The Eve of St. Agnes: by John Keats - Critical Summary

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Old Beadsman telling his rosary

      It was St. Agnes’ Eve. The weather was bitterly cold. An aged Beadsman sitting in the chapel of a Baron’s castle was telling his rosary. Because of the extreme cold his fingers were getting benumbed. His breath, as it went upwards carrying his prayer, was getting frozen, too. Soon he got up from his prayer. He was weak and bare-footed. He walked slowly along the chapel aisle towards his own cell. On both sides of the passage were the statues of dead ladies and knights. They appeared to shiver in the extreme cold of the night. As he turned northwards, he heard the. strains of music proceeding from the castle hall. But he at once remembered that he was old and approaching death. On St. Agnes’s Eve, he must fast and pray. So he turned to another direction resolved to pass the night praying for the salvation of the sinners.

The preparations in the Baron’s chambers

      The Baron’s chambers were ready to receive a thousand guests. From under the cornice, the carved figures of angels with their hair brushed backward and their wings folded on their breasts looked on eagerly. Music filled the air. Then came the revelers. They were dressed most gorgeously.

Madeline

      Among them was Madeline, the beautiful daughter of the Baron. Madeline had thought all day about her lover. She had heard that virgins could get the visions of their future husbands on St. Agnes’s Eve if they perform certain rituals i.e. they should go to their beds supperless, lay straight, and keep looking upward. Madeline was absorbed in this thought and paid no heed to the mirth and revelry. She remained indifferent to the invited young guests She took part in the dance but all the time she thought only of St. Agnes and her lover.

Porphyro arrives and stays outside

      While Madeline was thinking of leaving the dance hall Porphyro came on horse-back and stood hidden beside the portal doors. He had boldly entered the castle which was full of his enemies, whose very dogs would have cursed him. He meets Angela, the old nurse
Porphyro met Angela, the old dame. She was Porphyro’s only friend in that hostile house. She came reclining on her wand and was very much surprised to find Porphyro hidden behind a pillar. She asked him to leave the place at once. The castle, she warned him, was fall of blood-thirty foes of his. Finding Porphyro important (asking persistently) to meet Madeline, she took him to a safe place in order to exchange a few words with him. She entered a lonely moonlit room. Here Porphyro told Angela about his desire to meet Madeline. Angela warned him that although it was St. Agnes’s Eve, men would not stop from murdering man even on that holy night. She wondered, how, Porphyro had entered the castle. Surely he must have had some miraculous power to succeed in entering the castle without the notice of anyone.

Porphyro proposes a plan

      However, she appreciated love and boldness of the young knight and smiled. Porphyro looked at her like a puzzled boy. She told him that how Madeline had fasted that evening and how she had retired to bed praying for a vision of him. Suddenly an idea came to Porphyro’s mind. He proposed a plan to Angela which was strongly disapproved of by her. Porphyro wanted to hide himself in Madeline’s chamber and look at her beautiful form. Angela became angry at this and said that Porphyro was not what he used to be before and that he had turned to be a wicked man. At this Porphyro assured her that he would do no harm to Madeline He also threatened her, that if she did not agree to his proposal, he would shout to his enemies and challenge them openly. Angela was frightened at this. She asked him to stop causing trouble and anxiety to an old and weak woman, who was destined to die quite soon and who had always prayed for his good.

Angela takes Porphyro to Madeline’s chamber

      At this Porphyro was very much moved. He started talking to her in a gentle tone. Angela, too, agreed to his proposal which was to lead him secretly into Madeline’s chamber and to hide him in some closet, from where he might behold her beauty. She also promised to place some dainty food-stuffs in Madeline s room. She told Porphyro that there was no time to spare as she herself was feeling very tired and weak. She had hardly any strength enough to do that hazardous work. Requesting him to wait there patiently, she went off to make arrangements.

Porphyro hides himself behind curtains

      Angela returned after a short while and whispered to Porphyro to follow her. She was pale with fear and anxiety. She led him through many dark pathways to Madeline’s bed room. There were silken curtains in the chamber of Madeline. It appeared as if it was a maiden’s bedroom. Porphyro hid himself there. He was happy at his success. The old woman went back quickly, full of anxiety and narrowness.

Madeline helps Angela to find her way

      As Angela was groping her way in the darkness, Madeline came there unconsciously, in her sleep, to help her. With a taper in hand, she helped her to go downstairs. After that she returned to her chamber, closed the door, put off the light. She was very much excited. She did not utter a word for fear of breaking the spell of St. Agnes.

Description of Madeline’s chamber

      Madeline’s chamber had a triple-arched window decorated with engravings of fruit, flowers and leaves. It had diamond-shaped panes of exquisite pattern. They were of different colors like the gorgeous wings of tiger moths. In the midst of all these decorations there was a shield which was red with the blood of many kings and queens. The pale light of the wintry moon fell on this window and became multi-colored as it passed through and fell on the bosom of Madeline who was kneeling down to pray.

Madeline undresses herself

      Having finished her prayers, Madeline began to undress herself. She put off all her ornaments. Then, she loosened her scented bodice. By degrees, her dress fell down. Half bidden in her dress she appeared like a mermaid.

Madeline enters her bed

      Soon, shivering on her soft cold bed, Madeline lay half asleep. She was thinking of St. Agnes all that time. After some time, she fell fast asleep and became insensible to joy and pain alike. She appeared like a rose which had closed her petals and became a bud again.

Porphyro comes out of the place of hiding

      Porphyro had been watching her from his place of hiding. He had been looking at her for all that time. When he was sure that she, is fast asleep, he came out. He placed a table beside Madeline’s bed and covered it with a cloth of a richly-colored texture While she was fast asleep peacefully on her beautiful and perfumed bed, Porphyro brought forth, from the closet, a heap of fruit and delicacies. He put them all on the table in dishes of gold and baskets of twisted silver wire.

Porphyro courts Madeline

      Now Porphyro started courting Madeline in tones of passionate love. But Madeline was dreaming of her lover under the influence of St. Agnes’ charm. The spell could not be easily broken. For some time, Porphyro thought that his beloved could never be brought back to life from her spell. For a moment, he remained absorbed in his own thoughts. An idea struck to him. He took Madeline’s lute and began to play on it the melodious tune of an ancient song.

Madeline wakes up

      Madeline opened her eyes. She had, however, not yet completely recovered from her dream. She was very much shocked to see Porphyro before her. The real Porphyro was very pale and cold. He was so very different from the Porphyro of her dream. She began to weep. Porphyro was very much moved but could not speak. Madeline implored him to give her those bright and spiritual passions of love which he had given to her in her dreams, and to profess love to her as he had done in the dreams.

Porphyro’s assurance

      At this moving appeal of his sweet-heart, Porphyro flushed up. He was transformed into a divine lover and was filled with passionate love far greater than a human being can feel. His real self mingled with the Porphyro of her dreams, like the fragrance of a rose mixing with that of a violet. In the meantime, a frosty wind began to blow outside. It struck against the window panes. The moon too, had disappeared. Porphyro passionately assured her that he was the real Porphyro. But this made Madeline all the more restless. She feared that Porphyro would have to leave her soon. Porphyro said that Madeline was like a temple to him and he was a hungry pilgrim, who had reached his destination after a good deal of effort.

Porphyro persuades Madeline to elope with him

      Porphyro vowed eternal love to her. He prayed her to elope with him. “Let us go away quickly, my darling. No body will see us fly”, he said. The storm blowing outside was a great boon to them. The Baron, his guests and other inmates of the house were all unconscious as they had drunk heavily that night. He suggested that they should escape from the castle immediately as the morning was approaching.

      At this, Madeline quickly got ready. She was afraid of the watchman sleeping beside, the lights. They followed a path which was full of darkness in order to escape without the notice of others. No sound of any human being was heard in the whole castle. A lamp flickered at the door.

      They moved softly like ghosts along the hall to the porch. The porter lay drunk and fast asleep. The watchful bloodhound got at - once, but did not bark as he recognized Madeline as an inmate of the house.

      One by one, they lifted the bolts and chains. The key moved and the door opened with a slight noise. They disappeared in the storm raging outside.

The Baron dreams

      That night the Baron dreams sorrowful dreams. His warrior guests also shuddered with dreams of witches, devils and coffinworms. The old woman, Angela, died, palsy-striken. The Beadsman also died, having said his prayers for others.

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