in A Level, English Literature, Poetry

There’s no way around it, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ is a looooong poem! So, before you start trying to read it directly, make sure that you understand the overall story and main events. This will make the process of reading the stanzas so much easier, and prevent you from getting confused or lost! We’ve made a short summary below that takes you through all the main details of the narrative.

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SUMMARY OF “THE EVE OF ST AGNES”

In a medieval castle, a Beadsman is praying – as an old man who is provided for by the house, his job is to pray for sinners in return for food and lodgings. It is late January, so he prays in a freezing cold chapel, surrounded by sculptures. In warmer parts of the castle, a giant feast is taking place – the Beadsman hears sounds of the party below, but he turns back to praying in the cold because his time of celebration is over; he is near death. A group of merrymakers burst into the room, full of joy and life; Keats focuses on one, in particular, Madeleine – a young maiden who is distinct from the rest as she is not taking part in the festivities. Madeleine is performing a love ritual, where old women tell her that on St Agnes Eve if a young woman goes to bed without supper, then undresses and lies on her bed facing upwards, not looking around her but fixing her eyes on Heaven, she will have visions and dreams of her true love and future husband, and they will feast together. Madeleine decides to take this ritual seriously, so she looks at the floor rather than talking with others at the party – even avoiding men who come to speak with her. She dances, but stares out at nothing – she lingers at the party a little as if she is afraid or unsure about going to bed. 

Summary of “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil” by John Keats

Meanwhile, Porphyro – a young aristocrat from a neighbouring household – arrives at the castle, hoping to catch a glimpse of Madeleine as he has a ‘heart on fire’ for her. The members of Madeleine’s house hate him, as they have a longstanding feud with his own family, and would kill him on sight if they caught him there. Luckily, he bumps into Angela – an old housemaid who has always had a soft spot for him. She is afraid to speak to him at first, but then reveals Madeleine’s plan to perform the ritual. Porphyro sees this as a chance to secure his hand in marriage with Madeleine – he devises a ‘stratagem’, a plan to reveal himself to her in her bedroom at midnight. Angela finds the sexual implications of this horrifying at first, but Porphyro convinces her that his intentions are driven by pure love and to be forever loyal – he certainly wants to marry Madeleine, he is not attempting to trick her. So, Angela leads him to Madeleine’s bedroom and he hides in a closet. 

Madeleine enters, and she is lit by the moonlight shining through a large stained glass window – her hair glows golden like an angel, her crucifix purple, her hands rosy pink and her chest red. The effect stuns Porphyro, and he is fully enchanted by her – the extent to which the magic in the story is real or imaginary is left open to interpretation, but there are references both to Porphyro’s hopes to enchant Madeleine, and Madeleine being a “conjurer” or “faery” creature who bewitches Porphyro. She falls asleep on the bed, and he prepares the scene for a feast. 

He plays gentle music on the lute, an old song called “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” – potentially a foreshadowing of tragedy. She dreams vividly, with her eyes open, seeming to change emotions from wakes up – he is afraid to move or disturb her, so he kneels silently with his hands in prayer. She says that he looks strangely different from her dream and from his usual state – he seems ‘pallid, chill and drear’ and she asks him to return to his usual, lively way of being. He is relieved and revived at her words, as she admits that she loves and cares for him. Consumed by passion, they make love – an act described using sensual imagery: “Into her dream, he melted, as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet.”

Afterwards, the blizzard outside increases as sleet beats against the window panes. Madeleine realises that Porphyro is real, and is afraid that he will leave her – but he asks her to come with him and they escape into the night. It is ambiguous whether they manage to start a new life in his home in the south, as he promises, or whether they perish in the fierce snowstorm. The interpretation of the ending being tragic or positive also affects our reading of the rest of the story – is tragic, it would suggest that these characters are flawed; if positive, it would suggest that they are superior to the rest of the inhabitants of the castle, who continue with their prejudices and petty feud. In the end, we are told that both Angela and the Beadsman pass away soon after this event.

Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful and need more help with Keats, you can access our full poetry course.

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