The Eve of St. Agnes was written in January 1819, and revised in September. Though it assumes the form of a narrative, it is hardly a narrative. Rather, it is a monody of dreamy richness, a picturesque presentment of a mood and a sentiment. The poem was written when the possibility of Keats’s reunion with Fanny had considerably increased. He had written to her that he loved her deeply. She in return had conveyed to him that she too loved him deeply.
Theme and Story: The theme of the poem is love. The poem is based on the medieval superstition connected with the Eve of St. Agnes which falls on 20th January: that a young maiden who has properly fasted and prayed would have visions at mid-night of her absent lover. Accordingly. Madeline keeps the fast, prays and goes to bed. Her lover, Porphyro, prevented from meeting her in daylight by the hostility of their parents, stealthily enters her bedroom and elopes with her.
Atmosphere: In dealing with the theme, Keats has re-captured the atmosphere of the middle ages with all its superstitions, grandeur, adventure, chivalry and romance. The poem is in the form of a long narrative in which the poet has packed many beautiful ideas. The poem deals with the genuine passion of Porphyro and Madeline. They and what belongs to them are described in rich natural terms, usually those of crimson and the rose. (“Suddenly a thought came like a full-blown rose”). The stained glass of Madeline’s casement is coloured like the wings of the tiger-moth, and its emblazoning’s blush with the blood of queens and kings.
“The poem deals with a fully consummated passion. The lovers lie at the warm heart of the castle, secluded from the physical and moral coldness outside. We move from the utter chill of the natural world, the hare in the frozen grass to the Beadsman to the chapel, too old and austere for love, then to the revelry in the hall, and finally to the centre, to this world of love. Madeline’s room, her bed, and Madeline in it. There is then a movement outwards from the warm centre, when the lovers escape into the night”.
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Sources: The chief source of the poem is the medieval legend of St. Agnes. The story, derived from a romance of the Italian writer, Boccaccio, reminds one of the situation in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Its central scene recalls, with a difference, the bed chamber scene in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline which it also consciously or unconsciously, echoes more than once. St. Agnes was a Roman girl who suffered martyrdom for her Christian faith. She was canonized on the 21st of January, 304 A.D. St. Agnes afterwards to be regarded as the patron saint of virgins. The 21st of January is observed as the St. Agnes day, while the 20th of January is the Eve of St. Agnes. In addition to the folk-tale Keats seems to have got ideas from Brand’s Popular Antiquities, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Ben Jonson’s Satyr. The idea of the feast in the poem seems to have been derived from The Arabian Nights Entertainments and the Gothic castle from Mrs. Anne Radcliff’s romances
“One only guesses his adventure with Fanny Brawne. But there is a knowledge of actual circumstances from which he was not disentangled. The frozen fields and the Christmas festivity at Hampstead, his medieval surroundings at Chi Chester, the remote quiet of Bed Hampton. And yet these outward circumstances of warmth and cold, youth and age, sound and silence, all counterpointed against each other. These outward circumstances project the emotion he felt at the unexpected birth of a new love in his time of sorrow of Tom’s death”.
Contrast and Parallel : Contrast and parallel are the foundations of this poem. Light is contrasted with shade, coldness with warmth. The contrasts between the stillness of Madeline’s room. “silken, hushed, and chaste” and the noisy celebrations in the hall below, between the warmth of her bed and the chilly night, between the fever heat of midsummer vermona and aching cold of Keats’s castle are striking. In brief, the poem offers a brilliant contrast between warmth and cold, youth and age, sound and silence.
Fusion of the Pagan and Christian Elements: In stanza 25. Porphyro sees all the Christian associations of the world angel, “she seemed splendid angel, newly driest”. In stanza 31, Porphyro addresses the sleeping Madeline as “My seraph fair”. In stanza 14, the “good angels” are invoked to “deceive” Madeline with dreams of her lover. The old Angela, urging Porphyro to leave. again refers to the “good angels”. The name of the old woman is Angela. All these things indicate the Christian element in the poem. In the poem, there is a reference to Virgin Mary. The Beadsman represents orthodox Christianity at its most austere. If St. Agnes Eve is an occasion for hope in the case of Madeline, it is an occasion for “harsh penance” for the Beadsman.
All these references to angels are connected with one very important element in the poem, and that is its mingling of the Christian with the secular and even with the pagan. The very superstition that sends Madeline early to bed is a piece of thoroughly pagan folk-belief and as such most oddly associated with the Christian Saint Agnes. In stanza 7, we hear of Madeline’s maiden eyes divine; and stanza 9 tells us how Porphyro longs to gaze and worship all unseen, perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss. We notice how the idea of worship soon gives way to physical contact. It is no accident that this is so, for Porphyro stands very much for the human and unsanctified.
This poem is not to be regarded as an attack on Christianity or as a dismissal of paganism. Both Christianity in its pure form, and Christianity in its adulterated, “paganished” form, are part of the world on which the lovers turn their backs. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that Keats is merely dismissing the belief that he does not share. For although Angela and the Beadsman may die, and Madeline may be roused to a new world of reality. the storm into which the lovers fly is full of dangerous possibilities. It is not a flight into a glamorous land, but a step into the coldly real world. Keats does not offer the lovers’ flight as a triumphant escape from a world of superstition. both institutional and pagan, into an illuminated landscape in which everything is for the best. What Keats is doing is to explore in a more subtle manner the tension between the spiritual and the physical, and the ambiguous nature of love.-(Robin Mayhead).
Symbolism: According to Jack Stillinger, a small group of critics has tried to find a deeper significance in the poem. The poem seems to dramatise certain ideas that Keats held dear to his heart before writing about the nature of imagination, the relationship between this world and the next and the progress of an individual’s ascent towards spiritualization..
Another interpretation, says Jack Stillinger, is that the castle of Madeline’s father allegorically represents human life, and that Porphyro. passing upward to a closet adjoining Madeline’s bed chamber and from there into the chamber itself, progresses from apartment to apartment in the mansion of life, executing a spiritual ascent to heaven’s boundary. Porphyro’s saying to the sleeping Madeline: “Thou art may heaven, and I think eremite” confirms this idea. Jack Stillinger, does not agree with this point. He depicts Porphyro as villainous seducer. He also points out that no matter how much Keats entered into the feelings of his characters, he could not lose touch with the claims and responsibilities of the world he lived in.
Narration of the Poem: To quote Roger Sharrock, “In the flow and throb of its emotion, the narrative of this poem is wrought up to the pitch of lyric intensity, though the method is richly descriptive. Everything in the poem contributes to the isolation of the central figures, splendid in their romantic passion against the dark background of the hatred of their elders, cold hearts in a cold season. Though the poem is loaded with descriptive detail, none of the pictorial passages is merely decorative.
Other Beauties of the Poem: The poem is remarkable for its gorgeous decoration. The lavishness of decoration reminds us of Spenser. The poem was written under the influence of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The poem is in the Spenserian stanza, and the skillful handling of the Spenserian stanza heightens its sleepy atmosphere and imparts to it a rare melody. Its peculiar power lies “in the delicate transfusion of sight and emotion into sound; in making pictures out of words, or turning words into pictures; of giving a visionary beauty to the close items of description, of holding all the materials of the poem in a long-drawn out suspense of music and reveries”. (Rossetti) The poem certainly throbs with lyrical intensity and quite possibly it results from the poet’s happy mood to have Fanny’s love. But nowhere do we find the T of the poet introducing upon the characters. It is the atmosphere, the sensitive language and the sensuous imagery that explain everything.
Conclusion: However, this matchless poem, full of life and movement, rich in colour and sensuous word-pictures, has its own blemishes. For example, the Beadsman and Chapel, though they introduce the tale and provide contrast, have nothing to do with the main action; they are superfluous. Similarly, the banquet which is arranged in Madeline’s chamber has no purpose and no justification, though it may tempt the palate of the readers by its richness and flavour. The incident is so trivial and it has been made so much of for the sake of verbal embellishment that one is forced to conclude, the Keats’s capacity for sustained narrative was of a most feeble kind. “The Eve of St. Agnes” is a poem of “glamour par excellence.”