The Eve of St. Agnes | Study Guide

John Keats

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The Eve of St. Agnes | Themes


Religion and Romantic Longing

This poem is based on the concept that on this one night, an unmarried woman can perform certain rituals to see her future husband. The tradition of St. Agnes's Eve combines spirituality or religious practice with the longing of a young woman to glimpse her future husband. In the poem Madeline is so preoccupied with the potential of the rituals to reveal the identity of her future husband, she doesn't even notice when other men—perhaps potential suitors—approach her at the party. Although the poem doesn't explicitly state there was any previous contact between Porphyro and Madeline, the fact that he has a friend and advocate in Angela, who is not entirely opposed to allowing him into Madeline's chambers, suggests the two are in a forbidden romance. Many readers have noted that the party, the family feud, and the two young lovers sneaking away contain echoes of Romeo and Juliet. One reading of the poem may be that Madeline is eager to perform the rituals of St. Agnes's Eve because she longs to confirm the spiritual rightness of her relationship with Porphyro. She may be hoping to glimpse him during the night, in her enchanted dream, just as he hopes to glimpse her. Her romantic longing is intertwined with her spiritual and religious understanding of the world.

Porphyro also experiences romantic longing, and again, it is connected to his sense of the spiritual. He prays to the saints to help him see Madeline, and he is greeted and assisted by a woman named Angela—a name that suggests she is in the role of an angelic helper. He manages to sneak into the castle unseen except by Angela and then out again, with Madeline now his bride. This suggests that the fulfillment of his spiritual longing was providential, or occurring at just the right moment and aided by the divine.

Man as Pilgrim, Woman His Shrine

Closely tied to the theme that religious and romantic longings are intertwined is the idea that men can gain heavenly favor through their love for a pure and beautiful woman. The woman is seen as a pathway to God's favor. In this poem Porphyro speaks about seeking out Madeline as if she were someone to be worshipped. His desire in coming to the party is to "gaze and worship ... Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss" the beautiful Madeline. In Stanza 25, he watches her as she says her bedtime prayers and sees her as a saint and angel, and the description is not unlike a painting of a saint at prayer. Light from the moon falls upon Madeline as she kneels in prayer, her hands pressed together and the light reflecting on her silver cross and hair, which glows as a glory, or halo, "like a saint: / She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest, / Save wings, for heaven." Porphyro feels faint just looking at her and thinking about her purity.

Madeline's purity is an essential component of her appeal and is emphasized by the setting of the poem on the eve of St. Agnes's day. The virgin martyr St. Agnes was murdered because of her refusal to wed and to denounce God. In one of the legends about her, she remained untouched and virginal despite being sent to a brothel. The only man who attempted to rape her was blinded. Porphyro isn't planning merely to look at Madeline. He would prefer she not remain a virgin as St. Agnes did. This tension is inherent in the poem, which makes much of Madeline's virginity but then involves Porphyro and Madeline lying in bed together and then running away with each other.

In his own mind, Porphyro's own salvation is dependent on Madeline. In Stanza 31 Porpyro again calls her an angel (seraph), and in Stanza 38 he likens himself to a Christian pilgrim seeking salvation and calls her a shrine: "Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my test / After so many hours of toil and quest, / A famish'd pilgrim,—sav'd by miracle." It is not clear whether Madeline shares his sense that their coming together is akin to a religious experience; she requires some persuading. But certainly from Porphyro's point of view, his expectations of their encounter go beyond simple lust.

Dream versus Reality

This is a poem of contrasts, and one of the most potent contrasts is between the dream and reality. In the beginning of the poem, the cold, dark, stone-hard reality of the Beadsman is contrasted with the dreamlike guests at the party, who are compared to "shadows haunting" that can be wished away by the speaker of the poem (Stanza 5). In these opening images, the more solid reality is associated with death, an ominous message about the nature of reality in general. Later, Madeline is deep in a dream about Porphyro when she wakes to find the real man next to her. She is startled and not happy at the change from dream to waking: "There was a painful change, that nigh expell'd / The blisses of her dream so pure and deep / At which fair Madeline began to weep" (Stanza 34). She prefers her dream, in which Porphyro is warm and brimming with life, to the reality. She puts this feeling into words: "Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear ... And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear: / How chang'd thou art! How pallid, chill, and drear!" (Stanza 35). Evidently, the real man not only is a disappointment compared to the dream version, but seems as though he is near death. He is pale and cold—not unlike the statues in the chapel in the opening stanzas, which are also a reminder of death and mortality. These contrasts suggest that the world of the dream—the world of imagination—is full of life, warmth, and promise while reality is harsh, cold, and dominated by mortality.

In light of the contrast between dream and reality, and the associations of life and death each holds, the ending of the poem serves as an ominous reality check. The young lovers, who have most likely secretly consummated their forbidden relationship, have escaped to freedom. But the final stanzas are full of cold imagery and reminders of death. The two escape into the wintry night and seek their freedom on the cold moors. The Beadsman and Angela are said to have died the very night Porphyro leaves with Madeline. While the warmth of the dream may be wonderful, it eventually gives way to the stark reality of suffering and death.

Sinners and Saints

The poem questions the traditional distinctions between what is heavenly and what is not. Each character has aspects of both sinner and saint.

The text begins with a description of the Beadsman at work praying for the sinners of the world in a cold chapel even as he himself nears death. He is called a holy man and certainly seems to be a self-giving and saintly person. Yet he is surrounded by reminders of mortality in the form of cold stone statues of the deceased. And he sits in ashes, which are symbolic of both grief and repentance. Readers wonder whether he is holy or a harbinger of death.

An old woman who helps Porphyro gain access to Madeline is named Angela, and like an angel she does seem to come as answer to the young man's prayer that he catch a glimpse of Madeline that night. Yet she sneaks Porphyro through the castle to Madeline's bedchamber, putting Madeline at risk of dishonor. In fact, she tells Porphyro he must marry Madeline or else Angela may not go to heaven herself. She knows she is responsible for what might happen between the two. She can be seen as both a deceiver and an angel sent to help young love along.

Porphyro hides in the closet of Madeline's room and spies on her as she disrobes and prays. But the poem rewards this unsavory behavior by giving the young man his heart's desire—described in sensual, or sexually pleasurable, romantic images. He can be seen as a lustful young man who takes a young woman unawares despite her family's objection to his presence or as an ardent, or passionate, young lover whose desire for Madeline borders on religious devotion.

Madeline is described as pure and angelic, and the speaker's descriptions of her reveal her moral saintliness. Yet she seems to willingly leave her father's home in the middle of the night with Porphyro. She is both a pure young maiden who is taken advantage of by Porphyro and a rebellious daughter who runs off with her lover.

Even the partygoers are described in ambiguous terms. At the beginning, they seem joyful and carefree, but later their drunken noisemaking is an intrusion into the silent chamber where Porphyro stays with Madeline.

Keats doesn't sort these contradictions out for the reader, nor does he suggest that one reading of them is correct. Images of life and death, cold and warmth, heaven and hell, and sinners and saints all coexist in the poem, raising questions without providing answers.

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