The Eve of St. Agnes

by John Keats

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The Poem

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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 stored a variety of sweetmeats and confections brought from the feast downstairs. Angela then hobbles away, and soon the breathless Madeline appears.

She comes in with her candle, which blows out, and kneeling before her high arched casement window, she begins to pray. Watching her kneel there, her head a halo of moonlight, Porphyro grows faint at the sight of her beauty. Soon she disrobes and creeps into bed, where she lies entranced until sleep comes over her.

Porphyro steals from the closet and gazes at her in awe as she sleeps. For an instant a door opens far away, and the noises of another world, boisterous and festive, break in; but soon the sounds fade away again. In the silence he brings dainty foods from the closet—quinces, plums, jellies, candies, syrups, and spices that perfume the chilly room. Madeline sleeps on, and Porphyro begins to play a soft melody on a lute. Madeline opens her eyes and thinks her lover a vision of St. Agnes’s Eve. Porphyro, not daring to speak, sinks upon his knees until she speaks, begging him never to leave her or she will die.

St. Agnes’s moon goes down. Outside the casements, sleet and ice begin to dash against the windowpanes. Porphyro tells her that they must flee before the house awakens. Madeline, afraid and trembling, follows her lover down the cold, gloomy corridors, through the wide deserted hall and past the porter, asleep on his watch. They flee—into the wintry dawn.


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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...

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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.