The Eve of St. Agnes
The next time you're frustrated that your significant other isn't texting you back quickly enough, remember that it could be worse: she could be locked up in a castle surrounded by her family (which has an ancient blood-feud with your family) trying to complete an ancient Christian ritual in hopes of being delivered a vision of you. Skype's not looking so bad now, huh?
This is exactly the situation that Porphyro finds himself in in John Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes." To those who know Keats for such fan favorites as "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "Ode to a Nightingale," "The Eve of St. Agnes" is going to feel a little different. Actually, it's probably going to feel a lot different. Instead of a sweet little Ode talking about nature or art, it's a long, narrative poem written in an archaic meter that seems to be retelling some bizarro version of Romeo and Juliet. Also, unlike the Odes, "The Eve of St. Agnes" gets a lot of flak from critics.
Why all the hate? Well, when compared to the Odes and longer poems like "Hyperion" and "Endymion," "The Eve of St. Agnes" looks distinctly… short on substance. If you were to sum up the criticism of St. Agnes, you'd find that the bottom line frequently ends up being, "this is really gorgeous and well-written, but nothing really happens and there's basically no there there." In short, critics have labeled "The Eve of St. Agnes" the pretty, blonde floozy of Keats's longer poems.
"The Eve of St. Agnes" was written in the dead of the winter of 1819, which was basically The Year for Keats because it was the year he wrote all but one of the Odes, his most famous poems. In short, if Keats had a Greatest Hits album, it would be titled "Stuff I Did in 1819," and "The Eve of St. Agnes" is the first thing he wrote that year. "The Eve of St. Agnes" was published alongside the Odes in 1820 and was, in the memory of history, outshined by those stellar little siblings.
1819 was a big deal for Keats for other reasons: "The Eve of St. Agnes" was written pretty much directly after Keats's brother Thomas died of tuberculosis in December 1818, and smack dab in the middle of Keats's courtship of Fanny Brawne, to whom he proposed in October 1819. As if that weren't enough, towards the end of 1819 Keats started to himself exhibit the first signs of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. What's a gifted young guy to do when embroiled in overwhelming emotional tumult? Write some really awesome poems, that's what.
"The Eve of St. Agnes" may not be the most famous thing Keats wrote in 1819, but the hallmarks of that year—death, sex, the dangers of the imagination—are stamped all over it.
Why Should I Care?
It's easy to write off "The Eve of St. Agnes" as being kind of, well… dumb. The characters aren't all that complex, and we've seen General Hospital episodes with more plot. But beneath that first superficial layer, there's a lot more going on.
"Like what?" you say? We're glad you asked. Think about this: we've all had the experience of waking up and wondering if we were still dreaming. John Keats takes this experience and gets a little more philosophical. In a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey in 1817 he wrote.
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be the truth—whether it existed before or not… The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream—he awoke and found it truth.
Now, if you read around a little, you'll discover that dreaming is one of Keats's favorite things, and "The Eve of St. Agnes" goes deep (super-deep) into this topic. As we said above, this is the poem that Keats writes right before he enters his famous Ode phase, and it actually addresses a lot of the topics that make the Odes themselves so powerful and relevant: Is the imagination capable of creating something real? How far can you trust your imagination? How do you deal with the conflict between the real and the ideal, the dream and the thing you wake up to?
You may say Keats was a dreamer, Shmoopers, but he's not the only one. We've all been there: wanting to head back into that dreamy state that seemed so real to us while we slept, or not totally trusting our sense of the world because it seemed—if just for a second—like a waking dream. Sure, if "The Eve of St Agnes" were a television show, you'd be bored stiff. As a poem, though, it's digging deep into the human mind and its imaginative powers—something we all enjoy—and it's doing it in a pretty spectacular way.