The Eve of St. Agnes: A Preface, Page 2|
by Edmund Gosse (1900).
The Eve or Vigil of St. Agnes is the 20th of January, and it is not impossible that Keats began his poem on that very night of the year 1819. From his windows at Chichester he might see the flocks, silent in "winter fold"; his lonely walks might disturb the hare and send her "limping thro' the frozen grass." It is, at all events, to be pointed out that the poet was perfectly correct in connecting these images of midwinter with his festival, and that some of his commentators, who have stated that Halloween is the Eve of St. Agnes, are quite incorrect.
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Hallowmas or Allhallowstide is, on the contrary, held late in the autumn, and All Hallow's Eve is the 31st of October. Where Keats found his attribution to St. Agnes of the power of summoning up the image of true love, I am not aware. That power is universally allowed to the Saints in congress on the Vigil of their day of united mass, and that in many countries. But what authority had Keats for attributing it particularly to St. Agnes? I do not know, but I conjecture that it was based upon a mistake in one of the books he was reading.
In a work on antiquities which was popular in Keats's day, Ben Jonson is quoted as describing the powers of St. Agnes to reveal to the enamoured their future husbands or wives. For any such passage I have searched the works of Ben Jonson in vain, but in his masque of "The Satyr" we may find these lines:—
She can start our franklins' daughters
In their sleep with shrieks and laughter,
And on sweet St. Anna's night
Feed them with a promised sight,
Some of husbands, some of lovers,
Which an empty dream discovers.
In default of any reference to St. Agnes, we may take (I think) this allusion to a very different personage, St. Anne, as probably having started Keats on his adorable imaginative adventure. Whether Anne or Agnes, vigil or mass, the source really matters nothing to us: what is essential is the incomparable result.
The exact reference is evidently not to be traced by mortal man, for even the excellent Leigh Hunt, whose enthusiastic commentary of the poem in the 'London Journal' of 1835 was the earliest claim put forward for the highest honours for 'The Eve of Saint Agnes'—falls into a hopeless muddle about the date of the festival. There are some disturbing elements of common fact which wither up the delicacy of a vision by their frosty impact. It is doubtless best for us not to try to know too brutally what was only dimly divined even by Madeline and Porphyro.
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