Tuesday, 23 February 2016
The Eve of St. Agnes was first published in 1820 along with La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Isabella and the five famous odes and Lamia and Hyperion. The story narrated in the poem is simple one. It is the story of the elopement of two lovers – Porphyro and Madeline who belong to two different families hostile to each other. After the feast of St. Agnes, Madeline prepares to dream of her future lover. Porphyro steals into her bedroom and hides. As she dreams, he awakens her and she sees him in a living dream. Then Porphyro elopes with Madeline on St. Agnes’ eve. It is “a story where-in something of Romeo and Juliet is mixed with something of young Lochinvar.” Though the story is simple and has been dealt in many poems and dramas, Keats with his mature craftsmanship distills the entire medieval spirit of romance and chivalry in this poem. As a romantic poet, he with his treatment of the theme of love, use of sensual images, pictorial quaity and rich musical effect leaves a high watermark in this poem. According to Drinkwater, the poem “must be reckoned on the whole, the most splendid of Keats’ poem.”
The poem deals with the theme of romantic and idealistic love. Porphyro, the lover, has taken great risk to meet her lady love. Madeline also wishes to dream of her future husband on the eve of St. Agnes. Their love is presented as something divine and unearthly. Madeline is depicted as an angel without wings: “She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,/ Save wings, for heaven.” She is a deity for Porphro and he is her devotee as he says: “ Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite.” Madeline,too, has deep affection for Porphyo as she says to him:
“Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thy diest, my Love, I know not where to go."
But the warmth of their youthful love is always threatened by a sense of uncertainity and doubt. Porphyro appears to be cold and pale as contrasted to the bright and shining Porphyro of Madeline’s dream. At the moment of ultimate consummation of their love, “Love's alarum” is heard in the “pattering the sharp sleet.” The warmth and cosiness of the room is contrasted with the bitter cold and stormy environment outside. The poem is structured around a series of oppositions of dark and light, warm and cold, permanence and mutability. The most central of these is the opposition between dream and reality. The world of young lovers might be thought of as a dream world, a world a rose may shut “and be a bud again.” But we are often reminded, they actually live in a world where roses can only wither and die. If their love is to be validated, they must leave the protection of the warm and magical room and go out to face the storm. In Ode to a Nightingale, the poet, too, after his brief sojourn in the world of Nightingale says: “the fancy cannot cheat so well.” As a poet of “negative capability”, capability of mysteries and uncertainty, it is typical of Keats that he can hardly keep faith in the values of the ideal world though he desperately craves for it. That’s why some critics are at a loss to decide whether the poem celebrates the youthful love of romance or subverts it.
The poem encapsulates the entire spirit of medievalism with old castle, gothic art, superstition, chivalry and heroism. Above all a sense of mystery and wonder, an important aspect of medievalism, pervades the entire poem. The poem opens with the picture of bitterly cold night. An ancient beadsman returns from his prayer through an empty chapel. He hears the sound of music coming from a medieval castle but continues on his way to say prayer for the soul of the sinner. In the castle, a celebratory feast is held on St. Agnes eve. All the Knights and Barons have arrived. There is a popular medieval superstition that on the eve of St. Agnes one who performs certain rite will have the vision of her future husband. Believing this Madeline goes to bed preparing her mind to dream of her future husband. Potphyro, the lover, also makes hazardous journey to meet his beloved Madeline in the castle of his enemy. Thus a complete medieval environment is depicted.
The poet not only makes use of typically medieval incidents, but also mentions medieval arts and crafts to give a medieval setting to the narrative. He refers to the plume, tiara, carved angel and the gothic window. His subtle description evokes the sheer beauty of the multi-coloured window of a medieval castle:
“A casement high and triplearch'd there was,
All garlanded with carven imag'ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knotgrass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,”
Then there are medieval curtains, the cravings of angels near the cornice. All these are described very clearly. Moreover, “(T)he rich perfume and the perfect silence of Madeline’s room, the fine description of the gothic chapel and the various ceremonies connected with the festival of St. Agnes’ eve all combine to create an atmosphere of medieval romance.”
The Eve of St. Agnes is a rich feast to all the senses – the eyes, the ear, the tongue, the nose and the touch. The pictorial description, rich in colour, makes an excellent appeal to the sense sight. Goser in this respect remarks, “It was an axiom with Keats that poetry should surprise us by a fine excess. The pictures of Keats are all aglow with colour, not always very accurate painter’s colour but colour which captivates the senses.” His pictorial description of the gothic window and art appeals to our eyes. Description of the sumptuous foods and drinks appeals to our different senses:
“While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Madeline’s bodice is fragrant and her bed is lavendered. The description of Madeline’s body and her undressing is sensuous enough:
“Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Halfhidden, like a mermaid in seaweed,”
There are a plenty of sounds that appeal to our ear. In Madeline’s house a feast is going on. The silver trumpets are being played upon. There is also the music of clarion, the kettle-drum and the clarinet. Porphhyro himself plays upon the lute in chords. Keats appeals to multiple senses with a single expression which is often called synesthesia. Following line is a remarkable example: “Filling the chilly room with perfume light.”
Keats was also a pictorial artist. Like Pr-Raphaelite poets, he portrays a detailed picture of what he describes in the poem. In The Eve of St. Agnes, a complete picture of a cold night is depicted with the images of frozen grass, the limping hare, the shivering owl and the numb finger of the beadsman. Like a miniaturist artist, Keats draws the effect of the reflection of moonlight upon different parts of Madeline’s body. Here he makes beautiful use of colour:
“Rosebloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint”
Equally important is the sense of chiaroscuro (light and shade) in the following description:
“Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,”
Then the moon sets and all is dark:
“'Tis dark: quick pattereth the flawblown sleet:
"This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!"
'Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:”
Apart from the detailed pictures of the above lines, there are pictures created by single phrases and lines. The following are some of them: “azure-lidded sleep”, “Thy beauty's shield, heartshap'd and vermeil dyed” etc.