Seeing as how I just celebrated my 80th birthday on Jan. 20, I guess it is fitting and proper that I make a few candid observations on mutability and the passing of time.
Just as a moot point, I did not “celebrate” anything. No drum rolls and trumpet trills for this octogenarian. I simply observed the 20th by sleeping late and then driving cautiously to to have a breakfast of poached egg with bacon and buttered rye toast. It wasn’t cautious enough, since I ended up with a police escort. (I had the sun in my eyes and ran several cars off the road. This is true, but I don’t mind if you don’t believe it.)
For most of my life, I have known that my birthday fell on Saint Agnes Eve, but I had no idea what that meant. Well, since I ended up being an English teacher and especially enjoyed teaching the Romantic poets, I eventually learned that Saint Agnes Eve is a religious holiday which honors the Saint of Virgins. I know that a tremendous amount of folklore and superstition has grown up around Saint Agnes, and much of it plucks at a familiar chord: rituals that enable young girls to see the face of their future husband on Jan. 20. There must be dozens of these rituals, such as “dumb suppers” here in the mountains, which require country maids to participate in difficult and silly activities, including going into the garden at midnight, planting a dozen seeds in the dark, walking backwards to the house, climbing into bed, and sleeping on your back while staring raptly at the ceiling where the future husband’s face will appear.
Well, when John Keats came to write “Saint Agnes Eve,” he envisioned such a night, and he illustrates it with a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet tale. The young man, Porphyro is enamored of the shy virgin Mandeline, but her family has an intense dislike for the young man. So he comes skulking in the shadows during a festive night outside Mandeline’s bedroom, hoping to get a glimpse of the sweet lass. Meanwhile, Mandeline enters her boudoir where she proceeds to remove all of her clothing on this magical night, gets into bed and lies prone and patient, waiting for a dream of her lover. This is pretty sexy stuff, and Keats spends a lot of time describing Mandeline’s charms as she prepares for bed. Mandeline’s bedroom has stained glass windows and the moonlight, streaming through the windows bathes Mandeline in exotic colors. Now, where is Porphyro? Well, this over-heated lad is hidden in Mandeline’s closet (he more or less bribes an ancient servant to get into that closet) and by the time Mandeline is beneath the covers, he is in a “ferment of passion.” He knows about this old ritual. He knows that Mandeline hopes to see the face of her lover on this night. This lusty boy decides to make the sweet girl’s wish come true! Quick as a wink, Porphyro pops out of the closet and slides beneath the covers.
Now at this point, Keats give us some mumbo-jumbo about Madeline’s bed becoming a magical realm where the two lovers “mingle.” At some point, they are rudely awakened and become aware that they are mere mortals that have engaged in a shameful act ... unless the noble Porphyro can make everything right. The boy comes through and taking Mandeline by the hand, slips into the cold darkness, assuring the helpless girl that he has a rich estate and many powerful relatives somewhere beyond this dark wood that is filled with owls and limping rabbits. That is supposed to be a happy ending.
But Kind Hearts, you know as I do that if we bring this romantic tale down to the current time and place – Jackson County, 2015 – everything changes.
If Porphyro is working on his master’s degree at Western Carolina University and Mandeline is enrolled in nurse’s training, and if Porpy has managed to sneak into Madison dorm unseen, he has broken some significant moral codes. This lad is a Peeping Tom, and that is not the least of it. Mandeline may have thought she was caught up in a magical dream, but one wonders when she “awoke to her mortal reality?” No, the whole thing doesn’t wash, and I hate to dash their hopes, but they may well end up in a two-room apartment in Sylva where Porpy is flipping burgers and Mandeline is waiting tables. Like the brooding Dane said, “To this end we must come.”