Critical Opinion of The Eve Of St. Agnes by John Keats Louise Acker, 12 AY Keats was born in the time of the Romantics, and as such his inspiration originated from such long-forgotten myths as King Arthur and Robin Hood. Keats also celebrated the gothic, the imaginative and the strange; inspired by Medievalism itself. This celebration can be seen very clearly in The Eve of St. Agnes, which plays with ideas of Romantic and courtly love, myths and Arthurian tales, as Keats sets up his (some would say somewhat unoriginal) chivalric narrative. For his subject Keats chose the Eve of St.
Agnes, which is still celebrated today. On the twentieth of January, the pure 'Brides of St. Agnes' will fall asleep before midnight and hope to wake in the morning beside the love of their life. Some critics would say that Keats is using excessive language and metaphors without purpose to mock this legend, however I believe that to come up with such emotive and powerful descriptions as: 'And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep, In blanched linen, smooth, and lavendar'd', and such expressive imagery as: 'A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet', Keats must have believed in his cause. The mood of the poem changes throughout, progressing and moving with the current theme and plot line.
I think this is necessary to keep a momentum going as, basically, the poem would otherwise seem to crawl into nothing. In the first stanza all the reader's senses are aroused: 'bitter chill' and 'numb' for touch, 'silent' for hearing, 'sweet' and 'frosted breath' for taste, 'pious incense' for smell and 'Virgin's picture' appeals to the sight. By overloading the reader with these stimuli, Keats creates a sensuous and deep feel to the poem even within the first stanza. The tone is religious and negative, emphasised by the slow pace of the verse and the unhappy language: 'chill', 'a-cold', 'frozen grass', 'limp'd' (also an inference to death, showing that Keats's distraction of mortality cannot be held back for long). The language is archaic ('was a-cold') and Keats had used a punchy pause and exclamation mark in the first line to emphasise the extent of the cold and the importance of the date: 'St. Agnes' Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was!' Sibilance is also used here to create a soft, quiet and negative atmosphere, with words like 'silent', 'grass', 'pious incense' and 'censer'.
In a way this prepares the reader for what is to come and negates the expectation that this poem ends happily. The title and the references to religion such as 'pious', 'rosary', 'beadsman', 'holy' and 'incense' introduce us to what feels like the religion of love, which will unfold later between the young lovers. By comparing their attachment to a religion Keats seems to be doing a number of things: it is as though love is a never-ending cycle, and that, whether good or bad, its ending is inevitable; that love is about faith; that love is a tradition and a myth, a perfect place such as Heaven, but somewhere unreachable and transcendent. It suggest further that rituals are involved (the fruit on the table and her actions later on in preparation), that this is a necessary thing, and that you can cling to love, like a religion. Keats also appears to criticise religion as it is through following the religion of love that Madeline finds disappointment, heartache and ruin.
The next stanza continues the downbeat steps of the old Beadsman, again using sibilance to emphasise slowness, and talking about a crypt like he is in Hell and cannot escape, that the rails are 'purgatorial'. It also mentions the statues and that he is praying 'in dumb oral " ries' to people that will never hear him. This presents the man's life as pointless, like he no longer has purpose and cannot help his fate. Such a depressing idea is reflective of Keats's obsession with his own death. In the third stanza there is a sudden change of atmosphere; the poem becomes lively and colourful, full of energy, with bright language like 'Music's golden tongue', 'scarce three steps' and the use of 'rung' and 'sung' instead of the present tense, which would have much less of an impact. This mood brings hope that is soon dashed with the lines: 'Another way he went, and soon among Rough ashes sat he for his soul's reprieve.' This again reflects the main theme of the poem: that life, hope and dreams are short-lived and that in the end death will prevail.
Further on in the poem we see the arrival of youth: 'At length burst in the argent revelry, With plume, tiara and all rich array'. These descriptive lines contrast the earlier image of the slow and weak old man with ideas of beauty, youth and richness. The excitement of this builds up throughout the poem; Keats uses manipulation of language such as 'honey'd middle of the night', 'couch' as a verb and 'adorings' as a noun, twisting the rules of English to create more of an effect and bring attention to the sensuality and sexuality of the poem. 'The Eve of St.
Agnes' is indeed highly charged with erotic undertones such as 'honey'd', 'Anxious her lips " and 'her breath quick and short'. Tension within this sexuality is built up with phrases like: 'So, purposing each moment to retire, She linger'd still.' , 'The lover's endless minutes slowly pass'd', 'She clos'd the door, she panted all akin'. The other way tension is achieved is that from the tenth stanza through to the nineteenth, Keats concentrates on the actions of the old dame and Porphyro, creating an intensely electric air and allowing the reader to truly feel his frustration. Added to this build-up is Porphyro's heroic crossing of the rough grounds 'across the moors', arriving in true romance and more strongly in love with Madeline than ever: 'with heart on fire'. This means that Porphyro's final meeting with his lady is all the more important, and that her undressing becomes all the more painful and sexually charged. The moments when Madeline removes her clothes slowly and with care are a key point in the poem in my opinion.
For me, Keats's writing here is intense; the words are delicate and beautifully placed, the extent of Porphyro's admiration is utterly complete, the lady is innocent and pure, the entire scene is exploding with sexual tension on his part and yet he will make no move: 'silken, hushed and chaste', 'And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast', 'Rose-bloom fell on her hands', 'She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest'. Also there is the description of the window overlooking: 'blushing with blood of queens and kings'. These are beautiful examples of Keats's passionate writing and careful eroticism, and make up the perfect conditions for this engagement of the couple in courtly love. Porphyro then sets up a table and fills it with exotic fruits for Madeline. These act as a symbol of their mutual ripeness, fertility and sensuality, and are also reminiscent of a religious feast such as The Last Supper in Christianity. This seems to suggest that their 'religion of love' will soon come to an end, and that this is their last feast whilst still virgins.
It adds to a number of hints from Keats that sex will end your life. Their have been many different opinions as to where exactly in the poem the actual sexual act takes place; Keats wanted to change a stanza to make the consummation more clear, but his publishers preferred the more subtle approach. In the poem now, the scene becomes that of the window instead of them directly, discretely covering up the act to retain the romance of the poem as well as contrasting the harsh outside world of reality with their safe dream world. However I believe that the actual act is somehow unimportant; it is the inevitability of the consummation that seams to matter, and her reaction to his presence. She wakes and is deeply disappointed; her dreams have been dashed because he is not what she has hoped for: 'At which fair Madeline began to weep, And moan forth witless words with many a sigh'. The atmosphere is so negative here, heavy and relentless, with depressing words and long, quiet sounds such as 'sigh', 'eye' and references to entrapment as well as the mutability of beauty and youth with words like 'keep' and 'joined'.
Suddenly the two become unreal, the speed slows down, the tone is woeful and the sibilance becomes somehow pessimistic ('witless words'), when contrasted with the harsher, more stark and metallic consonants such as 'pallid, chill and drear!' , 'dark' and 'iced gusts'. Keats also mentions a 'chain-droop'd lamp' and 'horsemen, hawk and hound' to insinuate that they are being hunted by time. However they are not constrained by reality in the end, they are 'phantoms', all part of one Beadsman's gloomy dreams: 'And they are gone'. The last rhyming couplet sums up the hopelessness and predestination of the lovers, hitting the reader hard to hammer home the message: 'The Beadsman... told, For aye... his ashes cold.' The Beadsman's death is cold and self-denying, which contrasts with the warmth of the poem to be found in its middle parts and creates a picture of doom.
It seems that the only way to escape this doom is to live in a dream such as Madeline's and to experience perfection through fantasy. I have read some criticisms that Keats wrote this poem 'to experiment with a specific rhyme-scheme'. It is true that the poem is structured very carefully in Spenserian stanzas (consisting of nine lines, using an ABABBCBCC rhyme-scheme). In my opinion Keats has used this strict formation as a sort of outer coating to his poem, to contain his expressive, colourful words; without such a structure the emotion could burst out of control. There are many words and phrases in this poem that even I, in my small knowledge of Shakespeare, can recognise from that famous playwright: the repeated suggestions of fairies, charms and spells such as 'pale enchantment held her sleepy-eyed', 'moonshine', 'seraph' and 'charm'; the inferences of 'Romeo and Juliet' in that there is a young and handsome boy who engages in courtly love with the girl of his dreams, in that her family obviously dislike him: 'All eyes by muffled, or a hundred swords Will storm his heart', and: '...
not one breast affords Him any mercy, in that mansion foul', and even in the small detail of the dame, who, just as the nurse in 'Romeo and Juliet', is the only woman who will tolerate him. This sort of unmistakable plagiarism seems to send columnists diving for their keyboards, although Shakespeare himself did borrow from those before him and, in any case, Keats has never kept to Shakespeare's words but has twisted the tale; in Keats's poem the lady is disappointed with her lover: 'How chang'd thou art! how pallid, cold and drear!' . I have read opinions saying that this variation may have been a deliberate cover-up of Keats's 'eclectic borrowing' of Shakespeare's story; to me this opinion is too shallow and superficial for Keats. I believe the poet has used the change to emphasise that nothing can be everlasting, that everything, even the greatest literary works and the best romances, is mutable. Keats was obsessed by his own mortality from an early age and wanted to write a poem so amazing that it would defy death for him. I think that in recalling themes from Shakespeare, King Arthur and so on Keats is allowing those great myths and writers of the past a chance at morality, as if hoping that some day his work will too be re-iterated at least, if not treasured.
In 'John Keats - A Beginner's Guide', David Edwards writes: '... his best poetry explores the fine lines between dream and reality, the ideal and the actual, tempering an aptly adolescent intensity with a cool distanced self-awareness'. This completely describes how I look at the story of 'The Eve Of St. Agnes' and is, in my opinion, an extremely tight and insightful comment on the poet. In this poem the adolescents are the young Porphyro and his Madeline.
When describing Madeline, Keats uses exquisite language full of fruitfulness, beauty and richness, and Porphyro always comes over as gallant and romantic. This is fitting for the poem, neatly obeying the criteria of courtly love. Although I feel drawn to the dreamy romanticism in 'The Eve Of St. Agnes', when I look at the poem overall I see it as a pessimistic view on life, based around the idea of fate that you cannot affect, dreams that you cannot keep and ideals that are no longer valid; it is a poem that reaffirms the mutability of life, for me. However the language is deeply sensuous, the atmosphere is intoxicating and the poem in itself is generally pleasing, until broken down into its hard message and echo of mortality.