This is one of John Keats’s best-loved poems, with a wonderfully happy ending. Keats wrote it in late January 1819 (St. Agnes Day is January 21, and Keats seems to have started composition a few days before that). It is a story about warmth and love triumphing over winter cold (much as the cricket remembers summer days in the midst of winter in Keats’s sonnet on “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket”). As the poem explains, if a young woman performs the right rituals, she should dream of her future lover on St. Agnes Eve, and this is what Madeline, the heroine of the poem, seeks to do.
In several ways, this poem is an anticipation of the great odes Keats would write three months later, in particular the first of them, “Ode to Psyche.” The narrative voice of the poem is besotted with the sensual beauties it records; the recording eye of the narrative is mesmerized by the richness of what it sees. Although there is no first-person narrator—that is to say, no first-person pronoun in the narrative—the poem itself feels highly voyeuristic, just as the “Ode to Psyche” will. Voyeurism in Keats is characteristically a pure pleasure: It does not tend to contain any masochistic sense of frustration, since the Keatsian poet gives himself over entirely to the rich pleasures of looking. In “Ode to Psyche,” the figures he gazes at are Psyche and Cupid. Here they are Madeline and Porphyro.
The narrator’s voyeurism, or scopophilia—love of looking—is mirrored in Porphyro himself. All he wants to do is gaze at Madeline; at least, this is what he thinks he wants to do, and he asks Angela to help him “That he might gaze and worship all unseen” (l. 80). But vision in Keats achieves a peak of sensuality, so that just gazing merges imperceptibly with sexual fulfillment, at least for Porphyro, and to be added to gazing and worshipping all unseen is a hope to “Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss—in sooth such things have been” (l. 81).
The story the poem recounts is a simple one, and all the pleasure of the poem is in the feeling of repletion with the telling. It is a cold St. Agnes Eve, but Madeline’s father is having a winter ball for all his clan. The young beaux are all interested in Madeline, but she is interested only in going to sleep, so she can dream of her lover-to-be. Keats is no doubt recollecting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s recently published Christabel, which shares many plot similarities with The Eve of St. Agnes, including the way it begins with a young girl dreaming of her distant lover. Madeline finally retires, headed for bed; in the meantime, young Porphyro, who loves her and whom she hopes to dream of, has arrived at the castle, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
We are in the same situation as that of the Capulets’ ball in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: All of the people at the ball are his sworn enemies, Madeline’s father most of all. But such is Porphyro’s love that he must see her, and the only person willing to give him aid is the old crone Angela, who loves him as well as Madeline. Angela is, of course, an avatar of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. She guides Porphyro to Madeline’s room, where Madeline falls asleep, not knowing he is there. He gazes upon her and upon the beauty of the scene which gilds her own loveliness, and he plays her “an ancient ditty, long since mute, / In Provence called ‘La Belle dame sans mercy,’” or “The beautiful, pitiless woman.” This is a dialogue by Alain Chartier from 1424, but it seems better to assume that the poem Porphyro sings is in fact Keats’s poem of the same title, to be written three months later (see “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”). That is to say, it is a poem in conformity with the Keatsian atmosphere of things, including the evocativeness produced by love’s elusiveness. The later poem will echo this poem’s sense of nightmare and loss: Madeline wakes up from a dream of Porphyro to the real thing, but she remembers the dream as being more beautiful. (Here we might recall one of Keats’s dictums about the poetic imagination: “The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream: he awoke and found it truth.” Keats there refers to Adam waking up to find his dream of Eve come true in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Here the truth is not quite so beautiful as the dream.
Consequently, Porphyro must enter Madeline’s dream instead, which is to say enter the true land of fairy even within the fairyland in which the poem is set. In the poem’s most notoriously sensual stanza, Porphyro, “Etheral, flushed, and like a throbbing star,” is described as “melting” into her dream, blending with it in “solution sweet.” That merging with her dream is sexual and yet is also the triumph of scopophilia, since he is merging with a visual world that she already sees. Nevertheless, in the real world they are in danger, and so he wakes her and they make their escape, in language again reminiscent of Christabel, of the scene where Christabel leads Geraldine into her father’s castle. But Porphyro and Madeline are heading outward, into the kind of purely evocative place that Keats feels debarred from in his odes—the “fairly lands forlorn” of “Ode to a Nightingale,” for example. Here their escape is rendered through its opposite: the coldness and death and time that are inherent in the world from which they escape. They succeed in doing what Keats always wants to do: to be elsewhere, to experience the elsewhere as elsewhere. All the people in the world they leave behind die, but they somehow live, since they disappear into some fabulous beyond of love and happiness.
The sensuality of this world is the promise of that other one, and the imagination, which can imagine that sensuality, is the imagination that can take pleasure in Madeline and Porphyro’s absence at the end of the poem. They are now in a dream world, or we are, and the ability to enter or exit that world is highly attractive and beautiful; it is an ability that the seductive beauty of the poem comes close to matching in its own right.
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