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Ashes Sparks


Oppressed Yet Published- John Keats and "The Eve of St. Agnes"

by Katie Sharp


John Keats, after many months of hardship and loss, began what is known as his "living summer when he wrote "The Eve of St. Agnes" in January of 1819. Having lost his brother to tuberculosis as well as having fallen in love greatly changed the twenty-three year old Keats, morphing him into a poetic genius. The upheaval in Keats, life lead him to a poetic place, and that journey is mapped within the careful story of young Madeline and her husband to be, Porphyro. The joining of the brave poetic spirit, Porphyro, with the innocent receptacle of the poet, Madeline, is found within the poem's story. Keats tried to edit the poem to include an explicit allusion to premarital consummation, but his publisher threatened to let another publisher handle the indecent poetry if the poem was allowed to include such lewd suggestions. It was after this threat that Keats washed his hands of "The Eve of St. Agnes" and allowed the original to be published without much argument.

The Life that Lead to the Poem

John Keats, having given up his study of medicine, dedicated his life to his poetry. After two years of writing poetry that was for the most part unsuccessful, Keats went on a walking tour in the Lake District in the summer of 1818. However, before he could finish his tour, Keats became ill. It was upon his return that Keats met Fanny Brawne, who he quickly fell in love with. Tom Keats, however, soon became terminally ill with tuberculosis and Keats nursed him until Tom died in December 1818. After being swarmed by his friends, who were hoping to console the young poet, Keats began to write poetry. It was now January 1819, and the beginning of what is often referred to as the "living year" for Keats (1). "The Eve of St. Agnes" is the first poem that Keats writes in this new, creative period.

"A little poem called St. Agnes Eve"

Keats is believed to have written "St. Agnes Eve" at the end of January and in the beginning of February, while on a trip to Chichester to visit some friends. He wrote the nineteen page poem on incredibly thin stationary that was usually used to write letters to his brother, George, in America. Keats was not very impressed with the poem, referring to it as a "little poem" in a letter to his brother on February 14th of 1819 (2). His friend, Richard Woodhouse, thought that he was a genius and took it upon himself to transcribe "St. Agnes Eve" himself a few weeks after Keats had written it. This was not an easy task, however, because the manuscript was heavily edited and many of the words had leaked through the thin paper because Keats wrote on both the front and the back of each sheet. The original is the only known draft that is in Keats handwriting.

In September of 1819, Keats began editing the large number of poems he had written. He was very unsatisfied with the poem so he heavily edited "St. Agnes Eve," using Woodhouse's copy which was much easier to read. After the editing, Woodhouse recopied the entire poem into a third manuscript. Keats, however, was still not satisfied with the poem and continued working on it, which accounts for the changes that are found in the manuscript that was created by Keats brother, George, on his short visit to England in search of funds. Keats, wanting to marry his beloved Fanny, was hoping to rush this poem through the press so he could make enough money to demonstrate he could support a wife. He went into London to see if he could get "St. Agnes Eve" and Lamia published immediately. However, his usual publisher, John Taylor, was out of town and Taylor partner, J.A. Hessey, that the poem was not ready for immediate publication.

Keats began editing the poem, which he never really liked, until it met his standards while he was editing the rest of his works so that they all could be published together. It was during this time that "St. Agnes Eve" took a vital turn. Keats changed the scene where Madeline announced her love of Porphyro, making it explicit that the lovers consummated their love, despite the fact they were not married yet. This subject was deemed inappropriate for women to read, by both Woodhouse and Taylor. Keats was outraged, and perhaps amused, at their prudish response. According to a letter written to Keats publisher, Taylor, by Woodhouse, Keats declined that he wanted the readership of women:

He says he does not want ladies to read his poetry: that he writes for men - & that if in the former poem these was an opening for doubt what took place, it was his fault for not writing clearly & comprehensively that he [should] despise a man who would be such an eunuch in sentiment as to leave a maid, with that Character about her, in such a situation and [should] despise himself to write about it(3)

This is an amusing diatribe, and would have remained so if not for the fated response of Taylor.

As it is, the flying in the face of the Face of Decency & Discretion is doubly offensive from its being accompanied with so preposterous a Conceit on his part of being able to overcome the best founded Habits of our Nature. Had he known truly what the Society and what the Suffrages of Women are worth, he would never have thought of depriving himself of themif he will not so far concede to my Wishes as to leave the passage as it originally stood, I must be content to admire his Poems with some other Imprint, & in so doing I can reap as much Delight from the perusal of them as if they were our own property, without having the disquieting Consideration attached to them of our approving, by the "Imprimatur, those parts which are unfit for publication." (3)

Thus threatened with the inability to publish, the illicit section of the poetry was never spoken of again. The poem remained in its original form and the three changed stanzas have never been found. Keats reaction to Taylor's veiled threat was never spoken of, although his actions demonstrate that he caved into the pressure of his publisher.

The publication of this book of poetry was slowed because Keats was suffering from horrible bouts of lung hemorrhaging caused by tuberculosis. Woodhouse wrote on his second transcription something that clearly demonstrates the fact that Keats was afraid of not being able to publish his greatest poetic work: "The Published Copy differs from a few particulars. K. left it to his Publishers to adopt which [readings] they pleased, & to revise the Whole" (1). Woodhouse had joined with Taylor in editing "St. Agnes Eve" to the point that the title of it was changed to "The Eve of St. Agnes." There is only one letter, written by Keats to his Publishers, that demonstrates that many of these changes were not sanctioned by him because he asks Taylor to change the poem back to his original wording in a few places after reading the proofs. The number of these unwanted changes is unknown and yet it is only the published version of these poems that is considered to be the authoritative version of the poem.

The Cold of Public Opinion: A close reading of the Poem in regards to Publication

 This poem reflects Keats reception with the public in his earlier poetry, as well as his desire to gain the support of the public. The poem begins in the cold, with the experienced "beadsman" who is praying in the cold chapel. This experienced beadsman is surrounded by dead people and freezing nature. Everything around him is cold, stony and lonely. This state of coldness represents Keats at this point in his life. All of his pervious volumes of poetry had not sold and he was very unpopular with the critics. Keats was out in the cold as a poet, having the experience but no one there to read what he has to say. The beadsman, who is perhaps the Keats before he fell in love with Fanny, is given a voice that is already spent despite the fact he is surrounded by music which touches him: "The joys of his life were said and sung" (lines 20-23).

The poem quickly switches from this sad, mute figure that is never allowed to speak to a young innocent girl who is greatly influenced by the "old wives tales" about the significance of Saint Agnes Eve. Madeline, this innocent new character, listens to all the superstitions and follows each as she retires to bed without supper and does not look up from the floor. This innocent girl calls to mind the youthful Keats who surrounded himself with the literary figures of the "Cockney" group who were idealistic to a fault and who Keats followed blindly for many years until he was no longer in their favor (5). It was at that time, around 1818, that he slipped out of the group, just as Madeline quietly slips out of the party to go to bed without supper with her head humbly bowed just as she was told. A new part of himself is drawn out from the suffering and joy caused by his brother's death and his new love, Fanny. This new part of himself is demonstrated in the dangerous courage of Porphyro who carefully talks Angela into allowing him to hide in the room of the innocent Madeline. Angela is jaded and suffering and seems to represent death in the poem with her described as "a poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing, / Whose passing-bell may ere the midnight toll;" (lines 155-156). Keats reaction to the death of Tom could be represented in this jaded, weak woman who is allowing Porphyro, the creative force of poetry, in to the innocent side of himself.

When Madeline and Porphyro finally see each other, there is a great feast that suddenly appears as an offering to the innocent Madeline while she is sleeping. After singing a poem that Keats had rewritten, Madeline finally wakes up to see the pale figure of Porphyro and is started by how weak and cold he appears to be (stanza 35). She calls to him to be vital and immortal. This makes her into the more human of the two because Porphyro is the creative force of the poem while Madeline simply receives and responds to the will of Porphyro. Madeline is still the innocent Keats, but she is being overpowered by the brave new spirit of her lover, Porphyro, just as Keats is overpowered by the energy that allowed him to believe in "Negative Capability." This vision of a marriage between two warring families allows the conflicts of the self to be shown as a split of the poet into the innocent receptacle of Madeline and the passionate invader of Porphyro. This is the first time that this poetic invader comes to Keats, through the death of his brother and his new exposure to love.

The fact that Keats wanted these two characters to make love clearly demonstrates that these two sides of the poet were merging for the first time. By not allowing this to happen, his editors take away a vital part of the story. These two lovers are never allowed to fully connect with each other before they leave the dangerous castle. Porphyro seems to steal the innocent Madeline from her family to marry her, although she is willing. Within the house, the characters are warm and safe with each other, despite the threat of "a hundred swords" that would quickly attempt to kill Porphyro (line 83). However, they leave the safety and warmth of her room to go back into the storm.

This return to the cold seems to demonstrate the return of Keats to the idea of publishing. The warmth is the creation process with leads to the birth of the poem, through the connection of the innocent receptacle and the passionate spirit of the poetry that enters into the space of that innocent until she is ready to see and understand him. The fact that the innocent, who in my opinion represents the poet himself, is a woman leads me to think of the poet as the creator of life, giving birth to the poems through the inspiration of the male lover. Porphyro calls to her, saying "Awake! Arise, my love, and fearless be," which is something that the poet would need in order to journey back into the cold, intolerant world of publishing. The reactions of both Woodhouse and Taylor to the changes made in the poem demonstrate the rejection and the concessions that Keats would have to make in order to be heard. The creative couple flee from the publishing and not spoken of at the end of the poem (line 371). They are instead replaced with the beadsman, who represents the cold reception that Keats received previously, as though he were expecting the public to reject this poem as well (lines 377-378). This is very telling because Keats gave up his opinion about the poem once confronted with the threat that he would have to find a new publisher. It is as though the creative side of himself ran away and left behind the silent and tolerant man that he once was, which allowed the poem to be given without complaint to the publishers to do with as they saw fit.


1. Stillinger, Jack. Reading The Eve of St. Agnes: The Multiples of Complex Literary Transaction. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.

2. Lord Houghton. Life and Letters of John Keats. J.M. Dent and Sons, New York, 1927.

3. Stillinger, Jack. The Texts of Keat's Poems. Harvard Press, Cambridge, 1974.

4. Hill, Douglas. John Keats. International Profiles; Great Britain, 1968.

5. Lowell, Amy. John Keats. Houghton Mifflin; Boston, 1925.

6. Brown, Charles A. Life of John Keats. Oxford Press; London, 1937.

7. Levine, Philip. The Essential Keats. Ecco Press; New York, 1987.

8. Stillinger, Jack ed. John Keats Poetry Manuscripts at Harvard: A Facsimile Edition. Belknap Press; 1990.

9. Ridley, M.R.. Keats's Craftsmanship: A Study in Poetic Development. Russell and Russell; New York, 1962.

10. Wu, Duncan. Romanticism An Anthology. 2nd ed. Blackwell; Great Britain, 1994.