The Eve of St. Agnes

by John Keats

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How does Keats' poem "The Eve of St. Agnes" explore transgression while maintaining morality?

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The Keats' poem, "The Eve of St. Agnes" reflects the belief that if a young woman took certain steps before sleeping on St. Agnes' eve, she would dream of the man she was to marry.

"Transgressive fiction" is about characters that experience feelings of confinement forced on them... the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual...ways.

Moral high ground is referred to as...

...the status of being respected for...adhering to and upholding a...standard of justice or goodness.

In this play, Keats tells the story of Madeline who dreams of Porphyro. Much like Shakespeare's story of Romeo and Juliet, Madeline's family hates Porphyro's family. However, quite different from Shakespeare's play, the two are able to escape from their warring families' hatred.

Transgressive fiction is present as Madeline (and her lover) feels confined because of her family's hatred of Porphyro and his kin (and his family's feelings); they solve their problem in an unusual way.

Madeline doesn't care about her family's party, thinking only of the promise of the night and the man she loves:

Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:

       The music...

       She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,

       Fix'd on the floor, saw many a sweeping train

       Pass by—she heeded not at all: in vain

       Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,

       And back retir'd...

       But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere:

She sigh'd for Agnes' dreams, the sweetest of the year.

She pays no attention to the clothes of the women who pass ("sweeping trains") or those young man who might have shown her special attention ("a tiptoe, amorous cavalier"), but thinks only for "Agnes' dreams..." and her hope to dream of Porphyro.

Porphyro has convinced Madeline's old nurse to let him into the girl's room, though danger waits for him with every step—from her hateful family... 

He ventures in: let no...whisper tell:

       All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords

       Will storm his heart, Love's fev'rous citadel:

       For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes,

       Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords...

       Against his lineage: not one breast affords

       Him any mercy, in that mansion foul... 

After Madeline goes to sleep (wishing for Porphyro in her dreams), Porphyro lays out food and candles, and begins to play music, and wakens her from dreams of him. Porphyro promises his love for Madeline, and that he will not harm her—she should trust him.

My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!

       Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?

       Thy beauty's shield, heart-shap'd and vermeil dyed?

       Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest

       After so many hours of toil and quest,

       A famish'd pilgrim,—sav'd by miracle.

       Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest

       Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think'st well...

To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.

In their mutual love, each decides to flee the castle and his/her family's hatred.

They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;

       Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide...

Keeping to the high moral ground, Keats writes that they will marry, not live in sin. They escape restrictions of family, relying on their love of each other.

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