The Eve of St. Agnes: A Preface, Page 4|
by Edmund Gosse (1900).
The whole tissue and colouring of St. Agnes Eve betray the hectic conditions in which the great and wonderful poet was working. He said himself, "I am scarcely content to write the best verses, from the fever they leave behind. I want to compose without this fever. I hope I shall one day," he added, but that day was never to dawn. There is perhaps no other masterpiece in English literature in which an equal physical ecstasy is apparent. Like his own Porphyro, the poet is faint with a species of agony, as one who enjoys to the very edge of self-control a perfume or a flavor, a rapture of melody or a splendour of vision. A very little more and the delight would degenerate into delirium, but this step is not taken, the artist continues master of himself. In just an epithet here or an image there the danger is suggested, only to be majestically avoided. But further than this, in the transport of the nerves, sane art can hardly go. The rapture of this poem is proper to a lyric; it is almost without precedent that it should be supported without a break, throughout so long a romance. It is, however, supported, and with such a breathless ravishness of all the senses, that in certain stanzas it almost passes, beyond ecstasy, into positive trance.
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This poem of 'The Eve of St. Agnes' is as fine an example as literature presents to us of the value and power of sheer imaginative vision. When the Carlyles mockingly alleged that the central episode was nothing but "a dream in a store-room," Mrs. Browing indignantly replied that "no dream could ever be made a work of art," unless dreamed by some "animosus infans," like Keats himself. To the sneer that the poem is all concerned with the senses, every one who knows what poetry is will reply, Yes, but the senses idealized. here is poetry pure and simple, with no admixture of non-poetic or even sub-poetic elements. Here is the imagination in its quintessence. Nor, while English literature survives, is it likely that a poem will be written more perennially or deservedly attractive to the youthful, the ardent, and the unsophisticated.
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