Sensuality and Sensual Imagery in The Eve of St Agnes
The Eve of St. Agnes opens in a cold, desolate chapel where the reader is presented with religious imagery: the Beadsman, the rosary, the pious incense and picture of the Virgin Mary. The Beadsman is a stark contrast to the other characters because he rejects worldly pleasures and is in constant isolation so that he may grieve for “sinner’s sake” – perhaps for Madeline and her sins? The cold, silver, religious imagery occurs throughout the poem to contrast against the warm, colorful, sensual imagery provoked by the main characters.
The story introduces Madeline in the seventh stanza as the virginal, maiden who is lost in daydreams of what awaits her when she goes to bed. Keats’ diction in describing what “young virgins” can hope for on St. Agnes Eve adds to the sensual imagery of the poem. Words such as delight and honey’d create a sweet, pleasurable effect on the tone of the passage. Madeline is so anxious for her blissfuldreams that she loses touch with reality; stanza VI foreshadows her later delusion when Porphyro is in her bedroom.
The scene then changes to Porphyro, the “gallant knight” commonly found in medieval romanticpoetry who will risk his life to see his true love. The word porphyro means purple and the character is described as having his “heart on fire” which immediately presents the tension in the poem. Up until this point everything has been cold and dreamlike but Porphyro is warm, passionate and boldly aware of his surroundings. Madeline is characterized as divine and pure while her lover is worldly and at first “implores all saints to give him sight of Madeline” but then asks that he may “worship all unseen.
His hasty and passionate prayers not only mock the religious imagery of the poem but they also add to the sensual imagery of the story. The effect of the imagery on the reader is to convey the message that Porphyro’s actions are as hasty as his thoughts and that he will not stop with kisses. The sensual imagery continues when Porphyro’s heart is describes as “fev’rous” or feverous and the reader learns that the young man could be killed if found by Madeline’s family. He finds Angela (Madeline’s beldame who is “weak in body and in soul” and asks her to help him sneak into Madeline’s room.
At first Angela calls him wicked but she is frail and Porphyro’s tears persuade her to help him, “betide her weal or woe. ” Once Porphyro is hidden in the closet, Madeline comes into her room painfully anxious but is not allowed to speak. The cold moon shines on a red shield and casts a warm light on Madeline’s breasts, not only does this passage combine the cold and warm themes but it also adds to the sensual imagery. Ironically the heat radiates from her breast just as she is kneeling down to say a prayer.
Keats goes into detail about how her hands are “pressed” on her “soft” cross and Madeline looks like an angel; Porphyro cannot imagine touching such a “pure” thing. But then Porphyro’s “heart revives” and he goes back to his burning desire for Madeline when she begins to undress. The fact that Porphyro is watching Madeline undress and she is completely unaware of his presence adds to the sexual tension and reveals more sensual imagery. Madeline takes off her “warmed” jewelry and her “fragrant bodice” whiles her clothing “creeps” to her knees.
Keats’ diction adds to the sensual tension by slowing every action down and purposefully making the reader examine Madeline from Porphyro’s eyes. Madeline is described as being like an angel or a mermaid – a fairytale creature no mortal can touch – but she has developed a new characteristic which directly connects her to Porphyro: she is warm. The image of these two warm, secretive, silent creatures in a cold, chaste room adds to the sensual imagery of the poem. Soon Madeline goes to bed “until the… warmth of sleep oppressed her soothed limbs,” once again the words warmth and limbs are a part of the imagery.
But then the poem says her sleep is “as though a rose should shut, and be a bud again. ” A rose is a symbol of love while a rose bud is a symbol of purity and innocence-this line in the poem suggests that Madeline’s sensuality will bloom but afterwards she will want to be a virgin again. After Madeline falls asleep Porphyro creeps out of the closet and sees “where the faded moon made a dim, silver twilight. ” At last the silver, cold, dream-like imagery has combined with the warm, colorful imagery to heighten the sensual theme and foreshadow what will happen between Porphyro and Madeline.
Stanza XXX gives elaborate details about Madeline’s bed linens and the feast Porphyro prepares for his lover. The adjectives used in this stanza contribute to the sensual imagery of the poem by making the tone and the setting rich, luxurious and pleasurable. Porphyro then tries to awaken Madeline and claims that his soul aches for her-this can be seen as either religious or sensual imagery. When she does not stir Porphyro sinks his “unnerved arm” into her pillow and he falls into a “dream” and fantasizes for a while before getting up and playing Madeline a song. She finally wakes p and sees “the vision of her sleep” and goes through a series of emotions: happiness, sadness, disorientation and finally desire.
She describes Porphyro as being “pallid, chill, and drear” and “immortal” when the reader knows he is the opposite. Keats uses irony to show Porphyro’s burning love in the first line of stanza XXXVI, “Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far/ At these voluptuous accents, he arose” Madeline though Porphyro was religiously immortal but because of the sensual imagery provoked by the words impassion’d and voluptuous the reader knows that his “immortality” results from his passion and lust for Madeline.
The two most sensual lines of the poem are lines 320 and 321: “Into her dream he melted, as the rose/ Blendeth its odour with the violet. ” The words melted and blendeth automatically reveal what has happened between the lovers and violet adapts a second meaning: Porphyro means purple or violet and he was blended with Madeline, the rose. The poem ends with the lovers running away together to hopefully be joined in Holy Matrimony. In conclusion, through the use of sensual imagery Keats’ tells the story of how dreams and reality can combine to decide the fates of two young lovers.