clampitt’s keats on st. agnes’ eve

 

Keats at Chichester 

Amy Clampitt 

 

 

There would have been the obligatory tour

of the cathedral. Stone under boot heels,

the great, numbed ribcage chilled-to-the-bone

cold. The aisles of sculptured effigies stone

dead. Tom dead at the beginning of December.

It was January now. Buried at St. Stephen’s

Coleman Street. The bare spire, the leafless

trees. The church bells’ interminable reminder.

One Sunday evening, hearing them, he’d dashed

offwith Tom there in the room, timing him

a sonnet "In Disgust of Vulgar Superstition."

Here, therecurrent chatter of those great

metal tongues would have brought it back,

setting his memory on edge again. Poor Tom.

The scene out on the heath forever lurking

in his mind. Back in October he’d underlined

the words: Poor Tom. Poor Tom’s a-cold. 

 

His friends meant well, had kept him occupied.

Visits. A play. Dragged him down to Sussex

for a prizefight. Mrs. Isabella Jones, with

new notions for him to write about. Miss

Brawne: beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly,

fashionable and strange. He’d set down the

words with care. It was important to keep

things accurate. A minx he’d called her

that, and also ignorant, monstrous in her

behavior, flying out in all directions, call-

ing people such names. Hair nicely arranged.

Loved clothes. Eighteen years old. Down here,

best not to think very much about her. Brown

playing the fool, putting on an old lady’s

bonnet. At night, old dowager card parties.

As always, the anxiety about getting down to

work. No progress with the epic since Tom

died. Isabella Jones urging him to try an-

other romance. Why not, she’d said, the legend

of St. Agnes’ Eve? A girl going to bed…. 

 

He must have whistled at the notion thatstruck

him now. And then blushed. Or vice versa. A

girl going to bed on St. Agnes’ Evethat very

night, or near itwithout supper, so as to

dream of the man she was to marry. Imagine

her. Imagine…. He blushed now at the

audacity. But the thing had taken hold:

St. Agnes’ Eve. A girl going to bed….

On the twenty-third of January, they walked

thirteen miles, to a little town called (of

all things) Bedhampton. The house they stayed

in there still stands. Out of the frozen

countryside they’d passed through, once his

numb hands had thawed, he had what he needed

to begin: the owl, the limping hare, the

woolly huddle inside the sheepfold. Even

the owl a-cold. Poor Tom. The cold stone

underfoot, the sculptured effigies. How

they must ache. His own numb fingers. How

the Beadsman’s hands must ache. Paid to hold

a rosary for the souls of others richer and

more vicious. The stones he knelt on cold.

The girl’s bedchamber cold, the bed itself

too, until the girlblushing, he saw her

kneel had warmed it. He saw it all. 

 

He saw it: saw the candle in the icy draft

gone out, the little smoke, the moonlight,

the diamond panes, the stained-glass colors

on her as she knelt to say her silly prayers.

Saw her, smelled her, felt the warmth of the

unfastened necklace, the brooch, the earrings,

heard the rustic as the dress slid down;

backed off, became the voyeur of a mermaid.

Discovered, while she slept, that the sheets

gave off a sachet of lavender. Admired but

did not taste the banquet his senses had 

invented, and whose true name was Samarkand.

He was in fact too excited to eat. What is

a poet to do when the stumbles onto such

excitement? He was not sure. He was also

somewhat embarrassed. Later he’d declare,

hotly, that he wrote for men, not ladies

(who are the ones who dream such things),

that he’d despise any man who was such a

eunuch as not to avail himself…. It was

the flaw, as he must have known. He’d

imagined it all. He’d imagined it all. 

 

For ten days that lush, decorated stanza,

with its shut casements and dying fall,

had been the room he lived in. He’d

imagined it all; his senses had seduced

an entire posterity into imagining what

had never happened. His own virgin vision,

of a solitude that needed no wife, had been

seduced by that imaginary place, that stanza,

where nothing at all happened. The minx

who was eighteen, beautiful, silly, strange

and fond of clothes, and who had never lived

there, was real. The cold outside was real.

Dying was real, and the twitch of the old

woman’s palsy. The effigies were real,

and the stones in the churchyard at St.

Stephen’s Coleman Street. Poor Tom

 

Winter 1983 

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