EROTICISM OF JOHN KEATS
Keats often associated love and pain both in his life and in his poetry. He wrote of a young woman he found attractive, "When she comes into a room she makes an impression the same as the Beauty of a Leopardess.... I should like her to ruin me..."(Letter-94) 1 Love and death are intertwined in "Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil," "Bright Star," "The Eve of St. Agnes," and "La Belle Dame sans Merci." The Fatal Woman (the woman whom it is destructive to love, like Salome, Lilith, and Cleopatra) appears in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and "Lamia."
John Keats lived only twenty-five years and four months (1795-1821), yet his poetic achievement is extraordinary. His writing career lasted a little more than five years (1814-1820), and three of his great odes--"Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and "Ode on Melancholy"--were written in one month. Most of his major poems were written between his twenty-third and twenty-fourth years, and all his poems were written by his twenty-fifth year. In this brief period, he produced poems that rank him as one of the great English poets.
His genius was not generally perceived during his lifetime or immediately after his death. Keats, dying, expected his poetry to be forgotten, as the epitaph he wrote for his tombstone indicates: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." But nineteenth century critics and readers did come to appreciate him, though, for the most part, they had only a partial understanding of his work. They saw Keats as a sensual poet; they focused on his vivid, concrete imagery; on his portrayal of the physical and the passionate; and on his immersion in the here and now. One nineteenth century critic went so far as to assert not merely that Keats had "a mind constitutionally inapt for abstract thinking," but that he "had no mind." Keats's much-quoted outcry, "O for a life of Sensation rather than of Thoughts!" (letter, November 22, 1817) has been cited to support this view.
Keats prefers to go through the purgatorial fire and obtains a new life, a “phoenix like” re-birth. This movement towards Shakespearian tragedy can be seen in the best poem of Keats’s middle period, The Eve of St Agnes written in a burst of creativity in a fortnight in January 1819. This poem is clearly indebted to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is set in medieval times and tells the story of the star-crossed lovers Madeline and Porphyro. Madeline has been told the legend that on St Agnes’s Eve maidens, who fast, may have visions of their future husbands. Her lover Porphyro is of a hostile family and she is surrounded by “hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords”.(Text). Yet he steals into the house and, aided by her old nurse, the beldame Angela, he steals into her bedchamber. When she awakens from her dream she finds Porphyro by her bedside. They consummate their love and together escape from the castle. It is a celebration of an erotic fantasy with a rich embroidering of the subjects’ sexual dynamics and moral ambiguities. Once again in Keats we see the clash between the flawed ideality of the dream and the hard truth of waking reality. "The Eve of St. Agnes" is a narrative poem. It is also an example of the medieval revival . During the 19th century, many writers became interested in the Middle Ages; it seemed romantic and less complicated than the modern world. However, they often had a "fairy tale" view of medieval times, thinking only of knights in shining armor rescuing fair damsels in distress rather than recognizing the harsh, violent time period that it really was. This story is set in the Middle Ages and is a type of "Romeo and Juliet" story of two feuding families and the children who love each other in spite of their families’ enmity. We will have to decide whether Madeline and Porphyro "live happily ever after" or whether they freeze in the winter night.
St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, died a martyr in fourth century Rome. She was condemned to be executed after being raped all night in a brothel; however, a miraculous thunderstorm saved her from rape. St. Agnes Day is Jan. 21. Keats based his poem on the superstition that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes; if she went to bed without looking behind her and lay on her back with her hands under her head, he would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her. In the original version of this poem, Keats emphasized the young lovers' sexuality, but his publishers, who feared public reaction, forced him to tone down the eroticism.
John Keats's narrative poem "The Eve of Saint Agnes" reflects this medievalism in Romantic Britain's visual arts. The tableau vivant Madeline stages in her chamber re-creates the aesthetic motifs of late medieval tomb architecture and of sepulchral representations of the dead. In order to maintain the integrity of her own artistic, imaginative vision, Madeline kills herself into art. She does this by enacting rituals of life and art that are themselves designed to procure divine 'visionary' intervention. Just as young women fulfill the traditions of St. Agnes's holy day so that they may see their future husband in their dreams, tomb sculpture is designed to petition God for the deceased's place in Heaven. The ritualized performance of the female body in Madeline's tableau implicitly invites Porphyro's participatory gaze in order to criticize that same scopophilic desire that would have her killed into an object of art; she anticipates his possessive, objectifying gaze with a fixed vision of her own. Madeline stages her own death and thus asserts her authority over the text of her body. She thwarts Porphyro's challenge to her self-possession by drawing him into her sepulchral vision. Porphyro succeeds in penning his own script on Madeline's body only after he succumbs to the mandate of her imagination. In contrast to the masculinocentric trend of previous critics, which posits Porphyro as the primary actor in the narrative, I offer a reading centered on the authority of Madeline, the over determined yet self-realized "object" of male desire in the "Eve of St. Agnes."
Keats begins his narrative in the chill and darkness of an abandoned chapel, void of life save for the self-flagellating Beadsman whose wasted form figures the tolling of his death knell, already rung. On the tombs of the chapel, "The sculptured dead, on each side, seem to freeze,/ Emprison'd in black, purgatorial rails."(L-14-15). The knights and ladies of these family monuments have been carved as priant figures, "praying in dumb orat'ries."(16). (In Medieval tomb sculpture, the priant represents the deceased in postures of religious devotion, kneeling, with hands folded in prayer). As Wendy Steiner points out, "the pun on 'frieze' and 'freeze' parallels the sculptures themselves, which are doubly dead, because they are statues and because they are statues of the dead - the dead figures of romance knights and ladies, in fact, depicted in the act of prayer. Their dreary chill makes the Beadsman's prayers seem even more a failure of vital spirituality, again a double death - the mere static image of the deluded act of prayer 'in the dumb orat'ries' "(Steiner-69) .When Madeline later stages her own funereal "frieze," she rehearses through her aesthetic "death in life" her own eventual priant figure and thus revitalizes the potential for creative expression in such static images of deluded prayer as the priants that decorate the family chapel.
The most notable feature of Madeline's private chamber clearly echoes the architectural structure and sculptural motifs of the medieval funeral monuments in the family chapel below. The scene of Madeline's tableau vivant is framed by "A casement high and triple-arch'd..../ All garlanded with carven imag'ries/ Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass/....And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,/ And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,/ A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings." (L-208-16) .Kathleen Cohen notes that carvings of fruits and flowers often adorned tombs of this period as symbols of regeneration and, by extension, resurrection. Family mottoes and emblems of genealogy graced the elaborate arches and casements that contained the sculpted representations of the deceased in order to announce the heritage and status of the family.
As Madeline kneels in prayer in front of this window she constructs herself as a priant figure, encased within the architectural design of the tomb: "Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,/ As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon;/ Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,/ And on her silver cross soft amethyst...." (L-217-21). Aesthetic trappings of death distort natural phenomena as well; even the moonlight that floods the room is colored and shaped to illuminate Madeline's tableau of death in life. When Madeline lays herself in her bed, in shroud-like "blanched linen, smooth and lavender'd,"(L-263) she recreates yet another sepulchral figure, that of the transi, the representation of the deceased after death, usually depicted recumbent, wrapped in only a shroud, in varying stages of decomposition. The transi is usually placed on the lowest level of the tomb, clearly figuring the interment of the deceased. While in this position, sound asleep, Madeline most suggestively articulates death. As Keats writes in his "Sonnet to Sleep," sleep is the "soft embalmer" of the night that seals the "hushed casket" of the soul. Interestingly, her passivity and stillness encourage Porphyro to extend his possessive gaze to a grasp; he materializes his visual consumption of her body in the feast he spreads before the bed.
On this night, Madeline's bed is at once a site for sex and for death, a marital bower and a death-bed or tomb. Porphyro sets the table for a lavish feast at the same level where Madeline's death-like figure rests. The consumption of these delicacies, then, figures both a necrophilic desire to possess, and a narcissistic cannibalism that involves the total absorption of the beloved into the self. The terms of sexual consummation, however, are ultimately set by Madeline herself, by the fixity of a gaze that overpowers Porphyro, despite his own well demonstrated command of a voyeuristic stare.
Porphyro hides in the "close secrecy" of Madeline's closet, an architectural feature which contains all the darkness and anonymity of a closed coffin. In the closet, "embower'd from the light," Porphyro prepares for "gazing on that bed," a gaze which anticipates his sexual encounter with Madeline. Angela, for one, equates his gaze with a sexual act, telling Porphyro that having seen Madeline undressed, preparing for bed, he "must need[s] the lady wed."(L-179). Interestingly, it isn't Madeline's naked figure that captures Porphyro's fancy: he blazons instead the accouterments of her femininity, her clothes and her jewelry. Peter Brooks writes that because to achieve the goal of one's desire would result in the "death of desiring," and thus the silencing of the text (Brooks 20), "the object of attention and desire--most obviously, the person of the beloved--is not detailed in its nakedness but rather approached by way of its phenomenal presence in the world, which means by way of the clothing and accessories that adorn and mask the body. The approach to the body of the beloved may strive toward unveiling....but it also tends to become waylaid in the process of this unveiling, more interested in the lifting of the veils than in what is finally unveiled. An interest in the way, rather than simply the endpoint, is indeed virtually a definition of narrative"(Brooks-19). Accordingly, Keats suspends his text in silence when Madeline steps out of the foam of her "rich attire" and walks to her bed; we learn only that "soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,/....perplex'd she lay,"(L-235-36) and Porphyro is left gazing "upon her empty dress." Keats figures Porphyro's sexual "little death" in veiled language; he "melts" into Madeline's dream, killed into art so that she might make a place for him in her aesthetically realized vision of love and sexuality.
The tension of this scene lies in a doubled act of unveiling. Porphyro's leering, which is the ocular vehicle for Keats's narrative, undresses Madeline. The woman herself is little more than the sum of her accessories. Madeline's design, however, in staging this theatrical ritual, is to undress language, to lift the veil and expose the gap between aestheticized femininity and the identity this image conceals. Madeline's tableau vivant performs what Mary Ann Doane describes as "masquerade," which, "in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed. The masquerade's resistance to patriarchal positioning....lie[s] in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as, precisely, imagistic. Masquerade....involves a realignment of femininity, the recovery, or more accurately, simulation, of the missing gap or distance. To masquerade is to manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and one's image....By destabilizing the image, the masquerade confounds [the] masculine structure of the look. It effects a defamiliarization of female iconography" (Doane-25-6).
Madeline's performance, then, positions her as a critic, rather than a victim, of a masculine scopophilic economy. Hers is a harsh indictment: Madeline's masquerade incorporates a death mask and evokes the funerary aesthetics of a tomb. In order to maintain the integrity of her imaginative vision, Madeline stages an aesthetic allegory of speaking death. Elizabeth Bronfen writes that "staging disembodiment as a form of escaping personal and social constraints serves to criticize those cultural attitudes that reduce the feminine body to the position of dependency and passivity, to the vulnerable object of sexual incursions"(Bronfen-142) .
By killing herself into art, Madeline adheres to the visions of her dreams. When Porphyro wakes her, Madeline's wide eyes cause him to sink to his knees, "pale as a smooth-sculptured stone." Madeline draws the astonished (turned to stone) Porphyro into her tableau, into the frozen state of her de-realized world, a condition of inanimation that Keats himself longed for. In a letter to Fanny Brawne, the poet writes: "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute".(Bush-291)Keats's longing to "possess" both Fanny and death suggests his sexualized relationship to a feminized death. This conflation of femininity and death also reveals an almost necrophilic narcissism; the poet is "half in love" with his own "easeful death" as he engenders a "lovely" female body with the universal condition of mortality. As Bronfen asserts, "part of the equation between femininity and death resides precisely in the fact that Woman as man's object of desire....is on the side of death....because she so often serves as a non-reciprocal 'dead' figure of imaginary projection, given that, in Lacan's terms, 'the whole of [man's] realization in the sexual relation comes down to fantasy' ( Bronfen-63).
Madeline, as an object of art, becomes a figure of Porphyro's "imaginary projection." With her tableau, Madeline ultimately undermines the scopophilic projection of an unwitting Porphyro. She remains, however, at the mercy of the poet's narrative. With Madeline as a self-inscribed figure of art, "The Eve of St. Agnes" can be read as an ekphrastic poem. James Heffernan proposes a model of ekphrastic poetry that accounts for the authority that Madeline invests in her aesthetic self-representation, and the ambivalent way in which the male poet engages with a feminized object of art. Heffernan writes that ekphrasis "evokes the power of the silent image even as it subjects that power to the rival authority of language," and that "the contest it stages is often powerfully gendered: the expression of a duel between male and female gazes, the voice of male speech striving to control a female image that is both alluring and threatening, of male narrative trying to overcome the fixating impact of beauty poised in space"(Heffernan-1). In "The Eve of St. Agnes," this contest plays out on a number of levels, both within the text, between Madeline and Porphyro, and extra-textually, between Madeline and Keats, the poet/narrator.
The image Madeline creates "excites both 'ekphrastic hope'--the desire for union--and the 'ekphrastic fear' of being silenced, petrified, and thus unmanned by the Medusan 'other' "(ibid.108) .Madeline is Medusan in that her gaze represents a female power to freeze/frieze the enthralled male and "enchant, subvert, or threaten" his voice(ibid-108) .When Porphyro awakens the sleeping Madeline, or resurrects her from her death-like stillness, the "vision of her sleep," inspired by religious meditation, remains before her eyes. Madeline's gaze, fixed on Porphyro, causes him to sink to his knees, "pale as smooth sculptured stone." Her stare astonishes Porphyro, who remains kneeling, "with joined hands and piteous eye,/ Fearing to move or speak, she look'd so dreamingly." Pained that, in reality, Porphyro's eyes aren't "spiritual and clear," his looks no longer "immortal," as they were in her vision, Madeline asks him not to leave her in the "eternal woe" of her awakened consciousness. Thus Madeline allows Porphyro to melt into her dream, to worship, like a pilgrim, at the "silver shrine" of her beauty, achieving an "ekphrastic union" on her own terms that simultaneously betrays Porphyro's voyeuristic obsessions by objectifying him as a piece of stone.
The male narrator's, or Keats's, act of engendering dialogue with a female art object reveals a violent impulse. The trajectory of the poem "repeatedly threatens to rape the fixed beauty of visual art [Madeline's tableau] with the language of narrative"(ibid.114) .But where Porphyro, and by extension, Keats himself, read Madeline as a hieroglyph, the image as the woman, Madeline's frieze is an act of authorship, of self-realization; her reading of herself plays on the distance she establishes between "tableau" and "vivant," between the artistic representation and the life itself. She is not a "fixed beauty"; through her image and her voice Madeline articulates her resistance to the threat Porphyro poses within the text and the threat Keats poses extra-textually. Her speech comes at the moment of her awakening, and with her voice she further "hoodwinks" Porphyro, playing on his voyeuristic fantasies of consumption, in order to write her own ending to the story her sepulchral image embodies. Madeline's words point to her betrayal, her deception at the hands of Porphyro, whose leering eyes in life are anything but "spiritual and clear," as they were in her vision. "No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!"(L-328) Madeline cries, "thou forsakest a deceived thing." (L-332)
Through speech, the act of reading her own image, Madeline crosses the line between visual and verbal representation. In this transgressive act Madeline's voice "preempts the interrogating, narrating voice of the male speaker"( Heffernan-115). Madeline's last line in the poem expresses, at best, a sense of resignation about her fate with Porphyro. In her awakened state, Madeline likens herself to "a dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing"(L-333). Although Porphyro succeeds in robbing Madeline's nest of her "sweet self," clearly the achievement of his iconophilic desire results in the death of his desiring. Keats's narrative loses its erotic tension, and the poem moves to a close in the atmosphere of Madeline's sepulchral allegory. The two "glide like phantoms" through the dark, silent house, while the Baron and his guests have nightmares of coffin-worms. The end of the poem is ambiguous, and clearly doesn't bode well for the couple. Keats writes "and they are gone: ay, ages long ago/ These lovers fled away into the storm."(L-370-71). The poem ends where it began, with the neglected Beadsman praying in "his ashes cold," and as a result the sense of closure is one of entombment. The resolution of the narrative hermetically seals the poem in a "hushed casket."
Porphyro's misinterpretation of Madeline's sepulchral tableau, his mis-recognition of the female visionary as merely a vision, points to Keats's misplaced trust in the "eternal present of pure being" that a feminine aesthetic suggests (Heffernan-114)."The Eve of Saint Agnes" points to the bankruptcy of an aesthetic vision that would reduce the feminine to the status of icon, and thus deny women artistic and authorial agency. Madeline's tableau vivant recalls Michelangelo's allegorical figure of Night in the Medici chapel, and the words he attributes to her: "It is sweet to sleep but even sweeter to be of stone. While evil and dishonor last, it is my blessing not to see, not to feel. Therefore, do not awaken me. Hush! speak softly"(Hagstrum-74) .
The poem also integrates imagery and narrative through its use of colour imagery. Keats, with superb artistic tact, makes use of a few basic rich colours that harmonize and unify the poetry. Blue and violet are used to describe Madeline “she slept an azure-lidded sleep,” blue traditionally being the colour of the Virgin Mary which suggest spirituality and purity. Silver, Gold, and Black colours and shades run like threads throughout the poem. Silver is used to describe the coldness of the moonlight “where the faded moon made a dim, silver twilight”. Gold is frequently used to suggest, by contrast, richness and splendour and warmth, as in “a cloth of woven crimson, gold and jet”, “golden dishes” “broad golden fringe”. Black and jet are used by way of contrast enriching the picture given. Thematically Keats uses these colours through out the poem. In stanza 36 when the sexual consummation of the love takes place, Keats images it in terms of colour:
Beyond a mortal man impassioned farAt these voluptuous accents. he arose,Ethereal, flushed, and like a throbbing starSeen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep reposeInto her dream he melted, as the roseBlendeth its odour with the violet -Solution sweet!
The consummation is described in terms of colours: the violet (blue) of Madeline and her purity with the redness of the Rose (passion and human love). Keats is still interested in the sounds of the words he uses and their exotic connotations. In Stanza 30 he chooses the words he uses to describe Porphryo’s feast to give an impression of richness, of taste, of the exotic:
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd,With jellies soother than the creamy curd,And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon;Manna and dates, in argosy transferredFrom Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,From silken Samarkand to cedared Lebanon.
The alliteration of the consonants “creamy curd” “silken Samarckand” of the consonants and the assonance of the vowel sounds “apple, quince and plum” “lucent syrups” and so on is marked. Instead of using the word “ship” Keats prefers the word “argosy” with its archaic and romantic associations. The use of archaisms and medievalisms is strong throughout the poem.
Keats's imagery ranges among all our physical sensations: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell, temperature, weight, pressure, hunger, thirst, sexuality, and movement. Keats repeatedly combines different senses in one image, that is, he attributes the trait(s) of one sense to another, a practice called synaesthesia. His synaesthetic imagery performs two major functions in his poems: it is part of their sensual effect, and the combining of senses normally experienced as separate suggests an underlying unity of dissimilar happenings, the oneness of all forms of life. Richard H. Fogle calls these images are the product of his” unrivaled ability to absorb, sympathize with, and humanize natural objects.
To make a psychoanalytical study of color imagery in Keats’ Eve of St. Agnes, one can associate it with the shades of shifts in moods of the central chracters. Red with blue impinging - The red represents the realism that invades the poem in the opening stanzas in the form of the beadsman and the storm. The blue, however, represents the presence of idealism in the form of both the Virgin Mary and the "golden music" that is coming from the party. The reality of the poem is the most present force, dominating how the poem is received while alluding to the idealism that is another type of reception.Blue with red impinging - The Blue represents the ideal world of Madeline that is living in while she dances at the party. She is caught up in her ideal world and can not see the reality that surrounds her. This is a very full section of the poem because the Porphyro, the character of realistic reception is introduced even as the idealism begins to take over the poem in Madeline. Angela is manipulated into betraying her mistress, even as Madeline eagerly awaits the fruitful dreams of escape. Blue surrounded with small red circles - Madeline is surrounded by the reality of the cold night and the fact that Porphyro is hiding in her closet. He is represented by the red circle that is surrounded by the blue. The outside influences of Angela and the noise from the music are also invading Madeline's innocent room. Even Porphyro, who is full of realistic life, gets sucked into the ideal both when he sees Madeline praying and when he prepares the succulent treats for the sleeping Madeline. Red is eclipsing the blue - This is the climax of the poem, in which Porphyro merges himself into the ideal dream of Madeline. However, this merging actually destroys Madeline's dream instead of simply including Porphyro into it. The ideal image of Porphyro is destroyed by the actual man.The complete red circle with a small blue within it- The realization of mortality begins to erode Madeline's idealism until it disappears. In fact, the only idealism left is not held by Madeline, but by Porphyro who is eagerly waiting to get Madeline to the home he has waiting for her. Madeline, herself, has become beset with fears and has lost her sense of idealism. The only thing that she can do is worry about what Porphyro tells her to do and she sees all of the danger in the world of reality. A plain red circle - All of the idealism has left the poem and suddenly the stark, empty reality is visible without any hope of idealism. With reality, comes the acceptance of death, which is made clear with the horrid imagery involved in Angela's death. Porphyro and Madeline are connected though images to the old man and woman. The death and lose of hope that is demonstrated in the last stanza revolving around the old people is simply an extension of what Porphyro and Madeline have to look forward to in their realistic life. Porphyro was first seen in the poem as a realistic character that is in love with the idealistic virgin. However, his very presence destroys her idealism. The ending makes it apparent that idealism is a something that is attractive to those who live in reality, and that without a sense of the ideal, a person of the realistic world is without hope or desire.
Splendid language, sharply etched setting, and vivid mood--"The Eve of St. Agnes" has them all. What the poem lacks for some readers is significant content; it is, for them, one long sensuous utterance, and a mere fairy-tale romance, unhappily short on meaning. Clearly, the portrayal of ardent young love dealing with a hostile adult world and contrasted with aging and death has an inherent appeal. A closer reading reveals more than just a gorgeous surface; it reveals many of the same concerns that Keats explores in his odes--imagination, dreaming and vision, and life as a mixture of opposites.
The poem opens--and closes--with the cold. Stanza I moves from the cold outside to the warmth inside and from wild animals outside (owl, hare) to domesticated animals (sheep) to the humans inside (Beadsman, revelers). With the Beadsman, religious imagery is introduced (incense, censer, heaven, the Virgin Mary's picture). Ironically the Beadsman, who is alone and cold, prays for the Baron and his friends, who are absorbed in the pleasures of the flesh. The cold is so intense in the chapel that even the sculptures on the tombs seem cold.
The Beadsman's decision not the join the feast symbolizes his rejecting life's joys and his isolation, as does the statement "The joys of his life were said and sung." The line may also prefigure his death, which occurs this evening
The sounds of the celebration (music's gold tongue; silver, snarling trumpets) introduce human activity and earthly pleasures. Silver and moonlight imagery runs through the poem and contrasts with vividly colored images. With stanza V, the revelers are briefly and simultaneously introduced and dismissed ("These let us wish away"), to focus on Madeline. But the revelers are insignificant in another way; they are "shadows," a reference that begins the imagery of dreams and unreality. Stanzas V through VIII emphasize her separateness from the guests because of her total absorption in the dream (she is "thought-ful," her eyes are "regardless," and her heart "brooded," and she is "all amort") Madeline, like the unshorn lambs in stanza VIII, is innocent; it is not ironic that the next morning the lambs will be shorn just as Madeline will be shorn or "deflowered".Stanza IX introduces Porphyro hiding in the shadows, prefiguring his hiding in Madeline's bedroom. His state ("heart on fire") contrasts with the dreamy remoteness of Madeline. He, too, has a dream, and it is a romantic dream also; he hopes to see his beloved and "worship all unseen." He is associated with moonlight while hiding outside and in Angela's room (stanza XIII), which is also cold and "silent as a tomb," prefiguring Angela's death.
Love propels him into the house of dangerous enemies, "barbarian hordes/Hyena foemen." Ironically these are some of the people the Beadsman has been praying for. Porphyro's only friend is "weak in body and in soul." The meaning of weak in body is clear; she is old and physically frail and dies before morning; also she is powerless to protect him. When Angela encounters Porphyro, she urges him to leave "like a ghost." This is exactly how he flees with Madeline at the end, "like phantoms." The function of these images of unreality will be explored later. Angela is amused at Madeline's rituals and says, "good angels her deceive!" All Angela may mean by this is "let angels send her good dreams instead," but her statement does explicitly refer to deception. And it is Angela who deceives Madeline, as well as Porphyro who deceives her, this St. Agnes Eve. Initially Porphyro is touched sentimentally by the image of Madeline in her St. Agnes dream. But then he sees an opportunity for more than worshipping afar. With his sexual desire and opportunity, the imagery becomes more intense, more sensual, passionate and full of color:
Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,Flushing his brow,and in his pained heartMade purple riot; (stanza XVI)
Porphyro is described as "burning," contrasting him with the cold imagery of the beginning and Madeline's cold remoteness. Angela acquiesces to his plan, "betide her weal or woe" (XVIII) The imagery of unreality and of illusion--"legion'd faeries" and "pale enchantment" and the myth of Merlin and his Demon--appears at this critical point. His vision of her "pale enchantment" contrasts implicitly with Porphyro's warmth and intensity. Whatever the specific meaning of the Merlin reference, it is clearly involves destruction and betrayal.Madeline's entrance is associated with the moon and silver (dream/cold imagery) and unreality/illusion images ("charmed maid," "mission'd spirit," "spirits of the air"in stanzas XXII and XXIII. The nightingale allusion at the end of stanza XXIII refers to a story in Ovid's Metamorphosis; Tereus raped Philomel, his sister- in-law and cut out her tongue so she couldn't tell anyone. However, she told the story in a tapestry she was weaving. Understanding the tapestry, her outraged sister murdered Tereus's son and served him to Tereus for dinner. When he learned the truth, Tereus moved to kill the sisters, but he gods turned them into birds; Philomel became a nightingale. While the metaphor describes Madeline's inability to talk, a part of the St. Agnes ritual, it also carries a hint of sexual violence or outrage. Stanza XXIV is rich with images of texture and color, paralleling the richness and color of the room, ending with the multi-meaning line "A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings." This refers to her royal ancestry ("blood of queens and kings"); the shield suggests violence; the red-blood and blush introduce color and contrast with the cold light of the moon. Stanza XXV contrasts the light of the cold ("wintry") moon with color and warmth ("gules," "rose'bloom," "silver cross soft amethyst," her hair a "glory"), suggesting both dream detachment and sensuality. The religious imagery combines with them ("a glory, like a saint," "a splendid angel," and "heaven"). Her purity is insisted upon as is Porphyro's being inhibited by her purity-- temporarily. He watches as she undresses in a dream-state ("pensive while she dreams away," "fancy," "the charm" or spell). If she looked behind her, she might of course see Porphyro. The next stanza continues her dream detachment. Stanzas XXVI to XXXV present a pattern that occurs with other Keatsian dreamers: the person falls in a swoon or sleep, experiences enchantment, and awakens to a different reality. In stanza XXVII she is "Blissfully haven'd both from joy and pain." However, joy and pain are inescapable in life. That her "bliss" is an undesirable or untenable condition is expressed in the metaphor, "As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again." This line also has sexual overtones, with reference to virginity and sexual intercourse.
Stanza XXVIII begins, "Stol'n to this paradise." Is this an echo of Satan's sneaking into the Garden of Eden to seduce Eve? Some readers hear an echo of Milton's description in Paradise Lost of this event . When Porphyro gazes on her dreaming, the silver/cold and the color/warm images are again combined, "dim, silver twilight" and "wove crimson, gold, and jet" (stanza XXIX). In the next stanza there is a hint of luxuriousness and sensuality in the description of her bed linens. The luxuriousness and eroticism of the foods and place references prepare for their sexual fulfillment. He uses the language of religion to express his physical desires; "seraph," "heaven," "eremite" are juxtaposed to "so my soul doth ache."
Unable to rouse her for a while, he wakes her with music. But is she awake, or does she think this is still a dream, "the vision of her sleep"? The situation does fulfill her expectation of a St. Agnes vision--future husband and luxurious feast. She is disoriented ("witless words") and looked "so dreamingly." Stanza XXXVI, with its heightened physical and emotional imagery is the physical culmination:
Into her dream he melted, as the roseBlended its odour with the violet,--Solution sweet;
The phrase "Into her dream he melted" is expanded in the next stanza, where he insists that their union is no dream. Does this suggest he was aware that she was in a dream- or trance-like state? She is extremely upset, "No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!" She fears being abandoned and refers to herself as "a deceived thing." Madeline's emotional upset is paralleled by the storm outside. The suggestion of her dream-state is continued by his calling her "sweet dreamer!" Does his immediately calling her "lovely bride!" suggest that he regards himself as the fulfillment of her dream and that he intends to marry her? The rest of stanza XXXVIII combines the silver/moon/dream imagery and color/warmth/passion imagery.
The next three stanzas are filled with images of unreality and delusion: "elfin-storm from fairy land," "Of haggard seeming, " "sleeping dragons all around," "like phantoms" (repeated twice), and "be-nightmar'd." The Baron and his revelers, lacking any spiritual element and being potentially violent, dream nightmares. The last word in the poem is "cold," so the poem in some ways ends as it began, with cold and physical suffering. The lovers flee into a storm. The storm can be a symbol for the real world and the reality that the lovers must face.There seems to be no irony in the selection of the names of the characters in the poem. Madeline derives from Magdalen, the prostitute accepted by Christ as a follower. The name Porphyro means purple, a color used for the clothing of nobles; purple was further associated with the aristocracy and royalty in the phrase "purple blood" (we say "blue blood" today). There are numerous references to the color purple in the poem.
The poem opens with bitter contraries. It is the depth of winter in which anal nature suffers from biting cold. Its ‘bitter chill’, the owl is cold, the hare limps ‘though the frozen grass’. The first person we se is the old beadsman, a pensioner paid to pray for the souls of the dead. The fire supposed to warm him is reduced to rough ashes among which he penitently and his fingers are numb as he tells his rosary. The figures of the dead on the tombs seem to ‘ache in icy hoods and mails’. Against this desolation of age and winter is overlaid the warmth of youthful revelry. The thousand guests of the castle assemble to the din of snarling trumpets. The chambers are ‘glowing to receive’ the guests suggesting light and warmth. Once again Keats appeals to all forms of senses. The drunken revelry of Madeline’s kin sets off the stillness of her bedroom. The flourish of trumpets is the prelude and contrast to the low throbbing of the lute. The gorgeous feast in the hall contrasts with the exotic but uneaten meal in the lovers’ bedroom. We have the strongly visual image of the moon shining through the Gothic window of stanza 24 “full on this casement shone the wintry moon”. Stanzas 24-26 describe “the fragrant stillness” of Madeline’s chamber. These sensations are strongly enhanced by the medievalism of the setting. We have the beadsman, the chapel with its ‘Sculptured dead .. .emprisoned in their black, purgatorial rails’ and the carved angels ‘ever eager eyed’ staring into futurity. We have the “A shielded scutcheon” which “blushed with blood of queens and kings”. The sensations described need to combined to bring each other out.Unlike Porphyro and Madeline, in The Eve of St. Agnes, who apparently elude a tragic encounter with social pressures by eloping (not undertaking a public ceremony of marriage) and escaping undetected from a castle's hostile society. Such a positive reading of the lovers' elopement suggests that their escape be from the dark reality of the castle's interior to an ideal existence beyond the confinement of its walls. But the castle is only a set for the narrative's dramatic action, intended to enhance The Eve of St. Agnes's fairy-tale atmosphere. The interior of the castle is not entirely dark, because its inhabitants and structure conspire with Madeline and Porphyro. Their escape is aided by a benign beldame, a drunken Porter, an ineffectual 'bloodhound', 'bolts [which] full easy slide' and 'chains that lie silent on the footworn stone' (363-9). Keats's lovers do not retreat from dark reality into an illusory dream mode, even if their story is absorbed into legend's ideal and immutable realm. Instead Porphyro and Madeline flee from a magical castle - itself a product of ideal illusion - into a troubled 'storm' of tragic reality (371). The treachery of their flight into a dawn storm can be gauged from Porphyro's optimistic description of it as an ''elfin-storm from faery land'' (343) which, recalling Endymion's perilous 'fog-born elf' (II, 276), anticipates a return to a 'habitual self' (II, 277) and reality's darkness. The youthful lovers fail to transcend the perils of human existence, because whether they remain within or without the castle their fate is predicted by the beldame and Beadsman; the first '[d]ied palsy-twitch'd' and the other 'unsought for slept among his ashes cold' (377-9). In spite of the lovers' vibrance their untold future is blighted by the prospect of death, as the passage of time will inevitably consign them to a similar deathly state. Narrative emphasis is placed on loss and unfulfilment, as central to The Eve of St. Agnes is Madeline's unrealised dream and sexual encounter with Porphyro. Even the castle's austerely gothic interior does not predict a hoped for regeneration, instead it depicts a series of fixed inarticulate 'carven imag'ries' (209) of the 'sculptur'd dead' (14). This interior marks out Keats's fairy-tale castle as 'old romance['s]' (41) last bastion and final tomb, existing without a regenerative voice to ensure either a rejuvenation of the lovers or the world of romance. Porphyro's expression of love for Madeline verbally re-enacts a courtly legend captured in 'an ancient ditty, long since mute' (291). Equally, Madeline performing her rite of 'St. Agnes' Eve' (46) seeks to voice the romance of what 'she had heard old dames full many times declare' (45) meaningfully into the present. These efforts to translate the 'dumb oratories' (16) of 'old romance' (41) into articulate active love are surrounded by the castle's suppression of sound: 'The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarinet, / Affray his ears, though but in dying tone: - / The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone' (259-61). Madeline also lapses into silence, as her attempt to re-enact courtly tradition leads to her being 'hoodwink'd with faery fancy' (70) and incapable of one 'uttered syllable' (203). Even after she awakes from her enchanted sleep she is only able 'to moan forth witless words with many a sigh' (303). Despite being within the castle's safe haven, Madeline's dream is not a consolatory ideal illusion, rather a disclosure of 'old romance['s]' fictional status. This dream experience discloses an awareness of absence, desertion and unfulfilment, reflecting the illusory mode's adoption of a tragic language of negative fiction. Madeline's new found speech - echoing Keats's abandoned knight - desires an idealised 'old romance' (41), preferring her own imaginatively created Porphyro over his actual presence: ''how chang'd thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear! / 'Give me that voice again, my Porphyro, / 'Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!'' (311-13). When Madeline does speak her desire is not the present voice of Porphyro, instead she longs after her own forever absent dream-representation of his voice and identity. Just as Porphyro's recitation of ''La Belle Dame Sans Merci'' reduces him to a silent form, who fears 'to move or speak' (306) and resembles the stonework figures decoratively carved on the castle's walls: 'Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone' (297). Such a resemblance intimates that Porphyro and Madeline will be absorbed into a tradition of courtly legend. Porphyro will be absorbed into a tradition of heroic lovers when his actions are consistent with being a voyeur, skulking in a 'closet' (164-7), and appearing to Madeline's eyes as ''pallid, chill and drear'' (311). Not even in this fairy-tale world is Porphyro ascribed a role of handsome prince and legitimate suitor. Instead, he is an inexperienced paramour who makes 'jellies soother than the creamy curd' (266) rather than love. Porphyro only serves Madeline with luxuriant and exotic dishes in an attempt to overwhelm her pervading sense of absence with sheer abundance. Yet Madeline's realisation that life is ''eternal woe'' (314) cannot be avoided. The lovers' sexual encounter is framed between Madeline fearing for Porphyro's death and Porphyro hearing the ''iced gusts'' of an ''elfin-storm'' (327; 343): 'At these voluptuous accents, he arose, / Ethereal, flush'd, and like a throbbing star / Seen mid the sapphire heaven's deep repose; / Into her dream he melted...' (317-20). Keats's portrayal of their love-making, as an idealistic union between Madeline's dream of Porphyro and his actual presence is an act of supplementation, which points towards a deathly absence, represented by those darker forces lurking beyond the walls of Keats's fairy-tale castle.
Keats's poetry contradicts his own theory in the respect that he often wrote in the highly personal and thoughtful manner that he criticizes in Wordsworth; however, he does achieve with grandness his principal aim to move the reader, accomplishing this through the masterful and ingenious use of literary techniques and the ability to freely "take in" the mystery of the universe.
Keats also moves the reader through the use of simile, metaphor, imagery, and magical tricks. One example is Keats's epic simile comparing his reading of Homer to the discover of the Pacific Ocean by Cortez and his men, who "look'd at each other with a mild surmise-- / Silent, upon a peak of Darien."( Line13-14). Another example is the vivid, moving imagery created in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" with the deceivingly simple description of a knight, "Alone and palely loitering." In the same poem we can see Keats's use of magical tricks to affect the reader. The last odd-metered line of each stanza contrasts sharply with the beautiful imagery and rhyming of the rest and makes the reader feel uncomfortable, but in this discomfort there still is beauty. It is interesting to note that this obvious metrical deviation involving a deliberate attempt to manipulate the reader seems very much like the "palpable design" that Keats talks of as being so distasteful, though his meaning of the phrase is somewhat amorphous. We see this same brilliant imagery in "Ode to a Nightingale" as the speaker of the poem longs to drink "a beaker full of the warm South, / …With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,"(L-15-20). Keats engages the reader's senses with this imagery, making the reader actually see the bubbles popping. In the same poem, Keats connects our world with the lost ages, evoking the timelessness and immensity of the universe. Here Keats embodies his own theory of the poet of great achievement by surrendering to the immensity of the universe, opening up and "taking in" its awe. The Eve of St. Agnes's portrayal of an idealised romance and dream threatens at every narrative instance to unravel itself, laying bare those elements of reality banished from Keats's enchanted castle. Silence and death remain a constantly deferred threat to the lovers, even after they have 'fled away into the storm' (371). The narrative projects their escape into the past of immortal legend to preserve them against the ravages of time, represented by the beldame and Beadsman. The Eve of St. Agnes moves full circle from the lifeless existence of a beldame and Beadsman to the hopeful fulfilment of youthful love - or the recovery of idealised 'old romance' (41) - to return only to the inevitable social reality of death. A retelling of Porphyro's and Madeline's legend will once again conjure up and break the castle's charmed circle, exposing its own tentative existence - undoing the spell of its enchanted spot - to disclose what tragedy its illusory mode struggles to conceal. Keats, in his poem, "The Eve of Saint Agnes," employs contrast as a literary device. Important points and atmospheres are emphasized when they are drawn up next to something of almost the complete opposite. Keats succeeds in emphasizing the love felt through by Porphyro and Madeleine, by contrasting this love against the intense hatred felt by Madeleine's relatives towards her lover. "Dwarfish Hildebrand . . .He cursed thee and thine, both house and land,"(L-100-02) and "old Lord Maurice" despise Porphyro and would definitely object to his presence in the vicinity, much more to his winning the heart of their princess. "Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier,"(L-108). Angela warns Porphyro. The amount of love that he has for Madeleine is underscored by the peril that he risks by trying to carry through with his feelings. The hatred already serves its purpose is by amplifying their love. Smaller scale contrasts are also used in the poem to draw emphasis to tiny, but important details. Porphyro's contentment at having reached Madeleine's chamber is aggrandized by being followed by the line which tells us of Angela's extreme anxiety, and "agues" over the same situation. While the guests of the party are "drown'd all in Rhenish and sleepy mead,"(L-349) Porphyro calls Madeleine to, "Awake! Arise! My love and fearless be."(L-315). Afterwards, when Madeleine and Porphyro exit the castle towards their life together, their graceful and delicate "glide, like phantoms,"(L-361) is drawn against the drunken sprawl of the Porter. At the same time, there was "no human sound" from the sleeping guests. The "flickering" of the chain-drooped lamp, and the "winds uproar" seem to be major sounds in the poem, but these simply serve to emphasize the complete silence felt from the lack of human activity. Usually, the chain lamp and the wind are sounds which would not be noticed in the presence of other noise. Finally, the age/youth contrast is present throughout the course of the poem, especially at both the beginning and end. Keats gives the reader a premonition of the old Beadsman's demise the same night of a joyous affair, which was probably celebrating a celebration of young Madeleine's coming-of-age. His self-denial and starkness is contrasted directly with the richness and splendor inside the house, and the feast prepared for Madeline. At the end of the poem, the birth of a new and consummate love occurs the same night as the death of two old, yet integral characters.
Keats writes the poem in Spenserian stanzas. Byron had made the stanza for fashionable in his popular poem Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage and Shelley was to write Adonais in this form. Keats had used the stanza form only once before in his Imitation of Spenser. The stanza is a suitable one for the poem. Firstly, it recalls the medievalism of Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene. Secondly, it allows for a regular narrative progression which aids in creating a sense of motion. The stanza is formed from two interwoven decasyllabic quatrains, which climax in the final 12 syllable line (alexandrine), thus allowing a developed action to take place, and framing the action visually in a separate stanza, concluded by the long 12 syllable alexandrine line. Keats employs the stanza in ways which Spenser did not, however, and whereas Spenser was able to create a strong sense of motion within his verse, Keats’s poem tends to be more ruminative, lethargic and void of the sense of motion although not of action. Like in so much of his work there is a kind of morbid stasis which surrounds the characters. Generally then, Keats’s mature style in The Eve is less concerned to express the sensations and feelings of the poet and more interested in the development of feelings though character and setting. This seems to have partly occurred through Keats’s study of Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. In his sonnet On Sitting Down to Read “King Lear” Once More, Keats had signaled his desire to bid farewell to what he calls “golden-tongued romance” of his Endymion and his wish instead to take up “the fierce dispute/Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay”. Now he appears to have overcome his most serious poetic defect and achieved a new power over sensuous language.
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