John Keats (1795-1821)
The Eve of St. Agnes
1 St. Agnes' Eve--Ah, bitter chill it was!
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:
5 Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
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
21 Flatter'd to tears this aged man and poor;
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:
32 The level chambers, ready with their pride,
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,
70 Hoodwink'd with faery fancy; all amort,
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,
115 "O tell me, Angela, by the holy loom
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
133 His lady's purpose; and he scarce could brook
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,
171Since Merlin paid his Demon all the monstrous debt.
172 "It shall be as thou wishest," said the Dame:
173 "All cates and dainties shall be stored there
174 Quickly on this feast-night: by the tambour frame
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;
198She comes, she comes again, like ring-dove fray'd and fled.
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,
216A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings.
217 Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
218 And threw warm gules on Madeline's fair breast,
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;
241 Clasp'd like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
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:--
257 O for some drowsy Morphean amulet!
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;
266 With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
267 And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
268 Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd
269 From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
270From silken Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon.
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!
277 Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
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,
292 In Provence call'd, "La belle dame sans mercy":
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.
325 'Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
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?
336 Thy beauty's shield, heart-shap'd and vermeil dyed?
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,
344 Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
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;
358 The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
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;
377 The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
378For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.
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.
5] Beadsman: one paid to pray for his benefactor.
21] flatter'd: by its soothing effect produced tears.
32] level: as opposed to "up aloft" (30).
70] amort: deadened, indifferent to all about her.
115] On the anniversary of her martyrdom, two lambs were blessed, their wool cut off and spun and woven by the nuns.
133] brook: seemingly "refrain from"--a misuse of the word.
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.
174] tambour frame: a drum-shaped frame to hold embroidery.
198] fray'd: afraid.
216] with blood of kings and queens. Seemingly the armorial bearings indicated royal descent.
218] gules: the heraldic word for red.
241] missal: prayer-book.
257] Morphean. Morpheus is the god of sleep.
266] Soother: seemingly pleasanter--an unauthorized use of the word.
269] Fez: a commercial city in Morocco.
270] Samarcand: a city in Turkestan once famous for its woven goods.
277] eremite: hermit.
292] "La belle dame sans mercy": by Alain Chartier. An English translation was long thought to be by Chaucer.
325] flawblown: blown by a gust of wind.
336] vermeil: crimson.
344] haggard: wild.
358] arras: tapestry hangings.
377] aves: prayers (Ave Maria).
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services,
University of Toronto Libraries.
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).
First publication date:
RPO poem editor: J. R. MacGillivray
RP edition: 3RP 2.637.
Recent editing: 4:2001/12/20
Composition date note: February 1819
Form: Spenserian Stanzas
Other poems by John Keats