The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
It is a cold St. Agnes’s Eve—so cold that the owl with all its feathers shivers, so cold that the old Beadsman’s fingers are numb as he tells his rosary and says his prayers. Passing by the sculptured figures of the dead, he feels sorry for them in their icy graves. As he walks through the chapel door, he can hear the sound of music coming from the castle hall. He sadly turns again to his prayers. The great hall of the castle is a scene of feasting and revelry, but one among the merry throng is scarcely aware of her surroundings. The lovely Madeline’s thoughts are on the legend of St. Agnes’s Eve, which tells that a maiden, if she follows the ceremonies carefully and goes supperless to bed, might there meet her lover in a dream.
Meanwhile, across the moonlit moors comes Porphyro. He enters the castle and hides behind a pillar, aware that his presence means danger, because his family is an enemy of Madeline’s house. Soon the aged crone, Angela, comes by and offers to hide him, lest his enemies find him there and kill him. He follows her along dark arched passageways, out of sight of the revelers. When they stop, Porphyro begs Angela to let him have one glimpse of Madeline. He promises on oath that if he so much as disturbs a lock of her hair, he will give himself up to the foes who wait below. He seems in such sorrow that the poor woman gives in to him. She takes Porphyro to the maiden’s chamber and there hides him in a closet, where is...
(The entire section is 531 words.)
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Danzig, Allan, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Excellent source for beginning discussion of Keats’s poem. Contains seven essays exploring such topics as narrative structure, contrary states of imagination, musical and pictorial settings, techniques of composition, literary influences and the darker side of seduction.
Gibson, Gail McMurray. “Ave Madeline: Ironic Annunciation in Keats’s ‘The Eve of St. Agnes.’ ” Keats-Shelley Journal 26 (1977): 39-50. Examines how the religious details of the poem function as a parody of the Christian Annunciation and thus a measure of the inadequacies of the lover’s spiritualized romance.
Stillinger, Jack. Introduction to “The Eve of St. Agnes,” by John Keats. In John Keats: Complete Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982. The best edition of the poem to date. Includes commentary on the chronology of composition, Keats’s subsequent revisions, textual sources, and an extensive bibliography.
Talbot, Norman. “Porphyro’s Enemies.” Essays in Criticism 38 (1988): 215-231. Argues that Madeline, Angela, and the Beadsman offer only minor resistance to the exploits of Porphyro. Dramatic tension centers on the male protagonist, who fluctuates between romantic hero, hot-blooded opportunist, and religious devotee.
Wasserman, Earl. The Finer Tone: Keats’s Major Poems. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univer-sity Press, 1953. A classic introduction to the poem. Discusses the central romance of Porphyro and Madeline in the context of the poem’s sensual richness and imaginative intensity.