Two Worlds Collide

June 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

“The Eve of St. Agnes” tells the fantastic story of a bewitching night when two lovers consummate their relationship and elope. It takes place on the Eve of St. Agnes, a night when “young virgins have visions of delight,” giving the action of the poem a dreamy and otherworldly quality. But while the romance takes place on this evening, the setting is a cold, gloomy castle (probably between the 12th and 16th centuries) during a “bitter chill” in the dead of night. These two elements of the setting contradict each other, the bewitched night reflecting the unreal, fantastic aspects of their affair, and the cold, rigid castle embodying the external forces that oppose their romance in reality.Keats’s portrayal of an idealized romance and dream offers an environment steeped in the mysterious and miraculous, but threatens to unravel at any moment through glimpses of the banished elements of reality. Keats uses images of mystery, adventure, and the unknown to enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere of the poem. Throughout each stanza Keats evinces the importance of setting, time and atmosphere, never quite lifting the veil of mystery. The progressively dramatic quality of this poem is achieved by a metamorphosis of sensations felt through the ever-changing settings, the escalating action of the poem, and the emotional and sensual imagery.In the second line of the poem, Keats uses the image of the owl to set a tone of the mysterious and unknown. The owl is a nocturnal bird of prey that has held mankind’s curiosity for thousands of years, associated with wisdom and mysticism, and helps establish the supernatural and romantic setting. With his vivid images of “frozen grass, numb fingers,” and “frosted breath,” Keats adds to the chill foreboding of the opening stanzas- only a hero or a villain would venture into such harsh weather- preparing the reader for extraordinary happenings.Stanza one establishes the importance of time and legend within the poem. Arguably it is this assessment of the past, coupled with Keats’s reconstruction of a medieval romance, that enables him to look toward both the present and future. Indeed, throughout much of the poem the tense is shown to change, shifting from a past-tense narrative to an emphatically dramatic present tense. “Anon his heart revives; her vespers done,/ Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees,/ Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one.” This abrupt change of tense makes the poem far more emotive, bringing to life the ancient legend. The style calls to mind authentic medieval literature, where far greater emphasis is placed on flowing prose than on diction and grammar, and tenses are known to shift within a single sentence.Keats begins the narrative in an abandoned chapel of the castle, void of life save for a wasted, self-flagellating Beadsman who is offering prayers to the Virgin in the name of his wealthy benefactors. On the tombs of the chapel, “the sculptured dead, on each side, seem to freeze,/ Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails.” The knights and ladies of these family monuments have been carved in pious poses, “praying in dumb orat’ries.” The frozen representations of those long-deceased relatives present a double image of death, and as a result we see a failure of spirituality within the beadsman’s prayers; he has been paid to say these prayers to save the souls of the impious, who will likely only pray in their death friezes.The castle’s stern gothic interior does not depict a hoped-for regeneration, but a series of “carven imageries” of the ” ‘sculptured dead.” This castle is the setting, not for the rejuvenation of love, but for the reenactment of an old legend in an attempt to translate “old romance” into the present.Madeline and Porphyro are a star-crossed young couple, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet: they seek to hide their relationship from their families and protect their love from “sleeping dragons” and “ready spears.” Their love is hindered by a family feud, and Madeline fears that Porphyro will be killed by her relatives, a “blood-thirsty race”.Madeline performs the rite of St. Agnes Eve according to legend, and Porphyro’s expression of love for Madeline echoes an “ancient ditty, long since mute” (291). When Madeline retires to her bed chamber, the tone takes on an element of fantasy, and Keats want us to feel the “charm” in the air on a night that belongs to spirits; the room is invaded by ephemeral moonlight, creating a “dim, silver twilight” and enhancing the magical qualities of the night. Madeline is described alternately as “like a saint: she seemed a splendid angel,” “like a mermaid in sea-weed,” and like a “rose.” The fact that her privacy is invaded by Porphyro is offset by the adoration with which he beholds this vision. Although he eyes her secretly from the closet, it is in the guise of an adoring and enchanted admirer rather than a voyeur.Madeline has enchanted dreams of the “fair St. Agnes,” and in this aura of fantasy and mysticism Porphyro steals out of his hiding place in her closet and “play[s] an ancient ditty” on the lute. She awakes and there is a “painful change,… expel[ing] the blisses of her dream so pure and deep”. She realizes that life is “eternal woe” as the danger of their situation replaces her idyllic dream.Madeline’s dream experience discloses an awareness of unfulfillment, reflecting her desire for an idealized “old romance,” preferring her own imaginatively created Porphyro over his actual presence. “How change’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear! / Give me that voice again, my Porphyro, / those looks immortal, those complainings dear!” Even waking, Madeline is not yearning for the actual voice of Porphyro, but her own dream representation of his voice and identity.Upon Madeline’s waking, the physical setting of the poem overtakes the spiritual one. Keats describes a lavish feast of “delicacies…on golden dishes…filling the room with perfume light.” He introduces more sensual imagery, incorporating taste and smell to symbolize the physicality of the previously chaste young pair. As “into her dream he melted…the rose blendeth its odour with the violet,- solution sweet,” the richly fragrant image describes their union. But with the onslaught of physical sensation they also become more aware of the “frost-wind blow[ing] like Love’s alarum pattering the window-panes.” Keats implies the risks they must take as they leave the spiritual world to enjoy the physical one. The young lovers must face the reality of their circumstances; they risk not only censure but Porphyro’s certain death upon discovery.The tone and imagery shift considerably as they “glide like phantoms” through the castle; they steal out as if escaping from prison, sneaking past the “wakeful bloodhound” and the sleeping porter. The tapestries, “rich with horseman. hawk, and hound,” seem to “flutter,” as though the very walls are alive and watching them with menace. This ominous imagery helps to make the storm outside appear as the lesser of the two evils, although Keats does everything possible to emphasize its “besieging uproar.” While their escape is met with relief, the fact that they “fled into the storm” emphasizes the dangers that await them, and reminds us that even young love is superseded by the reality of death.The prevalent image of death in the poem suggests that what they abandon the castle walls is in fact love’s ideal (which ceased to exist the moment the dream was shattered), as the couple flees into a troubled “storm” of tragic reality. Just as Madeline’s dreams of Porphyro are sweeter than his actual presence, undaunted by social pressures and confines, the reader must wonder whether their dream romance will weather the reality of the brutal storm awaiting them outside the castle walls.The peril of their flight can be gleaned from Porphyro’s description of the harsh storm as “the elfin-storm from fairy land.” He is ignorantly optimistic, relying on his love and the invincibility of youth to save them. The lovers fail to transcend the perils of human existence, because whether they remain within or without the castle their ultimate fate is predicted by the “beldame” and the “beadsman.” “The first [died] palsey-twitch’d and the other unsought for slept among his ashes cold.” In spite of the lovers’ passion, the passage of time will ultimately yield death no matter how strong their love.The two settings and their accompanying moods serve to express the conflict and duality so often present in romances: people are given no choice as to whom they will fall in love with, and oftentimes circumstances prevent the realization of a happy relationship. The poem expresses the magical quality of young love in an idyllic fantasy world, and contrasts it with two different but sinister realities. Keats literally depicts them running away from the castle, which embodies the threats and austerity their relationship faces from society, choosing instead to bear the harsh elements, as if nature is more likely to be compassionate toward their plight.This ambiguous ending is appropriate in that it leaves their unspoken future completely open to interpretation: it affords the reader a more personal connection with their fate through individual reactions and responses. The ending merely implies that the lovers are immortalized in legend; other young lovers will whisper about their grand escape long after death has claimed Porphyro and Madeline, for through the survival of their tale, love finds a way to supersede death.

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