Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008
John Keats wrote “The Eve of St. Agnes” in January and February of 1819, the first of an astonishing spate of masterpieces that came one after another, despite his failing health and emotional turmoil. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” “Lamia,” and six great odes were all written before October of that year. The circumstance of his death shortly afterward seems to throw into a kind of relief the luscious descriptions of physical beauty in this and other poems. More striking still is the poet’s refusal to take comfort in the simplistic assurances of any religious or philosophical system that denied either the complexity of mind or the reality and importance of sense. “The Eve of St. Agnes” manifests Keats’s characteristic concern with the opposition and subtle connection of the sensual world to the interior life. He shared this preoccupation with other Romantic poets, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, taking as his subject the web of an antithesis at the heart of human experience; like them, he cloaked his meditations in sensuous imagery.
In this and other ways, Keats and all the Romantics abandoned the poetic theory of the century before. Eighteenth century poetry was formal, didactic, and objective in stance. Its chief aim was to show to humanity a picture of itself for its own improvement and edification. Its chief ornament was wit: puns, wordplay, satiric description, and so forth. In short, what eighteenth century poets saw as virtue in poetry was logic and rigid metrics. Nineteenth century poets wrote from a radically different philosophical base, due in part to the cataclysmic political changes surrounding the American and French Revolutions. Before these upheavals occurred, a belief in order and in measure extended into all facets of life, from social relations to literature; extremes were shunned in all things as unnatural, dangerous, and perhaps blasphemous.
After 1789, when the social order in France turned upside down, an expectation of the millennium arose in England, especially in liberal intellectual circles; the old rules of poetry were thrown off with the outworn social strictures, and a new aesthetic bloomed in their place. Its ruling faculty was imagination. The world seemed made new, and poetry released from bondage. Romantic poets frequently stated that poems ought to be composed on the inspiration of the moment, thereby faithfully to record the purity of the emotion. In fact, Keats and his contemporaries labored hard over their creations; they exerted themselves not to smoothness of meter but to preserving the grace of spontaneity while achieving precision in observation of natural and psychological phenomena. Poets saw themselves as charting hitherto unexplored reaches of human experience, extremes of joy and dejection, guilt and redemption, pride and degradation. They wrote meditations, confessions, and conversations, in which natural things were seen to abet internal states, and they wrote ballads and narratives, such as “The Eve of St. Agnes,” set in the past or in distant parts of the world and using archaic language and rhythms to make the events related seem even more strange and wonderful. Over and over they described epiphanous moments when the human consciousness becomes one with nature, when all is made new, when divinity animates the inanimate, and the lowest creature seems wondrous. This way of seeing was thought to be a return to an earlier consciousness lost in early childhood and is the theme of Wordsworth’s seminal Ode.
In “The Eve of St. Agnes,” Keats attempts, among other things, to maintain this elevated state of mind throughout the narrative. He sets the story in medieval times, so that the familiar fairytale characters take on charm from their quaint surroundings and from the archaic language in which they speak and are described. Its verse form is the smooth, supremely difficult-to-write Spenserian stanza, with its slightly asymmetric rhyme scheme that avoids the monotony of couplet or quatrain, and the piquant extension of the ninth line that gives to the whole an irregularity echoing ordinary speech. The first five stanzas contrast the Beadsman, coldly at his prayers, with the “argent revelry” of the great hall. This imagery of cold and warmth, of silver and scarlet, of chastity and sensuality continues throughout the poem, a comment on the plot.
That the poem is named for a virgin martyr yet tells the story of an elopement is likewise significant; the point of the poem, on the one hand, is that piety and passion are opposing but inseparable drives. Each without the other has no point of reference. Porphyro without Madeline becomes the gross Lord Maurice, the savage Hildebrand; Madeline without Porphyro becomes the Beadsman with his deathlike abrogation of sense. Instead, Porphyro is made to faint at the celestial beauty of Madeline at her prayers, Madeline to be wooed by songs and colors and delicacies. The passage describing the array of food that Porphyro set out is understandably famous; these are not mere groceries but rather the glowing essence of fruitfulness, tribute to a love match of the meditative and emotional faculties that, when accomplished in one individual, fulfills the whole human potential.
The other theme, or perhaps the other face of the same theme, is the relentless press of quotidian misery on the poetic personality, another favorite arena of reflection among the Romantics, and one that was poignantly near Keats’s heart, menaced by tuberculosis as he was, and his younger brother dying of the disease the previous winter. The lovers are shown, unearthly fair, escaping from a house where wrath and drunkenness hold sway, bound for a dream-vision of happiness. Significantly, the poet does not follow them to their southern sanctuary. Instead he relates the wretched end of Angela, who dies “palsy-twitched” in her sleep; the cold sleep of the Beadsman among the ashes; the drunken nightmares of the Baron and his guests. The ending, in short, is not unreservedly happy but partakes of that bittersweet emotion which in the midst of joy acknowledges wretchedness, the mark of a mind that strives for aesthetic detachment while believing in its duty to the rest of humankind.