The Eve of St. Agnes

Original Text: 
John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1970. PR 4830 E20AB Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
2     The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
3     The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
4     And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
6     His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
7     Like pious incense from a censer old,
8     Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
9Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.
10     His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
11     Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
12     And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
13     Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
14     The sculptur'd dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
15     Emprison'd in black, purgatorial rails:
16     Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat'ries,
17     He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
18To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.
19     Northward he turneth through a little door,
20     And scarce three steps, ere Music's golden tongue
22     But no--already had his deathbell rung;
23     The joys of all his life were said and sung:
24     His was harsh penance on St. Agnes' Eve:
25     Another way he went, and soon among
26     Rough ashes sat he for his soul's reprieve,
27And all night kept awake, for sinners' sake to grieve.
28     That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft;
29     And so it chanc'd, for many a door was wide,
30     From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft,
31     The silver, snarling trumpets 'gan to chide:
33     Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
34     The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
35     Star'd, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
36With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.
37     At length burst in the argent revelry,
38     With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
39     Numerous as shadows haunting faerily
40     The brain, new stuff'd, in youth, with triumphs gay
41     Of old romance. These let us wish away,
42     And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,
43     Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
44     On love, and wing'd St. Agnes' saintly care,
45As she had heard old dames full many times declare.
46     They told her how, upon St. Agnes' Eve,
47     Young virgins might have visions of delight,
48     And soft adorings from their loves receive
49     Upon the honey'd middle of the night,
50     If ceremonies due they did aright;
51     As, supperless to bed they must retire,
52     And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
53     Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
54Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
55     Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
56     The music, yearning like a God in pain,
57     She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,
58     Fix'd on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
59     Pass by--she heeded not at all: in vain
60     Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,
61     And back retir'd; not cool'd by high disdain,
62     But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere:
63She sigh'd for Agnes' dreams, the sweetest of the year.
64     She danc'd along with vague, regardless eyes,
65     Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short:
66     The hallow'd hour was near at hand: she sighs
67     Amid the timbrels, and the throng'd resort
68     Of whisperers in anger, or in sport;
69     'Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn,
71     Save to St. Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
72And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.
73     So, purposing each moment to retire,
74     She linger'd still. Meantime, across the moors,
75     Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire
76     For Madeline. Beside the portal doors,
77     Buttress'd from moonlight, stands he, and implores
78     All saints to give him sight of Madeline,
79     But for one moment in the tedious hours,
80     That he might gaze and worship all unseen;
81Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss--in sooth such things have been.
82     He ventures in: let no buzz'd whisper tell:
83     All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
84     Will storm his heart, Love's fev'rous citadel:
85     For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes,
86     Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords,
87     Whose very dogs would execrations howl
88     Against his lineage: not one breast affords
89     Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
90Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.
91     Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came,
92     Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
93     To where he stood, hid from the torch's flame,
94     Behind a broad half-pillar, far beyond
95     The sound of merriment and chorus bland:
96     He startled her; but soon she knew his face,
97     And grasp'd his fingers in her palsied hand,
98     Saying, "Mercy, Porphyro! hie thee from this place;
99They are all here to-night, the whole blood-thirsty race!
100     "Get hence! get hence! there's dwarfish Hildebrand;
101     He had a fever late, and in the fit
102     He cursed thee and thine, both house and land:
103     Then there's that old Lord Maurice, not a whit
104     More tame for his gray hairs--Alas me! flit!
105     Flit like a ghost away."--"Ah, Gossip dear,
106     We're safe enough; here in this arm-chair sit,
107     And tell me how"--"Good Saints! not here, not here;
108Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier."
109     He follow'd through a lowly arched way,
110     Brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume,
111     And as she mutter'd "Well-a--well-a-day!"
112     He found him in a little moonlight room,
113     Pale, lattic'd, chill, and silent as a tomb.
114     "Now tell me where is Madeline," said he,
116     Which none but secret sisterhood may see,
117When they St. Agnes' wool are weaving piously."
118     "St. Agnes! Ah! it is St. Agnes' Eve--
119     Yet men will murder upon holy days:
120     Thou must hold water in a witch's sieve,
121     And be liege-lord of all the Elves and Fays,
122     To venture so: it fills me with amaze
123     To see thee, Porphyro!--St. Agnes' Eve!
124     God's help! my lady fair the conjuror plays
125     This very night: good angels her deceive!
126But let me laugh awhile, I've mickle time to grieve."
127     Feebly she laugheth in the languid moon,
128     While Porphyro upon her face doth look,
129     Like puzzled urchin on an aged crone
130     Who keepeth clos'd a wond'rous riddle-book,
131     As spectacled she sits in chimney nook.
132     But soon his eyes grew brilliant, when she told
134     Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold,
135And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.
136     Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
137     Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
138     Made purple riot: then doth he propose
139     A stratagem, that makes the beldame start:
140     "A cruel man and impious thou art:
141     Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream
142     Alone with her good angels, far apart
143     From wicked men like thee. Go, go!--I deem
144Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem."
145     "I will not harm her, by all saints I swear,"
146     Quoth Porphyro: "O may I ne'er find grace
147     When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer,
148     If one of her soft ringlets I displace,
149     Or look with ruffian passion in her face:
150     Good Angela, believe me by these tears;
151     Or I will, even in a moment's space,
152     Awake, with horrid shout, my foemen's ears,
153And beard them, though they be more fang'd than wolves and bears."
154     "Ah! why wilt thou affright a feeble soul?
155     A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing,
156     Whose passing-bell may ere the midnight toll;
157     Whose prayers for thee, each morn and evening,
158     Were never miss'd."--Thus plaining, doth she bring
159     A gentler speech from burning Porphyro;
160     So woful, and of such deep sorrowing,
161     That Angela gives promise she will do
162Whatever he shall wish, betide her weal or woe.
163     Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,
164     Even to Madeline's chamber, and there hide
165     Him in a closet, of such privacy
166     That he might see her beauty unespy'd,
167     And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,
168     While legion'd faeries pac'd the coverlet,
169     And pale enchantment held her sleepy-ey'd.
170     Never on such a night have lovers met,
172     "It shall be as thou wishest," said the Dame:
173     "All cates and dainties shall be stored there
175     Her own lute thou wilt see: no time to spare,
176     For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare
177     On such a catering trust my dizzy head.
178     Wait here, my child, with patience; kneel in prayer
179     The while: Ah! thou must needs the lady wed,
180Or may I never leave my grave among the dead."
181     So saying, she hobbled off with busy fear.
182     The lover's endless minutes slowly pass'd;
183     The dame return'd, and whisper'd in his ear
184     To follow her; with aged eyes aghast
185     From fright of dim espial. Safe at last,
186     Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
187     The maiden's chamber, silken, hush'd, and chaste;
188     Where Porphyro took covert, pleas'd amain.
189His poor guide hurried back with agues in her brain.
190     Her falt'ring hand upon the balustrade,
191     Old Angela was feeling for the stair,
192     When Madeline, St. Agnes' charmed maid,
193     Rose, like a mission'd spirit, unaware:
194     With silver taper's light, and pious care,
195     She turn'd, and down the aged gossip led
196     To a safe level matting. Now prepare,
197     Young Porphyro, for gazing on that bed;
199     Out went the taper as she hurried in;
200     Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died:
201     She clos'd the door, she panted, all akin
202     To spirits of the air, and visions wide:
203     No uttered syllable, or, woe betide!
204     But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
205     Paining with eloquence her balmy side;
206     As though a tongueless nightingale should swell
207Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.
208     A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
209     All garlanded with carven imag'ries
210     Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
211     And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
212     Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
213     As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
214     And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
215     And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
217     Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
219     As down she knelt for heaven's grace and boon;
220     Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
221     And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
222     And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
223     She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,
224     Save wings, for heaven:--Porphyro grew faint:
225She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.
226     Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
227     Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
228     Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
229     Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
230     Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
231     Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
232     Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
233     In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
234But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
235     Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,
236     In sort of wakeful swoon, perplex'd she lay,
237     Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppress'd
238     Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away;
239     Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;
240     Blissfully haven'd both from joy and pain;
242     Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
243As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.
244     Stol'n to this paradise, and so entranced,
245     Porphyro gaz'd upon her empty dress,
246     And listen'd to her breathing, if it chanced
247     To wake into a slumberous tenderness;
248     Which when he heard, that minute did he bless,
249     And breath'd himself: then from the closet crept,
250     Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness,
251     And over the hush'd carpet, silent, stept,
252And 'tween the curtains peep'd, where, lo!--how fast she slept.
253     Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
254     Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
255     A table, and, half anguish'd, threw thereon
256     A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet:--
258     The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion,
259     The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarinet,
260     Affray his ears, though but in dying tone:--
261The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone.
262     And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
263     In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,
264     While he forth from the closet brought a heap
265     Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
267     And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
268     Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd
271     These delicates he heap'd with glowing hand
272     On golden dishes and in baskets bright
273     Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
274     In the retired quiet of the night,
275     Filling the chilly room with perfume light.--
276     "And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
278     Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes' sake,
279Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache."
280     Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
281     Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
282     By the dusk curtains:--'twas a midnight charm
283     Impossible to melt as iced stream:
284     The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
285     Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
286     It seem'd he never, never could redeem
287     From such a stedfast spell his lady's eyes;
288So mus'd awhile, entoil'd in woofed phantasies.
289     Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,--
290     Tumultuous,--and, in chords that tenderest be,
291     He play'd an ancient ditty, long since mute,
293     Close to her ear touching the melody;--
294     Wherewith disturb'd, she utter'd a soft moan:
295     He ceas'd--she panted quick--and suddenly
296     Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
297Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.
298     Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
299     Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
300     There was a painful change, that nigh expell'd
301     The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
302     At which fair Madeline began to weep,
303     And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
304     While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
305     Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
306Fearing to move or speak, she look'd so dreamingly.
307     "Ah, Porphyro!" said she, "but even now
308     Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
309     Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
310     And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
311     How chang'd thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
312     Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
313     Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
314     Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
315For if thy diest, my Love, I know not where to go."
316     Beyond a mortal man impassion'd far
317     At these voluptuous accents, he arose
318     Ethereal, flush'd, and like a throbbing star
319     Seen mid the sapphire heaven's deep repose;
320     Into her dream he melted, as the rose
321     Blendeth its odour with the violet,--
322     Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
323     Like Love's alarum pattering the sharp sleet
324Against the window-panes; St. Agnes' moon hath set.
326     "This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!"
327     'Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
328     "No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
329     Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.--
330     Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
331     I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine,
332     Though thou forsakest a deceived thing;--
333A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing."
334     "My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
335     Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?
337     Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest
338     After so many hours of toil and quest,
339     A famish'd pilgrim,--sav'd by miracle.
340     Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest
341     Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think'st well
342To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.
343     "Hark! 'tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
345     Arise--arise! the morning is at hand;--
346     The bloated wassaillers will never heed:--
347     Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
348     There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,--
349     Drown'd all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
350     Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
351For o'er the southern moors I have a home for thee."
352     She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
353     For there were sleeping dragons all around,
354     At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears--
355     Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.--
356     In all the house was heard no human sound.
357     A chain-droop'd lamp was flickering by each door;
359     Flutter'd in the besieging wind's uproar;
360And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.
361     They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
362     Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
363     Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
364     With a huge empty flaggon by his side:
365     The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
366     But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
367     By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:--
368     The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;--
369The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
370     And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
371     These lovers fled away into the storm.
372     That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
373     And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
374     Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
375     Were long be-nightmar'd. Angela the old
376     Died palsy-twitch'd, with meagre face deform;
378For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.

Notes

1] St. Agnes was beheaded at Rome because she held herself to be the bride of Christ (see Tennyson's poem) and would not marry an unbeliever. Her martyrdom took place on January 21; St. Agnes' Eve is on the twentieth. There were superstitions associated with St. Agnes' Eve, such as are more familiar to us in connection with the eve of All Saints, or Hallowe'en,--particularly the idea that on the due performance of certain rites, a maiden might see her future husband. Back to Line
5] Beadsman: one paid to pray for his benefactor. Back to Line
21] flatter'd: by its soothing effect produced tears. Back to Line
32] level: as opposed to "up aloft" (30). Back to Line
70] amort: deadened, indifferent to all about her. Back to Line
115] On the anniversary of her martyrdom, two lambs were blessed, their wool cut off and spun and woven by the nuns. Back to Line
133] brook: seemingly "refrain from"--a misuse of the word. Back to Line
171] Merlin: the great magician of the Arthur legend, the son of a demon, who was destroyed by his own spell, which he taught to Vivien whom he loved. The meaning is not clear and has been much disputed. Back to Line
174] tambour frame: a drum-shaped frame to hold embroidery. Back to Line
198] fray'd: afraid. Back to Line
216] with blood of kings and queens. Seemingly the armorial bearings indicated royal descent. Back to Line
218] gules: the heraldic word for red. Back to Line
241] missal: prayer-book.
Paynims: pagans. Back to Line
257] Morphean. Morpheus is the god of sleep. Back to Line
266] Soother: seemingly pleasanter--an unauthorized use of the word. Back to Line
269] Fez: a commercial city in Morocco. Back to Line
270] Samarcand: a city in Turkestan once famous for its woven goods. Back to Line
277] eremite: hermit. Back to Line
292] "La belle dame sans mercy": by Alain Chartier. An English translation was long thought to be by Chaucer. Back to Line
325] flawblown: blown by a gust of wind. Back to Line
336] vermeil: crimson. Back to Line
344] haggard: wild. Back to Line
358] arras: tapestry hangings. Back to Line
377] aves: prayers (Ave Maria). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1820
RPO poem Editors: 
J. R. MacGillivray
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.637.
Rhyme: