The Eve Of St. Agnes

John Keats 1795 (Moorgate) – 1821 (Rome)

ST Agnes' Eve---Ah, bitter chill it was!
  The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
  The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
  And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
  Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
  His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
  Like pious incense from a censer old,
  Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.

  His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
  Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
  And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
  Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
  The sculptur'd dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
  Emprison'd in black, purgatorial rails:
  Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat'ries,
  He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

  Northward he turneth through a little door,
  And scarce three steps, ere Music's golden tongue
  Flatter'd to tears this aged man and poor;
  But no---already had his deathbell rung
  The joys of all his life were said and sung:
  His was harsh penance on St. Agnes' Eve:
  Another way he went, and soon among
  Rough ashes sat he for his soul's reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners' sake to grieve.

  That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft;
  And so it chanc'd, for many a door was wide,
  From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft,
  The silver, snarling trumpets 'gan to chide:
  The level chambers, ready with their pride,
  Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
  The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
  Star'd, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.

  At length burst in the argent revelry,
  With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
  Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
  The brain, new-stuff'd, in youth, with triumphs gay
  Of old romance. These let us wish away,
  And turn, sole-thoughted, to one lady there,
  Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
  On love, and wing'd St Agnes' saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full rnany times declare.

  They told her how, upon St Agnes' Eve,
  Young virgins might have visions of delight,
  And soft adorings from their loves receive
  Upon the honey'd middle of the night,
  If ceremonies due they did aright;
  As, supperless to bed they must retire,
  And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
  Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

  Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
  The music, yearning like a God in pain,
  She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,
  Fix'd on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
  Pass by---she heeded not at all: in vain
  Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,
  And back retir'd; not cool'd by high disdain,
  But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere;
She sigh'd for Agnes' dreams, the sweetest of the year.

  She danc'd along with vague, regardless eyes,
  Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short:
  The hallow'd hour was near at hand: she sighs
  Amid the timbrels, and the throng'd resort
  Of whisperers in anger, or in sport;
  'Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn,
  Hoodwink'd with faery fancy; all amort,
  Save to St Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.

  So, purposing each moment to retire,
  She linger'd still. Meantime, across the moors,
  Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire
  For Madeline. Beside the portal doors,
  Buttress'd from moonlight, stands he, and implores
  All saints to give him sight of Madeline,
  But for one moment in the tedious hours,
  That he might gaze and worship all unseen;
Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss---in sooth such things have been.

  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:
  For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes,
  Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords,
  Whose very dogs would execrations howl
  Against his lineage: not one breast affords
  Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.

  Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came,
  Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
  To where he stood, hid from the torch's flame,
  Behind a broad hal
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Submitted on May 13, 2011

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John Keats

John Keats was an English Romantic poet. more…

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