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Literature / The Eve of St. Agnes

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A Narrative Poem by John Keats set in The Middle Ages, written in 1819. It is written in the then-less popular Spenserian stanzas.

It tells the tale of two lovers, Porphyro and Madeline whose families are having a feud. During a banquet, Porphyro sneaks into the castle to meet Madeline. He is met by an old servant, Angela, who tells him as it is the Eve of St Agnes, Madeline has prepared a ritual that is supposed to show her her future husband in a dream. Porphyro insists on seeing Madeline (but not speaking to her), so Angela hides him in a cupboard in Madeline's room. When she wakes up she mistakes Porphyro who has come out of the closet to be a dream. After a pleasant night together, Madeline is undeceived and they run away together.

The Eve of St. Agnes has the following tropes:

  • Aerith and Bob: Madeline and Porphyro.
  • All Men Are Perverts: The male guests in Madeline's house look at her amorously. Even the most sympathetic man, Porphyro, wants to have sex with her.
  • Blue Blood: Madeline is descended from royalty. It's also mentioned that some lords are dining in her house.
  • Bowdlerise: Keats originally wanted to make it more explicit that Madeline and Porphyro had sex, but was prevented by the publisher due to strict 19th century censorship.
  • Classical Mythology: References to Ovid's Metamorphoses in the part where Madeline is compared to a nightingale. In Metamomorphoses, Philomela is raped and then transforms into a nightingale. Also, her undressing is compared to a mermaid shedding seaweed. This is the sort of thing that earned scorn from critics who thought Keats was being pretentious as he didn't know ancient Greek.
  • Date Rape: One common interpretation of the events of the poem, given the dubious consent given in the sex scene. This is, of course, countered by the belief that the poem expresses One True Love. Where you fall tends to depend on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.
  • Defiled Forever: Madeline claims she's this, after Porphyro deflowered her without her knowing it.
  • Downer Ending: The poem ends, not with marriage, but with the deaths of Angela and the Beadsman.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Madeline actually dreams of Porphyro doing romantic stuff to her (it's implied), and when she unknowingly wakes up to see the real Porphyro, she asks him why he's so forlorn. He proceeds to consummate their relationship.
  • Dream Weaver: Porphyro tricks Madeline into thinking she's dreaming of having sex with him, when they are doing it in reality. Talk about mindscrew.
  • Femme Fatale: Arguably Madeline. While Porphyro did seduce her, some scholars think she asked for it, because it is she who rebukes Porphyro for not being as romantic as he was just now (in her dream), therefore inviting him to seduce her. The fact she thought that their intimate encounter was only a dream might contradict this.
  • Feuding Families: Porphyro and Madelin's families are feuding. That's why he has to see her in secret.
  • Food Porn: Lots of it.
    he forth from the closet brought a heap
    Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
    With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
    And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
    Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd
    From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
    From silken Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Porphyro can come across as this if you fall on the Date Rape side of the interpretive debate.
  • The Ingenue: Madeline, possibly. She only wants to marry Porphyro, and isn't even aware that she's awake when he arrives by her bedside.
  • Magic Music: Not directly mentioned, but note that Madeline only wakes up when Porphyro plays music, and thinks she's in a dream.
  • Meaningful Name: Porphyro, whose name means purple. It sounds more derived from ancient Greek than Hildebrand and Maurice. Scholars say that the purple colour could symbolise royalty.
  • The Middle Ages: Set in the medieval era, in a castle. There seems to be more superstition, especially on the part of the heroine who performs a ritual to find out her future husband.
  • Old Retainer: Angela, a servant.
  • One True Love: Another common interpretation of the text. This one tends to come from the idealistic end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.
  • Patron Saint: St Agnes.
  • The Peeping Tom: Porphyro watches Madeline undress in her room from a cupboard.
  • Pre Raphaelite: Later adopted by the Pre-Raphaelites in their paintings, eg. William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais.
  • Rite of Passage: The poem describes the day Madeline meets the man she loves and loses her virginity to him, and after that, their elopement.
  • Ritual Magic: Madeline attempts this, by performing certain ceremonies to find out her future husband in her dream.
  • Scenery Porn: Keats takes a number of lines to describe Madeline's room. It's a tribute to the mediaeval era worshipped by the Romantics." A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,/ All garlanded with carven imag'ries /Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass, /And diamonded with panes of quaint device, /Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes, /As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings; And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,/ And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings, /A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings."
  • Shout-Out:
    • Keats mentions that Porphyro plays a song called "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," a medieval ballad by Alain Chartier, also the title of Keats's own poem.
    • He also alludes to Merlin's entrapment by Vivien, which seems out of place in this poem.
    • Another quote about a "tongueless nightingale" alludes to Philomela's rape and transformation into a nightingale, from Ovid's Metamorphoses.
    • Romeo and Juliet: Two young lovers, warring families...
  • Ye Goode Olde Days: Keats portrays the medieval era as romantic, with brave heroes and pure maidens. And beautiful furnishings. Even though medieval art would have been barbaric compared to the Renaissance and post-Renaissance.