Madeline (mahd-LEHN), a young virgin, first shown preoccupied at a ball given in the castle of her noble father. Eager to carry out the ritual of St. Agnes’ Eve and thereby see her future husband in a dream, she leaves the revelry and retires to her room where, falling asleep, she dreams of Porphyro, the son of an enemy house. Waking to find him beside her bed, she is at first frightened. After he tells her, “This is no dream, my bride,” she steals with him out of the castle, past the sleeping, drunken wassailers, and away into the stormy night.
Porphyro (POHR-fih-roh), her gallant young knight, who comes from his home across the moors, slips into the castle full of his enemies, and with the aid of Angela, an understanding old nurse, goes to Madeline’s chamber before she prepares for bed. After she is asleep, he emerges from the closet where he has hidden himself, sets a table loaded with exotic foods, and wakes his beloved with a song, “La belle dame sans mercy,” to the accompaniment of Madeline’s lute. He persuades his beloved to leave her home of hate and flee with him.
Angela, an old woman, Madeline’s nurse and Porphyro’s friend. Convinced, after Porphyro has revealed his plan, that the young lover’s intentions are honorable, she hides him in Madeline’s bedchamber and provides the dainties for a feast. She dies “palsy-twitched.”
The Beadsman, an aged supplicant who at the beginning of the poem is telling his rosary with cold-numbed fingers in the castle chapel. He closes the story by sleeping, forever unsought, “among his ashes cold.”