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October 22, 2017

Keats, St. Agnes, Marriage

This is the Eve of St. Agnes, on which young virgins obedient to various bedtime rituals -- having eaten only a salt-filled egg, or having put sprigs of thyme and rosemary in their shoes-are granted a vision of their future lovers. Agnes is the patron saint of virgins, martyred at the age of twelve (ca. 305) for choosing to die rather than become the wife of a Roman prefect. In Keats's famous "The Eve of St. Agnes," Madeline retires dressed in white, pledged to look only heavenward for her vision of the forbidden Porphyro; this allows Porphyro, who has hidden himself in her bedroom closet, to have full view of her:
    Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
    Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
    Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
    Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
    Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
    Half-hidden like a mermaid in sea-weed,
    Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
    In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
    But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
Porphyro does eventually reveal himself, and though Madeline seems to like her dream of him better than the real thing, the two elope that night:
    Arise--arise! the morning is at hand;--
    The bloated wassaillers will never heed:--
    Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
    There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,--
    Drown'd all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
    Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
    For o'er the southern moors I have a home for thee."
Keats wrote the poem in 1819; he was twenty-three, and several months into his own and only romance. This was with Fanny Brawne, to whom he became engaged later that year. Keats's early death pre-empted their marriage, but even its possibility might have had him regretting this part of a letter to his brother in America, written just weeks before meeting Fanny:
    Notwithstanding your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry. Though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk; though the Carpet were of Silk, the Curtains of the morning Clouds; the chairs and Sofa stuffed with Cygnet's down; the food Manna, the Wine beyond Claret, the Window opening on Winander mere, I should not feel - or rather my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime. Then instead of what I have described, there is a sublimity to welcome me home - The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children.... No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King's bodyguard.... These things, combined with the opinion I have of the generality of women, who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar plum than my time, form a barrier against Matrimony which I rejoice in.

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