Deal Me In: The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats (1820)

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Manuscript of the poem (British Library)

This is the first poem I have read for the Deal Me In challenge. I have read some of the short stories and I will write about them later, but I think I will do individual posts for all the poems (if I read all of them). I read the poem a couple of times, and then read the commentary on the poem at the website of Brooklyn College (found via Wikipedia). The overview at that link quotes some comments (from a reviewer of the time) calling it one long sensuous utterance,” but lacking in substance. The commentary, I think, shows that there actually is a great deal to think about in this poem, but it goes through the whole thing in much more detail than I have in this post!

The Eve of St Agnes was written in 1819 and published in 1820. The poem is named for the evening before the feast of Saint Agnes, which falls on January 21st. Legend had it that a girl could see her husband in a dream if she performed certain rituals, going to bed without supper and lie down naked, looking upward to the heavens rather than behind or sideways.
The British Library website (at the link above) says: The poem is richly detailed with full of intimate descriptions, although Keats’ publishers forced him to tone down some of the sexual description for fear of provoking an adverse reaction from readers. 


ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;

The hare limped 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 poem begins outside a medieval chapel, where a beadsman enters to say his prayers. (A beadsman is a poor man paid to pray for a wealthy patron; the word refers to the beads of a rosary.) He overhears the music from the revels in the castle nearby. The narrator shifts to describing the revels, where Madeline is anticipating the vision she hopes to receive from St. Agnes that night. 
Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
The music, yearning like a God in pain, 
She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,
Fixed 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 retired; not cooled by high disdain,
But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere:
She sighed for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.
Porphyro is introduced in stanza IX. He is hiding nearby in the shadows, seeking Madeline. 
Apparently, he has seen her in a vision. He sneaks into the castle, and we are told (in stanza X) that he would be killed if discovered, because the castle’s inhabitants are hostile to his lineage. (I am guessing this refers to a family feud). The only one who is friendly to him is the old woman Angela. She recognizes him and urges him to leave. I don’t think there is any explanation of how she knows who he is. Porphyro convinces her to help him find Madeline. He finds her in her room, where he watches her. At the end of stanza XXIII, she is compared to a nightingale:
… As though a tongueless nightingale should swell 
Her throat in vain, heart-stifled, in her dell. 
This looks like an allusion to Philomela, the woman who was raped by Tereus, who also cut out her tongue; ultimately she was transformed into a nightingale. The most famous version of the story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I wrote a post about Metamorphoses last week which covered this story.) I will come back to this, as its relevant later.

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,
Innumberable 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 blushed with blood of queens and kings.

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep, 
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavendered,
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 transferred
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedared Lebanon.

Porphyro continues to watch Madeline sleep, and starts to play her lute. In stanza XXXIV, she opens her eyes and sees Porphyro. At this point she is “wide awake, but she still sees the vision of her sleepindicating that she still thinks that she is dreaming. She speaks for the first time in the next stanza (XXXVI), revealing that Porphyro was in her dream. Now that she sees him in the waking world, she is startled by the difference between the dream Porphyro and the real one; the latter, she says, is pallid, chill and drear. Almost as soon as she says this, he becomes invigorated again and… melts into her dream: Into her dream he melted, as the rose/Blendeth its odour with violet,—

So this looks like a poetic way of saying that they’re having sex, and consent is … dubious under the circumstances. This is why the mention of Philomela jumped out at me… without that allusion, I might say that any disturbing element in the relationship is probably unintentional. As it is, that angle sort of looks deliberate. 

There is a storm outside, and the moon sets. Porphyro declares that this is not a dream. Madeline is not pleased to hear this; she fears that he’s going to leave her, even though she says a few lines later that she has been deceived (and it seems plausible that if she had known the whole thing was real, she would have refused to have premarital sex with him). He tells her that the storm outside is an elfin-storm from faery land, and that it will help them slip away to his home in the southern moors before everyone else in the castle wakes up. This is partly because they drank a lot the previous night (so they are sleeping in) but also possibly a magical effect of the storm.

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 meager face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,

For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.

So maybe they never arrived at that house on the moors; it sounds as if they were blown away to faery land. 

Whew! That was weirder than I was expecting. The danger and the attraction of being lost in dreams is a prominent theme here, and one that comes up in some of his other poems (e.g. La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which was written later). I have read some of Keats’s other poems, but not since before I started blogging, and this one was new to me. 

The Eve of St Agnes by Arthur Hughes, 1856 (Wikimedia)

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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