Notes: Elegy 420/ St. Agnes Eve

The twentieth century didn’t bequeath us much, literature-wise. But I do like T. S. Eliot’s famous aphorism: “Immature artists borrow; mature artists steal.” The Cheltenham Elegy I would like to discuss does steal a crucial image from Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes.” If you put the Elegy next to the relevant stanza of Keats’ longer narrative poem (not an Ode, but sharing the Odes preoccupation with celebrating oddities and inverting poetic clichés), what emerges is a paradigm model of where the last two hundred years have landed us, as regards what constitutes innocence and experience, virginity and consummation, expectancy and satiety, and what historians chose to call Romance against what I choose to call Noir:

The Junior Prom deposited me (and fifteen
others) on the floor of her basement. I could
barely see daylight at the time, and at three in
the morning I began to prowl. I was too scared
to turn on any lights. She emerged like a mermaid
from seaweed. I needed comfort, she enjoyed my
need. We had gone out— she was bitter. The whole
dialogue happened in shadows. No one was hooking
up in the other room, other. You spiteful little princess.

Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in seaweed,
Passive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

Oddly enough, Eliot’s mermaids in “Prufrock” occupy a median space between Keats’ innocent, angelic Madeline, and my “spiteful little princess.” Eliot aside, both “St. Agnes” and 420 involve festivities— and the celebration of St. Agnes Eve in the Middle Ages (where Keats got his narrative plot) was just as garish and ostentatious as a Cheltenham Junior Prom. Yet, the Elegy and the semi-Ode share a preoccupation shared, as a concern, by myself and Keats— what happens in darkness, in hidden or concealed spaces, far from the proverbial madding crowd, against what would be known on the surface levels of society and its terms of acceptance or acknowledgment. Porphyro is asking for an elopement, and is accepted; the first person protagonist of 420 asks for solace, on any level, and is rebuffed. That both poems emerge as fully sexualized, on a hetero level, is fore-grounded by this comparison— a mermaid is a kind of siren, and carries feminine glamour with her wherever she goes, and even in darkness (underwater, perhaps, in this context). 420 foregrounds this ambiguity— is the protagonist asking for sex (a renewal of what has been extinguished, in the poem), or just a loving verbal interchange, or both? He receives, from his mermaid, neither, while Porphyro eventually receives both. That is a critical crux between Romanticism and Noir, as a new mode of visionary Realism— many stereotypically Romantic poems end happily, with a sense that conflicts have ended in a kind of fulfillment, textual or narrative, intellectual, emotional, or physical. The bleakness of Noir significations guarantees that what is anodyne in Romanticism can never appear— and readers may find either Noir airless and claustrophobic or Romanticism weak and cloying. Now, Romanticism is a major, vital, complex movement, so that variability of signification still applies; but, reliably, that the English Romantics, even the “Satanic” second generation (Keats, Byron, Shelley) were positivists in comparison to Noir Apparition Poems like the Cheltenham Elegies would be difficult to deny.

Back to the two poems: the two versions of adolescence, one British and one American, one in third-person omniscient and one in first, are a study between adolescence retaining its wonted luster of freshness, joy, surprise, self-discovery, and unselfconscious risk, or adolescence degenerating into the space of already-thwarted dreams, premature (even atrophied) adulthood, and a sense of the crepuscular towards realizations of mortality even before adulthood is officially reached. This is part of what the Cheltenham Elegies are for— to acknowledge the ludicrousness of adolescents leading their lives like little adults, fornicating, wheeling and dealing, wielding material power in inappropriate ways, and attempting to cope with these realities in the total darkness (“basement”) of non-existent family structures and no real guidance. It is an interesting torque, and one I did not necessarily plan, between Madeline emerging from her clothes “in” seaweed (while Porphyro watches her from her closet), while my antagonist emerges “from” the seaweed of what? Another shady business transaction, round of gossip, or dossier check that all the right Cheltenham heads are playing their parts correctly? Keats’ version of “seaweed” is merely an optical illusion (i.e. that’s how she looks to Porphyro from his vantage point in her closet), while my “seaweed” is a metaphor for an entire way of life— kids bedraggled by onerous, gross practical realities which cling to them whether they like it or not. The “mansion foul” where Madeline lives as a ward is (we may guess) no less corrupt than an average house in mostly upper-middle class Cheltenham; yet Madeline has retained her innocence. My anti-heroine swims through seaweed-strewn waters, and is far from innocent. If she is spiteful, it is because others are spiteful to her, leading to the usual nihilistic Cheltenham chain reaction. So that, the steal I made, to transpose something from the Romantic canon into a Noir reality, inverts but also sheds light on where English language poetry is willing to go in the twenty-first century, which is into the total darkness of the American landscape, where the only joy is telling the truth about what shadows you happen to encounter.