in A Level, English Literature

Below, you’ll find some critical interpretations of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ by John Keats.

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Take a look at Summary of The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats to get a deeper understanding of the story.

How do we respond to the moral ambiguity of the story? 

The critical reception of the poem – both in its original time and in the modern day – is mixed, due to the explicit erotic nature of the lovers’ relationship and the moral ambiguities surrounding the courtship rituals. Is Porphyro an immoral, womanising, rakish figure, or a true love who overcomes all obstacles to be with his intended wife? Is Madeleine deluded into sacrificing her virginity, or is she deliberately inciting the events to happen through ritual and an invocation of ancient magical practises? Keats’ own friend Richard Woodhouse, an early critic of the poem, urged him to tone down the lovemaking scene and render it less explicit, because otherwise, it would be “unfit for ladies”, and so he removed several explicit stanzas and made the scene abstract and symbolic rather than too precisely detailed. On a normal day, it would be entirely inappropriate for a man to steal into a virgin girl’s bedchamber and appear to her, as if in a dream, to have sexual relations. Yet there is also the fact that Madeleine expressly performs a ritual of her own volition in order to attract a husband to her, deliberately shunning potential suitors at the party in order to attract her one true love. The extent to which a person believes in the magical logic of the ritual perhaps has an effect on their interpretation of the credibility of the tale.

How do we interpret Porphyro’s character?

It is important to note that Porphyro himself is also an equivocal figure – many interpret him as a ruffian who tricks an aged old lady into allowing him to enter a virgin’s bedchamber, staging a situation whereby she sees him upon performing her ritual and misinterprets him as her intended husband It is also possible however to see him as driven by fate towards the castle – he happens to decide to go there, despite the blizzard and potential danger, purely because he has a ‘heart on fire’ for Madeleine. He does not learn of the ritual or significance of the date until he arrives, and Madeleine is described both as a ‘faery’ and ‘conjuror’, whereas Porphyro is more bewitched and stunned by her presence into silence and inaction, until she commands him to speak and stop looking so ‘pallid, chill and drear’. Given that the poem was inspired by Keats’ devoted love for Fanny Brawne, a woman to whom he was entirely committed yet unallowed to marry because of her family’s disapproval, it is likely that he intended this to be the true interpretation of Porphyro’s character, as a heroic figure who saves Madeleine from a dreary, oppressive life. Yet, the ambiguity of the storm at the end also complicates matters, as we are unaware whether the characters do ultimately escape to live a happy life, or whether they perish.

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