John Keats, selected poems Contents
- Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou
- The Eve of St Agnes
- ‘Hush, hush! tread softly! hush, hush, my dear!’
- Isabella: or The Pot of Basil
- La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- Lines to Fanny (‘What can I do to drive away’)
- O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell
- Ode on a Grecian Urn
- Ode on Indolence
- Ode to a Nightingale
- Ode to Autumn
- Ode to Melancholy
- Ode to Psyche
- On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
- On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
- On the Sea
- Sleep and Poetry
- Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb
- To Ailsa Rock
- To Leigh Hunt
- To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat
- To My Brothers
- To Sleep
- When I have fears that I may cease to be
The Eve of St Agnes - Imagery, symbolism and themes
Imagery and symbolism in The Eve of St Agnes
Sin and death
The frame of the poem is bitter coldness. It opens with the aged Beadsman whose frosty prayers and penance amid cold ashes contrast sharply with the warmth and brightness of the party that is being held inside the castle.
The poem begins and ends in the cold of winter, accompanied by images of death, stillness and the failure of the mind and body. The first character who appears seems caught half-way between life and death. He inhabits the world of tombs and rough ashes. He seems cut off from humanity, holy with more sympathy for the ethereal than the physical. His mind is consumed by thoughts of sin and mortality. At the end he dies a lonely death.
Keats’ portrayal of the party of aristocrats comes as a complete contrast in terms of light, warmth and richness of effect. There are ‘argent revelry’ and ‘silver, snarling trumpets’, for instance. However, all this ostentatious display is made to seem superficial, just a veneer which covers a society characterised by violence, mental instability and anxiety. Their preoccupation is family honour and they fan the flames of their feud against Porphyro’s family. ‘Dwarfish Hidebrand’ and ‘old Lord Maurice’ personify this deep and ancient hatred.
Against all this negativity and darkness is set the passionate love of Madeline and Porphyro. When he enters her bedroom the superstitious beliefs surrounding this night of the year are transformed into a fully sexual encounter, as suggested by the richly sensuous detail of stanza 24 with its garlands of fruits and flowers. The windows are stained with ‘splendid dyes’ like the ‘deep-damask’d wings’ of the moth. The progress is from dream to fulfilment, marked by Madeline’s waking to find the lover of her sleeping fantasies embodied by the actual presence of Porphyro.
A characteristic of the Medieval era in which the poem is set is the practice of pilgrimage (see Big Ideas > Pilgrims and Pilgrimage). After a usually arduous journey, the pilgrim would have to pass the ‘gate-keeper’ who allowed or withheld access to the holy site (as does Angela), then either ascend or sometimes descend to the shrine itself. This would frequently include an effigy of the saint being revered, shielded by an ornate and colourful stone canopy above and/or around it. The whole edifice was built around a relic (often desiccated physical remains) of the saint, believed by medieval Catholics to have miraculous powers.
Madeline is depicted as a saint or angel – in stanza 25 she prays, the light catching her jewelled cross. Her purity is emphasised, as if she were the Virgin Mary herself, who was regarded as ‘free from mortal taint’ (or original sin). She is associated with heaven rather than earth, with white (‘blanch’d linen’) and cool moonlight, so Porphyro’s ravishment of her is all the more dramatic.
When he sees the figure of the sleeping Madeline on her bed, like a carved statue on a plinth, Porphyro consciously uses this imagery of pilgrimage, calling himself her ‘eremite’ and, in stanza 38, declares:
After so many hours of toil and quest,
A famish'd pilgrim - saved by miracle.
Yet although he kneels by her figure like a pilgrim paying homage, Porphyro’s passion impels him to do the unthinkable and ‘rob’ the shrine of its precious contents. He seizes the ‘relic’ which has been incarcerated and revives it into a living, breathing being who will now accompany him on his journey.
Investigating imagery and symbolism in The Eve of St Agnes...
- What is the effect of the contrast between the frosty prayers and stony piety of the Beadsman and the revelry and warm lights within the castle?
- What other contrasts of imagery can you find, and how do they contribute to the narrative?
- How does Keats’ use of pilgrimage imagery affect your assessment of Porphyro’s actions?
- How does Keats use imagery to create an atmosphere of far away and long ago?
Themes in The Eve of St Agnes
Passion and danger
Keats’ poem is a meditation on desire and its fulfilment, on wishes, dreams and romance.
An important idea in the poem is that passion is fraught with danger. If Porphyro is caught, then his life would be ended by those who share Hildebrand’s and Maurice’s hatred for him and his family. This juxtaposition of intense love with equally intense hatred is the stuff of high drama.
This dramatic intensity is heightened by the mounting ardour of the lovers (or is it just Porphyro? Madeline refers to ‘woe’ and being ‘deceived’). When Porphyro first appears his intentions appear chaste, seemingly wanting only to ‘speak, kneel, touch, kiss’. His first thought is to gaze upon ‘her beauty’, the abstract noun reinforcing the chaste nature of his desires.
A celebration of passion
However, this turns into something much more sensual and sexual as, unseen, he watches Madeline undress. Porphyro is lost in sensual and imaginative wonder, initial innocence transformed into intense physical desire.
The poem celebrates human imagination and the warmth of love over cold piety and hatred. It also develops familiar Keats’ oppositions such as art/reality, and dream/awakening. The poem is also one which celebrates the idea of enchantment – as if waking life needs some degree of magic or fantasy if it is to be humanly fulfilling.
Investigating themes in The Eve of St Agnes...
- Does the poem celebrate human imagination (in terms of dreaming, enchantment etc.) or warn of its possible dangers – or both?
- There are many contrasts of theme in this poem. Make as full a list as possible of all the opposing ideas you can find.
- Do you agree that, ultimately, the poem is a celebration of love over hatred?
- What do the themes of The Eve of St Agnes have in common with Isabella: or The Pot of Basil?
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