I bought a copy of the latest Magma poetry magazine when I was in London last week. Its cover article was ‘Favourite Erotic Poetry’. I was interested to see how I poem I took along to the March meeting of Metroland poets was selected by a couple of the poets making their selection, including Blake Morrison. It was ‘They Flee From Me’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a 16th century poet who allegedly had an affair with Ann Boleyn.
One of the choices of the other poets was Keats’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. The erotic element of this poem comes with the legend of the Eve of St.Agnes — a time when apparently young virgins would dream of the man who was going to sweep them off their feet in later life if they lay naked on their beds on that night (or some other tradition approximating to this). Keats is one of the most sensuous poets — I remember having ‘purple stained mouth’ from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ being explained to me when I was doing him for A-level.
It was quite a revelation to come back to the poem after years — for some reason its phrase ‘a dwarfish Hildebrand’ has popped into mind quite regularly in the intervening time although I didn’t realise where it came from. In the poem Keats uses a couple of star-crossed lovers Â — Madeleine and Porphyro. Madeleine is some sort of aristocratic girl, whose chambers are guarded by old nurses. The eroticism happens when Porphyro manages to wheedle his way past Madeleine’s protectors and hides unseen in her room while she strips off and prepares herself for the St.Agnes ritual.
Perhaps it was latent all along but I’d been toying with the idea of something similar at the start of The Angel. The idea is that Kim and James end up together in a similar sort of situation (except facilitated by the after effects of a drunken night out). I think I’ve worked out plot devices for both to be in the same situation. I won’t add more, partly because I need to think it through a bit further, and partly to keep a bit of suspense.
On a related subject, one of my coursemates — whose blog (Bren Gosling’s ‘Evolution of My Novel’ is referenced from the sidebar — wondered whether I was giving out too much of the plot of the novel on this blog. If anyone has any comment on that I’d be interested to hear it. I don’t think I give out enough information for my ideas to be copied and ripped off but it might be possible that anyone be following instalments of the novel (or even just waiting to read it when it’s finished in its entirety) might find some plot spoilers in here. (I’ve probably given the biggest plot spoiler to people on the course already with my short fire scene from last term.)
Here are a couple of stanzas of Keats’ ‘Eve of St.Agnes’ that allude to what might happen later in The Angel:
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven: – Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.
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 sea-weed,
Pensive 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.