'The Eve of St. Agnes'- John Keats


Basic information:

  • Narrative poem written in Spenserian stanzas (stanzas of 9 lines, 8 in iambic pentameter followed by one Alexandrine) → Drags out stanza and creates a dream-like tone.
  • Rhyme scheme is ABABBCBCC
  • St. Agnes' feast day is on the 21st of January
  • St. Agnes is the patron saint of engaged couples, girls, chastity and sexual violence survivors.
  • Chiasmus: A rhetorical or literary device in which words, phrases or grammatical contructs are repeated in reverse order.
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Poem overview:

A beadsman is praying while there is revelry in the castle. Madeline is waiting to go to bed in order to carry out the superstitious rituals of the Eve of St. Agnes, in order to see a vision of her beloved but forbidden Porphyro. Porphyro sneaks into the castle and is helped to hide in Madeline's closet by nurse Angela. Madeline sleeps and the ritual becomes true. Porphyro wakes Madeline and asks her to elope and marry him. The couple disappear into the stormy night, while Angela and the beadsman die, and everyone in the castle has bad dreams.

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Stanzas I-III

  • The pleonasm "bitter chill" enhances the cold which heightens the juxtaposition between the heat in Madeline's room and the wintery outside.
  • Beadsmen were employed to pray for their benefactors soul.
  • "Like pious incense from a censor old / Seemed taking flight for heaven, without a death" → Ironic simile as Keats comments on the ineffectiveness of religion.
  • Religious imagery foreshadows the prevailing theme of spirituality → "censer", "sweet virgin"
  • Tripling contrasts with the opulence of those inside the castle, implying commentary on class, which was downt to Keats' friendship with the radical Lee Hunt → "meagre, barefoot, wan".
  • The metaphor "Emprisoned in black, purgatorial rails" conveys both the bitter weather and foreshadows death.
  • The quotation "weak spirit fails" foreshadows death through fragility.
  • The personification of statues emphasise resentment towards religion as the beadsman is empathetic and pious while his benefactors let him freeze: "think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails".
  • Personification of music contrasts with the bitter cold and raises questions about the point of religion: "Music's golden tongue".
  • "already had his deathbell rung; / The joys of all his life were said and sung" → Allusion to Thomas Keats who died the year before the poem was written, and foreshadows the beadsman's demise. 
  • "soul's reprieve" → Foreshadows death and is ironic as the beadsman is pious and good.
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Stanzas IV-VI

  • "silver, snarling trumpets 'gan to chide"→ Sibilance picks up the pace of the poem to emulate the revelry, and personification conveys the danger that Porphyro faces in the castle.
  • "The carved angels, ever eager-eyed, / Stared" → Anthropomorphism parallels the "purgatorial" statues in the chapel and conveys inequality.
  • "argent revelry" → Silver-adorned revellers juxtapose the poverty of the Beadsman.
  • "Numerous shadows haunting faerily"→ Simile conveys how packed the party is while foreshadowing the later spirituality.
  • The adjective "honeyed" conveys the later sweetness and slow progression of the poem.
  • "lily white" → Lilies symbolise chastity and virtue, and the adjective "white" connotes innocence and purity showcasing contemporary ideals for unmarried girls.
  • Personification of "Heaven" is showcased through capitalisation and foreshadows later spiritual intervention.
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Stanzas VII-IX

  • The name "Madeline" is an aptronym as it is derived from Magdalene (St. Mary), foreshadowing hope and devotion. 'Madeline' is also a type of French cake, showing patriarchal consumption of women.
  • The simile "yearning like a God in pain" echoes Madeline's yearning for Porphyro.
  • The noun "divine" separates Madeline from the materialistic party-goers and conveys her religious devotion.
  • Repeated use of caesura using colons conveys Madeline's desire to have "Agnes' dreams" and foreshadows the blurring of dreams and reality.
  • "She danced along with vague, regardless eyes" → Shows Madeline's distraction.
  • The verb "hallowed" conveys reverence and spirituality.
  • "Hoodwinked with faery fancy- all amort" → Shows that Madeline is basically dead to reality, and the alliteration in "faery fancy" shows how she is "hoodwinked" by Porphyro as she believes herself to be dreaming.
  • "lambs unshorn" → Lambs connote innocence and "unshorn alludes to virginity. The quote also alludes to the tradition of blessing lambs and using their wool to make cloth on St. Agnes' day.
  • "Porphyro" is an aptronym derived from the Greek word for purple, conveying his passion and rich character. It is also similar to "Porphyra", the scientific term for vampirism, showing his sexually predatory ways.
  • "with heart on fire / For Madeline"→ Enjambement raises questions regarding whether he wants to see her for sex or love. 
  • Both lovers pray for eachother, but Madeline is vulnerable in her rituals while Porphyro is very physical which foreshadows the balance of power: "speak, kneel, touch, kiss".
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Stanzas X-XIII

  • "or a hundred swords / Will storm his heart, Love's fev'rous citadel"→ Metaphoricises the feud and parallels Romeo and Juliet, foreshadowing bloodshed.
  • The revellers are presented in juxtaposing ways, conveying the feud: "plume" and "tiara" vs. "barbarian hordes / Hyena foemen"
  • "Save one old beldame, weak in body and soul"→ Foreshadows the nurse's demise.
  • "The sound of merriment and chorus bland" →Adheres to Baktin's Theory of Carnivalesque, wherein social norms are easily inverted.
  • The verb "palsied" emphasises Angela's weakness and juxtaposes with the strength of the lovers.
  • The quotation "They are all here to-night, the whole bloodthirsty race!" enhances a sense of passion by confirming the danger that Porphyro is in.
  • The simile "flit like a ghost away" is ironic as the nurse will die while Porphyro and Madeline elope.
  • "or else these stones will by thy bier" → A "bier" is a coffin platform and conveys the danger that Porphyro is in.
  • The metaphor "Brushing the cobwebs from his lofty plume" foreshadows change.
  • The quotation "silent as a tomb" echoes the atmosphere in the chapel, foreshadowing that Angela will die. 
  • The name "Angela" is an aptronym derived from 'angel' and means 'messenger of the Gods', conveying how she facillitates the whole affair.
  • "When they St. Agnes' wool are weaving piously" →Allusion to post-sex "lambs unshorn".
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Stanzas XIV-XVI

  • The magical metaphor "Thou must hold water in a witch's sieve, / And be liege-lord of all the Elves and Fays" conveys the danger that Porphyro is in, as he must be magical to escape. This foreshadows the truth of the rituals, as does the noun "conjuror"
  • "Good angels her decieve!"→Foreshadows how Porphyro will trick Madeline as she thinks he is an apparition.
  • The quotation "Who keepeth closes a wondrous riddle-book" is a metaphor for Porphyro's sexual urges, as well as Madeline's virginity.
  • "at the thought of those enchantments cold, / And Madeline asleep in the lap of legends old"→ Porphyro appears happy at Madeline's vulnerability, and metaphoricises Madeline's spiritual beliefs as this will give Porphyro power.
  • "like a full-blown rose" conveys Porphyro's passion as budded roses symbolise virginity. 
  • "his pained heart / Made purple riot;" Metaphor enhances grandeur and passion, and caesura conveys that Porphyro thinks with his physical urges.
  • "Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem"→ Angela's reaction conveys Porphyro's purely sexual motivations.
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Stanzas XVII-XIX

  • "by all saints I swear" → Religious manipulation contrasts with Madeline's faith and good intentions.
  • "When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer"→Alludes to the Beadsman and foreshadows how Angela will share the same fate.
  • "though they be more fanged than wolves and bears"→Metaphoricises hatred, but implies that Porphyro is genuine as he is willing to endanger himself for Madeline.
  • "Whose passing-bell may ere the midnight toll"→Foreshadows that Angela will die that night.
  • "burning Porphyro"→Adjective "burning" conveys passion and desire.
  • "Whatever he shall wish, betide her weal or woe"→Magical semantic field creates irony as Angela has doomed herself.
  • "and there hide / Him in a closet"→ Enjambement conveys polysemantic meaning, as Angela needs to hide Porphyro and hide what she has done.
  • The phrase "win....peerless bride" conveys patriarchal ideals as Madeline is seen as passive, making Porphyro predatory.
  • "While legioned faeries paced the coverlet / And pale enchantment held her sleepy-eyed"→ Pale imagery contrasts with Porhyro's warmth, foreshadowing Madeline's passivity. The metaphor also creates a sinister tone as Porphyro seems predatory.
  • "Since Merlin paid his Demon all the monstrous debt"→ Foreshadows death and alludes to Merlin's imprisonment by his love, the Lady of the Lake.
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Stanzas **-**II

  • "It shall be as thou wishest" is like a genie, emphasising spirituality and magic.
  • "For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare / On such a catering trust my dizzy head." → Foreshadows death which is emphasised through end-stopping.
  • "Ah! thou must needs the lady wed, / Or may I never leave my grave upon the dead" → Ironic foreshadowing as sexual activity is implied, which goes against contemporary convention. Angela will not ascend to heaven if the two don't marry. 
  • "The maiden's chamber, silken, hushed and chaste"→ Personification and tripling reflect Madeline's virginal character.
  • "amain" loosely translates to 'violent pleasure', conveying that Porphyro is predatory.
  • "agues in her brain"→ Shows morality and foreshadows death.
  • "St. Agnes' charmed maid"→ Implies that Madeline has been bewitched.
  • "Rose, like a missioned spirit, unaware"→Simile conveys pious devotion.
  • "With silver taper's light, and pious care"→ Cold and calm imagery contrast with Porphyro, implying that he is predatory.
  • "like a ring-dove frayed and / Fled"→ Simile conveys Madeline's vulnerability as ring-doves were kept domestically. This conveys that Porphyro has the power and suggests entrapment.
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  • "Out went the taper as she hurried in"→ Symbolises the ending of life.
  • "she panted, all akin / To spirits of the air"→ Spiritual comparison juxtaposes Madeline's spirituality with Porphyro's physicality.
  • "her heart was voluble"→ The sound of a beating heart in the silence conveys passion.
  • "tongueless nightingale"→ The metaphor connotes Madeline's inability to talk as well as sexual violence, through allusion to the tale of Philomel and Procne from Ovid's Metaphorphosis. This implies that she will be *****.
  • The "casement high" creates privacy and a church-like atmosphere, conveying that Porphyro has undertaken a pilgrimage of sorts to be with Madeline.
  • "Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass"→Romantic imagery juxtaposes the "bitter chill" outside, conveying the disparity between fates.
  • "As are the tiger-moth's deep damasked wings"→ Simile as tiger moths were seen as a spiritual warning in Native American folklore.
  • "A shielded scutcheon blushed with blood of queens and kings"→ Personification of the coat of arms conveys the blood feud, as well as the young lovers as the verb "blushed' is a polysemant.
  • Cold feminine imagery conveys Madeline's passivity- "wintry moon", "fair"- compared to Porphyro's warm semantic field: "warm gules", "Rose-bloom".
  • "silver cross soft amythyst"→ Sibilance creates a whispering sound, emulating a sacred prayer.
  • "like a saint" → Conveys Porphyro's reverence of Madeline.
  • "She seemed a splendid angel...free from mortal taint"→ Madeline is free from the original sin.
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  • Poem dubbed "unfit for ladies" by Woodhouse.
  • Slow tone connotes sensuality and desire: "one by one...by degrees".
  • Emphasis on closeness conveys desire: "warmed jewels", "fragrant bodice".
  • "like a mermaid in sea-weed" → Simile conveys how mythically enticing Madeline appears, and implies that Madeline is seducing Porphryo.
  • "Pensive while she dreams awake"→ Oxymoron conveys Madeline's trance.
  • "But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled"→ Polysemantic allusion to both Porphyro and St. Agnes.
  • Bird imagery connotes fragility and a desire to fly away: "chilly nest".
  • "poppied warmth of sleep oppressed"→Conveys a drug-like stupor.
  • "Clasped like a missal where swart paynims pray"→ Simile likens Madeline to a prayer-book, shut up in a non-christian land, conveying her protection.
  • "As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again"→ Simile connotes imminent loss of viginity, and shows that Madeline is not really dreaming.
  • Juxtapositon between "paradise" and "wilderness" metaphoricises sexual inexperience, and is a Biblical allusion to Satan sneaking into Eden to seduce Eve.
  • "Porphyro gazed upon her empty dress, / And listened to her breathing"→ Drawing upon the senses heightens sexual tension.
  • "Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness"→Simile conveys Porphyro as predatory.
  • Sibilance of "silent, stepped" conveys noise cutting across the silence.
  • Voyeuristic semantic field makes Porphyro seem predatory as Madeline is unconsenting and unaware.
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  • "A cloth of woven crimson, gold and jet"→ Rich and opulent colours convey the extravagance and hedonism of Porphyro's feat. 
  • "Morphean amulet!"→ Predatory as Morpheus was the God of sleep, and Porphyro doesn't want Madeline to wake up.
  • Juxtaposing noisy festivity with the silent bedroom breaks the tension and reminds us of Porphyro's danger: "boisterious, midnight festive clarion" vs. "The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone".
  • "candied apple, quince, plum and gourd"→ Olfactory imagery foreshadows consummation.
  • Muted room colours contrast with the bright foods, symbolising the personalities of Porphyro and Madeline.
  • "Manna" implies that their love is needed for survival. 
  • "Argosy" was a merchant ship, adding to the exotic, dream-llike tone.
  • Verb "heaped" connotes wealth. 
  • "glowing" hands symbolise death in Judaism and Islam.
  • Adjectives emphasise angelic view of Madeline: "bright", "sumptuous", "golden"
  • "my seraph fair, awake!" → The imperative verb conveys power and ownership, and seraphs are the highest order of angels, implying that her body is his heaven.
  • "I thine eremite" → Metaphor compares Porphyro to a religious hermit, conveying his obsession.
  • "my soul doth ache"→ Connotes sexual frustration.
  • "Impossible to melt as iced stream"→ Conveys the physical and conventional barrier between the lovers.
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  • Porphyro playing "La Belle Dame Sans Mercy" is ironic as Keats' poem of the same name is about the dangers of infatuation.
  • "soft moan...panted quick" → Auditory sexual imagery.
  • "Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone."→ Simile conveys Porphyro's good intent due to the act of submission. End-stopping conveys that Porphryo's act was all bravado as he is actually in awe of Madeline.
  • "painful change" conveys Madeline's reality of having to choose between her love and her family.
  • Madeline is voiceless until stanza 35, showing that she is powerless without male guidance: "Ah, Porphyro!".
  • "How pallid, chill, and drear!" → Tripling conveys that Porphyro's macho bravado was just a front.
  • "If thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go"→ Contemporary patriarchal society.
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  • "ethereal, flushed, and like a throbbing star"→ Simile conveys sexuality.
  • "Into her dream he melted, as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet" → Simile connotes sex.
  • "Frost-wind blows / Like love's alarum pattering the sharp sleet"→ Pathetic fallacy reflects Madeline's upset, and the simile conveys that pathetic fallacy is trying to hurry the lovers.
  • "St Agnes' moon hath set"→ Metaphor for the end of sex, and the end of female control as Madeline now physically belongs to Porphyro.
  • "my bride"→Possessive pronoun conveys ownership.
  • "the iced gusts still rave and beat"→ Pathetic fallacy conveys danger.
  • "A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing"→ Metaphor implies that Madeline believes that Porphyro only wanted her for sex.
  • "may I be for aye thy vassal blessed?"→ Porphyro is asking if he can serve Madeline as her husband.
  • "A famished pilgrim-saved by miracle" → Metaphor for how love saved Porphyro.
  • "I will not rob thy nest"→ Bird motif; he will marry her to not rob her of her future as brides were supposed to be virgins. 
  • "Hark! 'tis an elfin-storm from faery land" → Ironic as the storm enables escape but also causes death.
  • Anaphoric sensory reference- "There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see"- alludes to earlier magic: "hoodwink'd with faery fancy"
  • "southern moors" connote warmth and sun, conveying that the lovers are leaving for a better life.
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Stanzas XL-XLII

  • "sleeping dragons" is a metaphor for feuding relatives.
  • "In all the house was heard no human sound."→ End-stopping implies supernatural.
  • "A chain-dropped lamp was flickering by each door"→ Flickering light metaphoricises imminent death.
  • "Beseiging wind's uproar"→ Pathetic fallacy echoes the family's anger at the elopement.
  • "They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall; / Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide" → Chiastic simile conveys that they are unseen, and foreshadows death.
  • The castle is almost personified and magical, and active verbs create a supernatural atmosphere: "the bolts full easy slide- / The chains lie silent on the footworn stones- / The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans."
  • "These lovers fled away into the storm"→ Ambiguity of ending creates tragedy as we don't know if the lovers lived happily ever after.
  • "Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm / Were long be-nightmared" → Bad dreams of revellers adds to foreboding atmosphere.
  • "Angela the old / Died palsy twitched, with meagre face deform / The Beadsman, after thousand aves told, / For eye unsought for slept among his ashes cold" → Conveys the power of romanticism over logic, the cycle of life and the futility of religion.
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Relation to tragedy:

  • No clear catharsis in elopement.
  • Atmospheric factors create foreboding, e.g. intense cold, violent wind and the terror of the storm.
  • Adheres to the Aristotlean aspect of tragedy as Madeline falls from grace by eloping with the enemy.
  • Creates pity and fear for the lovers.
  • The deaths of Angela and the Beadsman adhere to the Aristolean convention of undeserved fate.
  • Tragic circumstances in Keats' own life make it sensical for the poem to be a tragedy.
  • Keats knew he couldn't have a long and happy life with Fanny Brawne due to his poor finances and early signs of consumption.
  • Keats' own jealousy is reflected in the passion of Porphyro- she begged him not to be "too kind" to men she met.
  • Foreboding mystical atmosphere.
  • Night time setting enhances the difficult choice of love or family, due to secrecy.
  • Madeline parallels Fanny Brawne, as Lee Hunt accuses the writer of being as in love with the heroine as Porphyro.
  • Death prevails as a theme throughout.
  • Parallels Romeo and Juliet.
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