OverviewJohn Keats, an important person in the study of Romantic poetry, lived from 1795-1821. Before his short life was ended by tuberculosis, he produced many great works of poetry that have put him in league with other famous Romantic poets like Byron and Shelley. Keats came from both tragic and “humble origins” (Damrosch 973). His father was a stable keeper who died when Keats was nine years old. His mother abandoned their family not long after and returned only to die when Keats was fourteen. He was then sent by his guardian, a “practical businessman,” to apprentice as a surgeon (Damrosch 973). His first book, Poems, was published in 1817 and included a diverse sampling of works from many genres including sonnets, odes, and Spenserian Stanzas. Endymion, a 4,000 line poem brought about by a year-long contest with Hunt and Shelley, was published in 1818. Finally, in 1819 Keats began work on some of the poems that are perhaps best known to current students of Romantic poetry like “The Eve of St. Agnes," “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and “Lamia.” Although he did not receive critical acclaim during his short career, he did correctly predict his future when he said, “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death” (qtd. in Damrosch 975).
In “The Eve of St. Agnes,” John Keats tells the story of Madeline, a young woman who attends to the rituals of St. Agnes’ Eve in hopes of seeing a dream of her future husband that night. The man who she hopes to see in her dream, Porphyro, arrives in person that very night to see Madeline at great risk since her family has an apparently vicious hatred for his. With the help of an elderly woman, Angela, Porphyro seeks to use the ritual as an opportunity for a romantic tryst with Madeline. Published in 1819, this story of forbidden love is told in forty two “spenserian stanzas” (Damrosch 988). It is written very much in the Gothic style, the most notable evidence of this being the description of the setting as well as the reliance upon magical or supernatural imagery.
Supernatural Imagery and Madeline
While supernatural imagery is used throughout the poem to describe many things (notably including, but not limited to, Madeleine's family and the weather), the supernatural imagery used when talking about Madeline is especially interesting in that it provides the reader with conflicting images of who she is. The reader is left with either a highly complicated or contradictory depiction of Madeline. This is most obvious in the scene in which Madeline is undressing to go to bed.
“Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven:—Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.
Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.” (217-234)Here it takes only two stanzas for Madeline to be referred to as both “a splendid angel” (223) and “so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint” (225) to being “half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed” (231). These two events of Madeline stopping to pray, described as angelic, and her sensually depicted stripping for bed being identified with the dangerous and alluring sirens of the sea are juxtaposed. This dichotomous depiction occurs at other points in the text as well. Madeline is referred to as a “seraph fair” (276) as well as “akin” to the notably more pagan “spirits of the air” (201-202). It is also worth noticing noting that she is explicitly associated with the song Porphyro plays for her, “La belle dame sans mercy” (292). Keats, we know, will go on later to write his own version of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” which Damrosch notes as joining “a long lore of ‘femmes fatales,’ women whose allure is fatal to the men they enchant” (999).
Thus, we have a seemingly contradictory depiction of Madeleine as being both angelic or pure while also being one of the femmes fatales of Gothic literature. I think this dual depiction is reinforced by her ultimate fate in the poem. She is at once an innocent victim of Porphyro’s trick, and a willing participant. We know that she desires Porphyro, or at least to dream of him. “She sigh’d for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year” (63). Thus, while her actions may be that of the angel, her desires are that of the more dangerous supernatural imagery that she is connected with, like mermaids and spirits.
Sleeping and Waking
Because the ritual surrounding St. Agnes’ Eve is necessarily based on dreaming, it is obvious that sleeping (and, therefore, waking) is central to the text. However, it is not only Madeline’s sleeping that seems to be important here. There is the obvious focus on her falling asleep, dreaming, and then the odd, uncanny moment when she awakes to find her dream (or something very like it) still in her room. This scene is clearly important. But it is unwise to ignore other examples of sleeping/waking in the poem that also seem worthy of note.
For example, there seems to be a general movement in the poem of all the other characters from waking to sleeping. This is contrasted to Madeline’s more arching movement in which she does sleep, but awakens before the close of the poem. At the start, the Beadsman is described as separating himself from the festivities of St. Agnes' Eve to pray “and all night kept awake” (27). We do not know exactly what he is doing during the action of the poem; however, by the poem’s close, he “slept among his ashes cold” (378). The same is true of Angela, who is an active character in the poem, but by the end “Died palsy-twitch’d” (376). These two characters, intent on wakefulness and activity, slip into what is the ultimate sleep of death.
The other members of the party follow a similar pattern. At the festivities we do not exactly see the party except what we can assume from them by what we see of Madeline, who is anxious to go to sleep to attend her dreams. The rest of the party, we assume is the opposite. They want to revel in wakefulness, not hurry to sleep. There is music that Madeline ignores, dancers that she barely sees, and suitors who she does not notice (56-60). She alone seems to have “danc’d along with vague, regardless eyes... Amid the timbrels, and the throng’d resort/ Of whisperers in anger, or in sport;/’Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn” (64-69). However, by the end of the poem, the party is described as supernatural beings, fast asleep and plagued by nightmares. “That night the Baron dreamt many a woe,/And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form/ Of witch, and demon and large coffin-worm,/Were long be-nightmar’d” (371-375). Read this way, it seems to be that sleep is a sort of supernatural experience that you must submit to in order to move on in the waking world. It seems as though those who are willing to sleep and dream, Madeline and Porphyro, are the only ones that are allowed to move on in the waking world after the scope of the poem ends. All of the other characters, excepting the “sagacious” bloodhound, are left either dead or in an unsettled sleep (366).
Relevance to Romanticism and Gothic
“The Eve of St. Agnes” clearly has strong Gothic overtones. The setting is the first place we see this, as the poem opens in the silent chapel in late January in the “bitter chill” (1). We then move to the scene of the festivities which has a loud, carnivalesque feel to it. The party present is described eerily as “Numerous as shadows haunting fairily/The brain" (40). The poem then moves to Madeline’s room which is described with supernatural and even dangerous overtones.
“While legion'd faeries pac'd the coverlet,
And pale enchantment held her sleepy-ey'd.
Never on such a night have lovers met,
Since Merlin paid his Demon all the monstrous debt.”(169-171)
The weather depicted in “The Eve of St. Agnes” is also Gothic. Here the Gothic setting coincides with the depiction of Nature in the poem. Nature is dealt with primarily in this poem through the storm raging outside of the castle. This storm, which also plays a role in the story surrounding St. Agnes herself, is exceptionally strong and described supernaturally as “an elfin-storm from faery land" (343). It is strong enough to cause an eerie or ghostly effect even inside of the house. “The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,/ Flutter'd in the besieging wind's uproar;/ And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor" (358-360). The storm, like much of Nature in the Romantic tradition, is recognized as sublime. It is both beautiful and powerful. It is fearful to behold, but also useful insomuch as its noise allows the lovers to escape unnoticed.
We see Gothic elements at play again in the use of the supernatural in the poem. First, there is the obviously prophetic ritual associated with St. Agnes’ Eve that brings up ideas of prophecy and forbidden knowledge. Second, the supernatural is present in the recurring supernatural descriptions given to characters and events. Some of these have been listed earlier, such as the conflicting depictions of Madeleine or the description of her father’s guests as “warrior-guests, with shade and form/ Of witch, and demon and large coffin-worm” (372-374). There are countless allusions to the supernatural that include peripheral characters, like "Dwarfish Hildebrand" (100), all the way down to the lovers themselves who escape “like phantoms” (361).
As I stated earlier, “The Eve of St. Agnes” also fits in with Gothic works about femmes fatales, like “Lamia” and “La belle dame sans merci” by Keats and “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although the depiction of Madeline’s character seems to be complicated by an angelic or pure aspect, there are overtones of this sexualized femmes fatales character in the descriptions of her that connect her to other Gothic female figures, perhaps both the femmes fatales and the virginal heroine.
Damrosch, David and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, gen. eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and their Contemporaries. 5th ed. Volume 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.
Keats, John. “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Poetry Foundation. Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute. n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173735
Maclise, Daniel. Madeline After Prayer. 1868. The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/638293?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=madeline+after+prayer&pos=1