March 17, 2018
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,
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:
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.
Arise--arise! the morning is at hand;--
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:
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."
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.