“The Eve of St. Agnes” was composed between 18 January and 2 February, the following time Keats concentrated on “Hyperion”. He did not think high of the poem but the poem has its own beauty and is one of the glorious creations of Keats. It has its origin same in the sense of exquisite with that Isabella is born. The story of “The Eve of St. Agnes” is based on a tradition ritual mentioned in Burton’s “Anatomy and Melancholy”. Keats refashioned the legend of St. Agnes and blended it with romantic effect. Real excellence of the poem lies in its beautiful images and phrases. There is a sweet elfin music that runs through the texture of the poem. Numbness chill, bitter frost, rising storm, the moon peeping through the window adds mush of the beauty of the wild scenes. The atmosphere of the poem is typically that of Middle Ages.
From first to last, “the poetry seems to throb in every line with the life of imagination and beauty” says Colvin. Every line of the first stanza gives a picture and every line heightens the effect of the numbness chill. Note the opening of the poem:
“St Agnes Eve--- Ah, bitter chill it was
The owl, for all its weathers, was a cold
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass”.
Keats right not for eyes only. He tries to give a vivid picture every thing he touches. He even enlivens dead and senseless things. The monument of chapel is brought to us not with any effort of description but with by sympathy with the shivering of the Beadsman:
“Knights, ladies pray in their dumb oratori’s
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fail
To think how they may ache icy hoods and mails.”
The poem is one of the most Shakespearean felicities. In fact, Keats loves phrases like a lover. The music is described to us as “yearning in pain”; “Madeline went to sleep in the lap of their legend old”; and suddenly a thought enters in Porphyro mind “like a full blown rose, fleshed his brow”. Madeline who wishes to see her lover in her dream on the enchanted night of “St Agnes Eve” is looks like “Lilly white”. Then fist hint of its came again when Porphyro is introduces to us:
“………Meanwhile, across the moors
Young Porphyro had arrive, with heart on fore
With him comes the hint of the colour that overflowed through the poem. Old Angela takes the lover to a “little moonlit room”. Then first strong note of colour is introduces
“Sudden a thought comes like a full blown rose
Fleshed his brow, in his painted heart
Made purple riot”.
Keats used colour for the effective background of the poem. For the colour of rainbow, he uses softer blue and violate; and yellow is heightens and changed into gold. The violence of red is softened into rose. Black, gold and silver are used to give romantic effectiveness to the poem. The black is generally used for purposes of contrast; silver is used for numbness chill and rising frost.
Here Keats appears as a poet of sensuous beauty. His images satisfy not only the sight but other sense organs. Madeline looks very innocent, very beautiful and charming when she knelt down and undresses herself and removes her pearls:
“All of wreathed pearls her hairs she frees
Unclasps her warmed jewel one by one
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knee
half hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed”.
Above lines give satisfaction to al our senses.
Innocent Madeline went to sleep “as thought a rose should shut and be a bud again”. When she is dazed off, Porphyro come out of its hidden place and makes love with still sleeping girl. In the scene, a critic, Stillinger sees Porphyro as a satanic figure. But ultimately Madeline was persuaded by Porphyro to flee with him and they escapes from home:
“They are gone, aye, aye long ago
The lovers fled into the storm”.
About the end of the poem Herbert Wright in his article “Has Keats’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ is a tragic ending?’ and argues that somehow somewhat literal mindedly the lovers die in storm.
This poem begins and ends with the Beadsman. But Madeline and Porphyro are true pilgrim of love. Though Angela and the Beadsman appear for a short time yet they left and indelible impression on the readers mind. Although, Angela provides the help to the lover, but she is a churchyard thing, an old woman who dies “palsy twitched with megre face deform”. According to Drinkwater “The poem must be reckoned, on the whole, the most splendid of Keats’ poems”.