In this post, you will find the setting and use of the narrative voice in the poem Eve of St Agnes by John Keats. Combined with other articles that we have on this subject, it will give you a complete and clear understanding of the poem.
Set in the middle ages, sometime between the 14th and 16th century, the narrative takes place in a castle – the ancestral home of Madeleine and her family. Her house has a longstanding feud with Porphyro’s family, so despite his status as an aristocrat he would be deemed unfit for her hand in marriage – hence his need to resort to covert methods of courtship; he sneaks into the castle hoping to catch sight of her, and then revises his initial plan when he learns that she is performing the ritual of St Agnes. The castle therefore is an oppressive setting for Madeleine, who is trapped by the restrictions and prejudices of her family (all of whom Keats describes unsympathetically), but it is also an actively dangerous place for Porphyro to be in – as Angela observes, any sight of him would lead to his imminent death. This heightens the dramatic tension of the narrative and from Keats’ perspective proves just how much Porphyro really is set on Madeleine as his bride, for he would not risk his own life unless he was very sure that he truly loved her.
The temporal setting is very important: The specific day, the Eve of St Agnes – is reinforced twice at the start of the poem, through the title and first line, as well as constantly throughout. This is because Keats takes advantage of the fact that on certain days of the year traditional medieval festivities allowed for the reversal of typical social roles, or for the disruption of natural order. Therefore, while the events that take place on this day would be deemed highly inappropriate any other day of the year, the combination of the encounter of the lovers with the traditional rituals surrounding St Agnes’ Eve makes it a (borderline) acceptable scenario to Keats’ audience, if still pushing the boundary of acceptability with its clear erotic overtones.
The castle itself is described using sensual imagery, and has several distinctive locations within the whole. A wild and ferocious blizzard is raging outside, which further amplifies the intense atmosphere of the place. Certain areas – such as the chapel where the Beadsman prays and the low room where Porphyro and Angela talk (“Pale, lattic’d, chill, and silent as a tomb”) – are unheated and therefore freezing cold; other places – such as the feasting hall – are full of warmth, life and merriment. This perhaps amplifies the different experiences of rich and poor individuals within the microcosm of the castle environment – for the range of inhabitants within the castle could be said to represent society as a whole.
There is a close focus on Madeleine’s chamber as the centre of the action – like a chinese box, we are taken through layers of the house and arrive in the centre of the poem, along with Porphryo himself, in her bedroom. The bedchamber therefore is described in great detail: there are musical instruments (a lute and tambour), a closet filled with delicacies from all around the world (where Porphro conceals himself); Madeleine’s bed is surrounded by four poster curtains and, significantly, a large stained glass window lets light into the space. As the moonlight passes through the coloured window, it casts coloured patterns into the room itself and over Madeleine – giving an ethereal, magical quality to the setting that stuns Porphryo into a stupor.
SPEAKER / VOICE
Keats’ own narrative voice permeates the poem – although he adopts a standard persona: that of a bard or poetic storyteller who recounts a medieval folk tale, in keeping with medieval traditions of storytelling. At times he is theatrical and excessively dramatic, making the story feel less realistic and more like a play or staged performance:
“He ventures in: let no buzz’d whisper tell:
All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
Will storm his heart, Love’s fev’rous citadel”
Note the shift into present tense here and elsewhere in the poem, at these moments the use of present tense heightens the dramatic impact of the tale, giving it a performative feeling.
The use of third person omniscient narration allows Keats to transition smoothly between the perspectives of different characters, and to shift focal points as an when he wishes. This is contrasted with the dialogue of the individual characters, which is used to reveal their specific personalities in greater detail – Angela’s dialogue, for instance, demonstrates her as a lower class “gossip” figure who exclaims heartily in shock at every detail of Porphyro’s plan: “Alas me! Flit!”. Madeleine remains silent until the centre of the action – the first time we hear her speak is when she awakes from her dream and sets eyes on Porphyro; though some critics have interpreted this as an indication that she is a passive figure with no real agency, it is likely that Keats intended this to demonstrate the difference between her ritualistic trance-like state and the moment where she discovers her true love, which breaks her trance. It could also symbolically imply that she has no voice or presence within the castle, being overshadowed by more extroverted and older figures in her family, but with Porphyro at last she is allowed to express herself.
|TASK: Analyse Keats’ narrative voice in the poem. At what points in the story does he interject and comment on the action? What, in your opinion, is Keats’ attitude to the characters in the story? You may choose to analyse the figures of the Beadsman, Angela, the partygoers, Madeleine and Porphyro. Use evidence from the poem in your answer.
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