The Eve Of St. Agnes
When Robert Graves said, "There is one story and one story
only that will prove worth your telling," he was talking
about romance. A great work of romance offers an
environment that is amenable to the mysterious and the
miraculous. Keats uses images of mystery, adventure, and of
the unknown to enhance the romantic feel of his poem "The
Eve of St. Agnes".
In the second line of the poem, Keats uses the image of the
owl to set a tone of the mysterious and unknown. We all
have associations of the owl and wisdom or mysticism. The
owl is a nocturnal bird of prey that has held mankind's
curiosity for thousands of years. We are two lines into the
poem and we already feel that there is something
supernatural and romantic about the setting.
The use of the words "frozen grass, numb fingers," and
"frosted breath," place us deeper into the unknown romantic
world. We get the impression that we should be home;
huddled around a fire. Only a hero or a villain would be
out on a night like this. Since we feel this way, the story
is starting in a quiet, but a foreboding way. This improved
the romantic feel of the poem.
The image of the beadsman praying for the virgin is a
strange, romantic idea to us as well. The thought of
someone being paid to pray for someone long dead is foreign
to us. Since this is something that does not happen very
much anymore, we are pulled into the past; a romantic past
with which we associate castles, dragons, knights, and
magic. The adventurous and therefore the romantic feel of
the poem is amplified.
The word virgin itself brings up feelings of curiosity and
romance. Virgins have been sacrificed, guarded by dragons,
and kept in tall towers in romance stories. A feel for the
type of poem is beginning to be formed in our minds. The
romantic feel of the poem is reinforced because now we are
expecting a wondrous tale of adventure and heroism.
In the chapel, the beadsman feels that "the sculptured dead
seem to freeze." He senses that the statues that line the
sides of the chapel are somehow alive, but frozen. Although
at first I passed over this line, it left an impression of
darkness and unknown details. This magnified the mysticism
and the romance of the poem.
As we approach midnight, Keats improves the romantic feel
of the poem by using the phrase, "the hallowed hour was
near at hand." This piques our interest. Something is going
to happen at that "hallowed hour," but exactly what, we
don't know. The fact that the hour we are waiting for is
midnight also adds to the occult sentiments we are already
feeling. Midnight is the witching hour; the hour when our
coach turns back into a pumpkin. Something magical is going
to happen. The romantic feel of the poem is intensified.
The author also uses the phrase "He cursed thee and thine,
both house and land." This leaves the impression that a
mystical spell has been cast. Visions of witches and evil
surface, and we begin to think that our hero may be in for
a bit more than he bargained for. The supernatural forces
him to handle. The adventurous feel of romance is
The romantic feel is emphasized further when the hero is
trying to find Madeline; his love. He asks Angela to tell
him "by the holy loom which none but secret sisterhood may
see," where she is. He is referring to the custom of
leaving lambs wool on the alter for nuns to weave into
garments for themselves. We feel there is some kind of
secret organization that has existed for untold ages. This
adds to the romantic feel of the poem.
In the fourteenth stanza the romantic feel is developed
further by the use of the words "Thou must hold water in a
witches sieve, and be liege-lord of all the Elves and
Fays." This entire line is full of wonder and mystery. We
should also note that the words "Elves and Fays" are
capitalized. This is Keats' way of putting even more
emphasis on the mystical idea of elves and fairies. This
arouses our feelings of adventure; which is part of romance.
The fact that the old crone kept a closed wondrous book of
riddles also fortifies the romantic feel of the poem.
Firstly, riddles are questions or statements testing
ingenuity. This itself is curious enough, but the fact that
the book is closed places this statement off the scale. We
cannot know the riddles now or ever because the book is
closed. The romantic feel of the poem has been augmented.
The romantic feel of the poem, "The Eve of Saint Agnes", is
enhanced by the use of images of mystery and the unknown.
These types of images cause us to think about far away
lands, dragons, witches and other magical wonders. Since
one of our aims when we read romance is to escape, these
images are very effective.
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