The Eve of St Agnes is almost certainly the most popular of Keats’s long narrative poems. Leigh Hunt called it “the most delightful and complete specimen of his genius”. However, there is such richness of imagery and such depth of allusion and suggestion that merely to read it for the tale of Porphyro and Madeline’s romance places too much emphasis on the Gothic and neomedieval antecedents of its kind, and ignores the fascinating questions which are thrown up within the poem.
St Agnes was, apparently, a martyred virgin. Her feast day is January 21st, proverbially the coldest day of the year. Her symbol is the lamb, because of the similarity of her name to the Latin for ‘lamb’ (and perhaps also the resonances of innocence and sacrifice which attach to the concept of the lamb), and on her feast day, two lambs are blessed: the wool sheared from them is woven into cloaks for archbishops. St Agnes is invoked to protect chastity. She is also the patron saint of betrothed couples. The superstition to which the poem refers says that a virgin following the proper ritual will see the face of her future husband. I have found one reference to the idea that the husband will appear in the fasting virgin’s dreams, and will bring a feast, but I suspect this may have been retro-fitted to the poem itself, although it may incorporate a medieval courtly tradition of wooing with gifts. However, the timing of her festal day during the coldest part of winter, and the associations of virginity, betrothal, and sacrifice, make St Agnes a most interesting figure for the poet.
Cold. “Ah, bitter chill it was.” There are so many references to the cold. The first stanza sets the scene most explicitly in the depths of winter, then moves inside the chapel to where the Beadsman’s breath is so icy that it seems to be heading for the afterlife. The religious setting, the stone tombs with their “black purgatorial rails”, present not only a compelling visual picture but also a comfortless religion, where not even death promises a release from pain. There is no warmth in the prayers offered by the Beadsman’s numb fingers or by the “sculptur’d dead”.
The superstition surrounding St Agnes’ Eve—that a virgin might have “visions of delight”—brings much more warmth and gentleness than the stony atmosphere of the chapel. “Soft adorings” and the “honey’d” midnight are promised, to one who follows the ritual fasting and devotion, and Madeline’s “breathing quick and short” suggests a kind of sensual expectancy, as well as presenting a considerable contrast to the incense-like breath of the Beadsman, which the reader visualises in long upward tendrils. Not that the poet is promising that this legend will bring Madeline the truthful comfort she seeks: he talks of her being “Hoodwink’d with faery fancy”. Her progress through the ritual sees her detached from the realities that surround her, whether these are the eager suitors who approach her or the other people who surround her—though she does become conscious of old Angela for long enough to give assistance. She is totally absorbed in the fantasy world, the ritual and the promise it offers her. Madeline’s “soft and chilly nest” welcomes her to sleep, where she can be even more separated from life:
“Blissfully haven’d both from joy and pain;
Clasped like a missal where swart Paynims pray’
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain.”
Sleep is all very well, but to be asleep and dreaming is not, I think, what the poet believes is the best option for life.
Porphyro is all heat, from the instant he is introduced “with heart on fire”. His heart is “Love’s fev’rous citadel”. His plan to hide in Madeline’s chamber gets the blood rushing round his body:
“Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made purple riot”.
His own dream is anchored in physical reality: along with the romanticised longing to worship his beloved “all unseen”, he hopes for something more tangible:
“Perhaps speak, kneel, touch, kiss—in sooth, such things have been.”
The little room to which Angela conducts him is
“Pale, latticed, chill, and silent as a tomb”,
referring back to the starkness of the chapel in the opening stanzas. Indeed, most of the castle is a chill place, despite the presence of the revellers. Somehow the silver of those “snarling trumpets”, and the “argent revelry” seem to me to echo the monochrome impression of the first verses—these things are cold even though there are a thousand richly clad guests.
Then Porphyro is hidden in Madeline’s room, able to see the girl he desires—by contrast to his eager warmth she is unaware, asleep, and under “pale enchantment”, also described as “cold”, and as he watches she casts off her “warmed jewels” and the clothing that carries her scent. And indeed, when she wakes and sees him, he is to her eyes reminiscent of those chilly tombs, “pale as sculptured stone”, but is suffused with warmth again at her words.
Keats is able to describe the chilliness in its various shades in an almost palpable way, and at the same time to hint at further meanings for it beyond the mere fact of temperature. The idea of cold carries many implications, the comfortless stark chill of religion, expressed in the icy atmosphere of the chapel and the cold stone tombs; the heartlessness and ruthless materialism of the revellers; the mirage of the ultimately sterile promise offered by the myth Madeline is so eager to follow. Yet the hostile winter weather outside provides both a warning to the lovers, and a refuge, for they flee “away into the storm” while the revellers sleep.
The contrast between cold and heat is one of the many dualities explored within the poem, although even here, to call them dualities is to ignore the fact that each element may incorporate multiple implications and allusions, both positive and negative. Other contrasting dualities include light/dark, fulfilment/frustration, purity of heart (Madeline, Porphyro and the Beadsman)/wanton indulgence of the flesh (the Baron and his guests).
Another is the tension between reality and imagination. Madeline wanders like a somnambulist through the thronging partygoers, aloof from life because in her mind the call of the myth is overwhelmingly important. Lost in her dream, she is unaware of her lover hiding where he can watch her; Porphyro, by contrast, is very definitely aware of all the sensuous, physical possibilities of the situation, seeing her remove her “warmed jewels” and “fragrant bodice”. Offering love and passion in reality rather than in imagination, he brings a luxurious feast to tempt her back to the world, but when Madeline awakes to the sight of him, she complains that he is “pallid, chill and drear”, the opposite of what she wants. In her dream she was
“Blissfully haven’d both from joy and pain”
and her awakening to reality distresses her. She longs for the idealised Porphyro of her dream. But the dream world is ultimately only a phantom. Not until the flesh-and-blood Porphyro is merged with the Porphyro of her imagination can she be reconciled to the loss of the idealised lover.
Although the verse in which this occurs is wonderfully sensual, it does not have to be read as a physical seduction—and indeed, within the logic of the poem’s story it would be a considerable betrayal for Porphyro to ravish Madeline at this point, after his ardent promise to old Angela. In fact the ambiguity of stanza 36 makes it far more fascinating than something more explicit, including Keats’s own revision which his publishers disliked so much.
As Jeffrey Cox suggests, “Keats’s skill in keeping open a number of perspectives is an ironic negative capability essential to the poem’s revival of romance.” There are so many possibilities within this one verse. Does Porphyro actually have sex with Madeline? If so, even this union of romance and physicality is not without ambiguity. Has Porphyro fulfilled or betrayed Madeline? Or both? Is it the act of “a strategising date-rapist” or that of a romantic lover who has undertaken a quest through deadly dangers in order to rescue his lady? He has already expressed the hope to “speak, kneel, touch, kiss” as well as being hidden in the closet to “worship all unseen”. In addition, the earlier reference to Merlin:
“Never on such a night have lovers met,
Since Merlin paid his Demon all the monstrous debt”
suggests to me the legend of the engendering of Arthur by Uther Pendragon, disguised by Merlin’s magic to resemble Igraine’s husband Gorlois—and strengthens the idea of an actual coupling under the influence of enchantment; but it may be that a different reference is intended. Still, Keats’s publishers deemed the verse perfectly fit for maidenly female readers, after all, so the fact that words like ‘arose’ and ‘throbbing’ and the image of his melting into her dream doubtless did not have such explicit associations in 1820 as they have today!
At any rate, it seems that the reality of sensual pleasure Porphyro can offer is able to trump the idealised fantasies of imagination. The “solution sweet” (whatever it is!) that he achieves does not immediately reassure Madeline—not because she continues to pine for her dream, but because she expects to be abandoned. For Keats, pleasure is always a fleeting thing. But Porphyro’s reassurances convince her, and she is willing to follow the promise of a home “o’er the southern moors”. (Somewhere warm?)
Yet even in this contrast is the implicit knowledge that Madeline and Porphyro had only a temporary happiness, for they too are dead, as they took flight “ages long ago”. Again, happiness is a fleeting thing. Keats was surrounded by death all his life, most particularly the deaths of his mother and his brother Tom, also in his medical work. The sense of the transience of life and of pleasure is ever-present in his poetry even when he celebrates the assertion of these things.
It is proposed that Keats “does not seek to suggest, but to express to the last possibility of expression”. I do not think I agree with this statement. (As a matter of strict fact, I think this statement is probably the product of an avid literary critic too pleased with himself to notice that he had given pen to something completely meaningless*. What gibberish. But never mind.) It seems to me that the incredible richness of suggestion contained within the beauteous expression in this poem is what makes it possible for every reader to derive something different from the experience of reading the poem—possibly for every reader to derive something new from every reading of the poem.
Certainly there is lavish care devoted to the ‘expression’, if by this the critic means ‘description’. Stanza 24 is a glorious instance, a wonderful description of a stained glass window, with the verse as beautiful as the window it describes. But perhaps ‘expression’ is supposed to mean the exploration of imagery? In that case, stanza 25 shows Madeline as a combination of virgin and love-object, covered with the religious trappings of an angel, and yet also with the rich red colours which have signified physicality and sensuality hitherto in the poem. Then in the following stanza, this pure, saint-like creature gets undressed in full sight of her hidden lover, whose heart “revives” (as well it might). These verses present a mingling of different aspects—the neomedieval romantic tradition of the pure virgin, and sheer gorgeous sensuality—which exist simultaneously and contribute to each other, even though they are essentially contradictory, just as the cold, pale moonlight shining through the window lights Madeline in bright red colours.
The voluptuousness of the entire poem makes it one of Keats’s most characteristic pieces. Within it, the poet inevitably reveals his own attitudes despite his desire to erase his self from his verse. The necessary triumph of eros over the dream world is one such belief. As Cox says, “Keats wants his lovers to discover a physical reality that has the value of an ideal, that offers earth as heaven”. The transience of that same physical reality is another pervasive theme—the poem starts and ends in coldness and death, and even the lovers are presented as long dead. Ode on a Grecian Urn approaches these themes from another direction.
The poet’s attitude to woman is visible in all its ambiguities—Madeline is the passive object of Porphyro’s attentions, or the passive would-be recipient of St Agnes’ gift, not really the mistress of her own fate. She is brought by her man into the acceptance of what is real and truly important, for her own actions lead her along a path which takes her only into sleep and escape from reality. At the same time, her dream world in a sense represents the imagination of the poet. Perhaps she also reflects Keats’s own difficulties in his relationship with Fanny Brawne: Keats seems to have been awash with both emotional and physical longing for her, and to have been unable to trust her to reciprocate his love and remain untempted by other suitors. He was torn between his need for poetry, and his awareness that (partly because of it) he was in no position to marry Fanny. Madeline, of course, is so wrapped up in her dream of romance that she simply does not see the other men who try to importune her, and perhaps the man writing these verses would have liked his own beloved to be similarly oblivious.
If the poet really “does not seek to suggest”, it is hard to see how a poem which contains such a wealth of suggestion can be called a success. However, I find The Eve of St Agnes a fascinating poem, in large part because of the delicious beauty of the storytelling, but also because of the range of possibilities suggested, some tenuously, some overtly, within its verses.
* I cleaned that up.