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…