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Brittany Roberts 7/25/08



Keats had a very short career that spanned only about 6 years. He published his first poem at 19 and died at the age of 25 from Tuberculosis. Unlike many of the popular Romantic poets, Keats came from humble beginnings as the son of a stable keeper. Given that Great poetry was considered more of an aristocratic endeavor at this time, Keats’s lower-middle class origins subjected him to harsh critique from reviewers. In 1818, Keats had to nurse his brother, Tom, (with whom he was very close) as he lay dying from Tuberculosis, the same disease his mother died from and that would eventually kill him in 3 years. Around this time, Keats fell in love with and entered into a secret engagement with Fanny Brawne, whom he could not marry because of financial difficulties, and he eventually broke off the engagement when he started to decline in health in 1820. Before he died, he announced that he did not want his name put on his tombstone, but rather the phrase, “here lies one whose name was writ in water.” And though Percy Shelly said that the negative reviews of Keats’s poetry is what eventually killed him, Keats himself always believed he would be accepted and admired after his death.

The Eve of St. Agnes” Background:

St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, died a martyr in fourth century Rome. She was condemned to be executed after being raped all night in a brothel; however, a miraculous thunderstorm saved her from rape. St. Agnes Day is Jan. 21.

Keats based his poem on the superstition that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes; if she went to bed without looking behind her and lay on her back with her hands under her head, he would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her.

In the original version of this poem, Keats emphasized the young lovers' sexuality, but his publishers, who feared public reaction, forced him to tone down the eroticism.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why does the poem open with the Beadsman?  What thematic/symbolic functions does he serve? Why might the poem open with an emphasis on the “bitter chill” (1)? The poem will also end with the word “cold.” What is “hot” and what is “cold” in this poem?

  1. In stanza V, a grand celebration is described in which the attendees are “Numerous as shadows” and “haunt fairily / The brain” (39-40). The speaker, however, says, “These let us wish away, / and turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there” (41-42). In what ways does this stanza begin to set up, or perhaps collapse, the dream/reality dichotomy the poem presents?

  1. In what ways might lines 70-73 foreshadow the erotic situation between Madeline and Porphyro?

  1. Porphyro is introduced as Peeping Tom in stanza IX. Why is his undetected gazing important? Look at line 80.

  1. In what ways is Angela an important figure? Why is she “weak in body and in soul” (90)? Might she somehow be a parallel to Madeline (look at the ambiguous “her” in line 162)?

  1. What images and colors are associated with Madeline? With Porphyro?  What do these images and colors suggest about each character?

  1. In stanzas XXX and XXXI, Porphyro seems (magically?) to pull a feast out of the closet? How is the sexual situation implicated in this food imagery?

  1. Have a look at famous stanza XXXVI. What’s going on here?

  1. In the end, the lovers flee: but why? From what? Too, their fate is left ambiguous. Why might Keats resist divulging it? We are told the lovers fled “ages long ago” (370), why might the speaker emphasize the elapse in time? Does the lovers’ fate matter?

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