John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 48|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
THE EVE OF ST. AGNES
Lamia" has the characteristics of the Renaissance. "The Eve of St. Agnes" has no Greek elements. There is not even a classical allusion in the poem. The details are all drawn strictly from the Middle Ages. The scene is a buttressed castle with guards at the gate; with chapel, tombs, effigies; with great banquet hall, stained-glass windows, columns groined and sculptured into the traceries of Gothic architecture. The religion is that of Catholic Europe. The men belong to chivalry; cavaliers wearing plumes and bearing lances. Vintners, hurrying through the doors, carry flagons to the revelers. The minor properties are all such as one finds in a museum of mediæval antiquities,—trumpets, lutes, gold salvers, cloths of gold and crimson, embroidery frames, chain lamps, canopy beds. Even for the carpets, supposed to be an anachronism, there is ample warrant. [Schultz, Das höfische Leben, i, p.78.] The local color, by chance or careful study, is perfect.
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"Isabella" was placed in Florence; "Lamia" in Corinth; "The Eve of St. Agnes" seems to have no particular locality. A comparison of the names in the various revisions, however, will show that Keats drifted from a cosmopolitan confusion into some consistency. The names finally chosen, together with internal evidence, enable us to fix the castle in place and the action in time. At least all the facts may be given a harmonious historical setting.
Porphyro—in one version Signor Porphyro—is manifestly Italian. Madeline might be English. But Keats deliberately eliminated two names that are distinctly English, Lacey and Dartmoor. There is feud between the families of Porphyro and Madeline. Two of her kinsmen are mentioned, Maurice and Hildebrand. Maurice had been given a Gothic coloring and an Alpine habitation by Byron in "Manfred" in 1817; whence Keats may (or may not) have derived it. Hildebrand is full-blooded Germanic. Keats finally selected these two names after rejecting Francesco Mendez and Ferdinand. The change is significant. It draws a line between Porphyro the Italian and the northern Germanic family of Madeline. Internal evidence supports this distinction. The clan of Madeline's house drink Rhenish and mead; certainly proof of Germanic tastes. Furthermore, in contrast to Porphyro's race, they are spoken of as "a barbarian horde," a phrase which the Latins habitually apply to their northern neighbors. The time is before the Renaissance. There is bitter feud between the Italian and the Germanic families. The conditions are satisfied philologically and historically by an identification of this feud with the war of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, the adherents of the Pope and the Emperor. Porphyro, whose home is in "the southern moors," would then belong to the papal faction and Madeline's relatives would be attached to the party of the German emperor, and their castle might be somewhere along the confines of Germany and Italy,—say the foothills of the Alps. The affection of old Angela is thus given a natural motive. She is an Italian of papal sympathy in the service of the hostile family. The weak link in the argument is the English name Madeline. This, to be sure, is so close to Madeleine that it might be a French name given to a German maiden. But let us not force Keats too far into philology. The argument is not altogether conclusive that he had this situation so precisely in mind. Yet further credibility is given to it by the fact that when he wrote he was fairly fresh from Cary's Dante. It was his pocket companion during the Scotch tour; and in the preface there is some detailed account of the wars of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. There is a strong probability, then, based on the change of names and the internal evidence, that Keats, beginning with a vague notion, ultimately may have thought of the castle as lying south of the Alps and of the feud as due to this historic struggle.
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