THE LOVE OF ANNABEL LEE: SEX SCANDALS AND THREE ICONIC AMERICAN POEMS

The rose is no longer a rose?

There are three types of love/poetry/sentiment/politics.

Poe, Eliot, or Ginsberg.

All of us participate in these categories. The three types belong to all of us, to some degree.

Warning. This will not be an exercise in saying which is better.

Divide, we shall not.

This is not one of those “Which poet/lover are you?” exercises, in which a sad little person attempts to find out ‘who they are.’ Games such as these merely indulge human vanity. The question here is not “what are you?”

The question is, “what is it?”

What is love?

It is always better to be a scientist than a gossip—especially when gossip gets the upper hand.

Love has a number of elements:

1. Practical, or natural.

2. Moral, or sentimental.

3. Traditional, or cultural.

How is it useful? How is it personal? How it social?

Love is a wave—it has its own existence and reason for being.

The person is the particle in that wave; a person is unique, and is not the wave—but the wave nonetheless impacts the individual.

Whether a woman has children, or not, love—as it relates to children—will impact all women, and all human beings.

Nature, the mother of us all, has a great interest in reproduction.

Intimacy—or love—in its all phenomena, contributes to reproduction.

And further, Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ aspects (fighting, attractiveness, territory) intersect with reproduction, so nature interacts with love in ways brutal and rough, so that love finally sits with characteristics many do not consider loving at all.

So the first consideration—the practical, or natural one—defines love in such a complex manner that love hides, or lurks—and is manipulated by things we don’t recognize as love, at all.

This is why many scholars argue that love is a human invention.

Nature is interested in babies, not love.

But even if we accept that love is a human invention, belonging to society—the third consideration (customary, social) above—it would not make sense to pretend that the natural doesn’t impact society, or that the natural doesn’t matter in love.

Finally, we have the middle distinction: the moral or sentimental, and this is how love matters to the individual—how it makes us feel about ourselves, how it affects our feelings; in other words, matters “of the heart.”

So these are the three basic elements of love: nature, society, and the heart.

Society is what causes people to call certain aspects of love “weird, or perverted.” Society is what makes people “cry at weddings,” and makes people have weddings, and gives priests, or the state, authority to marry people. Society makes rules on abortion. Society has a great deal to do with love.

Society also has a great deal to do with “the heart,” and how individuals feel about love in their hearts.

Many feel “in their heart” exactly what society expects them to feel.

For many, the aspects of love we call, on the one hand, “society” and on the other, “the heart,” are precisely the same.

Further: since society—to a certain degree, successfully—reflects natural, or practical functions of love, there are many individuals who unite all three aspects of love—nature, society, the personal—in their hearts; love is their child, their husband, and their heart.

But love is not always so simple, or successful, or happy.

Love can be as simple as gravity—as relatively simple as the pull, or the dance, of the planets. Love, simple or not, operates in all human beings.

But navigating society, nature, and the heart, proves difficult for most of us, to say the least.

Biology is difficult, and biological reproduction involves sex; reproduction involves picking out whom to have sex with, and whom to reproduce with.

And to make things even more complex—and here we seem to leave the natural, or practical, realm altogether—sex exists for itself, and sex occurs a great deal without having anything to do with biological reproduction.

And society must ‘come to grips with’ this apparently random, and pleasure-or-power-driven, sexual activity—which seems to exist outside of the practical concerns of nature.

But speaking of “power-driven,” nature does care about power—and this is at the heart of Darwin’s view of nature—turf wars, mates competing for mates, and the whole martial aspect of nature belongs to all varieties of non-reproductive, sexual, and sexually-related, activity.  Sexual activity never stands on its own. It always has an object. This is true, whether we are talking about reproduction in marriage, a love sonnet, casual dating, rape, or purely-for-pleasure, kinky, sex.

Try as we might then, we cannot think of sex as somehow apart from nature, or apart society. Sex always belongs to the nature-society-heart formula, as does love, from which sex springs. Love does belong to one thing, then, as itself, within the three main considerations: nature at the top, influencing society, which then influences the individual.

Love should be seen, and can be seen, as one, with all its parts connected and related.

Love obeys nature, but how society views love can have a radical impact—think of Islam, versus the Modern West. The woman covered from head to toe versus the woman in a bikini. Or the Old South in the United States, when cousins married. Or ancient and not-so-ancient cultures with harems, or “child brides.” Homosexuality and the Non-Binary is accepted, or not, differently, by different cultures in different places and times. Society, attempting to reflect nature, manufactures how individuals feel about love—we are all caught in society’s web. Family, a microcosm of society and nature, also influences how individuals feel about love. Objectivity is nearly impossible; some look towards nature to find the objective truth of love; others cast away objectivity altogether, and listen to the vibrations of their hearts (which could mean testosterone hormone therapy).

Every radical and different view of love can be traced back in one direction to nature, and in the other direction to the heart. Love always connects to the three considerations: nature, heart, society.

How should men and women relate to one another? Nature created man, woman, and reproduction. But society created so much more, and society makes the rules. And in our hearts, we may agree, or not, with a part, or all of, society’s rules. But no matter how deeply love winds through our hearts, we cannot escape love defined by society, and, in turn, defined by nature. Conversely, no matter how strong nature and society are, the heart wants what it wants.

Poe’s “Annabel Lee” may be the most iconic love poem in existence. “Annabel Lee” represents a certain kind of love.

We all know the beautiful poem—“I was a child and she was a child.”

The Annabel Lee love is innocent, not worldly. It escapes nature—that is, reproduction—since a “child” is too young to reproduce. Society is present—we get the beloved’s full name, implying parenthood, genealogy and the record-keeping aspect of society. But children are not yet full members of society. So in that sense the beloved belongs to society, but not quite. Also, a child qua child belongs to nature—what is more natural than a child? But since the child has a name given to her by society, and she is not an adult, she doesn’t belong fully to nature, either.

The poet says “you may know” this maiden; and this “may know” is significant.  This situates Annabel Lee in the center of ordinary society—she is not famous (you “may” know her) but she’s not a recluse, or an unknown living in nature, either—precisely because you “may know her.” Or, Poe could be slyly implying that you, the reader, may be aware, or not, of the exquisite sort of love he is describing. Either way, it works. The poet needs society to speak, and be understood by others.

The “Annabel Lee love” belongs to society, and hopefully, to you.

“And this maiden she lived with no other thought/Than to love and be loved by me.”

Here’s the third element—the personal, the heart: “no other thought.”

Poe, in “Annabel Lee,” quickly sketches the trinity: nature, society, and the heart.

The poet takes care to establish the three as one: she is a child (nature), she has a name (society), and she “lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me” (heart).

We do get introduced to her as a “maiden”—-before we get introduced to her as a “child.”

“Maiden” is more societal in terms of love’s rules, than “child,” and only when called a “child” in the second stanza (she is called a “maiden” in the first) do we get the transcendent passion blurted out: “but we loved with a love that was more than love.”

The impossible attempt to transcend, to escape, love—which is determined by nature and society—is seen in these two famous phrases from the poem: “no other thought than to love” and “loved with a love that was more than love.”

This attempt to transcend love, to be “more than love” leads to the elaborate trope which continues to the end of the poem: angels “coveted her and me.” Annabel Lee dies, envied and killed by the entire universe—“angels,” “kinsmen,” those “older and wiser”, “demons”, nature (a “wind” which “chills” her).

This transcendent love—what might be called the ultimate romantic love—all encompassing, pure, innocent, monogamous—fully existing in nature, society, and the heart—is tenderly hymned in a divinely beautiful, poem of ideal, musical expression. It belongs very much to the 19th Century, to High Romanticism.

Poe presents sweet, ideal, transcendent love, the kind which belongs to our dreams.

But the Annabel Lee love will inevitably lead to envy, disapproval, and death.

The tone of “Annabel Lee” is Shelley’s “sweetest songs tell of saddest thought.”

Melancholy, the sadness of idealism inevitably spoiled, hovers over “Annabel Lee.”

Yet, finally, the ideal—though it must die—is expressed, and finds its way into our hearts, and lives.

The tone of melancholy isn’t accidental, but primary—precisely because the ideal is placed, by the poet, in the world which destroys, and casts it out. The ideal doesn’t exist pristinely and abstractly on a blackboard—it suffers inevitable death and decay—and produces its natural result, melancholia—by facing its ridicule and downfall, in the actual world of brutal nature and envious kinsmen. Even the “winged seraphs of heaven” are jealous—the whole thing is even worse than we think. The established ideal envies new ideals which strive to be more ideal.

The ideal is always tragic.

Idealism is the most profound manner in which the horror of the real is known. The ideal can hide—but also reveals—the real.

There is no victory, no escape, in any attempt to be ideal, for ultimately it is vanity—songs and poems which are ideal are finally abstract and do live apart from reality (the final, true reason for the melancholy) and so it both is, and isn’t true, that the ideal “lives” in the poem and in our hearts, and does not die. The ideal always hits the wall, always disappoints, always sinks into despair and sorrow. But because it is ideal, we continue to seek it, even if it gives us sorrow—and the beauty which accompanies the sorrow becomes the one, real thing we do experience, and is valid, and gives lasting pleasure.

T.S. Eliot’s early 20th century poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Allen Ginsberg’s mid-20th century poem, “A Supermarket in California,” follow directly in the footsteps of “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s mid-19th century masterpiece.

Eliot and Ginsberg’s poems, like “Annabel Lee,” despite being “modern,” are both melancholic, idealistic, iconic masterpieces on love.

All three poems feature characters with full names:

Annabel Lee. (Imaginary woman)

J. Alfred Prufrock (Imaginary man)

Walt Whitman. (Real man)

All three of these lyric poems end with the trope of water: forgetful, drowning, memorable water.

Romantic love is satisfied to provide a lovely sounding first name—but in these three poems love is examined in a larger context.

The Romanticism of Poe in “Annabel Lee” is a romanticism already a failure, albeit in a beautiful way.

But Eliot, a few generations, later, follows Poe naturally, with the hyper-sensitive male suffering a Hamlet-like indecision in the presence of…not Annabel Lee, but a number of women. Eliot originally called his poem “Prufrock Among The Women” and this seems to be part of the problem—there are too many choices, perhaps?

“And I have known the arms already, known them all…And how should I begin?”

Alfred Prufrock doesn’t form a union with Annabel Lee. There is no “Annabel Lee love” in “Prufrock.” In contrast to “Annabel Lee love,” Prufrock’s love is the modern situation of secret desires, without any love.

Allen Ginsberg, 100 years on from Poe, and 50 years on from Eliot, in his poem “A Supermarket in California,” describes heaven in the following manner:

“Tasting” item after item in a supermarket while “never passing the cashier.”

Like Prufrock, the narrator in “A Supermarket in California” is unlucky in love, but with Ginsberg, the issue of class is implied—perhaps if he wasn’t a poor slob, he could have Annabel Lee?

The Walt Whitman in Ginsberg’s poem is a less refined Prufrock, with a hint of the wandering, the predatory, the scandalous: “lonely old grubber…eyeing the grocery boys.”

Ginsberg presents us a picture of breeding nature as it relates to love: “Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!”

Despite this picture, the melancholy and the lonely prevail in Ginsberg’s poem: Poe’s melancholy amid the plenty. Prufrock’s sadness amid the salad.

“Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour.” Nature (“babies in the tomatoes”) is not enough; nor is society (“doors close in a hour”).  The restless, nocturnal heart needs some place to go.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets begins with “From fairest creatures we desire increase”—-in this dense phrase Shakespeare’s genius expresses love in the framework of nature/society/heart even quicker than Poe does in “Annabel Lee,” which, in its melodic melancholy, establishes love as hopeless ideal. In Shakesspeare’s Sonnet #1, “increase” is 1. nature, the “desire” for that “increase” is 2. society, and to “desire” the “fairest” constitutes matters of the 3. heart.

Is the healthy when all three are one?

The great rash of sexual harassment cases making headlines currently, are matters of nature (sex drive, power and dominance) and the heart (secret, squeamish lusts, and desires).

But while they reflect nature and the heart, they are making headlines precisely because they don’t fit societal norms.

But one might say they are making headlines because they do fit society’s “norms,” and this is precisely the problem—societal reform, which protects and respects women, is necessary.

Society is the focus in these current scandals—and how we as citizens/individuals feel about these sexual harassment cases.

Our reactions are filtered through our politics (as accusations hit those on the left or right), politics which significantly define many individuals.

The politics of the “cashier.”

The current political landscape, some argue, is why all these scandals have suddenly become public—they are driven by 1. frustration with the success of Trump, and 2. the hubris of Bill Clinton.

As individuals, we chiefly feel “glad it isn’t me,” and “let the courts and the individuals affected decide how to proceed,” and “hope this scandal brings down a politician I don’t like.”

But somewhere in our hearts we also perhaps bitterly realize that nature and the heart never change—the plethora of scandals will do exactly nothing to change the human heart and the laws of the jungle.

Society—as it rather ineptly attempts to mitigate the horrors, encourage the pleasures, and administer justice—is too large and corrupt to improve anything.

Many don’t finally trust that these scandals will make things better—even if secret, taxpayer-funded payoffs by congressmen are exposed.

A scandal always means an individual has been caught. A heart has been found out. The secret heart which is wrong has been seen—but too late, we feel, for prevention, for good to be done, even as we glory in selected shame and punishment.

What is normative in society, as it pertains to love, happens slowly over time—it doesn’t happen as a result of scandal. Scandal is not the cause, but merely the effect of what society at any given moment happens to see.

The case of Poe—was this southerner Roy Moore’s ideal?—in which a chaste and studious twenty five year old man marries a thirteen year old virgin—and both remaining happy in a faithful and artistic marriage, as long as they both live—is considered foul today.

The 21st century American citizen, who condemns Poe—lives by a code in which one has numerous partners, induces numerous heartbreaks and quarrels, divorces numerous times, and aborts offspring along the way—and this, in society’s eyes, is considered perfectly acceptable.

Scandal gets at a truth—but not the whole truth. And endless curiosity may get at a greater truth, or not.  Meanwhile, public opinion frets, the law acts, and the vulnerable continue to live in fear, and perhaps take risks to further themselves.

The truth of love lies in the endlessly complex interaction between nature, society, and the heart—as it plays out in different cultures, and local politics, over many thousands of years—the single thread of love twisting and turning, like a snake—partly in pleasure, partly in shame, and partly in agony.

 

 

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