family, …) is an essential part of the science. As I see it, the examples mentioned (“Christabel,” Lilith, the vampire “tradition”) and others (Lamia, perhaps Circe, the Green Witch, and how about Dalila? – and so on) are distinct members of a larger class — though when we come to possible examples in Spenser. the allegorical intent undermines the distinctness.
    Thanks for giving enough of the Lewis reference that I could look it up. That 15th-century poem by Sir Richard Ros is not in “the English folk tradition” but a translation from Alain Chartier, whose title alone, it seems, inspired Keats. Whether there’s anything in the courtly love tradition that fits your taxonomy I leave to others to work out. Lewis’s rather apologetic use of the word “masochism” may (or may not) be a clue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    How prolific Goethe was, and how little I’ve read, even in translation! Thank you very much for introducing me to ‘Die Braut von Corinth’, which I have now read in full in English translation, and should try to tackle in German… I was just reading the other day about Goethe’s poem from the same year, 1797, which inspired Dukas’ tone poem and so ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ section in Disney’s Fantasia – and got sidetracked looking up Goethe’s source for it in Lucian’s ‘The Lover of Lies’ as translated into English in volume III of his works in the Loeb Library (pp. 371-77)… and still have not read Goethe’s version! The German Wikipedia article, “Die Braut von Korinth”, gives Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels as his source for it – but there only seem to be modern translations of that, which I will have to try to chase down in a good library… Meanwhile, I found some fascinating remarks about writing the poem (and other ballads) in Eckermann’s 14 March 1830 conversation with Goethe (in the 1875 ed. of John Oxenford’s translation).

    I wonder what in terms of taxonomy and motif could be said of Goethe’s ‘Bride’ and his ‘Erlkönig’ in comparison – and contrast? (I first encountered it in a hair-raising performance by Gérard Souzay of Schubert’s setting.)

    Liked by 1 person

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