The Eve of St. Agnes Plot Summary and Analysis

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39. The Eve of St. Agnes

One of the prominent critics of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and awarded two PhD admissions from Berkeley University of California And Tokyo University of Japan in 2006 and 2008

ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told 5
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.


His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man; 10
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails: 15
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.


Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere Music’s golden tongue 20
Flatter’d to tears this aged man and poor;
But no—already had his deathbell rung;
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St. Agnes’ Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among 25
Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.


That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft;
And so it chanc’d, for many a door was wide,
From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft, 30
The silver, snarling trumpets ’gan to chide:
The level chambers, ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
Star’d, where upon their heads the cornice rests, 35
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.


At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new stuff d, in youth, with triumphs gay 40
Of old romance. These let us wish away,
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,
Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and wing’d St. Agnes’ saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare. 45


They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,

Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright; 50
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.


Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline: 55
The music, yearning like a God in pain,
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, 60
And back retir’d; not cool’d by high disdain,
But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere:
She sigh’d for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.


She danc’d along with vague, regardless eyes,
Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short: 65
The hallow’d hour was near at hand: she sighs
Amid the timbrels, and the throng’d resort
Of whisperers in anger, or in sport;
’Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn,
Hoodwink’d with faery fancy; all amort, 70
Save to St. Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.


So, purposing each moment to retire,
She linger’d still. Meantime, across the moors,
Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire 75
For Madeline. Beside the portal doors,
Buttress’d from moonlight, stands he, and implores
All saints to give him sight of Madeline,
But for one moment in the tedious hours,
That he might gaze and worship all unseen; 80
Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss—in sooth such things have been.


He ventures in: let no buzz’d 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, 85
Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords,
Whose very dogs would execrations howl
Against his lineage: not one breast affords
Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul. 90


Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came,
Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
To where he stood, hid from the torch’s flame,
Behind a broad hail-pillar, far beyond
The sound of merriment and chorus bland: 95
He startled her; but soon she knew his face,
And grasp’d his fingers in her palsied hand,
Saying, “Mercy, Porphyro! hie thee from this place;
“They are all here to-night, the whole blood-thirsty race!


“Get hence! get hence! there’s dwarfish Hildebrand; 100
“He had a fever late, and in the fit
“He cursed thee and thine, both house and land:
“Then there ’s that old Lord Maurice, not a whit
“More tame for his gray hairs—Alas me! flit!
“Flit like a ghost away.”—“Ah, Gossip dear, 105
“We’re safe enough; here in this arm-chair sit,
“And tell me how”—“Good Saints! not here, not here;
“Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier.”

Hamed Jamal pour
English Literature (M.A)
[email protected]
One of the prominent critics of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and awarded two PhD admissions from Berkeley University of California And Tokyo University of Japan in 2006 and 2008.

St Agnes was a Roman virgin and martyr during the reign of Diocletian (early 4th century.) At first condemned to debauchery in a public brothel before her execution, her virginity was preserved by thunder and lightning from Heaven. Eight days after her execution, her parents visited her tomb and were greeted by a chorus of angels, including Agnes herself, with a white lamb at her side.
The Eve of St Agnes was written at Chichester and Bedhampton during the last half of January 1819. Perhaps Keats was inspired by the calendar - St Agnes's feast is celebrated on 21 January. He revised the work at Winchester in September; it was first published in 1820.
On the eve of St Agnes's feast day (20 January), virgins used divinations to 'discover' their future husbands. As Keats writes: '[U]pon St Agnes' Eve, / Young virgins might have visions of delight, / And soft adorings from their loves receive'. The poem tells the story of Madeline and her lover Porphyro. It is one of Keats's best-loved works. It also inspired numerous pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Keats, doubtless, was indebted for his subject to Brand’s “Popular Antiquities,” 1795. “On the eve of her day,” 21 Jan., that writer says, “many kinds of divination were practised by virgins to discover their future husbands.” He cites some lines, assigned to Ben Jonson, upon the subject, and refers to Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” as speaking of “Maids fasting on St. Agnes’ Eve, to know who shall be their first husband.” A long quotation from an old chap-book then gives the legend in detail;—furnishing obviously the outline of our poem.

St. Agnes’ wool (st. xiii) is that shorn from two lambs which, (allusive to the Saint’s name), were upon that day brought to Mass, and offered whilst the Agnus was chanted. The wool was then spun, dressed, and woven by the hand of Nuns.

It is, apparently, as a poetical contrast to the fasting which was generally accepted as the due method by which a maiden was to prepare herself for the Vision, that the gorgeous supper-picture of st. xxx was introduced. Keats, who was Leigh Hunt’s guest at the time when this volume appeared, read aloud the passage to Hunt, with manifest pleasure in his work:—the sole instance I can recall when the poet,—modest in proportion to his greatness,—yielded even to so innocent an impulse of vanity.

A fine remark by Mr. A. de Vere upon the Faerie Queene is equally applicable to this Poem, and also to Lamia:—“The gift of delineating beauty finds perhaps its most arduous triumph when exercised on the description of incident, a thing that passes necessarily from change to change,—and not on permanent objects, which less elude the artist’s eye and hand.”

“There is a tendency to class women in my books with roses and sweetmeats,—they never see themselves dominant,” said Keats, (about Aug. 1820), alluding to a report that his last book was unpopular among them. This remark applies, perhaps, most to the Eve of St. Agnes. Keats did not live long enough to attain,—as, despite his own criticism, many passages in his poems show that he would have attained,—the standard of his great Master, of whom Professor Dowden truly notes that “For Spenser, behind each woman made to worship or love, rises a sacred presence—Womanhood itself.”
This magnificent poem was written by Feb., and revised in Sep. 1819.
st. vi–viii The mode in which Keats,—that Elizabethan born out of due time,—here and elsewhere, as in Isabella, “dallies with the innocence of love, Like the old age,” seems to me rather the naïvetè of Mediaevalism than that of Antiquity.

Hamed Jamal pour
English Literature (M.A)
[email protected]
One of the prominent critics of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and awarded two PhD admissions from Berkeley University of California And Tokyo University of Japan in 2006 and 2008

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