The Eve of St. Agnes: A Preface, Page 1|
by Edmund Gosse (1900).
What we know of the history of Keats' enchanting romance, "The Eve of St. Agnes" comes to us almost entirely from a sort of running journal which he sent to his brother and sister-in-law in America. From this source we learn that he spent some time at Chichester after the death of Tom Keats in December 1818. He probably went down to the friend's in Chichester before Christmas, for he was back at Wentworth Place, Hampstead, in the last week of January 1819. He writes to Mr. and Mrs. George Keats (Feb. 14, 1819) "Nothing worth speaking of happened at (Chichester.) I took down some of the thin paper and wrote on it a little poem, called "St. Agnes Eve" which you will have as it is when I have finished the blank part of the rest for you."
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In his next packet he sends the copied draft to America. These remarks Lord Houghton had doubtless overlooked when he said that "The Eve of St. Agnes was begun on a visit to Hampshire," for Keats does not seem to have gone to Winchester, in the latter County, until August 1819. It would doubtless be safe, however, in accordance with a letter to Bailey, to say that the poem was finished at Winchester. In September, Keats writes:—"I am now engaged in revising St. Agnes Eve and studying Italian."
By November he already takes the finished poem as a type of one class of his productions and writes to Taylor, "I wish to diffuse the colouring of St. Agnes Eve' throughout a poem in which character and sentiment would be the figures to such drapery."
The original MS. of the poem, on the "thin paper" which Keats took down with him to Chichester, is now in the splendid library of Mr. Godfrey Locker-Lampson at Rowfant. His father, Mr. Frederick Locker, bought it of a bookseller in London after the death of Severn. The first seven stanzas are unfortunately lost, but from this point onwards the MS. is perfect. There are many cancelled readings, some of them of great interest; these have been carefully preserved by Mr. Buxton Foreman in his noble edition of the writings of Keats (1883). In every instance, the corrections are for the better and emphasize the admirable judgment of the poet. Finally the poem took its place in the famous volume entitled "Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and other Poems," published by Taylor and Hessey in the summer of 1820, at the very moment of the fatal breakdown of Keats's health. Beyond these particulars there seems to be nothing preserved as to the circumstances or the time of the composition of 'St. Agnes Eve.'
But these indications are quite enough to enable us to place its entire history in the eventful year 1819, when the genius of Keats was at its height, and his physical health tottering to its catastrophe.
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