The Eve of St Agnes - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of The Eve of St Agnes

Stanzas 1 – 8

The poem begins on a bitterly cold night in a castle’s chapel. The scene opens with a Beadsman (someone who is paid to pray for his benefactor) counting his prayers on his rosary as he walks through a little door in the chapel in order to sit in ashes and do penance for the sake of his soul and the souls of others. He hears music being played and the scene shifts to the castle’s splendid staterooms where richly dressed guests are gathering for a party. The narrator focuses on Madeline, a young virgin who would much rather be asleep in bed than having to attend her family’s party. The reason is that it is the Eve of St Agnes and there is a legend that on this night – and if she follows certain procedures – she will see a vision of her future husband.

Stanzas 9 - 16

Meanwhile a young man called Porphyro, who is in love with Madeline, is riding across the moors to catch sight of his beloved. He approaches the castle doors anxiously, imploring the saints to allow him to ‘gaze and worship all unseen’, as he knows he would not be welcome at the party. He is met by Angela, an old woman, who greets him by name but tells him to go away since his family has a long-standing feud with Madeline’s family. She describes ‘dwarfish Hildebrand’ -who has placed a curse on Porphyro and his family - as well as other hostile members of the ‘blood-thirsty race’ who are out in force at this party.

Stanzas 17 - 27

Porphyro manages to convince Angela that he will not harm Madeline since he loves her so deeply and Angela reluctantly agrees to take him to Madeline’s room. Once there he hides in a closet from where he can watch his beloved. When Madeline returns from the party, he sees her kneel in prayer before taking off her jewels and clothes. She then climbs into bed, making sure she does not look behind her: if she did, then the St Agnes’ Eve charm would fail to work. She then settles down to sleep.

Stanzas 28 - 40

Porphyro brings out a feast of rich delicacies from the closet where he is hiding and then tries to wake Madeline. However, she is sleeping far too deeply, so he starts playing her lute until she opens her eyes, her dream vision of her future husband now confronted with the reality of Porphyro. At first she thinks he is ‘pallid, chill, and drear’ in comparison with her vision. Porphyro assures her that he is no vision. Madeline does not want Porphyro to abandon her now ‘to fade and pine’ so he is able to convince her to escape with him to a home ‘o’er the southern moors’. 

Stanzas 41 – 42

The couple manage to ‘glide like phantoms’ through the castle, avoiding the Porter and the guard dog, and then run off together into the storm. That night the Baron, Madeline’s father, has bad dreams, as do all his guests. Angela dies and the Beadsman ‘slept among his ashes cold’.

The Eve of St Agnes painting by William Holman HuntCommentary on The Eve of St Agnes

The poem was composed in January 1819. St Agnes, martyred in the fourth century, is the patron saint of virgins. According to legend, if a sexually pure young woman performed the proper ritual, then she would dream of her future husband on the evening before St Agnes’ Day (January 21, hence the bitterly cold setting of the poem). 

Keats takes the legend and mixes in a theme familiar from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: young love at odds with feuding families. Keats also takes elements of the story from traditional French Romances entitled Flores et Blanche-Fleur, Cléomades et Claremonde and Pierre de Provence et La Belle Maguelone.


Stanzas 1-8

Beadsman: man paid to say prayers for the soul of his benefactor who would have ‘told’ (i.e. counted) the beads of his rosary to keep track of the prayers he was saying.

censer: pierced metal receptacle for the burning of incense, the scent and smoke of which signifies prayers

sweet Virgin: Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to the Bible she gave birth to him without conventional intercourse.

purgatorial rails: rails which enclose them in purgatory, a place of torture

orat’ries: an oratory is a room set aside for Christian prayer.

mails: Medieval knights wore armour made of chainmail, a mesh of small metal rings.

penance: An act expressing repentance

argent revelry: silver-adorned revelers

timbrel: an ancient instrument rather like a tambourine

Hoodwink’d: covered by a hood or blindfolded 

all amort: as though dead (from the French, ‘mort’ meaning dead)

lambs unshorn: there was a custom of offering lambs’ wool on St Agnes’ Day, to be made into cloth by nuns.

Stanzas 9-16

Beldame: an old, homely woman (an ironic development in English from the French meaning, ‘beautiful lady’)

wand: archaic term for a rod or walking stick

hie thee: archaic expression meaning ‘run away’ 

bier: platform on which a coffin rests prior to burial

holy loom: the weaving frame on which the St Agnes’ Day lambs’ wool was woven into cloth by nuns

witch's sieve: a sieve made to hold water by witchcraft

Elves and Fays: elves and fairies, small mythical creatures

brook: check

Stanzas 17-23

passing-bell: the bell tolled to let the community know or a death or funeral

weal or woe: archaic term (echoing Saxon alliterative poetry) for ‘well-being or sadness’

Merlin paid his Demon: Keats refers to the episode in the Arthurian legends in which the magician Merlin lost his life when the cunning Vivien/Nimue turned one of his own spells against him.

cates: provisions

tambour frame: embroidery frame

espial: spying

covert: hiding

pleased amain: greatly pleased

agues: aches

fray'd: frightened.

Stanzas 24-31

shielded scutcheon: in heraldry, an escutcheon is a shield shape which forms the basis of many coats of arms.

gules: blood-red

boon: blessing

vespers: prayers, specifically those offered at the monastic service of Vespers, held in the early evening

perplex’d: refers to the confused state between waking and sleeping

poppied: because of the sleep-giving property of the poppy-heads

Clasp’d like a missal: sleep holds Madeline as carefully as a person might hold a prayer-book (missal) - she is ‘locked’ in sleep.

swart Paynims: dark-skinned pagans

Morphean: Morpheus was the god of sleep.

amulet: charm

clarion: high-pitched trumpet

soother: sweeter, more delightful

tinct: flavoured

argosy: merchant-ship

silken Samarcand: fabled ancient city on the medieval silk route

seraph: one of the highest orders of angels

eremite: hermit, a man who lives in religious solitude.

Stanzas 32-39

salvers: large flat plates, usually made of metal

woofed phantasies: Fancies confused as woven threads

‘La belle dame sans mercy’: a work by the medieval French poet Alain Chartier. Keats later adopted the title for his own ballad.

flaw: gust of wind

unpruned: untrimmed

vassal: a feudal servant or subject

vermeil: vermilion, a deep red colour

infidel: Until the Enlightenment, Christians regarded any non-baptised person or member of another religion as an ‘infidel’, and therefore as alien/other/an enemy.

haggard: wild, untamed

Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be: Keats echoes the erotic Song of Songs from the Old Testament - see Song of Songs 2:10.

wassailers: drunken carousers

Rhenish...mead: Rhine wine and the sleep-inducing mead (a heavy, fermented drink made with honey).

Stanzas 40-42

darkling: in the dark

arras: Large tapestry wall-hanging designed to display wealth and stop draughts

an inmate owns: acknowledges a member of the household

Aves: the prayers beginning 'Ave Maria' ('Hail Mary').

Investigating commentary on The Eve of St Agnes...

  • ‘Keats takes the legend and mixes in a theme familiar from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: young love at odds with feuding families.’ From your reading of the synopsis, what elements of this familiar theme can you find in the story of The Eve of St Agnes?
  • Why do you think Keats has chosen the bitterly cold setting?
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