The Eve of St. Agnes: A Preface, Page 3|
by Edmund Gosse (1900).
In the legend of St. Agnes, upon which we need not further dwell, there is only one slight feature which Keats might (or might not) have liked to use had he happened to be aware of it. That exquisite cup of cold green in a white shrine, the snowflake, is dedicated to this saint, whose innocency,—for her symbol is the new-born lamb,—and her purity as exemplified in this coyest and coolest of all flowers, are needed to permit her with decorum to undertake this sensitive office or presenting in the hollow of the night the mirrored forms of lovers to those who long for them.
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Certain points with regard to the form of 'The Eve of St. Agnes' are worthy of attention. The technical characteristics of it show to a remarkable degree the result of Keats's close study of the Elizabethan poets. The stanza he employs is the Spenserian, a metre of which he made no use elsewhere, except in the unworthy fragment of 'The Cap and Bells.'
In the poem before us, the stanza is conducted with a voluptuous richness not excelled by Thomson, Shelley or Tennyson, or even by Spenser himself. The poem is one of those short narratives in formal rhymed verse which it is convenient to call "romances."
In adopting for 'Isabella' and 'The Eve of St. Agnes' this form, it is not to be doubted that Keats was intentionally restoring to English poetry what has been a signal adornment of it in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
He was competing with those classical narratives in elaborate stanzaic form of which the 'Venus and Adonis' of Shakespeare was the most popular and the 'Scilla's Metamorphosis' of Lodge the earliest and typical specimen. The great difficulty in these tales,—which were so little removed except by the length from the lyric—was to preserve the spontaneity of the emotion and at the same time, the vitality of the narrative,—in other words to be rapturously imaginative, and yet (let us not fear the word) continuously amusing.
It must be said that in the skill with which he overcomes this difficulty Keats has no rival, except himself. To discover a romance in which vision and evolution are held so admirably in the balance throughout as in the Eve of St. Agnes, we must turn to another work of Keats himself,—to 'Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.'
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