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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”


Keats might well be termed a “poet’s poet” like his model Spenser [1] because of his lavish and expert use of the specific materials of poetry: rhetorical figures, concrete images, and foregrounded emotion. Keats’ sensibility doubtless generated this sort of poetic practice, but his philosophic tendencies led him also to exploit the specific resources of poetry by his embrace of contradiction, ambivalences, ambiguities, and mysteries. Poetry provides a more accurate and effective verbal technology than non-aesthetic discourses in treating the apparently paradoxical, irrational, or inscrutable, and Keats’ unsystematic skepticism was in this sense most appropriate to his poetic practice.

Subjectively I have always preferred the concrete and sensual Keats to the abstract idealizing Shelley, the discursive mystic Wordsworth, and the knotty intellectual Coleridge. Keats enjoyed a vogue in the nineteenth century; scenes from his narrative in Spenserian stanzas “The Eve of St. Agnes” were painted repeatedly including works by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Arthur Hughes. Yet the poem today has a mixed reputation and, indeed, Keats did not speak highly of it. To some readers “The Eve of St. Agnes” is confusing, its themes unstable and ill-expressed. One critic has catalogued fifty-nine different readings. He went on to propose a sixtieth. [2]

Until recent years the story’s popularity derived from regarding it as a glorification of both heightened romantic love coupled with otherwise purely aesthetic values . Hazlitt says, “the reading of Mr Keat's Eve of Saint Agnes lately made me regret that I was not young again.” [3] Rossetti and the Apostles made Keats their poetic model and his influence through them extends to other pre-Raphaelites and the later Aesthetics and Decadents. The sensual strength of Keats’ work could strike readers as excessive. Hazlitt, for instance, qualifies his admiration for the poet by noting that “the fault of Mr. Keats's poems was a deficiency in masculine energy of style.” [4]

Still, despite differing value judgments, both admirers and critics agreed on the poem’s character. A late nineteenth century article provides an adequate statement of the prevailing view. “The Eve of St. Agnes is pure and passionate, surprising by its fine excess in color and melody, sensuous in every line, yet free from the slightest taint of sensuality, is unforgettable and unsurpassable as a dream of first love.” [5]

Only recently have critics noted the highly ambiguous character of Porphyro and the dubious qualities of his admittedly passionate love. [6] Yet nearly every figure of the poem displays the most problematic value. In the very first stanza the reader encounters the beadsman, praying and doing penance for the wicked baron’s family. This man is so weak that he shows the mark of death and in fact soon expires.

Angela, Madeline’s maid, in spite of her heavenly name, is also tottering on the edge of death. She is in danger morally and spiritually as well as rendering very dubious service to her mistress. When Porphyro asks her aid in gaining access to Madeline’s room, she is unqualified in her disapproval, calling him “cruel,” “impious,” and “wicked.” (XVI) She is, however, “weak in body and soul,” (X) and and suffers “agues in her brain.” (XXI) Porphyro distresses her by threatening to rouse the vicious baronial “foemen” while promising, falsely, that he will not touch the lady. (XVII) Feeling “feeble” and anxious, she gives in. She, like the beadsman praying on behalf of the vicious and violent nobles, has been praying for Porphyro, who now seems a Peeping Tom, a potential rapist, importunate and thoughtless at best. (XVIII)

The associations of his name might have prepared the reader for his problematic moral status. In the sense of “purple,” the name would simply connote aristocratic origins, but is carries allusive associations as well. Porphyry (or Porphyrius) of Tyre was a neo-Platonist of the third century C.E. who wrote anti-Christian polemics as well as a popular logic textbook, the Isagoge. Keats’ skepticism with regard to religion might links the poet and the ancient philosopher. A more likely association, however is Porphyrion, leader of the rebellious Titans according to Pindar, who was killed during the Gigantomachy. As a subversive figure who challenged Zeus he would be a natural Romantic anti-hero, paralleling the role Porphyro plays in defying the tyrannical lords and pursuing his lady as an eloping outlaw. [7]

Porphyro’s actions are difficult to defend; to idealize him would seem altogether misguided. It is clear that he acts contrary to the expressed wishes of both Madeline and Angela, thinking only of satisfying his desire. His voyeuristic ambition turns to rape, and Madeline’s flight might be thought her only option once she has had sex with him. He sings a song of “la belle dame sans mercy,” presumably imagining himself in thrall as the persona of his own ballad had been to a supernatural feminine figure, though in fact he is in control in this poem’s narrative. (XXXIII)

Madeline’s name is a form of Magdalene, and her gospel namesake has, of course, varied associations. Apart from her beauty and eventual piety, according to Luke (8:2) and Mark (13:9), she had had devils cast out of her. Most notoriously, she used to be identified with the “sinner” who washed Christ’s feet (Luke 7:37). and was considered a saved prostitute during the Middle Ages . Unlike Mary Magdalene’s reputation, however, Madeline’s virtue is closely identified with her maidenhood. Her room is “chaste” (XXI) and she is “so pure.” (XXV)

Whether these associations are relevant to the poem is questionable, but Madeline’s actions are clearly as ambiguous as Porphyro’s. She is, like him, seized by an irresistible passion, though in her case it leads her to focus only on the opportunity to have a vision of her beloved, and thus a sort of heavenly warranty on their relation, on St. Agnes Eve. She is so distracted as to be unable to deal with others and retires to bed where her abstraction remains strong enough for her to fail to notice until Porphyro has joined her. She lives in dream, vision, and fantasy until she realizes what has occurred, at which point she comes to, cries out, “woe is mine” and denounces him as “cruel,” a “traitor,” who has “deceived” her, leaving her “a dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.” (XXXVII)

Apart from the names, Keats’ literary allusions are likewise fraught with contradiction. Far from being merely ornamental, they are, in fact, disturbing and reinforce the highly ambiguous value of love. Keats compares the encounter of Porphyro and Madeline to that of Merlin and “his Demon.” (XIX) [8] This is surely a reference to Merlin’s infatuation with Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, the ruler of Avalon, a profoundly ambivalent figure who extracts Merlin’s magical knowledge for her own use and then imprisons him. Sometimes identified or associated with Morgan Le Fay, she nonetheless appears in a heroic light in several episodes, presenting Arthur with Excalibur and serving him in other ways, ultimately assisting in carrying him off to Avalon. Her appearances in the Arthurian narrative occur at significant moments and are often highly conflicted. For instance, she raises Lancelot who cuckolds Arthur. She thickens the plot, as Madeline does in spite of her pronounced passivity.

Should this cautionary story seem insufficient or thin, Keats a few stanzas later identifies Madeline with Philomel whose story concerns rape, assault, cannibalism. Madeline is described as silent, “As though a tongueless nightingale should swell/ Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.” (XXIII) Earlier Madeline had been so distracted by her amorous obsession as to be insensible to company. Here the image not only compares Madeline to the mythic victim of rape and mutilation, but also suggests that her very silence and inaction could result in her demise.
Keats so conflates Christian and love imagery that it is unclear whether the characters are deceiving themselves about the propriety of their passions or their love is indeed in some sense holy or they cynically claim holy warrant for their actions to cover guilt. For example, Porphyro addresses Madeline as an “angel,” as “paradise,” (XXVIII) she is “paradise” and as “heaven,” calling himself an “eremite,” but then immediately threatens to climb in bed with her. (XXXI)
This unstable oscillation of values and character does not arise from carelessness, nor solely from the psychological reality of ambivalence; it is based in Keats’ skepticism. “Negative capability” is doubtless the most celebrated consequence of Keats’ philosophic attitude which entertained “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” particularly in poetic texts. [9] Keats spoke in a similar vein on numerous other occasions. For instance he admitted “I have not one idea of the truth of any of my speculations – I shall never be a Reasoner because I care not to be in the right, when retired from bickering and in a proper philosophical temper.” [10] For him, that is, a “philosophic” temper is one in which he, with the ancient skeptics, must withhold judgment on all issues. Art took on the obligations of religion, proving its authenticity not as revelation confirmed at times by its compelling beauty. “I am sometimes so very skeptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthen [sic] to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance.” [11] Strong emotion could have the same authenticating power. “As Byron says, ‘Knowledge is Sorrow’; and I go on to say that ‘Sorrow is Wisdom’ -- and further for aught we can know for certainty ‘Wisdom is Folly!’ –“ [q] He declared to Fanny Brawne “Love is my Religion.” [12]

The Keats one’s reality is mental and subjective and thus an expression of imagination. To him "The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth." [13] He criticizes Wordsworth for restricting himself to the "wordsworthian or egotistical sublime" and failing to embrace contradiction. In Keats’ view the poet should be nothing himself and thus be all things, changing like a "camelion" and thus "continually . . . filling some other Body." [14] This is reflected in “The Eve of St. Agnes” by the constant confounding of lived reality with dream, vision, drunkenness, and what Keats called “faery fantasy.” The doubt about what is real within the narrative is reflected in practically every stanza.

Keats is true to the ancient Pyrrhonians in being skeptical about even his skepticism. He is thus, unlike the atheist Shelley, agnostic in religion. In spite of the unequivocal title of his sonnet “Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition,” he does not after all condemn Christianity outright. Though the sermon be “horrid,” binding men in “some black spell,” leading them to neglect the joys of life, still all “should” properly “feel a damp, because of the “chill” of mortality (“ as from a tomb”). The procession of the doomed are “sighing” and “wailing,” though in the end oblivion will be redeemed by beauty, the “many glories of immortal stamp.” Here, though Christianity be mistaken, it is symbolically apt, since it conforms to the needs of people seeking an accessible route to eternity.

In the end the reader, like Porphyro and Madeline, must flee “into the storm” (XLII)of the world, the storm of suffering and uncertainty, where they and everyone else is motivated by ego and by selflessness and by the two so bound together that the opposites can scarcely be distinguished. The steely sky above may seem beneficent, hostile, and indifferent by turns. Though one may count on neither truth or virtue, one always has art. The enumeration of concrete signs of the cold and dark at the outset (the owl, the hare, the huddled flock in stanza I) or the magnificent table Porphyro sets provide fetishes of beauty, compelling in their appeal yet always about to vanish before one’s eyes. Only the written reality persists, but who could resist it?

“candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, inct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez, and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarkand to cedar’d Lebanon.
(XXX)

Here indeed we have plenty. Porphyro wins his beloved and succeeds after all in the conjurer’s trick of holding “water in a witch’s sieve.” (XIV) Their egos may disqualify them as ideal romantic lovers, he through his impetuosity, she through passivity, but the sort of mental fancies, the poetry, they each weave to construct their flawed love is likely their best strategy in a fallen world that cannot be understood or controlled.



1. The term, describing Spenser, is attributed to Lamb by Leigh Hunt in Imagination and Fancy.
2. For the list of fifty-nine readings, see Chapter 3 of Jack Stillinger, Reading the Eve of St. Agnes: The Multiples of Complex Literary Transaction ( New York: Oxford UP, 1999). The same critic’s “The Hoodwinking of Madeline: Scepticism in “The Eve of St. Agnes” in Studies in Philology (vol. 58, No. 3, Jul., 1961) provides the newer interpretation in which the poem’s arch-Romantic aura is demolished, imagination is skeptically interrogated, and Porphyro appears as little short of a villain. Stillinger is excellent in providing textual evidence, particularly tracing image groups, but in the end, I choose to propose a sixty-first thematic analysis.
3. In “On Reading Old Books.” Hazlitt elaborates identifying “young” love and the aesthetic sense. “The beautiful and tender images [in “The Eve of St. Agnes”] conjured up, ‘come like shadows -- so depart.’ The ‘tiger-moth's wings,’ which he has spread over his rich poetic blazonry, just flit across my fancy; the gorgeous twilight window which he has painted over again in his verse, to me ‘blushes’ almost in vain ‘with blood of queens and kings.’ I know how I should have felt at one time in reading such passages; and that is all. The sharp luscious flavour, the fine aroma is fled, and nothing but the stalk, the bran, the husk of literature is left.”
4. In "On Effeminacy of Character."
5. “The Influence of Keats” in The Century (October 1895, vol. L, no. 6) by Henry Van Dyke. Among the many contemporary examples of the same reductive analysis is the Cliffnotes site which says in part, “Porphyro is an idealized knight who will face any danger whatsoever to see his lady love, and Madeline is reduced to an exquisitely lovely and loving young lady. Keats is interested in celebrating romantic love; romantic love is literally a heavenly experience.” See http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/k/keats-poems/summary-and-analysis/the-eve-of-st-agnes.
6. See in particular Jack Stillinger’s work noted above.
7. Marcia Gilbreath in “The Etymology of Porphyro’s Name in Keats’ ‘Eve of St. Agnes” (Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 37, 1988) argues convincingly for Porphyrion.
8. The possessive suggests either a psychomachia (the demon inside his head) or an aggressive sort of love which seeks to dominate the beloved.
9. Letter to George and Thomas Keats, on 21 December 1817.
10. Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 13 March, 1818.
11. Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818.
12. Letter to Fanny Brawne, 13 October 1819
13. Letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817.
14. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818.

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