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."