The Eve of St. Agnes: Poem by John Keats - Analysis

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      The Eve of St. Agnes, says Drinkwater, “must be reckoned, on the whole, the most splendid of Keats’s poems’’. Keats takes in the poem the simple, almost thread-bare theme of the love of an adventurous youth for the daughter of a hostile house, “a story wherein something of Romeo and Juliet is mixed with something of young Lochinvar” - and brings it very cleverly and skilfully into association with the old popular belief as to the way a maiden might, on the anniversary of St. Agnes’ Eve, win sight of her lover in a dream.

      The poem The Eve of St. Agnes was first published in 1820 along with La Belle Dame. Isabella and the five famous Odes, and Lamia and Hyperion. It is not too much to say that it is the finest book of poems ever given to the world.

Sources of the Poem

      MacCracken thinks that the substance of the story is derived from a tale by Boccaccio, “Keats’s narrative is truly like a magically refined and enriched quintessence distilled from the correspondence chapter in Boccaccio’s tale.”

      Another critic thinks that here Keats has drawn upon the story in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. The jealousy that existed between the two houses finds a parallel in that story. Porphyro may will be compared to Remeo; Medeline to Juliet, Angela to Juliet’s nurse and Medeline’s relative to Juliet’s relative called the Capulets

Romantic Qualities in The Eve of St. Agnes

      The Eve of St. Agnes pure romantic poem of its tune. Its romantic character is due firstly, to the element of love which forms the basis of the story. Porphyro, the lover, has taken a great risk in coming to meet Madeline. What can be more romantic than a love-passion between the son and daughter of hostile houses reminds us of the Romeo and Juliet theme. Porphyro has come across the moors “with heart on fire”. Madeline’s words to Porphyro on waking are also full of passion.

“Oh leave me not in this eternal woe.
For if thou diest, my love, I know not where to go.

      Porphyro grows almost faint with love and is more passionate than any mortal man till he just melts into Madeline i.e. he enjoys the rapture of love in her warm embraces.

      The second romantic quality of the poem is its medievalism. In the Middle Ages this is one of the romantic characteristics. We have here medieval chivalry, medieval superstition, medieval piety, and medieval art. Medieval chivalry is seen in Porphyro’s risking his life for his beloved, Medieval superstition is seen in the belief that a maiden by observing certain rituals on St. Agnes’ Eve could win sight of her lover in a dream. The beadsman represents medieval piety, while the poet’s interest in medieval art is clear in his reference to the plume, tiara, carved angles, and Gothic window.

      Thirdly, the poem is marked by a rich sensuousness which is also a romantic trait. The description of the feast spread by Porphyro appeals to our senses of smell, sight and taste. The picture of the window panes with their splendid dyes is perfect in its beauty of color and delights our sense of sight. Our sense of sight is also gratified when the poet refers to the moon throwing its light on Madeline’s fair breast.

      Finally, the music of the poem and its phrases of rare beauty lend it a romantic quality. Keats has handled the Spenserian stanza with great success while he gives us intoxicating phrases. We have the phrase “warmed jewels” which Madeline takes off, jewels warmed by her body. The phrase “purple riot” sums up the trembling eagerness and the love worship in Porphyro’s heart. Another pretty phrase is Madeline’s ‘‘fragrant bodice”. When we read such expressions, we feel that we are far away from the stale, artificial and bombastic diction of the 18th century poetry. These phrases make the poem ornate i,e., they decorate and beautify it.

Medievalism in “The Eve of St. Agnes”

      It is the loveliest “English pure romance poem of its time” with a medieval background. It is a tale of medieval chivalry and is based upon the medieval superstition that a maiden might win sight of her future husband in a dream by going to bed supperless and sleeping on her back on St. Agnes’ Eve. With this, Keats has woven the motive of a love-passion between the son and daughter of hostile houses reminding us of Romeo and Juliet. As a poet of medievalism, it may be noted, Keats concentrates upon the passion rather than the adventure of the period. He does not make Porphyro fight with his enemies but dwells upon his passion for Madeline. Porphyro came with his “heart on fire” for her. Madeline’s word to Porphyro are also full of passion:

Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thou diest, my love, I know not where to go.

      Porphyro grows almost faint with love till he melts into Madeline’s dream—“solution sweet.” Keats was interested also in medieval art this is borne out by his references to the plume, tiara, carved angels and the Gothic window.

Medieval arts and Crafts in the Poem

      Not only does the poet make use of such typically medieval incidents, but also he mentions medieval arts and crafts to give a medieval setting to the narrative. He refers to medieval architecture and describes the multi-colored window of a medieval castle in the following lines:

“A casement high and triple-arched there was
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes”.

      Then there are the medieval curtains, the carvings of angels near the cornice. All these are described very clearly. Colour and perfume have their due shares. The rich perfumes have their due share. “The rich perfume and the perfect silence of Madeline’s room, the fine description of the Gothic chapel, and the various ceremonies connected with the festival of St. Agnes’ Eve all combine to create an atmosphere of medieval romance”.

Pictorial quality of “The Eve of St. Agnes”

      However, there is ample compensation in the pictures, so richly and delicately painted in this poem. The drawing, the coloring and the expression of every picture is flawless. A person with imagination will not regret that Keats did not handle a brush. Mark the following lines:

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 complete scene of a cold morning has been drawn by the mention of frozen grass, the limping hare, the shivering owl and the numb finger of the Beadsman. The limping hare, the cold owl and the numb fingers—these descriptions send a sympathetic shiver through the reader. If Keats improved anything upon Spenser, it was this quality of picture-painting.

      Another feature which goes to embellishes the pictures of this poem is the employment of nine-line Spenserian stanza, the clock of fairy-land, as it has been called. Keats uses this stanza with an effect and mastery which, if it does not surpass Spenser’s own, is in no way inferior to it. In picture-painting this stanza is the best meter. Its first eight lines paint a picture while the ninth one frames it.
The Spenserian stanza adds to the melodiousness of the poem. Every stanza is linked with sweetness long drawn out. E. De Selincourt writes: “The stanza is not merely formally Spenserian, it is employed with a truly Spenserian effect; and the subtle modulations of the melody, and in particular, the lingering sweetness of the Alexandrine, are nowhere else so effective outside the Faerie Queen. With the form Keats has at last perhaps caught something of that spirit of chivalry inherent in Spenser which from the first he had desired to emulate”.

Sensuoasuess in “The Eve of St. Agnes”

      The Eve of St. Agnes is a rich feast to all the senses—the eye, the ear, the tongue, the nose and the touch. The pictorial descriptions, rich in color provide an excellent appeal to the sense of sight. “It was an axiom with Keats.” says Groser, “that poetry should surprise by a fine excess. The pictures of, Keats are all aglow with color, not always very accurate painter’s color but color which captivates the senses”.

      The Spenserian stanza provides melodiousness and thus appeals to the sense of hearing. Apart from the music created there is also music suggested. In the house of Madeline a feast is going on. The silver trumpets are being played upon. There is also the music of the clarion, the kettle-drum and the clarionet. Porphyro himself plays upon the lute in chords that tenderest may be.

     Then the description of foods, heaped by Porphyro makes the reader’s mouth water. Mark the following:

While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez, and spiced dainties.

      The above lines have an appeal to the sense of smell also but Keats would not be satisfied with just a suggestion; he makes the appeal more intense by the following lines:

Filling the chilly room with perfume light.

Well-sustained Narrative Poem

      The Eve of St Agnes is a narrative poem. The argument of the poem is simple. It is based on a popular superstition according to which young virgins might get a sight of their future husbands if certain ceremonies were performed on the following day. Madeline, the heroine of the poem, observes all these ceremonies on St. Agnes’ Eve with a view to getting sight of Porphyro, her lover. A grand feast is arranged at Madeline’s father’s place. To this many guests have been invited. They are all inimical to Porphyro. Porphyro comes to the castle and is secretly conducted to Madeline’s chamber by Angela, the old beldame. He awakens Madeline from her blissful sleep by playing upon her lute. After that, both slip away unnoticed by any one, in the darkness of the night and are united in the bonds of love.

      The story in its present form is of Keats’s own invention though it may have been inspired by Boccaccio’s tale or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

      Like many of the famous narratives in English, it has a very pimple plot, so simple that the common man would think it incapable of arousing interest. But in Keats’s hands it has become owe of the most entrancing of English verse tales.

      The narrative is well-sustained. There is no irrelevance, no digression, no intricate side-plot. But these are negative qualities in the poem. In themselves they would no, charm it possesses. What really attracts us is the series of wonderful pictures and fine phrases, the skillful contrast—in a word, the glamorous appeal to the eye and the ear.

      The movement of the narrative is slow. There is very little of The story proper which Keats takes forty-two Spenserian stanzas to tell could have been told in a few lines. There is no swiftness as in Byron and Scott. We are likely to forget the plot proper in the wealth of pictures and other decorative details.

      The leisurely movement of the narrative resembles the march of a caravan which is heavily burdened with treasurers. Keats loads his lines with imagery and sensuous association “He covered the structure complete with a rich tapestry of words and images. There is no place where the threads run thin. Indeed, the weakness of the poem is that the weaving is generally, too heavy for the structure, which we feel to be bending underneath it. In places, too, notably in the incident of the beadsman and the feast set out by Porphyro in Madeline’s chamber, threads which assert themselves are inappropriate or of too vivid a coloring for the pattern viewed as a whole to absorb.”

      The story does reach its goal but it hangs fire at every step (threatens to linger). Though a slow-moving narrative, The Eve of St. Agnes is an organic whole. The story moves to a climax slowly but effectively.

A Sheer Thing of Beauty

      The poem is a lovely dream of delight. The story does not matter. The poet concentrates on rich descriptions, vivid pictures and suggestions of beauty. All that is rude and violent has been excluded from the view. The noise made by Madeline’s kinsmen comes only as a faint sound from a distance. Nothing ugly or unpleasant reaches the eye or the ear. Everything in the poem is full of beauty, love and sweetness.

      The poem gives expression to the poet’s joy in the presence of love and beauty. “It shows the beauties and faults to his style held in balance. The story falls short of the later and more nature versification of the Hyperion period, but the narration of events with all their beauty of shape, color and sound, is about the best that Keats ever achieved”.

A Skillful Contrast of Sensations

      The object of Keats in this poem is more to convey a series of intense and definite sensations appealing to all the senses in turn He contrasts one set of sensations with another. “What really attracts us,” says Weekes, “is the series of wonderful pictures and fine Phrases, the skillful contrast—in a word, the imagination to the eye and the ear”.

      First, we have a striking description of the fierce biting cold and silent night in mid-winter, a study in black and frosty white. From this we pass to the “chambers ready with their pride”, and the light and color, and sound warmth that attend an evening’s festivities indoors. Then there are the rich perfume and absolute silence of the chamber of Madeline; the beauty of a Gothic window as the moon shines upon and through it. “Where all is beautiful it is hard to pick out beauties, but the description of the “carved angels” (Stanza 4) of Madeline in the glow of the moonlighted windows (stanzas XXIV and XXV) of Madeline asleep “in lap of legends old” perhaps linger in our memories more vividly than any others”. The poem has all the brightness of a medieval illuminated manuscript, all the world charm of Spenser, whose stanza Keats uses here, Selincourt says: “But now here is this sense of contrast more exquisitely developed than in the treatment of the shifting moonlight which pervades the poem, at times adding the last supreme touch of color to a picture of carefully elaborated detail, at times by its weird suggestiveness, rendering all details superfluous”. No description of the castle is given as beautiful as Porphyro stands “burtresse’d from moonlight”. We see it outlined in black massiveness against the sky. Languid shines the moon upon the little room, “pale, lattic’d, chill”, where he unfolds his plan to the old woman. Angela awaits the moment of its fulfillment.

Actions and Emotions of the Personages

      If the unique charm of The Eve of St. Agnes lies thus in the richness and vitality of the accessory (helping) and decorative images, the actions and emotions of the personages are hardly less happily conceived as far as they go. Take the figure of the beadsman and the nurse. Surely nothing could be better touched than these. They live just long enough to share in the wonders of the night. They die quietly of age when their parts are over. This discussion between old Angela and Porphyro and her gentle treatment by Madeline on the stair are equally well touched. Madeline, herself, is exquisite throughout especially at two moments: first when she has just entered her chamber:

“No uttered syllable, or, woe betide:
But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side”.

      The second moment is when she wakes up from her sweet dreams and finds her lover beside her, and contrasts his bodily presence with her dream:

“An Porphyro: said she, but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear
Made tumble with every sweetest vow:
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How changed thou ait: how pallid, chill, and dear.

Diction and Style of the Poem

      As has already been remarked Keats’s object in The Eve of St. Agnes is to convey a series of intense and definite sensations appealing to all the senses in turn.

      In style and diction, Keats’s success in conveying to them the reader is no less remarkable than the slow movement of the narrative, and the contrast of one set of sensations with another. Keats selects his words and phrases with the utmost care for their richness in music and meanings. “I look upon fine phrases like a lover”, wrote Keats. He urged Shelley “to load every rift with oar”, “to charm his verse with poetry,” so that it was, in truth; the language of the imagination. Keats’s own poetry is richly loaded with the oar of felicitous expression and pictorial imagery. This verbal magic is the most outstanding feature of his best work.
The Eve of St. Agnes abounds with lovely sonorous phrases rich with meaning. For example, "azure-lidded sleep" Chamber, is silken, hushed, and chaste.


      Three things have been mentioned to show the critics that the “archeology” of the poem is slightly inaccurate. They are:

In stanza XXV the colorful effects of the “wintry moon” on the window are described; here a fallacy is committed, as the light of the moon in winter cannot be strong enough to reflect the color of the windows.

There is a slight error in the use of the word “carpet”. In the Middle Ages carpets in the modern sense of the term were unknown.

Porphyro, they say, is too unmanly to figure as a hero, as he suffers from a swooning abandonment. But none of these defects can be characterized as very serious and likely to spoil the total impression of the poem.

Spenserian Stanza

      The poem is written in the Spenserian stanza. It is a stanza of nine lines. The first eight lines are decasyllabic and the last line is an Alexandrine. The rhyme scheme is ab ab bc bc.

      Commenting on its use by Keats, Mary Subbord says: “The Spenserian stanza, with its lingering, over-lapping rhymes, appealed to Keats’s ruminant nature, if it may be so called. Keats, like Jacques, spent his whole life chewing that cud of sweet and bitter fancy, and still more of sweet and bitter sensation. This tendency chiefly accounts for the limited range and corresponding depth of his poetry.

      Another critic says: If the atmosphere of the poem is media; its style is Elizabethan. It is written in Spenserian stanzas. This meter has helped the poet in three ways:

It has added to the melodious grace of poem.

It has also given it Sweet Slipping Grace.

      It has lent it a transparent ease and directness of construction”. To these good points can be added a never-failing richness and concentration of poetic meaning and suggestion.

      E. De Selincourt writes: “The stanza is not merely formally Spenserian, it is employed with a truly Spenserian effect and the subtle modulations of the melody, and in particular the lingering sweetness of the Alexandrine, are nowhere else so effective outside the Faerie Queen. With the form, Keats has at last perhaps caught something of that spirit of chivalry inherent in Spenser which from the first he had desired to emulate”.


The Eve of St. Agnes is the best narrative poem of Keats,

There is great richness and concentration of poetic meaning and suggestion.

The romantic atmosphere of the story is carefully managed.

Keats vivifies what he touches. There is sensuousness and pre-Raphaelite minuteness of details. This marks the whole poem an exquisite piece of sensuous artistry.

The action and emotions are happily blened.

The supernatural element in the poem helps to create a medieval atmosphere, and the medieval atmosphere supports the supernatural suggestion.

Keats showed great skill in the use of contrast which brings out clearly the romantic character of the poem.

Keats showed great skill in managing the Spenserian stanza.

University Questions

Justify the dictum that The Eve of St. Agnes is “no more than a romantic tapestry of unique richness of color.”

Narrate the essential aspects of Keatsian poetry in this poem.

Narrate the Keatsian characteristics of poetry in “The Eve of St. Agnes” in detail.
Illustrate that “The Eve of St. Agnes” is “the deliberate work of & trained craftsmanship.” Give examples from the poem.

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