Significance of Names?
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.
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 (a hint of the ineffectiveness of religion?) 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 (see the last two lines of the poem).
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.
One of the two central figures is rejecting her immediate
and pleasure to dream about the future. Does her total involvement
in her dream make her vulnerable to Porphyro? The only authority
offered for her belief is the tales of old women--a reliable or
a dubious source?
Click here for vocabulary and allusions, stanzas I, II, V.
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"). Are there any suggestions about what Keats's attitude toward her belief might be? Is there any significance to his calling her belief a "whim" (stanza VII) and saying she is "Hoodwink'd with faery fancy" (stanza 8)? Is "faery fancy" based on reality or does it suggest delusion? One of the meanings of "hoodwink'd" is blinded; does Madeline's dream blind her to Porphyro's presence in her room? Is she hoodwinked in a different sense, tricked into having sex with Porphyro, thinking she is dreaming?
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." But does this idealized goal express his full or true desires; does he want more? What is suggested by the line, "Perhaps speak, kneel, touch, kiss--in sooth, such things have been"? Does "perhaps" leave open other possibilities? 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. In what way is she "weak in soul"? Consider her actions and conversation; what, for instance, does her allowing Porphyro to hide in Madeline's room tell us about her morally and spiritually? Is she merely naive, or is she aware of the danger to Madeline?
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 does Porphyro, 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:
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) Who is the "she" who will suffer the good or bad consequences, Angela or Madeline?
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
contrasts implicitly with Porphyro's warmth and intensity. Whatever
the specific meaning of the Merlin reference, it is clearly
involves destruction and betrayal.
The nightingale allusion at the end of stanza
XXIII refers to a story in Ovid's Metamorphosis; Tereus raped Philomel,
in-law, and cut out her tongue so she couldn't tell anyone. However,
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 the gods turned them into
birds; Philomel became a nightingale. While the metaphor describes Madeline's
talk, a part of the St. Agnes ritual, it also carries a hint of
sexual violence or outrage.
Click here for vocabulary and allusions, stanzas XXII and XXIII.
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
Stanzas XXVI to XXXV present a pattern that
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
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:
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.Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Click here for vocabulary and allusions, stanzas XXXVI, XXXVII and XXXVIII.
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
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. (Can the storm be a symbol for the real world and the
reality the lovers must face? Their world is hostile both indoors and
outside.) To what fate are the lovers fleeing? death? happiness?
Madeline's abandonment? Is the reader's
expectation affected by the deaths of the Beadsman and Angela and by
the nightmares of the revelers? Does the lovers' fate matter? Is the
affected by the narrator's emphasis on how long ago they fled
("ages long ago")? Whatever their fate, they have long been dead. Is
there also a distancing
effect with the insistence on them as phantoms? do they no
longer seem real?
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. His namesake, the historical Porphyro, was an active enemy of Christianity in the third century.
|Keats, Online overview
Lyric Poems, pp. 1-34, 51, 52
"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
"When I have fears that I may cease to be"
"Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art"
|Lyric Poems, pp. 34-45
"The Eve of St. Agnes"
|Lyric Poems, pp. 45-62
"Ode to a Nightingale"
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
|Lyric Poems (continued)
"La Belle Dame sans Merci"
"Ode on Melancholy"
Reading Lyric Poetry
The Lyric Stanza: A Convention
Lyric Epiphanies and Speakers
The Romantic Meditative Ode
|Lyric Poems (continued)
"Ode to Psyche"
|Lyric Poems (continued)
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