Keats at Chichester
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.
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