‘Christabel’, as Walter H. Evert wrote in 1977, has ‘eluded critical consensus’, and despite a steady flow of commentary continues to baffle interpretation. The poem evidently owes something to the Gothic romance, and many critics, including Evert himself, have pointed out the affinities between the figure of Christabel and the Gothic heroine – young, dutiful, innocent and terribly vulnerable. These affinities can be overemphasized, however, and on their own they do not provide a sufficient basis for the understanding of the poem. Its remoteness from novelistic narrative is apparent in many of its most important episodes, not the least of which is the frightening metamorphosis of Christabel in Part II of the poem into a stumbling, hissing double of Geraldine. Noone expects a Gothic tale to obey canons of literary realism, but something is happening here that refuses to be confined even within the rather extravagant parameters of credibility that apply to the Gothic prose tales Coleridge could have known. Both events and characters are polysemous in the way we usually expect myth to be polysemous. Some of the conflicting critical accounts of the poem which now puzzle us by their inconsistency may turn out to be harmonious after all, if we take slightly higher ground and examine the poem's mythopoeic elements.
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