I first read John Keats‘ poetry aged 14, after a beloved English teacher told me that ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ was her favourite poem. Although I appreciated the beauty of the words, its ‘meaning’ seemed way above the limits of my intelligence. The famous closing lines ‘Beauty is truth, and truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know’ were an impossible puzzle which I found hugely frustrating at the time. I am not any closer to understanding these words but can now embrace their ambiguity.
During my A-Levels, I was introduced to Keats once more. This time I fell in love. ‘Ode to Melancholy’, ‘What Can I Do To Drive Away’ and ‘Lamia’ all delighted me. However, it was the gothic ‘Eve of St Agnes’ which I found most intriguing. Every year St Agnes’ Day falls on 21st January, so a couple of weeks ago, I decided to revisit Keats’ poem once more…
The Eve of St Agnes
As ‘the bitter chill’ of St Agnes’ Eve settles, a ‘meagre, barefoot, wan’ beadsman using his rosary to recites prayers for his benefactor. Inside his patron’s gothic castle, a glorious party with ‘argent revelry, / …plume, tiara, and all rich array’ is taking place. Madeline, the ‘young virgin’ daughter of the castle does not participate in the celebration. Instead her brooding heart is ‘otherwhere’, sighing for ‘Agnes’ dream, the sweetest of the year’. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, it was common superstition to believe that a virgin would see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rituals on eve of the feast day for St. Agnes (the patron saint of virgins). Madeline is ‘full of this whim’ and so resolves to carry out this tradition. She retires to her room, ‘loosens her fragrant bodice’ and lies ‘trembling in her soft and chilly nest, / in sort of wakeful swoon.’ There, in ‘azure-lidded sleep’, she awaits the dream…
Unbeknownst to Madeline, Porphyro – enemy of Madeline’s family but admirer of Madeline herself – has crept into the castle and up to Madeline’s chamber. From his hiding place in her ‘closet’, he gazes at her ‘beauty unespied’, watches her undressing and then sleeping. He prepares a feast for her, full of ‘candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd’ with which to woo his love:
And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
Open thine eyes, for meek St Agnes’ sake
Or I shall dowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.
Porphyro’s whispered words stir the drowsing Madeline. She, only half-awake, beholds the ‘vision of her sleep’. The Porphyro of her dreams and the Porphyro before her eyes seem to blur; and the two consummate their passion:
Beyond a mortal man impassioned far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flushed and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet –
Solution sweet. Meantime the frost wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St Agnes’ moon hath set.
Their hearts ‘lost’ in each other’s, the two resolve to marry. Fearing the ‘sleeping dragons’ of Madeline’s family, the young couple flee from the castle ‘away into the storm’. All Madeline’s family and the revellers inside the castle now sleep and are ‘be-nightmared’. The beadsman finishes reciting his one thousand prayers and dies; his ‘ashes cold’.
* * * * * * * * * * *
I am captivated by this poem because at its core there lies a dark uncertainty. Does Madeline actually want to lose her virginity to Porphyro on St Agnes’ Eve? She wants to dream of it, yes, but dreaming is very different from doing. During the act itself she exists in a sort of waking dream, so is she even aware of what is happening? And furthermore, does the fervent Porphyro realise how out of it Madeline really is? Is he too ‘impassioned’ to notice, or does he carry on regardless?
Following consummation, Madeline is described as ‘a dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing’. She is broken. The poem then finishes with death and nightmares. This is not a happy ending.
Yet I am never sure exactly how sinister this all is either…
Perhaps it’s just an age-old tale of getting caught up in the intoxicating heady swirl of moonlight, delicious food and the ‘faery fancy’ of superstition – and doing something you know you shouldn’t.
Posted by Ella Jolly