The Eve of St Agnes - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in The Eve of St Agnes

Much of the poem’s power lies in the highly charged atmosphere which Keats creates in Madeline’s bedroom.

The Eve of St AgnesEmotional colour

Take, for instance the stained glass and its ‘scutcheon’ (coat of arms). Even though it's an inanimate piece of art, it is described as ‘blush[ing] with the blood of queens and kings’. Keats not only conveys the redness of the glass but the association of shame or embarrassment as the glass witnesses Madeline about to undress. The detail also tells the reader that Madeline’s heritage is royal and so it becomes a symbol that brings together the two most harshly opposed dramatic forces in the poem: familial loyalty and young love.

The language is richly sensuous and often erotically charged. The feast which Porphyro prepares is full of exotic fruits ‘From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon’, the place names creating an atmosphere of mysterious, far-distant locations.


Keats’ description of Madeline going to bed is multi-sensory. Her jewels are ‘warmed’ by her body’s heat. Her bodice is ‘fragrant’; her rich attire ‘creeps rustling’ to her knees. The language enables the readers to see, smell, hear and feel the young woman preparing for bed, at the same time as suggesting the erotic effect all this has on Porphyro.

Porphyro eventually sings to her and half rouses Madeline from sleep, but she sees – not the god of her dreams - but merely a mortal man ‘pallid, chill, and drear’, the language starkly capturing her disappointment and the vast gap between fantasy and reality.

Suggestive language

Keats was prevented by his publishers from writing explicitly that sexual consummation occurred at this point. Instead, the sensuous nature of the Keats’ language is left to suggest what happens. Porphyro is described as ‘Ethereal, flush’d and like a throbbing star’ which ‘melted’ into Madeline’s dream:

                                    as the rose

Blendeth its odour with the violet
Solution sweet’

The sensuous and suggestive nature of the language stimulates the reader’s imagination in ways beyond the limitations of more explicit description.

Immediacy and distance

The narrator’s tone both immerses the reader in the long-ago world of the poem, with its ancient setting and archaic language, at the same time as distancing us from it. The final stanza reminds us that the lovers existed ‘ages long ago’ and that we live in a very different and more enlightened world. This tone creates a tension between scepticism and the will to believe, between dream and reality.

Investigating language and tone in The Eve of St Agnes...

  • The poem has been much admired for its dramatic immediacy. How does Keats achieve this?
  • Look at the way in which the tenses of verbs fluctuate between present and past. What effect does this have?
  • How does Keats achieve a multi-sensory effect in his descriptions?
  • What techniques does Keats use to create excitement and urgency?

Structure and versification in The Eve of St Agnes

The poem is written in Spenserian stanzas, the stanza form created by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser in his long epic poem The Faerie Queene. Each stanza consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter, plus a final alexandrine, another term for an iambic hexameter. The rhyme scheme is maintained throughout as abab bcbc c.

The additional alexandrine means that the stanza form does not require the kind of compression associated with the ottava rima Keats used in Isabella: or The Pot of Basil. Nevertheless, the stanza is a self-contained unit (there are no run-ons between stanzas) and so it encourages the creation of a series of tableaux (i.e. descriptive set pieces) such as the revelry of stanza 5 or Madeline retiring to bed in stanza 26.

Investigating structure and versification in The Eve of St Agnes...

  • Is the self-contained stanza a strength or weakness of the poem?
  • Are there any points in the narrative where you think it would have been more dramatic to run the sense from one stanza to another?
    • If so, where?
  • Do you think the stanza form is equally successful at creating descriptive tableaux and at allowing dramatic dialogue?
  • Compare the opening of the poem with its ending.
    • What do you think Keats was trying to achieve?
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