The Eve of St. Agnes

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This article is about the poem by John Keats. For information on the saint, see Saint Agnes.
Madeleine undressing, painting by John Everett Millais

"The Eve of St. Agnes" is a long poem (42 stanzas) by John Keats, written in 1819 and published in 1820. It is widely considered to be amongst his finest poems and was influential in 19th century literature. The poem is in Spenserian stanzas.

The title comes from the day (or evening) before the feast of Saint Agnes (or St. Agnes' Eve). St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, died a martyr in 4th century Rome. The eve falls on January 20; the feast day on the 21st. The divinations referred to by Keats in this poem are referred to by John Aubrey in his Miscellanies (1696) as being associated with St. Agnes' night.

Background[edit]

Keats based his poem on the superstition that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes; that is she would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her.

A Scottish version of the ritual would involve young women meeting together on St. Agnes's Eve at midnight, they would go one by one, into a remote field and throw in some grain, after which they repeated the following rhyme in a prayer to St. Agnes:

“ Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair, Hither, hither, now repair; Bonny Agnes, let me see The lad who is to marry me. ”

In the original version of his poem, Keats emphasized the young lovers' sexuality, but his publishers, who feared public reaction, forced him to tone down the eroticism.

Plot[edit]

The flight of Madeline and Porphyro, painting by William Holman Hunt

On a bitterly chill night, an ancient beadsman performs his penances while in the castle of Madeline's warlike family, an alcohol-fueled revelry has begun. Madeline pines for the love of Porphyro, sworn enemy to her kin. The old dames have told her she may receive sweet dreams of love from him if on this night, St. Agnes' Eve, she retires to bed under the proper ritual of silence and supine receptiveness.

As we might expect, Porphyro makes his way to the castle and braves entry, seeking out Angela, an elderly woman friendly to his family, and importuning her to lead him to Madeline's room at night where he may but gaze upon her sleeping form. Angela is persuaded only with difficulty, saying she fears damnation if Porphyro does not afterward marry the girl.

Concealed in an ornate carven closet in Madeline's room, Porphyro watches as Madeline makes ready for bed, and then, beholding her full beauty in the moonlight, creeps forth to prepare for her a feast of rare delicacies. Madeline wakes and sees before her the same image she has seen in her dream, and thinking Porphyro part of it, receives him into her bed. Awakening in full and realizing her mistake, she tells Porphyro she cannot hate him for his deception since her heart is so much in his, but that if he goes now he leaves behind "A dove forlorn and lost / With sick unpruned wing".

Porphyro declares his love for Madeline and promises her a home with him over the southern moors. They escape the castle past insensate revelers, and flee into the night. The beadsman, "His thousand Aves told / For aye unsought-for slept among his ashes cold". Therefore we can see Angela's and the beadsman's death is resultant at the end of the poem.

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