The Eve of St. Agnes Summary
We start out in the freezing chapel outside a medieval castle, where a Beadsman is praying. (What's a Beadsman? Check out our "Detailed Summary" for the… um, details.) Soon we get to go inside the castle where we meet the young and virginal Madeline, who's stuck at her family's party and anticipating when she can go to sleep. Why so eager to get to bed? Because tonight is the Eve of St. Agnes, and there's a legend that if she follows a certain set of rules she'll receive a vision of her beloved.
Speaking of her beloved, here he comes: Porphyro is Madeline's secret boyfriend and a member of the family that has a blood feud with her own. This fight is no dream, so he sneaks into the castle and creepily hides in her closet until she comes to bed. That's when he sees his chance, telling her that they have to get up and get moving. His plan is to get Madeline to run away with him so he can marry her and live with her in his house across the moors.
Madeline, half-asleep, is pretty out of it, but she eventually agrees. The couple escape the castle and disappear into the storm that's been cooking outside. It's not clear what happens to them, but we find out that both Angela and the Beadsman died that night—bummer for those two, at least.
St. Agnes' Eve--Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.
- Man it's cold out here—the poem's speaker starts by describing how the night is so frigid that even the animals are feeling it.
- It's not just cold, though. It's also really, really quiet. Even the sheep aren't making a peep… or a baa.
- And which night is it, you may well ask? Specifically, it's the Eve of St. Agnes (we bet you didn't see that one coming). What's her claim to fame, then? We're not told in this stanza, so we'll have to keep reading.
- In the meantime, it's not just owls and sheep who are getting cold: we now have a very chilly Beadsman, semi-paralyzed by the cold, who's praying.
- Presumably he's inside (remember that this was way before central heating) because there's a picture of the Virgin Mary.
- A beadsman is not, in fact, a man made of beads (good guess). He's a pensioner (read: retiree) who gets paid to say prayers for his benefactor. After all, really, who has time to say their own prayers these days?
- The speaker uses a simile to compare his "frosted breath" to incense from a censer, which would be used in a Catholic mass service. The steam of his breath in the chill is loaded with prayers, going straight up to heaven "without a death."
- This is neat—his breath, itself holy, becomes the frigid air and gets the special Fast Trak pass up to heaven without even having to first die like all other creatures.
- A word about form here: as you can tell with just a glance, this poem is made up of a bunch of stanzas of the same length. Specifically, they're Spenserian stanzas; named after, you guessed it, a dude named Spenser (Edmund Spencer to be precise). To get the full low-down on Spenserian stanzas and the jazzy stuff they're doing in this poem, head on over to "Form and Meter."
His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur'd dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison'd in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat'ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.
- Our stalwart Beadsman, who in addition to being stiff with cold is "meager, barefoot, wan," (meek, barefoot, and weak) is finishing up with his prayers, and gets up to go back down the aisle of the chapel which is, apparently, where he's been praying. We're thinking this guy really should invest in some Uggs.
- Both sides of the chapel are lined with "the sculptur'd dead," which are statues of the deceased ancestors of the rich folks who currently own the chapel and are paying our Beadsman to pray for them.
- Even though they're made of stone, these statues aren't exempt from the cold; they "seem to freeze."
- Even though these statues are in the chapel, they're not your typical fat-happy-baby-cherubs. They're "emprison'd in black, purgatorial rails." Even though they're frozen (both figuratively and literally) in a state of constant prayer, they're also stuck in a perpetual state of purgatory.
- Purgatory, FYI, is basically the penalty box of the Christian afterlife: if you die and you're in God's good graces but still have to atone for some brushes with church law, your soul has to pay penance in Purgatory for a while before it can whiz on up to heaven.
- The Beadsman's "weak spirit" (this guy is having a pretty tough night) "fails to think" about how cold the statues themselves might feel. Of course, statues really can't feel anything. Here they're being personified by the speaker to seem like real people.
- What do you think Keats means by "fail" here? Is the Beadsman trying to imagine how cold the already cold statues must feel and getting overwhelmed, or does our speaker mean that it doesn't occur to ol' Beady in the first place to imagine such a thing? Let's read on for clues…
Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere Music's golden tongue
Flatter'd to tears this aged man and poor;
But no—already had his deathbell rung;
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St. Agnes' Eve:
Rough ashes sat he for his soul's reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners' sake to grieve.
- Well at least our Beadsman's got some tunes, now: as he exits the chapel o' creepy statues, he's greeted with music—Music, actually—which has a golden tongue. (Music doesn't really have a tongue of course, so we get more personification here.) After the frigid, silent chapel with its "black, purgatorial rails," golden tongues sound pretty good to us.
- His enjoyment of the Music is cut off, though, because his death is approaching. Great. He's cold, tired, stuck praying for other people, and he's about to die. High fives all around, right?
- It gets better: he waits for his "soul's reprieve"—presumably his own death—while sitting in ashes. Good times.
- To top it all off, he's gotta keep at this penance thing all night long. And this is not his own penance, mind you.
- Remember that he's "grieving" for other sinners. Hmm, who are these people he's praying for? Let's see if we find out...
That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft;
And so it chanc'd, for many a door was wide,
From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft,
The silver, snarling trumpets 'gan to chide:
The level chambers, ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
Star'd where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.
- Suddenly, in addition to the music, we have some sense of movement (people hurrying around have left the doors open), and the feel of the poem changes somewhat.
- It sounds like these people are having quite the shindig ("A thousand guests"? Think of the bar bill.). There's so much coming and going that they can't keep the doors closed.
- We've got more music, here, but it's got a different feel this time: instead of the "golden tongue" of yester-stanza, we now have "silver, snarling trumpets" which are "chiding." The music, which was all inviting and soft just moments ago, is getting a lot more aggressive.
- Aaaand cue the lights.
- Like in the chapel, there are statues here, but instead of the cold, dead, praying ancestors of the chapel, these are much more lively, "ever eager-eyed" angels, staring down ("Star'd" here is a poetic way of writing "stared") and carved with their hair blown back.
- As you probably figured, the angels aren't actually staring and the music isn't actually "chiding" (teasing or correcting)—that's just Keats throwing down some handy-dandy anthropomorphism. While anthropomorphism generally just means "non-human things doing human stuff," here you specifically have artistic creations taking on human agency.
- Let's find out if more of this is going on in the poem.
At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new stuff'd, in youth, with triumphs gay
Of old romance. These let us wish away,
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,
Whose heart has brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and wing'd St. Agnes' saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare.
- Here come the guests, who, frankly, sound like our kind of crowd: they're decked out in feathers and tiaras, which sounds not unlike Vegas.
- Pay attention, though, to the way in which this language is more evocative than truly descriptive. For instance, what the heck does "argent revelry" mean? "Argent" means "silvery," and a "revelry" is a party, but a "silver party" doesn't form a real, concrete image. Instead, you just get the feel of what Keats is getting at (bright, luxurious, noisy festivities).
- Things get even murkier when the partiers are compared in a simile to "shadows haunting" like fairies might do.
- These people sound kind of imaginary. They're not just "shadows haunting" the brain, though, but those haunting a brain that's "stuff'd with old romance," which is a figurative way of describing how incurably romantic young minds can be, before the harsh realities of life set in.
- Whoosh! In comes the narrator (he and you make up the "us" of line 41), looking down on the scene. Then suddenly he (or she, it's not clear here) sweeps his hand and wishes all this stuff away.
- That's because you guys have got something better to concentrate on: a lady. And unlike the rest of the revelers, she feels very real. She's been spending the entire frigid day thinking (unlike the other party-guests, she's actually connected to the physical, freezing outside world). She seems sad, contemplating (brooding) about love and the stories she's been told about St. Agnes by old ladies.
- So, the million dollar question is: just who is this St. Agnes chick? Well, she was a 13-year-old Christian martyr who died in the fourth century and was named the patron saint of virgins by the Catholic church. Good to know.
They told her how, upon St. Agnes' Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey'd middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
- These old ladies have been telling our young Lady that, on St. Agnes' Eve, virgin girls can have visions of their loves (future husbands, as the myth actually goes) at midnight if they follow a few rituals.
- What rituals might these be? We get a list: they have to go to bed without dinner, totally undress right before bed (if you were wondering what "supine beauties, lily white" referred to, it's the girls' naked bodies—"supine" means lying face-up), and when they're actually going to bed, they can't look around them; they can only look upwards and hope heaven gives them a preview of their future husbands. This would come at a figuratively sweet time ("the honey'd middle of the night").
- Personally, we think the idea of getting a teaser trailer of your future beloved sounds like a cool idea.
Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
The music, yearning like a God in pain,
She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,
Fix'd on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
Pass by—she heeded not at all: in vain
Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,
And back retir'd; not cool'd by high disdain,
But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere:
She sigh'd for Agnes' dreams, the sweetest of the year.
- Aha—our Lady has a name: Madeline.
- The party may be full of "argent revelry," but Madeline's got bigger fish to fry (like "Agnes' dreams," those visions of her future husband). She's paying zero attention to either the "sweeping trains" (which refers to the skirts of the other women, not super-clean locomotives) or to any of the young guns trying to hit on her.
- The music is back, but unlike our Beadsman, Madeline neither hears nor appreciates it.
- Also, the music feels different this time around: it's now described as "yearning like a God in pain," and that sets a very different mood, especially now that you're thinking about Madeline, a girl on a one-track mission to see her hubby-to-be. Also, that "like" in "like a God in pain" clues you in to the fact that you're looking at a simile.
- While the other guests are described in terms of their "high disdain" or their material luxury (Tiaras, people? How many times have you worn one to a party?), Madeline's described as having "divine maiden eyes," setting her apart as a very different sort of person than the rest of these folks.
She danc'd along with vague, regardless eyes,
Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short:
The hallow'd hour was near at hand: she sighs
Amid the timbrels, and the throng'd resort
Of whisperers in anger, or in sport;
'Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn,
Hoodwink'd with faery fancy; all amort,
Save to St. Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.
- Madeline is definitely a little out of it: she's physically present, but her mind's elsewhere.
- Also, when we say physically present, we don't just means she's there in the hall dancing, we mean that Keats is making a point of her physicality—he talks about her lips, her panting breath, her sighs—but then makes it sound like she's not actually sensing the stuff that's actually around her (the whispering guests, the drama-rama with the loving and scornful looks). Instead, she's focused on the stuff that she's anticipating at the "hallow'd hour."
- In fact, despite all of the breathing and dancing she's doing, she's described as "amort"—which means dead—and, perhaps even weirder, as "hoodwink'd with faery fancy."
- So this is the second time we've seen the word faery in this poem (remember "fairily" in line 39), and we're only eight stanzas in. Hmm… it feels like "faeries" are becoming a theme here. In any case, Madeline is metaphorically tricked ("hoodwink'd") out of her right-thinking mind by this fairy influence.
- The "lambs unshorn," by the way, tie back into those rituals that Madeline thinks she has to complete if she wants to make the presto-magic-vision thing work. It was tradition to bless two white, unshaved lambs on St. Agnes' Day, and then to spin and weave their wool.
So, purposing each moment to retire,
She linger'd still. Meantime, across the moors,
Had come young Porphyro, with the heart on fire
For Madeline. Beside the portal doors,
Buttress'd from moonlight, stands he, and implores
All saints to give him sight of Madeline,
But for one moment in the tedious hours,
That he might gaze and worship all unseen;
Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss—in sooth such things have been.
- Madeline's dying to get away (sort of like how it seems totally logical that if you go to bed earlier, somehow Christmas morning will come sooner), but is still stuck at the party.
- Meanwhile, back on the moors (rolling hills of the English countryside)… our man Porphyro is making his move. (Of course there would be moors—the poem is, at this point, going out of its way to create a world that feels wild and medieval.)
- We get our third character in Porphyro, and he apparently digs Madeline in a major, fiery way.
- Just as she's hoping to go through rituals to catch a glimpse of her beloved, Porphyro is praying to the saints that he can catch a glimpse of her.
- Things kind of diverge here, though: our girl Madeline is appealing to an ancient Christian martyr who demands that she cut herself off from her senses and become totally vulnerable (remember, she's got to be stark naked in bed and isn't allowed to look around her) so that she can be visited by a vision. In short, she's got to be totally exposed and totally receptive. Porphyro, on the other hand, is hoping to "gaze"—not have a vision—upon an object of worship (Madeline), and to do so "unseen."
- In this stanza, then, the setup is that Madeline is the heavenly object (she's got divine eyes, after all), receiving the gaze of Porphyro, who's by contrast very worldy (he's got a heart on fire, so he comes off as more physical than Madeline). Got it?
- Also, lest we forget, he wants more than a gaze—Porphyro's hoping these saints he's praying to will throw in a touch and kiss. (We suggest he pray harder.)
- Also, just a note on meter (come on, you love notes on meter): this is a really good example of that final long line you get with Spenserian stanzas. Namely, this line takes forever to say: you have to pause four times before you even get to the middle of the line. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more of this good stuff.)
He ventures in: let no buzz'd whisper tell:
All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
Will storm his heart, Love's fev'rous citadel:
For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes,
Hyena foeman, and hot-blooded lords,
Whose very dogs would execrations howl
Against his lineage: not one breast affords
Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.
- Porphyro's snuck his way into the castle, and sneaking is definitely a necessity it looks like.
- That fiery heart of his is definitely on the menu for the castle's inhabitants; all of them would gladly kill him.
- Suddenly, our tiara-and-feather crowd have become "barbarian hordes, / Hyena foeman," and if any of them so much as hears a peep out of Porphyro they're going to murder him.
- A hundred swords feels a little bit like overkill (literally). In fact, it feels like hyperbole, but the circumstances of the poem kind of make you wonder. While one doubts that a hundred swords could even fit in one person (don't try this at home, kids), Keats's setting is so over-the-top that you kind of think that Madeline's family would probably give it a worthy try. Hey, when you need to off your blood enemy, you gotta do what you gotta do. (Check out "Setting" for more on this.)
- And that, for the record, is exactly what Porphyro is: a blood enemy. Our castle-crew's dogs would trash talk Porphyro's "lineage," not him personally. Sound familiar?
- That's right, Shmoopers, we have a Romeo and Juliet situation on our hands: two families who hate each other's guts, but whose kids are nuts about each other.
- For this reason, the poem describes Porphyro's heart metaphorically as "Love's fev'rous citadel." Porphyro's not just trying to get into the castle, he's trying to defend his love for Madeline with a castle ("citadel") of his own.
- Hyenas and barbarians aside, Porphyro's got someone on the inside who can help him out: an old "beldame" (which here means a nurse).
- Like our Beadsman, she's described as "weak in body and in soul" (remember the Beadsman's "failing spirit"?), so we've now got the two young, vital lovers and the two old, feeble people—sounds like a party.
Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came,
Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
To where he stood, hid from the torch's flame,
Behind a broad hall-pillar, far beyond
The sound of merriment and chorus bland:
He startled her; but soon she knew his face,
And grasp'd his fingers in her palsied hand,
Saying "Mercy, Porphyro! hie thee from this place
They are all here to-night, the whole blood-thirsty race!
- It sounds like all that praying of Porphyro's has done the trick: he just happens to immediately run into our beldame-nurse lady, who's slowly wandering the halls with her cane (which is the "ivory-headed wand," by the way).
- She's surprised to see him, but recognizes him, and is freaked out about him being there.
- "Dude, did you not read the last stanza? A hundred swords. Count 'em. All Madeline's relatives are here tonight, so you better get out of Dodge before they decorate the walls with chopped-up bits of your heart."
- Okay, so maybe she's not that sassy (she's more "palsied"—meaning frail, and kind of paralyzed—than sassy, apparently), but that's the gist of what she tells him.
Get hence! get hence! there's dwarfish Hildebrand;
He had a fever late, and in the fit
He cursed thee and thine, both house and land:
Then there's that old Lord Maurice, not a whit
More tame for his grey hairs—Alas me! flit!
Flit like a ghost away."—"Ah, Gossip dear,
We're safe enough; here in this arm-chair sit,
And tell me how"—"Good Saints! not here, not here;
Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier."
- The old nurse, in an effort to convince Porphyro to vamoose ASAP, tells him about some of the guests.
- They sound like a delightful bunch: their hobbies include cursing Porphyro's family and family property and, presumably, thinking about killing them.
- Think about the hodge-podge collection of names you've got at this point: Madeline, Porphyro, Hildebrand, and Maurice. The fact that they don't belong to one place or time heightens the unreal feel of the poem; you've got an ancient Greek name (Porphyro) right alongside names like Madeline and Hildebrand, which seem more at home in a medieval European castle.
- By the way, when Porphyro calls the nurse "Gossip," he's calling her his "close, secret-sharing confidant," not 'mean girl who talks about people behind their backs.
- Porphyro wants the nurse to chillax and take a seat, but she tells him they have to relocate pronto or the stones they're standing upon are going to end up supporting his coffin.
- If you ever wondered what a bier is (come on, you know you have), it's a little structure made to bear up somebody's coffin/burial casket.
He follow'd through a lowly arched way,
Brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume,
And as she mutter'd "Well-a---well-a-day!"
He found him in a little moonlight room,
Pale, lattic'd chill, and silent as a tomb.
"Now tell me where is Madeline," said he,
"O tell me, Angela, by the holy loom
Which none but secret sisterhood may see,
when they St. Agnes' wool are weaving piously."
- Just like that, our nurse has a name: Angela. What do you think of the fact that the two old, frail people we've seen so far (Angela and the Beadsman) both have names (or titles, in the case of the latter) that identify them with Christian devotion? (Angela is derived from the word "angel.")
- Angela's brought Porphyro into a room that, despite being inside the castle, feels a whole lot like the chapel outside that we saw in the first three stanzas: Poor lighting? Check. Cold? Double check. Quiet? Oh yeah—"Silent as a tomb."
- In fact, just for good measure, all of the life we saw in the ballroom has been sucked out of this one room. Also, just so you know, the word "as"—just like the word "like"—tells us that there's a simile at work here.
- Porphyro cuts straight to the chase: he wants to know where Madeline is.
- Two things: first, the "holy loom" refers to one of those St. Agnes' Eve rituals we talked about earlier (the one where you have to spin the wool of an unshorn lamb). Second, we now know that Porphyro is definitely in the know about what day it is, and what it could mean to Madeline.
"St. Agnes! Ah! it is St. Agnes' Eve—
Yet men will murder upon holy days:
Thou must hold water in a witch's sieve,
And be liege-lord of all the Elves and Fays,
To venture so: it fills me with amaze
To see thee, Porphyro!—St. Agnes' Eve!
God's help! my lady fair the conjuror plays
This very night: good angels her deceive!
But let me laugh awhile, I've mickle time to grieve."
- Angela thinks that Porphyro's mentioning the holiday because it'll make it less likely that Madeline's family will kill him. She's quick to disabuse him: "Nope—they're just as happy to murder you today as any other day. And that would be very, very happy, for the record."
- Once again, we have an invocation of fairies: Angela can't even believe Porphyro got into the castle unscathed, and says that he must be some sort of elf-king, capable of witchcraft, to have pulled it off.
- Angela thinks that this whole plan of Madeline's to see her future husband is silly, and she laughs about it.
- It's kind of funny that she calls Madeline a "conjurer," though—so far, the St. Agnes' Eve rituals have been described so that you have this idea of Madeline making herself totally vulnerable so that she can be receptive enough to get a vision from heaven. Here, though, Angela makes it sound like Madeline is herself controlling the ritual, as if she's a magician pulling a vision out of her hat.
- Angela thinks it's all baloney: Madeline's putting her trust in a worthy saint ("good angels"), but this whole presto-magic-vision thing ain't gonna happen, if you ask her.
Feebly she laugheth in the languid moon,
While Porphyro upon her face doth look,
Like puzzled urchin on an aged crone
Who keepeth clos'd a wond'rous riddle-book,
As spectacled she sits in chimney nook.
But soon his eyes grew brilliant, when she told
His lady's purpose; and he scarce could brook
Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold,
And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.
- We love thinking of Porphyro looking like a puzzled sea-urchin, but here the speaker means "urchin" in the sense of a bedraggled little kid who just can't seem to understand what Angela's getting at.
- He hasn't completely caught on to what Angela's saying yet, but he gets that it has something to do with Madeline and St. Agnes' Eve, which may be why he's staring at her as if she's got the keys to a whole bunch of Madeline-related secrets—which, of course, she does.
- Porphyro's basically on Angela's side with regards to the ritual. He doesn't think anything's going to happen, and it bothers him to think of Madeline, a true believer, putting her faith in "enchantments cold."
- The "legends old" probably refer to the tale of the original Agnes—the long-dead Christian martyr whose story is, of course, the basis for the entire ritual that Madeline's counting on. So, on one hand, our ritual is made out to be an "enchantment," but on the other, it's a dusty historical "legend."
Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made a purple riot: then doth he propose
A stratagem, that makes the beldame start:
"A cruel man and impious thou art:
Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream
Alone with her good angels, far apart
From wicked men like thee. God, go!—I deem
Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem."
- You know how in cartoons you see a lightbulb switching on over somebody's head when they get an idea? That's kind of what's happening with Porphyro in the first three lines here.
- Because it's Porphyro, our "heart ablaze" guy, the creation of his plan is described in really physical terms: the idea itself is a flower in full bloom that colors both his actual body ("flushing his brow") and his figurative body (painting his pained heart "a purple riot").
- Purple? Wait, why purple? Today we think of red as the famous color of passion and love, but back in the day writers frequently used purple to symbolize vitality, blood, sexuality, and all that other good stuff.
- And this isn't any old idea that P. Diddy has hatched—it's a crafty one: specifically, a "stratagem." It sounds more like Porphyro's playing chess than trying to hook up with his girlfriend, doesn't it?
- Porphyro lets Angela in on his plan, and boy… is she ever not thrilled.
- In short order, she calls him cruel, impious and wicked. Jinkies, that must have been some stratagem.
- And it's not just name calling: Angela also specifically accuses him of not being the thing he seemed to be. What was that, you wonder? Let's read on to find out…
"I will not harm her, by all saints I swear,"
Quoth Porphyro: "O may I ne'er find grace
When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer,
If one of her soft ringlets I displace,
Or look with ruffian passion in her face:
Good Angela, believe me by these tears;
Or I will, even in a moment's space,
Awake with horrid shout, my foemen's ears,
And beard them, though they be more fang'd than wolves and bears."
- "Woah, woah, hey," says Porphyro, "I swear I'm not going to do anything creepy. In fact, I won't harm a hair ("ringlet") on her head; I just want to see her."
- At this point, we still don't know what plan Porphyro's been cooking up, but we get some hints: he's promising Angela that he's not going to physically harm Madeline, and the way that he makes that promise (swearing he won't move so much as a hair on her head) makes it sound like he'd be in some position where he'd be standing over her prone body.
- That… definitely seems to have potential for creepiness, right? What's more, Porphyro is promising not to look at Madeline "with ruffian passion," swearing up and down that he's going to keep things strictly G-rated when he sees Madeline.
- This sounds like kind of a tall order for any young guy meeting his girlfriend in the middle of the night, but doubly so for Porphyro with his, you know, "fev'rous citadel."
- He seems pretty serious, though, threatening to wake up all of Madeline's relatives, who definitely aren't pro-Porphyro.
- Once again, the plume-and-tiara crowd from earlier are figured to be bloodthirsty animals. While you figure that this is just imagery, as you go through the poem it starts to feel more and more like these folks actually are animals.
- They aren't goats, though, so don't be thrown by the "beard" comment. If you're wondering why Porphyro's threatening to put fake facial hair on his enemies, then wonder no more: "beard" here means challenge or confront.
"Ah! why wilt thou affright a feeble soul?
A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing,
Whose passing-bell may ere the midnight toll;
Whose prayers for thee, each morn and evening,
Were never miss'd."—Thus plaining, doth she bring
A gentler speech from burning Porphyro;
So woful, and of such deep sorrowing,
That Angela gives promise she will do
Whatever he shall wish betide her weal or woe.
- Gee, Porphyro, why you gotta be such a jerk? Angela's drawing on the noble tradition of "Kid, I'm too old for this nonsense."
- Notice how Angela becomes more tightly aligned with our Beadsman from the first few stanzas: in addition to the general old-feeble-pathetic stuff, she calls herself a "churchyard thing," which is a little funny when you think about the fact that she's not in a churchyard—the Beadsman is.
- In addition, she says that her "passing-bell may ere the midnight toll," which brings you right back to when the speaker said of the Beadsman, "already had his deathbell rung" (22). It sounds like both these people may croak before the night's over.
- Apparently, her "plaining" (complaining, for us modern folks) has an effect, and Porphyro tries to bring her round to his side, this time with "a gentler speech."
- Hey, it turns out that gentler speech works like a charm: Angela promises to help him out, whether it helps or hurts her ("weal" is an old-fashioned word for "well").
- She's not just agreeing to help him carry out his plan, though—Angela says she'll do "whatever he shall wish," which brings us back to the language of conjurors, witches, and fairies.
Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,
Even to Madeline's chamber, and there hide
Him in a closet, of such privacy
That he might see her beauty unespied,
And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,
While legion'd faires pac'd the coverlet,
And pale enchantment held her sleepy-eyed.
Never on such a night have lovers met,
Since Merlin paid his Demon all the monstrous debt.
- In today's edition of R. Kelly: Still Somehow Relevant, we learn that Porphyro's cunning plan apparently requires him to hide in Madeline's closet and look at her in private.
- Suddenly Angela's freakout in stanza 16 starts making a lot more sense: Porphyro's arranging a private viewing of Madeline, peeping at her through the closet door.
- Even though Angela and Porphyro both think the St. Agnes' Eve ritual is a dud, there's nevertheless a heightened supernatural air to the whole situation. Madeline isn't just going to be asleep, she's going to be under a spell of "pale enchantment," while fairies (yes, more fairies) flitter about her bed.
- Those last two lines are a little weird: they definitely refer to the magician Merlin from Arthurian legend, but critics are a little fuzzy on exactly which episode of Merlin's life they reference. Most think the lines are talking about Nimue—the witch that Merlin had a huge crush on, but who ended up trapping him in a cave, where he died. Sad.
- Confusion aside, everybody agrees that this last part definitely sets a sinister tone, and ratchets up the tension.
"It shall be as thou wishest," said the Dame:
"All cates and dainties shall be stored there
Quickly on this feast-night: by the tambour frame
Her own lute thou wilt see: no time to spare,
For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare
On such a catering trust my dizzy head.
Wait here, my child, with patience; kneel in prayer
The while: Ah! thou must needs the lady wed,
Or may I never leave my grave among the dead."
- Angela agrees to help Porphyro hide himself in the closet. Note: never ask this woman to babysit.
- Again, we see that word "wish"—it's as though Porphyro is wishing all of this stuff into being, rather than just arranging stuff with help from Angela.
- And this isn't just your average closet under the stairs: it's full of tasty munchies ("cates" means delicacies) and Madeline's lute's stored there, too. Bonus.
- Angela tells him to wait where he is for a bit while she goes and arranges everything, but not without a parting shot: "Oh, by the way, better start saying your prayers, Porphyro, because you're definitely marrying Madeline now."
- It looks like Angela has about as much faith in the restraint of teenagers as we do—even if she doesn't think Porphyro's going to get frisky with Madeline, just letting the guy into her room in the middle of the night is enough reason to demand that these kids get married.
So saying, she hobbled off with busy fear.
The lover's endless minutes slowly pass'd;
The dame return'd, and whispser'd in his ear
To follow her; with aged eyes aghast
From fright of dim espial. Safe at last,
Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
The maiden's chamber, silken, hush'd, and chaste;
Where Porphyro took covert, pleas'd amain.
His poor guide hurried back with agues in her brain.
- Angela comes back and leads Porphyro to Madeline's room, terrified the whole time that somebody's going to catch them.
- Finally, they reach Madeline's room, which is quiet and "chaste." It may seem funny to personify a room, but you can think of it as both setting the mood and as also describing Madeline herself, a virgin.
- Porphyro hides himself and is super-happy about things ("pleased amain"), while poor Angela comes in, in a fair amount of distress (the "agues" in her brain refer to shivering or fluttering from illness).
Her falt'ring hand upon the balustrade,
Old Angela was feeling for the stair,
When Madeline, St. Agnes' charmed maid,
Rose, like a mission'd spirit, unaware:
With silver taper's light, and pious care,
She turn'd and down the aged gossip led
To a safe level matting. Now prepare,
Young Porphyro, for gazing on that bed;
She comes, she comes again, like ring-dove fray'd and fled.
- Angela intercepts Madeline on her way to her room, and leads her down the stairs to her bedroom.
- Again, Madeline is described in otherworldly language: she's "charmed," she's compared in a simile to a "spirit" on a mission—if you're looking for extras to play elves in The Lord of the Rings, Madeline's your girl.
- For the second time (the first was in stanza 5), the poem's speaker directly addresses someone, although this time he speaks to Porphyro.
- He (or she, we still can't tell as this point) tells Porphyro to get ready for the show—literally, get ready to "gaze"—and makes everything that's going on feel a lot more immediate, like it's unfolding just as we read.
- The speaker announces the arrival of Madeline, whom in another simile he likens to a dove that's flying away from a predator.
- This seems like a funny way to describe Madeline—so far, she's been off in her own world, but she hasn't been afraid. At the moment when Porphyro and Madeline are finally in the same space, though, she's described as a helpless animal that wants to avoid being some other animal's lunch.
Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died:
She clos'd the door, she panted, all akin
To spirits of the air, and visions wide:
No utter'd syllable, or, woe betide!
But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side;
As though a tongueless nightingale should swell
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.
- The atmosphere thickens even more: the light goes out (of course, of course) just as Madeline comes in. In a grim turn, it's described metaphorically as dying. So far, so bad.
- Madeline has to be totally quiet if she wants the ritual to work, but she's so keyed up that she can hear her own heart beating ("voluble" means "audible" here).
- Even though Madeline keeps getting described in these otherworldly terms, the poem also keeps on making a big deal about her physical body: she's "akin / To spirits of the air," but most of the language in this stanza is spent talking about her pounding heart, her panting breath, "her balmy [sweaty] side."
- The predator-prey language we got a glimpse of in the last stanza comes back, this time with way more creepy: the last two lines here refer to the myth of Philomel. Philomel was this totally innocent woman who was raped by her brother-in-law, who then, to prevent her from telling everyone what he'd done, cut out her tongue. At the end of the myth, Philomel gets turned in a nightingale.
- Romantic, right? Do you think it's kind of odd that, at the moment when our power couple is finally united (well, sort of united—Porphyro's still hiding), Keats chooses to remind of us a famously gruesome tale of rape? Yeah. We thought that was weird too.
- Also, if we're going to think about the Philomel myth as a metaphor, how do you think that metaphor's working? This one's a doozy—it feels as though Madeline has taken on the symbolic force of Philomel the Woman Anticipating Rape, Philomel the Fleeing Nightingale, and the Thing That Can't Get Expressed (that is, the report of Philomel's rape, or in Madeline's case, all the stuff she's feeling as she enters her bedroom, but can't express). Like we said: this is a doozy.
A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
All garlanded with carven imag'ries
Of fruits and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumberable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blushed with blood of queens and kings.
- This entire stanza basically just describes a stained-glass window. Because Keats's motto in this poem is "Why use one word when I could use 60?" This stanza is also weird because in stanza 23 you thought you were really getting somewhere. At last, Madeline arrives, and she's... panting. References to super-dramatic myths are made, aaaand then… "Hey, would you look at that window?"
- To be fair, it's a pretty window, decorated with pretty fruits, flowers, and dyes that is compared in a simile to a moth's patterned ("damask'd") wings. That said, it's not all pretty description: this window also features a "thousand heraldries" surrounding "a shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings."
- Okay, so, what does that mean, and why does it matter? What Keats is basically describing is the shield (that's the "scutcheon") in the middle of a coat of arms that represents Madeline's family.
- Wondering why Keats takes a commercial break to talk about this? Go check out "Symbols: Scutcheon" for more some ideas, but come right back.
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven:—Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.
- Aaaand we're back to Madeline, who's kneeling down to say her prayers before going to bed.
- You thought Keats was laying it on thick with the pure-angel-virgin language before? Well, he drives it home even more now, as Madeline's made out to be an actual angel, complete with a halo (which is what that "glory" is, by the way).
- That said, Keats isn't just characterizing Madeline as pure and pious, he's really going out of his way to paint a really recognizable picture of a kneeling saint. For a moment, it feels like the poem isn't a poem about a bunch of characters and their stories, but rather that it's a poem describing a picture (also called an ekphrastic poem).
- This whole praying-angel thing is apparently really working for Porphyro; he's getting overwhelmed by how totally pure she seems.
- What do you make of the fact that Porphyro thinks that Madeline's not just pure in the traditional sense of being a virgin, but that she's also "free from mortal taint," or in other words divinely pure? It's almost like Porphyro doesn't quite grasp that Madeline is, in fact, human.
Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
- Okay, prayer time's over, and Madeline's getting ready for bed. That means, you guessed it, she's got to get out of her clothes.
- In the last stanza, Madeline was figured as an angel and a saint. In this stanza, she is a 5,000% warm-blooded woman. (The mermaid description is just a simile to describe how she might look once all her clothes are bunched up around her legs.) Keats describes her hair, and, in a kind of backwards way, her body.
- What do we mean by backwards? Well, apart from that little bit about her dress falling to her knees, Keats doesn't actually describe Madeline's body per se, he instead he gives us a sort of negative space drawing by describing the things immediately around her body: her jewelry, warmed by her skin, and her bodice, which is "fragrant" because it's been right next to her skin all night.
- Whereas the last stanza described how Madeline-the-Saint looked, this stanza describes how Madeline-the-Woman feels and smells, which is quite a gear-shift for the reader.
- About to get into bed, Madeline imagines that she sees St. Agnes there. To us, this sounds kind of scary ("Oh, hey there, ancient dead martyr chillin' in my bed"), and also surprising because so far Madeline's been anticipating the vision of Porphyro, not St. Agnes.
Soon, trembling with her soft and chilly nest,
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplex'd she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppress'd
Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away;
Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;
Blissfully haven'd both from joy and pain;
Clasp'd like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.
- Madeline's in bed now, and the "dream awake" feeling Keats brought in during the last stanza gets amplified further.
- Madeline doesn't seem to be either fully awake or fully asleep, but rather in some weird in-between stage, in a "wakeful swoon."
- Whatever state Madeline's in, it's clear that her mind isn't really there. Where she's been described as "regardless" and distracted earlier (64), here her soul has flown away, and the poem describes her, using a simile, as a closed rosebud—impervious to, and blocked off from, the outside world.
- Keats tells us that she's safe from "pain" and "rain," but frankly it doesn't sound like Madeline's all that safe; it sounds like she's drugged. Her body is "oppressed" by the "poppied warmth" of sleep—poppies being the famous key ingredient in the drug opium.
- For those among you who don't know who the "swart Paynims" are (no shame, it happens), this line (241) is likening Madeline to a prayer book ("missal") that's shut up tight, as a Christian prayer book might be in a land where dark-skinned ("swart") Muslims ("paynim" is an old-school word for non-Christians, particularly Muslims) live (and "pray"). She's not just shut up by "praying" non-believers, though; when you say the line you also hear that they're "preying," so once again Madeline's being described as trying to protect herself from predators.
Stol'n to this paradise, and so entranced,
Porphyro gazed upon her empty dress,
And listen'd to her breathing, if it chanced
To wake into a slumberous tenderness;
Which when he heard, that minute did he bless,
And breath'd himself: then from the closet crept,
Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness,
And over the hush'd carpet, silent, stept,
And 'tween the curtains peep'd, where, lo!—how fast she slept.
- Madeline's got one of those fancy canopy beds with curtains that everybody wanted as a kid (and which we, as adults, still want). Anyway, the point is that Porphyro can't see her at the moment, so instead he looks at her dress, which, as you remember from stanza 26, is Keats's way of outlining Madeline's body without actually talking about her body.
- In the last stanza, we saw that Madeline has entered this weird "wakeful swoon" state, and here Keats hints that she's not alone there: Porphyro is also inside that otherworldly "paradise," even though he's on the other side of the room, stuck in a closet.
- Deciding that he's stared at the dress long enough, Porphyro decides he's going in and, emerging from the closet, approaches the bed.
- Porphyro's approach across the room is "noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness," which is a funny simile because it a) characterizes Madeline's bedroom as a "wilderness" and b) likens Porphyro to "fear." He's been sneaking around this castle full of "barbarian hordes" (85) all night, but now, when he's in the safest, most domestic place, that place is wild, and he himself is "fear."
- What do you think of the fact that this scene is made out both to be a "wilderness" and a "paradise?"
Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
A table, and, half-anguish'd, threw thereon
A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet;—
O for some drowsy Morphean amulet!
The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion,
The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarionet,
Affray his ears, though but in dying tone:—
The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone.
- What do you do once you've crept up to the bedside of your mostly unconscious girlfriend? You make her a picnic, that's what.
- A "Morphean amulet" is a sleep charm, referring to Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and, even more importantly, dreams.
- Madeline is (as far as Porphyro can tell, anyway) asleep, so why's Porphyro hankering for a sleeping charm?
- Two options: it could be for Madeline because he's afraid she's going to wake up when the music bursts in.
- Otherwise, it could be for himself: the plot so far has been following Porphyro as he successfully penetrates each layer of space between him and Madeline. He got into the castle, he got into her bedroom, he's gotten into her bed, and now he's going to get into her dream world too. Porphyro: not great with the concept of personal space.
- In the last few lines, somebody's opened a door, and the music from the rager downstairs (yes, it's still going on—never say these people don't know how to party) fills the room and freaks Porphyro out for a second before the door's shut and the music disappears.
- Once again we're in total silence (and we start to sense an emerging pattern where music is consistently mentioned and then repressed).
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon.
- Porphyro apparently takes this whole midnight snack thing really seriously: he ditches the Ramen and Twizzlers and instead lays out a spread of delicious delicacies.
- How delicious? So delicious that it's not even clear it's real: for instance, "manna" doesn't refer to a specific food; it was famously the food that God supplied the Israelites to sustain them through their travels through the deserts. The list of foods doesn't end up reading as "Mmmm, yes, I would definitely order that if I saw it on a menu" so much as it does "Oh, look, a collection of totally disparate but really rare, expensive and possibly divine foods." The Keats Cookbook: probably never gonna happen.
- Some quick definitions for those who missed some of the lingo:
- A quince is a small, yellow, apple-type fruit, and the "gourd" probably refers to a melon, not a squash.
- "Argosy" is a merchant ship, which would bring all of these delicacies from abroad.
- Fez, in Morocco, was famous for sugar, and "Samarcand" was the old word for current-day Damascus, which produced fine silk. Finally, Lebanon was a supplier of—you guessed it—really nice cedar.
These delicates he heap'd with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light.—
"And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes' sake,
Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache."
- So now that he's got everything ready, he's got to wake up Madeline. He knows that she's gone to bed hoping for a vision of him, and so he's making it happen—he figures that she's going to wake up, see him and this carefully-arranged feast, and think that ritual worked.
- Again with the metaphorical angel language: he calls Madeline his "seraph," which is the highest order of Christian angels. She even represents heaven itself to him. He then calls himself her "eremite," which is a Christian hermit—a guy who lives totally solo and worships God (or, in this case, Madeline) in seclusion.
- He closes the stanza by saying that either Madeline's gotta wake up or he's going to go to "drowse"—meaning that either way, he's going to get to her, whether she awakens or stays in her "wakeful swoon." We think Madeline needs to have a sit-down with Porphyro wherein she explains the concept of boundaries.
Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains:--'twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight glam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
It seem'd he never, never could redeem
From such a stedfast spell his lady's eyes;
So mus'd awhile, entoil'd in woofed phantasies.
- Welp, it looks like he's going to have to go with Option Number Two, because Madeline isn't waking up.
- Porphyro seems well on his way to dream-world—parts of him are already "unnerved," like Madeline.
- Madeline's swoon, at this point, is being made out to be a kind of adamantium barrier between her and Porphyro, and even as he sinks into her bed, her "dream"—the thing that's protecting her from him—won't "melt."
- So Porphyro hangs out for a while and muses, getting caught up in his own "phantasies," or waking dreams.
- "Woofed" refers to traditional weaving (the warp and the weft are the threads that make up a piece of cloth). This is the second time that Keats has used weaving language to describe the wakeful-dreaming state: when Madeline was going to sleep she was described as "perplex'd," which comes from the Latin word for "woven." Now, both kids are getting "woven" into their respective dream-states.
Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be,
He play'd an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call'd, "La belle dame sans mercy":
Close to her ear touching the melody;—
Wherewith disturb'd, she utter'd a soft moan:
He ceased—she panted quick—and suddenly
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.
- Well, it doesn't look like Madeline's waking up, so Porphyro naturally decides to jam on her lute—because, you know, chicks dig musicians.
- It's not any old song, either: Porphyro plays an old French ballad (Provence is in southern France).
- That the song is "long since mute" most obviously means that it's super-old and hasn't been played in a really long time. Beyond that, though, it also includes the possibility that the song is still mute—that Porphyro is somehow playing a song that, in addition to being both "tumultuous" and "tenderest," is also both audible and silent.
- Hey, wait, that song's title sounds… familiar. It's probably because Keats went off and wrote another poem entitled La Belle Dame Sans Merci in April of 1819, just a few months after he wrote "The Eve of St. Agnes."
- Haven't read it? Relax. We've got you covered.
- Porphyro's totally weird, old song does the trick: Madeline's eyes open.
- Check out the trade-off that happens in the last two lines: just as Madeline wakes up and comes to life, Porphyro sinks down, subdued and inanimate. And, hey, where was the last time we saw statues? That's right—back at the chapel with the "sculptur'd dead."
Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
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,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look'd so dreamingly.
- Ever gotten woken up halfway through a really great dream and been less-than-pleased about it? Madeline's with you. She's been yanked out of her wakeful swoon, and it's a "painful change."
- That said, it's not clear whether or not she's awake or still half-dreaming here: Madeline still sees before her "the vision of her sleep."
- So, we've got two obvious possibilities here. One is that Madeline's still kind of out of it and semi-hallucinating whatever she's been dreaming about for the last several stanzas. Option two: she's actually awake here, but because she was dreaming about Porphyro she still sees "the vision of her sleep" because, you know, he's right there.
- Whether or not she's awake, she's still definitely disoriented, and Porphyro's afraid of moving a single muscle.
- Remember how Porphyro begged Angela to help him get to Madeline's bedroom so he could look at her and "see her beauty unespied" (166)? Well, at this point Madeline's doing all of the looking: she's got her gaze locked on Porphyro, and those last words—that "she look'd so dreamingly"—can be read both as "Madeline appeared to be all dreamy" and "Madeline looked at Porphyro with dreamy powers," where "dreamingly" describes the action of Madeline's looking.
"Ah, Porphyro!" said she, "but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang'd thou art! How pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go."
- And, just like that, Madeline speaks for the first time in the poem.
- Even though she's made out to still be sort of dreaming, Madeline's also described as being "spiritual and clear"—as opposed to Porphyro, who's down for the count this stanza.
- It sounds like Madeline was indeed dreaming about Porphyro and that she is indeed awake here. She says that he's "changed" because she's looking at him in real life, where he's "pallid, chill, and drear," as opposed to whatever he was in her dream (probably fit and tan).
- Keats pulls a switcheroo on us back in stanza 33—Porphyro had before been consistently associated with fire and heat until he sank down like "sculptured stone," and here again we see Porphyro described as being cold. He's so still and cold, in fact, that Madeline's worried that he's going to die. How did our passionate heart-of-fire boy become cold-dead-statue boy?
- And what about Madeline, for that matter? Does she think she's awake?
- She's afraid of being left in "this eternal woe"—the place where Porphyro is cold and silent—but that place is in fact the waking world, where Porphyro is "mortal." It sounds as though Madeline wants to escape back to her dream, where Porphyro was presumably a lot less chilly.
Beyond a mortal man impassion'd far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush'd, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven's deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with violet,—
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love's alarum, pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes' moon hath set.
- In case you were wondering, yeah—this stanza is where the magic happens.
- Porphyro basically rises from the dead: he not only physically raises himself up from where he's been kneeling on the floor, but his whole heat-sexual-passion thing is back in a big way. The speaker breaks out a simile to compare him to a "throbbing star," for Pete's sake.
- Also, he's now "beyond a mortal man"—Madeline has been lamenting in the last stanza that the Porphyro "chill and drear" before her paled (literally) in comparison to the "immortal looks" of the one from her dreams. Now, it looks like he's a lot more closely aligned with dreamy Porphyro.
- What happens next is the probably the most controversial part of the poem: Porphyro "melts" into Madeline's dream.
- Now, we understand that this is a figurative expression. Porphyro's not really melting, of course. What this line does mean, however, is something people have interpreted in all different sorts of ways. Some swear up and down that that this whole melting-blending-solution-making thing is a fancy poet way of describing Madeline and Porphyro having sex (and not necessarily the consensual kind) and we definitely get where they're coming from. The threat of sexual violence has been hanging over this poem since Porphyro first described his "stratagem" to the shocked Angela. Invoking the myth of Philomel's rape (and talking about Porphyro's "throbbing star") definitely provides good evidence for that argument.
- Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum, though, claiming that this "melting" is a moment of metaphysical transcendence enabled by the forces of the fertile imagination. Fancy-sounding, right? More simply put, some critics like to think of Porphyro as a Christian pilgrim (he's been described as an "eremite" who's been continuously seeking out the object of religious devotion: Madeline). They see this as the moment where he reaches spiritual transcendence. Through this melting, they think, Porphyro has arrived at some sort of paradise or immortality.
- This "melting" kind of helps us understand why Porphyro, who'd been so subdued when Madeline awoke, now sounds a lot more like the guy from her dream: he's now in her dream. The couple blends together in this way like the smell of a rose and the smell of a violet blend together. The simile reinforces that their connection is hard to pin down (where does one smell end and other begin?), but no less real.
- Meanwhile, things are happening: one, the storm outside is going nuts, as if it's Love's warning trumpets ("alarum" is an old word for a warning alarm, usually used when an enemy's approaching), and second, the moon has set.
- In case you were wondering if there's a fancy literary term for when the weather amps up just as the drama's really getting a move-on within a story, you'll be happy to know that there is: pathetic fallacy.
- We've been told all along by Angela and Porphyro that all of this St. Agnes' Eve stuff is pretty hokey, but it does seem like the setting of the moon (a traditional literary symbol for female power) signals oncoming danger here. By that token, it also seems like this particular night has been somehow protecting these two. And, when you think about it, Porphyro's gotten really lucky so far, from getting into the castle to getting Angela to work with him to "melting" with Madeline. Will it all come to a screeching halt? Only one way to find out, gang…
'Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
"This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!"
'Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
"No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.—
Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
I curse not for my heart is lost in thine,
Though thou forsakes a deceived thing;—
A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing."
- Even though we were just told that Porphyro and Madeline have both "blended" into Madeline's dream, Porphyro announces to her that it's not a dream. The repeated mentions of the storm outside make you think that this sounds like the real world. Then Madeline talks about how her heart is "lost" in Porphyro's, though, making it seem like they're still immersed in her dream. This is almost as frustrating as the ending of Inception.
- Contrary to Porphyro's expectation, Madeline is not happy about this news.
- The funny part is that she's unhappy for the reasons you would have expected her to be if she'd been told that it was a dream: she's upset because Porphyro's going to leave her and she'll be left to "fade." Normally, you'd think of a dream as the thing that leaves you high and dry—you enjoy it for a little while, and then it's gone and you have to go back to the waking world where you spend the vast majority of your time. For Madeline, though, the dream offers constancy and vibrancy.
- Madeline ends by talking about how she's been "deceived." She uses a metaphor to compare herself to a sad, sick dove that's lost and alone. This is kind of cool, because instead of thinking she's been tricked by her dream or her imagination, Madeline appears to be cheesed off because she's being faked out by reality.
"My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?
Thy beauty's shield, heart-shaped and vermeil dyed?
Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my test
After so many hours of toil and quest,
A famish'd pilgrim,—saved by miracle.
Though I have found, I will not rob thy next
Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think'st well
To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.
- Porphyro wants to reassure her that there won't be any fading or pining, asking her if he can be her metaphorical "vassal," which is a medieval title for a servant or subject. This may remind you of how Porphyro described himself as Madeline's "eremite" in stanza 31—he keeps on describing himself as being subjugated to her.
- As if that isn't enough, he then goes on with the metaphors and calls her a "silver shrine" and himself a "famish'd pilgrim." Porphyro, buddy, we get it.
- He says something kind of interesting, then. While he's in the throes of his "Oh, Madeline, you're just the greatest most heavenly shrine-like thing ever" spiel, he says that he's "saved by a miracle." What miracle do you think that is?
- Within the context of the speech alone it could refer to Madeline's love: by offering to let Porphyro serve and worship her she has "saved" him. On the other hand, within the context of the poem as the whole, you can also take the miracle to be all of the semi-magical hoodoo that's been going down because of St. Agnes' Eve. As you've noticed, Porphyro has had some pretty spectacular luck this evening, and even though he and Angela keep claiming that the St. Agnes' Eve ritual is baloney, there's definitely something in the air tonight. A third option could be that the miracle is that crazy moment of "melting" into Madeline's dream.
- He tells Madeline he wants to "rob" Madeline from her "nest" (again with the Madeline-is-a-helpless-bird metaphor), promising her again that he's "no rude infidel." If you have a free moment, just go back through this poem and check out all the times that Porphyro has promised that he's not a bad guy.
Hark! 'tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise—arise! the morning is at hand;—
The bloated wassaillers will never heed:—
Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,—
Drown'd all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
For o'er the southern moors I have a home for thee."
- Porphyro's still talking, and he's really trying to get Madeline to start moving.
- "Now's the perfect time," he says. "Morning's here, there's one heck of a storm raging outside to cover us, and all of your relatives are out cold downstairs after a night of heavy partying."
- Two basic things are going to help them get away:
- First, there's this magical "elfin-storm," which, even though it looks nasty, is actually going to help them get away undetected.
- Second, all of the partiers are laid out drunk downstairs, and so "There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see."
- In a poem that concentrates so much on sensory stimuli and the ability or inability–think of Madeline early on, with her "regardless eyes" (64)—to process those stimuli, it seems plausible that the partiers' inability to hear or see isn't just a result of them being drunk and unconscious, but also because the "elfin-storm" has cast its spell upon them.
- They could be, just as Madeline was in the opening stanzas, "hoodwink'd with faery fancy; all amort" (70).
- And where is he taking her, exactly? Well, apparently he's got a sweet pad just across the moors.
She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
For there were sleeping dragons all around,
At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears—
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.—
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-droop'd lamp was flickering by each door;
The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
Fluttter'd in the besieging wind's uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.
- Madeline's up and running, and she and Porphyro begin making their way down through the castle.
- Madeline's relatives are made out to be metaphorical "sleeping dragons." Now, a "dragoon" was an actual position in the British army, but the word could also be used to describe a guard. While Keats could just be being figurative—it feels like there are dragons all around—it's also possible that Madeline, "beset with fears" and already shown to be very imaginative, is actually imagining the sleeping guards into "dragons."
- The poem swings back to total silence: even the drunk wassaillers (which generally means "people making toasts" and here means "drunk party-goers") aren't making so much as a peep or a snore. That silence, characterized as "no human sound," again ratchets up that feeling that there's something supernatural's afoot.
- The only things that appear to be moving, apart from our couple, is the fluttering "arras"—an arras is a tapestry—as if the characters from a piece of art are more alive than the ones in the waking world.
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms to the iron porch they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flagon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:—
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;—
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
- Porphyro and Madeline are made out to not be human themselves—the simile here describes them as "phantoms" as they cross the final stretch to the big doors.
- They can get past the Porter—the gatekeeper—just fine, on account of him being totally passed out. Way to do your job, Porter.
- The bloodhound (of course there's a bloodhound, because we have to hit all the medieval castle clichés) recognizes Madeline (she's the "inmate"), but appears to be okay with letting her pass. "Sagacious" here means wise or smart, and you should think of "inmate" not as a prisoner but as a resident in the castle. In other words, he recognizes Madeline from living in the castle, so he doesn't get all barky about seeing her.
- They get the door open.
And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar'd. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch'd, with meager face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.
- And then, after all this build-up: Poof! They're gone.
- There's a big narrative shift in this last stanza. This entire time the story has been unfolding in front of you, so much so that the speaker has directly addressed the characters and reader at different points to direct them to different things as they're happening. Here, though, it's like we've skipped forward a thousand years, and find out that everything we've been seeing actually happened way in the past.
- Funnily enough, you don't end the poem with Madeline and Porphyro, even though the poem is presumably about them. All you hear about them is that they "fled away into the storm," which is actually kind of ominous because you never learn whether or not they live happily ever after or even if they get to that house of Porphyro's across the moors. For all we know they just get sucked into the "elfin-storm" for forever.
- Instead, we hear about the other people back in the castle: the Baron (who's never even been mentioned before) and all of the party guests were "be-nightmared" and spent all night dreaming about "witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm." It's strange that, during the time when Porphyro and Madeline were off doing their "young people in love go make a life together" thing, everyone around them was dreaming about death. This makes the couple's end feel even more uncertain.
- Some people had worse problems than nightmares: both Angela and the Beadsman died that night.
- This isn't totally unexpected—Keats had gone out of his way to make us feel like these people were going to kick the bucket any moment—but it's still pretty jarring that what should be a love poem ends in death and ashes.