‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by John Keats is a poem of epic length written in Spenserian, nine-line style. The first eight lines of each stanza is written in iambic pentameter with the last, known as an “alexandrine” written in iambic hexameter. The first eight lines have five beats per line while the last has six.
‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ begins with the setting, the eve of the Feast of St. Agnes, January 20th (the Feast is celebrated on the 21st). It is horribly cold outside. A Beadsman, a professional man of prayer, is freezing in his church. He briefly hears music from the house that the church abuts. They are preparing a celebration and the guests all arrive in a burst of expensive clothing and plumage.
Within the castle, Madeline, one of the main characters of this story is stuck dancing amongst the guests. She has been informed by older women that this is a night during which a virgin lady, after following certain rituals, might in her dreams see the image of her true love. She is distracted by these thoughts and unable to enjoy the dance.
Farther away from the castle a man, Porphyro, who loves Madeline more than anything, is making his way to the house. He enters, unseen. If anyone finds him he knows that he will be killed. Madeline’s family hates him and holds his lineage against him. While sneaking through the house he comes upon Angela, one of the servants. He begs her to bring him to Madeline’s chamber so that he might show himself to her that night and solidify himself as her true love. After much complaining, she agrees and hides him until it is time.
When Madeline finally enters the room, undresses, and falls to sleep, Porphyro is watching her. When he decides that she has fallen completely asleep he makes his approach and wakes her with the playing of a flute. She is ripped from a dream in which she was with a heavenly, more beautiful version of Porphyro and is aghast when she sees the real one. She believes for a moment that he is close to death.
After much convincing Madeline realizes her mistake. Porphyro declares that the two should run away together, since now she knows he is her true love, and escape to a home he has prepared on the “southern moors.” They need to go now while the house is asleep so that her family does not murder him.
The two are able to make it out of the home without arousing suspicion and ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ concludes with two characters, Angela, and the Beadsman, dying; their death acting as a symbol of a new generation that is now the focus of the world.
Additionally, this idealistically romantic Romantic poem is known to have been written shortly after Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne.
Analysis of The Eve of St. Agnes
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.
‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ begins with the poet painting a freezing picture of the evening. It is January 20th, the day before the Feast of St. Agnes is celebrated and all is “bitter” and “cold.” The animals are protected by their feathers, but the hare is still “trembling” through the “frozen grass.”
The Beadsman of the house where most of the poem will take place, is nursing his “Numb” fingers as he prays into his rosary. A beadsman was what is essentially a professional man of prayer. This man may or may not have been paid for his service of praying for the household to which he is bound.
His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.
The “holy man” is saying his prays and rises from his “knees” to wander through the chapel. He is barefoot and “meagre,” Keats describes a pitiful man who has no escape from the cold.
The Beadsman is glancing around the chapel at the sculpted “dead” and thinking about how they are “Emprison’d” within the stone. They too are frozen and “ach[ing] in icy hoods.”
Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere Music’s golden tongue
Flatter’d to tears this aged man and poor;
But no—already had his deathbell rung;
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St. Agnes’ Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among
Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.
The man turns from the chapel and heads through a door. He does not make it very far before he hears the sounds of music. The beautiful melody touches him and “this aged man” is brought to tears. There is not going to be any long relief for the Beadsman though, as his death is soon to come, “his deathbell [is] rung” and the joys of his life are over.
He did not go towards the music but away from it in repentance. He sat alone all night grieving for his own sins.
That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft;
And so it chanc’d, for many a door was wide,
From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft,
The silver, snarling trumpets ‘gan to chide:
The level chambers, ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
Star’d, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.
The Beadsman had only heard the beginning of the music. In the room from which it was coming, doors are flung open and many are hurrying back and forth. The trumpets are warming up and the owners of the home are preparing for guests to arrive. Above them sit carved angels who lookout with “eager-eye[s]” on all the proceeding.
At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting faerily
The brain, new stuff’d, in youth, with triumphs gay
Of old romance. These let us wish away,
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,
Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and wing’d St. Agnes’ saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare.
All at once, the guests make their appearance and all that one can make out is that many are plumed with feathers, wearing “tiaras” and all kinds of “rich” ornamentations. They are impossible to count, like shadows. There are young and old amongst the guest and many are “gay,” or happy, about the possibility of rekindling old romances.
There is one lady in the group that is more important than the others. She is a member of the household and has been “brood[ing]” about the Feast day. She knows that there are stories of magic occurring in the past on this precise night.
They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
Older ladies, having experienced such things in the past have told her about it. They explained that “young virgins” are able to have visions of their future lover and experience his touch at exactly midnight, but only on this night.
But there are a number of rules to follow if one wants this to happen. One must not eat supper and must rest all that night sitting up, eyes towards the ceiling as if in a trance.
Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
The music, yearning like a God in pain,
She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,
Fix’d on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
Pass by—she heeded not at all: in vain
Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,
And back retir’d; not cool’d by high disdain,
But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere:
She sigh’d for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.
Madeline, the lady that has so far been spoken of, is desperate for this to happen to her. She is a divine sight to behold but refuses to engage with the crowd. Her eyes are fixed on the ground. Many seek her out and wish to speak with her but she does not wish the same. She is completely consumed by the possibilities of the night. A vision of love is more important to her than the reality of the world around her.
She danc’d along with vague, regardless eyes,
Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short:
The hallow’d hour was near at hand: she sighs
Amid the timbrels, and the throng’d resort
Of whisperers in anger, or in sport;
‘Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn,
Hoodwink’d with faery fancy; all amort,
Save to St. Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.
She does manage to dance for a time. But she is “anxious” and unable to focus. She wants nothing more than the hour to arrive. Her thoughts have been “Hoodwink’d” or stolen, but “faery fancy” and the possibilities of magic. All she is thinking about is what might happen that night.
So, purposing each moment to retire,
She linger’d still. Meantime, across the moors,
Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire
For Madeline. Beside the portal doors,
Buttress’d from moonlight, stands he, and implores
All saints to give him sight of Madeline,
But for one moment in the tedious hours,
That he might gaze and worship all unseen;
Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss—in sooth such things have been.
She spends the hours of the party with nothing in mind but when the opportunity will come for her to “retire” to her room. But still, she is forced to linger. At the same time that all of this is happening, “across the moor,” or the fields outside of the castle, a young man, “Porphyro” is heading towards the house.
He is described as having his “heart on fire / For Madeline.” He is filled with passion for her and that is driving him onward. He reaches the doors of the castle-like house and pleads with the saints to allow him even to catch “sight” of her. He worships and adores her more than anything.
He ventures in: let no buzz’d whisper tell:
All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
Will storm his heart, Love’s fev’rous citadel:
For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes,
Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords,
Whose very dogs would execrations howl
Against his lineage: not one breast affords
Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.
Porphyro “ventures” into the house and knows that he must be quiet and unseen as those within the home, Madeline’s family, despise him. They will attack and murder him if he is seen. He refers to them as “barbarians” and “hot-blooded lords” that hold his lineage against him.
There is one in the castle that he can trust though, as she is “weak in body and in soul.”
Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came,
Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
To where he stood, hid from the torch’s flame,
Behind a broad half-pillar, far beyond
The sound of merriment and chorus bland:
He startled her; but soon she knew his face,
And grasp’d his fingers in her palsied hand,
Saying, “Mercy, Porphyro! hie thee from this place;
They are all here to-night, the whole blood-thirsty race!
Happily for Porphyro, he stumbles upon the old woman as soon as he enters the home. She is “shuffling along” and passes where he is standing. He jumps out to greet her, “startl[ing]” her, and she grabs his hand.
Her fingers are described as being “palsied,” or affected with tremors. She is frantic, telling him that he needs to hide quickly as all those that would wish to do him harm are there tonight.
“Get hence! get hence! there’s dwarfish Hildebrand;
He had a fever late, and in the fit
He cursed thee and thine, both house and land:
Then there’s that old Lord Maurice, not a whit
More tame for his gray hairs—Alas me! flit!
Flit like a ghost away.”—”Ah, Gossip dear,
We’re safe enough; here in this arm-chair sit,
And tell me how”—”Good Saints! not here, not here;
Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier.”
She continues, in the twelfth stanza, to implore him to leave. Within the castle that night are “dwarfish Hildebrand” as well as “Lord Maurice,” both of whom are ready, or “fit” to jump on him.
For a moment though she believes they may be safe where they are. They sit down and she starts to ask him what he is doing in the castle that night of all nights. She quickly changes her mind though and leads him out of that particular room.
He follow’d through a lowly arched way,
Brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume,
And as she mutter’d “Well-a—well-a-day!”
He found him in a little moonlight room,
Pale, lattic’d, chill, and silent as a tomb.
“Now tell me where is Madeline,” said he,
“O tell me, Angela, by the holy loom
Which none but secret sisterhood may see,
When they St. Agnes’ wool are weaving piously.”
They travel through hallways with “lowly,” or low, arches that are covered with cobwebs until they enter a “little moonlight room.” It is cold in this place, and “silent as a tomb.”
He immediately asks the woman, whose name the reader now learns is Angela, where Madeline is that night. He hopes that she will share with him all her secrets so that he may find his beloved. Porphyro knows that many places are known only to women, but he asks to be let in.
“St. Agnes! Ah! it is St. Agnes’ Eve—
Yet men will murder upon holy days:
Thou must hold water in a witch’s sieve,
And be liege-lord of all the Elves and Fays,
To venture so: it fills me with amaze
To see thee, Porphyro!—St. Agnes’ Eve!
God’s help! my lady fair the conjuror plays
This very night: good angels her deceive!
But let me laugh awhile, I’ve mickle time to grieve.”
In the fourteenth stanza of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, Angela is bemoaning the way in which people act on this holiday. She wishes that Porphyro had not come on this particular day but she isn’t surprised. She’s used to men who “murder upon holy days” and consort with “Elves and Fays,” or fairies.
Angela knows that tonight Madeline is going to be participating in the magic of St. Agnes Eve and she disapproves of it.
Feebly she laugheth in the languid moon,
While Porphyro upon her face doth look,
Like puzzled urchin on an aged crone
Who keepeth clos’d a wond’rous riddle-book,
As spectacled she sits in chimney nook.
But soon his eyes grew brilliant, when she told
His lady’s purpose; and he scarce could brook
Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold,
And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.
Angela turns her head to the moon and laughs. Porphyro is “puzzled” by these actions and doesn’t understand whether they are on good or bad terms. Angela is imagining Madeline that night as she is “asleep in lap of legends old.” She completely disapproves of these actions but there is nothing she can do about it.
Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made purple riot: then doth he propose
A stratagem, that makes the beldame start:
“A cruel man and impious thou art:
Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream
Alone with her good angels, far apart
From wicked men like thee. Go, go!—I deem
Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem.”
Angela turns once more the Porphyro who still does not understand what is going on. She asks that he “let her pray, and sleep.” Angela does not want Porphyro to have anything to do with Madeline tonight. She calls him “cruel,” and “wicked” for wanting to disturb Madeline.
In fact, it seems as if Angela is particularly disappointed in his behavior as she expected more of him.
“I will not harm her, by all saints I swear,”
Quoth Porphyro: “O may I ne’er find grace
When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer,
If one of her soft ringlets I displace,
Or look with ruffian passion in her face:
Good Angela, believe me by these tears;
Or I will, even in a moment’s space,
Awake, with horrid shout, my foemen’s ears,
And beard them, though they be more fang’d than wolves and bears.”
Porphyro is finally given an opportunity to answer Angela’s insults and says that he would never “harm her” and swears on “all [the] saints.” He states, strongly and without reservation, that he would not disrupt one hair on her head, or look with anger on her face.
He is crying with his desperation for Angela to believe him.
“Ah! why wilt thou affright a feeble soul?
A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing,
Whose passing-bell may ere the midnight toll;
Whose prayers for thee, each morn and evening,
Were never miss’d.”—Thus plaining, doth she bring
A gentler speech from burning Porphyro;
So woful, and of such deep sorrowing,
That Angela gives promise she will do
Whatever he shall wish, betide her weal or woe.
He continues to address the old woman asking her why she would speak like this to such a “feeble soul.” He turns the tide on her and calls her a “weak, palsy-stricken…thing” and then praises her for never in her life missing a prayer.
Through her insults, she has softened Porphyro and made him beg. He hopes that this will be enough to have her lead him to Madeline’s bedside.
Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,
Even to Madeline’s chamber, and there hide
Him in a closet, of such privacy
That he might see her beauty unespy’d,
And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,
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.
In this stanza, the speaker describes the plan that Porphyro has for when he sees Madeline. He knows about the magic of St. Agnes’ Eve and hopes to show himself to Madeline at midnight, therefore solidifying, in her mind, his place as her true love.
He wants to be “lead…in close secrecy” to her “chamber” and hide in a closet where he will watch her until the right moment.
“It shall be as thou wishest,” said the Dame:
“All cates and dainties shall be stored there
Quickly on this feast-night: by the tambour frame
Her own lute thou wilt see: no time to spare,
For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare
On such a catering trust my dizzy head.
Wait here, my child, with patience; kneel in prayer
The while: Ah! thou must needs the lady wed,
Or may I never leave my grave among the dead.”
The “Dame,” Angela, agrees to this plan and tells him that there is no time to spare. They must prepare for this now and she has him hide within a storage space. As she is walking off, back to where the others are, she gives Porphyro one more piece of advice. That he must “wed” Madeline or Angela will never go to heaven. She will be stuck in her grave “among the dead” for the rest of eternity.
So saying, she hobbled off with busy fear.
The lover’s endless minutes slowly pass’d;
The dame return’d, and whisper’d in his ear
To follow her; with aged eyes aghast
From fright of dim espial. Safe at last,
Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
The maiden’s chamber, silken, hush’d, and chaste;
Where Porphyro took covert, pleas’d amain.
His poor guide hurried back with agues in her brain.
Once all this had been said, Angela “hobble[s]” off, her mind racing with fear. Porphyro, alone in the closet, spends his time agonizing over each minute until Angela returns and takes him to “The maiden’s chamber.” The chamber, or bedroom, is described as being “silken, hush’d, and chaste.” It is everything that a young noble woman’s room should be.
Porphyro hides within her room and feels happier with his increased circumstances. Angela though, still worried about the whole situation, hurries back downstairs.
Her falt’ring hand upon the balustrade,
Old Angela was feeling for the stair,
When Madeline, St. Agnes’ charmed maid,
Rose, like a mission’d spirit, unaware:
With silver taper’s light, and pious care,
She turn’d, and down the aged gossip led
To a safe level matting. Now prepare,
Young Porphyro, for gazing on that bed;
She comes, she comes again, like ring-dove fray’d and fled.
As Angela walks, her hand shakes against the railing and at the same time, Madeline is rising from her place at the ball and making her way to her bedroom. Porphyro is still wide awake, staring at the bed, waiting for his love to arrive.
Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died:
She clos’d the door, she panted, all akin
To spirits of the air, and visions wide:
No uttered syllable, or, woe betide!
But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side;
As though a tongueless nightingale should swell
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.
When Madeline enters the room, the “taper,” or candle is blown out and she closes the door. She is “panting,” over-excited by what she hopes to see at midnight. Madeline doe not speak but her heart is racing, throwing a number of feelings around in her chest.
It is as if a “nightingale” is swelling within her chest and is unable to get out. Her excitement is palpable to any observer, but not audible. She still does not speak.
A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
All garlanded with carven imag’ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.
This stanza, the twenty-fourth of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, is devoted to Madeline’s room. The speaker describes how the ceiling was “triple-arch’d” and covered with all kinds of carved images. There are pictures of “fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass.”
Additionally, there is a stained glass window that depicts “queens and kings” as well as moths, and “twilight saints.” The room seems to glow with light, representing the light that Madeline is to Porphyro. She lights up the room when she comes in.
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.
Through this beautiful stained glass shines the “wintery moon” and it casts it’s light on Madeline’s “fair breast” as she kneels to pray.
Porphyro sees her, and the narrator depicts her as being a “splendid angel” that has just been created by God. She does not yet have her wings but she is “so pure” and “free from mortal taint.” This idealized vision of a woman is common within Keats’ writing and the work of Romantic poets in general. While most times over the top, it is suited to the mystical situation that the couple finds themselves in.
Porphyro is in fact so intoxicated by her presence that he is growing “faint.” He cannot handle the perfection of what he is seeing, made all the better by the fact that she does not know he is there.
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.
His heart is still pounding as she finishes up her prayers and takes down her hair. She is in the process of undressing and does not know she is being observed from within the room. Madeline is existing within the hope of what will happen to her that night. She is distant and dreamy.
Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplex’d she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppress’d
Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away;
Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;
Blissfully haven’d both from joy and pain;
Clasp’d like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.
Madeline lays down in bed, in her “chilly nest,” until sleep takes her over. It presses her limbs and takes the fatigued from her soul. All these things are sure to return tomorrow, but for now, she is at peace.
She is described as being like a rose that is closed shut for now, but ready to “bud again” in the morning.
Stol’n to this paradise, and so entranced,
Porphyro gaz’d upon her empty dress,
And listen’d to her breathing, if it chanced
To wake into a slumberous tenderness;
Which when he heard, that minute did he bless,
And breath’d himself: then from the closet crept,
Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness,
And over the hush’d carpet, silent, stept,
And ‘tween the curtains peep’d, where, lo!—how fast she slept.
Porphyro, still hiding in the closet, observes her dress, now empty of its owner, and listens to her breathing as she sleeps. He waits a time to make sure she is fully asleep and then creeps over the carpeting and peers through the curtains at her sleeping form.
Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
A table, and, half anguish’d, threw thereon
A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet:—
O for some drowsy Morphean amulet!
The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion,
The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarinet,
Affray his ears, though but in dying tone:—
The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone.
While Porphyro is doing his best to remain completely silent and avoid waking Madeline, the party downstairs is rising in volume. The festivities are “boisterous” and they “Affray his ears.” He thinks that this blasting of music and voices will wake Madeline but then it disappears as quickly as it rose into being. It doesn’t wake her, she continues to sleep through it all.
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.
Still ensconced in “azure-lidded sleep” and covered with “linen” and the smells of lavender, Madeline is not disturbed. Porphyro creeps back to the closest and brings out a number of treats that he has hidden. There are apples, plums, and syrups, all imported from all over the world. They have come all the way from Lebanon and “Samarcand,” a city in Uzbekistan.
These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light.—
“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 drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.”
All of the treats that be brought with him are then “heaped” into baskets and decorated with “silver.” The light of the moon reflects off of his decorations, increasing the light within the small space.
Now that he has his display prepared he is ready to wake Madeline. He speaks to her, calling her his angel, saying, “my seraph fair, awake!” He continues to praise her and bid her, for the sake of St. Agnes, to wake up and speak to him. If she does not do it soon, he will have no choice but to get into bed with her.
Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains:—’twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
It seem’d he never, never could redeem
From such a stedfast spell his lady’s eyes;
So mus’d awhile, entoil’d in woofed phantasies.
Madeline is not waking because she is deep in the dreams of St. Agnes’ eve. She is under a charm that is showing her true love. There is no way, through simple speech, that Madeline can be woken up.
Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be,
He play’d an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans mercy”:
Close to her ear touching the melody;—
Wherewith disturb’d, she utter’d a soft moan:
He ceas’d—she panted quick—and suddenly
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.
Since his previous attempts to wake her have not worked, he decides that he is going to play her “lute” right next to her ear. The tune chosen is one about a lady who has no mercy or pity. Finally, she is waking up and utters a “soft moan.” She is surprised to have been woken up in such a way and Porphyro sinks to his knees beside her.
Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.
While she might look like she has woken up, she is still partially within her dream. This transition from her dream world to reality is painful and she regrets losing the purity of her dreams.
For the sake of her sleep, she begins to “weep” and “moan forth witless words.” She is not making any sense, she is only grieving for what she has lost. Porphyro does not know what to do but thinks that he shouldn’t move. He stays completely still by her side and looks at her “dreamingly.”
“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thy diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”
Now fully awake she speaks to Porphyro with a trembling voice and sad eyes. She tells him that he has changed so much since she last saw him. He is now “pallid, chill and drear.” It becomes clear that she was dreaming of Porphyro before he woke her up and now the reality does not meet up with her expectations.
She asks him to look at her and speak to her as he did in her dreams and to save her from “eternal woe.” Madeline believes that Porphyro is on the verge of death, so different are the two images.
Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose
Ethereal, flush’d, 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.
Within her dream, her ideal and beautiful Porphyro was “Ethereal,” and “throbbing [like a] star.” It was as if he had come from heaven and was a blend of all the most beautiful things in the world.
‘Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
“This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!”
‘Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.—
Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine,
Though thou forsakest a deceived thing;—
A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.”
In the thirty-seventh stanza of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, Porphyro is expressing his surprise at her reaction. He tells her that she is now not dreaming and that if she truly feels that way about him that he will “fade and pine.”
He does not know who she was seeing before but it was not him. She should not turn her back on him as he is real, she has been deceived.
“My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?
Thy beauty’s shield, heart-shap’d and vermeil dyed?
Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest
After so many hours of toil and quest,
A famish’d pilgrim,—sav’d by miracle.
Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest
Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think’st well
To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.
He continues to address her, making sure to shower her with compliments and will her to see him as he has always been. He is begging her to allow him to be with her, to marry her, and stay with her for the rest of his life. It will bring him great joy, but only if it brings her equal joy.
“Hark! ’tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise—arise! the morning is at hand;—
The bloated wassaillers will never heed:—
Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,—
Drown’d all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.”
In this stanza, as the narrative is nearing completion, Porphyro is urging Madeline to get out of bed and leave with him. He believes that this is their only chance and that they need to go now as “morning is at hand.”
He wants them to flee the house and find a better life than they can live together without the oppression of Madeline’s brutish family. Ideally, they will leave now so that there are “no ears to hear, or eyes to see.” The guests in the house are all drowned in “sleepy mead,” or ale.
He concludes this stanza by telling Madeline that he has a home prepared for them on the “southern moors.”
She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
For there were sleeping dragons all around,
At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears—
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.—
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-droop’d lamp was flickering by each door;
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.
Madeline finally understands what is being said and knows now that they do indeed need to hurry. There are “sleeping dragons” all throughout the castle ready to kill Porphyro if they get the chance.
They move through the house without making a sound. They go down “wide stairs,” through the dark, and made absolutely no noise. The house appears empty. There are lamps by the door but the imagery that Keats crafts, that of “long carpets” that are rising and falling on “the gusty floor” make it seem as if no one has been there for a long time. This is a great benefit to the lovers who need as much silence as possible to make their escape.
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flaggon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:—
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;—
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
Emphasizing this picture of the house as being deserted, Madeline and Porphyro are described a being “like phantoms” that float through the wide hallways and pass the bloodhound owned by the “Porter.”
The front door opens easily and the hinges have grown as it swings wide.
And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of 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. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.
In the final stanza of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, the two lovers are fleeing from the house, which they believe is dangerous, into a storm they see as being much safer. The poet makes clear in the first line of this last stanza that the story he has been telling happened a long, long time ago and that on that same night the “Baron,” Madeline’s father, and all the guests dreamt bad dreams of witches and demons.
Additionally, Angela and the Beadsman, from the beginning of the poem, died. These two older character’s deaths represent the beginning of the new life that Porphyro and Madeline are going to be living together.
About John Keats
John Keats was born in October of 1795 in London, England. He was the oldest of four children and lost his parents when he was very young. Keats’ father was trampled by a horse when he was only eight years old. His death greatly impacted Keats’ understanding of life and death and would create a basis for all of the poetry that was to come.
After her husband’s death, Keats’ mother, Frances, remarried and after that marriage fell apart she left her family to the care of her mother. She died in 1810 of tuberculosis.
It was during this time period, absorbed with his grief, that Keats first delved into his passion for art and writing. Keats was forced to leave his university studies to study medicine at a hospital in London. He became a licensed apothecary in 1816. He was never as interested in medicine as he was in writing.
Keats was eventually introduced to Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth. It was through his friendships that he was able to publish his first volume, Poem by John Keats. Keats’ work was not met with praise. A number of publications decried his epic poem, Endymion, as “driveling idiocy.”
In 1818, during the summer, Keats embarked on a walking tour of Northern England and Scotland. Over the following year, Keats’ brother died of tuberculosis and Keats fell in love with a woman named Fanny Brawne who would have a remarkable impact on his work.
Throughout his short life, Keats only published three volumes of poetry and was read by only a very small number of people. In 1819 he contracted tuberculosis and left for Italy where he suffered in agony, partially due to absurd medical treatments, until his death in February of 1821.