Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Frog Prince and Ringdove (The Eve of St. Agnes)


File:Eve of St Agnes.jpg

She comes, she comes again, sighing like a ringdove
In the pallid moonshine, or tongueless Philomel
Who can not utter her ravisher's name
Because he has taken away her articulation
Leaving only the unvoiced melody to swell
Toward meaning in her throat and die
Heart-stifled -- can it be this young woman
Is only acting the part of being hoodwink'd,
Is actually neither sleeping nor dreaming
And has in mind -- for so the poet has invented her --
Only her love-starved creator's hungry identifying pleasure?

(Lucy in the Sky:)

Madeline observes the prescribed rituals and falls into a deep and blissful sleep in which there appears before her a magnificent caballero, Porphyro. Before her dream reaches completion, he awakens her with a kiss.

When she opens her eyes, Madeline gets a good look at the intruder who has broken into the lovely dream in which she had been immersed. He is a man of flesh and blood with defects far more significant than whatever skin-deep virtues he may at first appear to possess.

Still the story ends with the lovers going off joined "happily ever after".

But I'm left by this tale questioning once more the meaning of "falling in love". There is that preparatory state in which we feel ourselves falling, butterflies in our bellies and sweat on our palms, as we come into the presence of the object of our affections. We enter into the mysterious zone of protection we have created for ourselves with this person. But now, days go by... and little by little the mystery diminishes with each minute that passes.

The magic fades. In some cases the end of this falling in love is the beginning of love. But far more often the house of cards is blown down by the first contradictory breeze.

This ancient poem is based upon a legend that is even older. Older still, going back perhaps to the beginning of time, are the unfortunate truths upon which the whole story is founded...

“St. Agnes’ Eve” es un poema de John Keats que cuenta cómo hay una antigua leyenda que dice que en la víspera del día de Santa Inés, si una doncella se va a dormir sin mirar hacia atrás por encima de su hombro, podrá soñar con el hombre que se convertirá en su esposo. Más allá de que esto pueda resultar muy romántico para algunas y una verdadera pesadilla para otras, hay algo que me llamó mucho la atención en este poema. Su protagonista, Madeline, cumple con el ritual y, al caer en un profundo sueño, logra compartir momentos muy bellos con un virtuoso caballero: Porphyro. Antes de que su sueño termine, el Porphyro de la vida real viene a despertarla con un beso. Cuando abre los ojos, Madeline se da cuenta de que el individuo que acaba de interrumpir ese idilio delicioso en el que estaba inmersa no se parece al hombre de sus sueños en lo más mínimo. Porphyro es un hombre de carne y hueso con más defectos que virtudes a flor de piel. Si bien la historia termina “bien porque terminan juntos”, me trajo a la mente una vez más el dilema sobre el verdadero significado de la palabra “enamorarse”. Está comprobado ya que sentimos ese enamoramiento, las mariposas en el estómago y el sudor en las manos cuando todavía estamos conociendo al objeto de nuestro afecto. Nos enamoramos de una proyección que creamos de esa persona. A medida que pasan los días y ese ser va perdiendo un poco de misterio con cada hora que pasa, la magia se desvanece. En unos contados casos, se termina el enamoramiento y empieza el amor. Pero en la gran mayoría de las oportunidades, el castillo de naipes se cae con la primera brisa del atardecer. Al leer esta obra de Keats, caí en la cuenta de que en el siglo XIX a este poeta se le cruzó por la mente el mismo dilema. Él lo expresó con palabras mucho más bellas, por supuesto. Y, a su vez, la leyenda es todavía más antigua que el poema, con lo cual, muchas otras personas pensaron lo mismo antes que nosotros y antes que él. Mal de muchos, consuelo de tontos… ¿Será?


The Eve of St. Agnes: John Everett Millais
(Victoria & Albert Museum, London)
Ring-necked Dove (Streptopelia capicola) at Masai Mara, Kenya: photo by Eric A. Brables, 2007

The Speechlessness of the Imagined Other (TC)
De príncipe a rana (The Frog Prince) (Lucy in the Sky, from Locos por naufragar, 2007; translated by TC)


TC said...

This post is a collaboration. The Spanish text of De príncipe a rana is the work of Lucy in the Sky, an artist of dazzling gifts from San Martin de los Andes, Neuquén, Argentina. Lucy's piece first appeared as a post in her wonderful blog

Locos por naufragar

Lucy is, as she says, "a sort of observer of human relationships," and as such she has lent a useful bit of distance and dialogue to the Keats story as it has unfolded here. Her original post reproduces the title page of John Keats' book Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems (1820). A copy of this book was found in Shelley's pocket as his body was hauled from the sea. These are poems that will keep on washing ashore to us as long as there are eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to feel, from here to Patagonia.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Tom, for including my work in your blog. It is a great honour. And thank you also for sharing all your knowledge about literature with all of us, your readers.
Kind regards from Patagonia. said...

the physiology (sic) of "falling in love" - "butterflies in our bellies..sweat on our palms" (and seemingly there's nothing "rational mind" can do about it! - fascinating musings, Lucy and Tom, so, this morning I am brought back to the ancient words of Sappho ("perhaps to the beginning of time"), translated, in this instance, by (the good doctor, hence body-scanner) William Carlos Williams:
...At mere sight of you/my voice falters,
my tongue/is broken./Straightway, a delicate fire runs in/my limbs, my eyes/are blinded and my ears/thunder./Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts/ me down. I grow/paler than grass and
lack little/of dying.
Keats' eros-thanatos? - (and/but) the sun is still shining here.
here's a link to the poem in full (and the proper alignment):
+@band(rbpe+0020380r)) said...

that link above might not work
will make it

TC said...


American Memory improved wonderfully on that second link, many thanks for your persistence as well as for your World Cultural Memory. Almost making us believe the World existed before America. And that there never weren't sweaty palms and butterflies in the belly.

With Keats I suppose it's all too easy to read back Thanatos into the Eros, that easy historical hindsight his early demise all but forces upon us. But yes as you suggest, let's give the lad the right to a bit of Eros for a moment. The brief shining of the midnight sun. One would not have to be a genius to find erotic wonderment in the unmisgiving dream of Madeline, not a soggy crumpet in a teacup like Proust's memory cookie but a living young person with a heart, feelings, mucus membranes and all that good stuff.

In another poem spinning off from The Eve of St Agnes, rather unsubtly titled Voyeurism, I wrote (probably accusing myself of this), "art's a scavenger of dreams"... I suppose I meant, whether one's own or other people's.

The (American) hard-headed critic Jack Stillinger famously made the case that Madeline was a bit of a dummy, all too easily hoodwink'd. But the more I think of it, the more I feel that the dreams being scavenged were John's own, and probably rather innocent ones at that; and that the unmisgiving passivity of the wanting to believe in the dream of love was also his (thinking here of the bathos of Endymion wherein the learning-on-the-job poet spent whole long laborious passages trying to inveigle his none too brilliant protagonist into a soft nest where he'd conveniently be ravished by the Moon). I suppose I am saying there may be more of Madeline than of Porphyro in Keats. In fact, I take Porphyro as pure bloody (his name meaning purple) phantasm, asterisk upon the legend.

One imagines that John either wasn't "getting any" or at any rate that what he was getting was probably nothing so hot as what one imagines Sappho got. (Not to project too much--after all we are neither critics nor biographers here but mere pinhead bloggers--or to dare venture that poetry isn't fiction--but it's impossible to believe she did not know whereof she spoke.)

In neither case however would it seem the project was about anything but that "preparatory state" Lucy describes as the threshold (in the minority of cases, as she sensibly reminds us) to something else entirely, something Sappho probably wasn't all that interested in anyway and John was simply too young to know anything about. Not that the next phase of "long-term relationship" should be viewed as the be-all and end-all, but as I reflect upon Lucy's piece I can't help thinking that the anthropological purpose of lust (species perpetuation) is something guys, especially young ones, just don't know anything about. (Programming error perhaps?)

For sure it sounds from the evidence of your link like Sappho knew more than you and I will ever know about that preparatory phase, among the probably many things she knew that we don't. (Voice of congenial Kentishman, from stage right: "Speak for yourself, mate".)

(And you know speaking of the little miracles of genius I've always suspected Doc Williams was one of the lucky few who, though it's said you can't dip a toe in the same river twice, was at least fairly adroit at dipping his in both phases at the same time, evidently without undue damage to anybody, until the strokes started coming on...)

Anonymous said...

Simon: you have certainly made a huge contribution to this presentation with Sappho's poem. Her poetry is timeless. Human nature will never change, no matter what historical age we are in. And a poet's way of expressing human nature and particularly feelings as part of human essence will hopefully remain despite cutting-edge technology and an apparently heartless new world.
Thank you so much.

Mariana Soffer said...

I came back today from the states from a conference to present a program, so I am extremelly exausted, and havent touched internet for six days. But at least I wanted to tell you that I feel proud you got to know lucy in the sky trough me cause I think you are both very interesting people to collaborate among eachother, and also very smart, (you realized all these by yourselves, that is non of my merit)
I guess the universe is connecting my friends, look at this: its about keats too:
I really liked the post friends.

TC said...

Here are those two links in click-on-able form:

Simon's link:

Sappho trans. W.C. Williams

Mariana's link:

Ode to Psyche

I join Lucy in again thanking our friend Simon.

Mariana, you are a hero, get some rest!

(By the way, I'm not sure what the Spanish blogger who posted the opening lines of "Psyche" meant in the comment about Keats suffering from "mental illness". He died of tuberculosis. Of course one might consider the worship of the things of the imagination to be a kind of mental illness; Keats was certainly afflicted with that.)

TC said...

Okay, that Sappho didn't work. I'm going to try here for the express route. It's a 500 character URL, so good luck to us all.

Direct Line to Sappho

Mariana Soffer said...

thanks tom, you are nice friend