‘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.
Summary of The Eve of St. Agnes Stanzas 1-19
‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by John Keats is a celebration of an idealized love between two beautiful and heroic characters.
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 poem 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 on 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 fo 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 guest to arrive. Above them sit carved angels who look out 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, Madelines 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 describes 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 poem 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.