Christabel’s inverted gender roles

Although Coleridge explicitly depicts traditional gender roles and dynamics in the first half of “Christabel”, he inverts these gender norms in the second half of the poem through the characterization of Christabel and her relationship with Geraldine. The speaker introduces Christabel as a well-off young woman with dreams of meeting a knight and falling in love; the speaker repeatedly uses the phrase “lovely lady” when first describing or referring to Christabel (l. 23, 38, 47). The alliterative nature of this phrase emphasizes the soft, light “L” sound, which exudes the same daintiness that thus far characterizes Christabel. Additionally, the word “lovely” has feminine connotations within the gender binary due to the beauty and mannerism standards for women; Christabel, then, is considered lovely due to her adherence to traditional gender standards. The phrase “lovely lady” ultimately situates her well within the traditional gender expectations for women. 

In the poem, Christabel leaves the castle to pray under a tree when she meets Geraldine. Meeting Geraldine and learning about her situation initiates Christabel’s shift from fulfilling a traditionally feminine gender role to a more masculine one. Because Geraldine, who the speaker repeatedly characterizes as “faint and sweet”, describes being captured by a group of men, she portrays the “damsel in distress” trope (l. 68, 73). Christabel, by saving Geraldine and taking her to safety, then acts as the savior of the damsel in distress. Traditionally, a knight or other prominent male figure fulfills this savior role, but having Christabel save the damsel inverts gender roles and shows a sense of female agency. By physically lifting Geraldine over the gate, tending to Geraldine’s needs, and eventually sleeping with her, Christabel’s displays of agency subtly align with the traditionally masculine traits of physical strength and sexual prowess. This implies that although Christabel has agency, the only legitimate form of agency is that which stems from traditionally masculine values. The consequences of Christabel’s agency also promote this patriarchal ideology, as it becomes clear that the “damsel in distress” being saved is actually some sort of witch, demon, or other dangerous and mystical being. Considering her true identity, Geraldine gaining access to Christabel’s home has dangerous implications, and it is due to Christbel’s displays of agency that Geraldine has this access in the first place. Therefore, Christabel’s inverted gender roles does more harm than good and reinforces the idea that women should not stray from their expected gender roles. 

Christian Divinety and Slavery

Although most literature from the Romantic period did not engage with or challenge popular religious ideology, writers still used religious references and comparisons to enhance their ideas about humankind and sublime experiences. Both William Blake, in “The Divine Image” from Songs of Innocence, and Ann Yearsley, in “Death of Luco”, reference Christianity, however Blake emphasizes religious divinity in the ordinary world while Yearsley criticizes religious hypocrisy. Using a religious lens to examine these two poems highlight the distinction between what Christianity should represent, and what it actually represents. 

In “The Divine Image”, Blake conceptualizes four main tenets of Christianity- mercy, pity, peace, and love- as parts of a divine being as well as parts of a human being. He writes that these virtues are both “God our father dear” and “man, his child and care” (l. 6-8). Mercy, pity, peace, and love inherently have divine connotations in the Church, as it is believed that only God can perfectly uphold these virtues, but Blake explicitly personifies these virtues to show their presence across humanity. Blake writes that “Mercy has a human heart”, “Pity, a human face”, “Love, the human form”, and “Peace, the human dress”; he intentionally capitalizes each virtuous word to emphasize its importance and transcendental nature (l. 13-16). By describing the presence of these otherwise divinely religious concepts in average human forms, Blake challenges the strict separation between God’s perfection and humanity’s imperfection. This optimistic perspective suggests that the religious ideals of mercy, pity, peace, and love, while divine in concept, are ordinary in appearance and can be found within “every man of every clime” (l. 13). Rather than reserving Christianity for only the most pious individuals, Blake supports the notion that anyone and everyone can participate in the Christian faith. 

As a part of the collection Songs of Innocence, the inclusive Christianity depicted in “The Divine Image” represents an idealistic, and even naive, understanding of Christianity rather than the reality. Yearsley, however, presents a less idealistic depiction of Christianity in “Death of Luco”. This poem tells the story of Luco, an enslaved man, and the violent and hateful actions directed toward him by his Christian slave owners. Yearsley explicitly refers to Luco’s master as the “remorseless Christian” and the “rude Christian”, and she later extends her criticism to all of slave owners that “dare avow to God” (l. 253, 259, 285). Her criticism of slave-owning Christians speaks to the hypocrisy of those who believe in a kind, forgiving God while simultaneously owning, torturing, raping, and killing enslaved human beings. Unlike Blake’s depiction of Christianity, Yearsley uses the sociopolitical issue of slavery to contextualize the contradictory reality of Christianity. Therefore, Blake presents the perfect image of Christianity, based upon God’s divinity and the principles of mercy, pity, peace, and love, and Yearsley describes the same Christianity, only after it has been appropriated by humankind. Where Blake shows humanity’s potential for divine goodness, then, Yearsley shows humanity’s actual dismissal of divine goodness.

Nature vs Man in “Lines Written in Early Spring”

     In his poem “Lines Written in Early Spring”, Wordsworth contrasts the natural world’s serenity with mankind’s conflict to grapple with the disconnect between humans and Nature. Despite recognizing the inherent “link” between humans and Nature, Wordsworth contrasts his “sweet mood” and “pleasant thoughts” toward nature with his “sad thoughts” toward mankind (l. 3-5). To explain these “pleasant thoughts”, Wordsworth articulates the beauty in the natural world through written imagery and description, but he also emphasizes this beauty through the poem’s meter and rhyme scheme. Each of the six stanzas in this poem includes four lines that follow an ABAB rhyme scheme; each stanza also includes a combination of iambic tetrameter and  iambic trimeter, which perpetuates a natural rhythm comparable to a heartbeat or a breath. The combination of a consistent rhyme scheme and iambic meter, then, affects the sound of the poem so that it emulates the same fluidity and beauty as the natural world. Wordsworth uses his own figurative language to depict the pleasures of the natural world, but also using poetic structure and sound to do so invites the reader to experience these pleasures as well. 

     Wordsworth explicitly describes some of the beautiful and enjoyable aspects of nature, such as the blossoming flowers and singing birds, and refers to these pleasures as being “heaven… sent” and a part of “Nature’s holy plan” (l. 21-22). By including religious allusions in his understanding of Nature, Wordsworth implies the natural world’s spiritual importance. Nature is not just an environment, then, but rather a transcendental feeling and experience of great tranquility, beauty, and pleasure. The beauty and spirituality of Nature, however, does not align with the material world and “what man has made of man” (l. 8). Although Wordsworth never directly explains “what man has made of man”, the historical context of his poem makes it likely that this line refers to the negative consequences of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The French Revolution showed humankind’s ability to harm each other, while the Industrial Revolution showed humankind’s ability to harm Nature. Both events showed a great contrast between Nature’s intrinsic pleasurability and humankind’s violence. Wordsworth does not criticize this dichotomy between nature and humans, however. Instead, he ends the poem questioning if he even can “lament” the actions and effects of humankind while living as a part of “Nature’s holy plan” (l. 21-24). This rhetorical question shows that, even at the end of the poem, he continues to grapple with the meaning of Nature and humanity’s role within it. Whether or not the spiritual aspects of Nature are strong enough to overcome the laments of humanity, then, remains up to the reader to decide. 

**Note- referenced poem from, so it is NOT the original edition as seen in the Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry.