John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 49|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
And now for "the feast of cates"—that feast of offense to some critics. It has been hitherto regarded as an intrusive incident, lugged in by Keats to indulge his taste for effeminate luxuries. Bridges objects to it. Rossetti writes, "Why he did this, no critic and no admirer has yet been able to divine." The answer comes not from divination but from evidence. The feast was an essential element in some forms of the legend. This is actually suggested in the twentieth stanza. Angela has told Porphyro of Madeline's purpose. After he has won her consent to play his stratagem, she agrees to assist him and says:—
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All cates and dainties shall be stored there
Quickly on this feast-night; by the tambour frame
Her own lute thou wilt see.
She makes him wait while she hobbles off on this "catering" preparation. A preceding stanza, giving the legend, states that if Madeline fasted and went to bed, she would not only have "visions of delight" but would also receive "soft adorings" from her lover. The adorings Keats conceived as including the lute-playing and the feasting. The issue is, however, was he herein justified by any external authority? The popular form of the legend, derived from Ben Jonson and Burton, has fasting and only the vision of the lover in a dream. There are many other forms. One of these introduces "the dumb cake." [Henderson, Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England.] A similar form, for Midsummer Eve, has a cold collation of bread and cheese. [Thistleton Dyer, English Folk-Lore.] Another may be more elaborate: "On the Eve of St. Agnes various rites are practiced to obtain a glimpse of the spirit of the husband or to insure a dream in which he must show himself. With this object dumb cake may be prepared and eaten: a supper may be set out to lure the man's spirit." [Peacock, "The Folk-Lore of Lincolnshire," Folk-Lore, No. 48.] The source of Keats' knowledge of the legend we shall probably never know. Nevertheless the evidence of the external warrant for the feast element in the traditions of St. Agnes' Eve should cause his critics to write nolle prosequi across their objections.
Even if there were no such evidence, the poet would be artistically justified in inventing the element of the feast. It safeguards a very delicate situation. Keats, we have contended, is temperamentally prone to keep sensuousness toned up above sensuality. A lover in a lady's chamber at midnight stands perilously on the line between romance and gross realism. Nowhere else has Keats demonstrated more signally the purity of his mind. He portrays with fervor the dualism of human nature, yet always with a saving sense of the holiness of love's privilege. It is the atmosphere, charged with holiness, that keeps the imagination sweet and clean. Hence the insistence, at the beginning, on the wintry chill; it has artistic purpose. Hence the prominence of the ancient beadsman with his prayers, his religious awe; it has artistic purpose. Hence the use of sacred terms, as in "Isabella," to express love's passion,—worship, eremite, angel, glory of a saint. There is no gloating over flesh tints in the privacy of the maiden's room. Madeline's robe slips down; she stands intent upon her vigil, half hidden, like "a mermaid in seaweed." And when Porphyro is at her bedside, he drops on his knees and thinks of the bed as a shrine.
These youthful lovers may be easily discriminated from those in "Lamia,"—those of artful wiles and tyrannous domination. They differ from the lovers in "Isabella." "Isabella" and "The Eves of St. Agnes" both deal indeed with the virgin innocence of courtship. But whereas Lorenzo has no force of character and drifts along on the current of fate, Porphyro has the daring resolution of Romeo. Angela demurs at his proposed stratagem; Porphyro threatens, if she does not consent, to declare himself to his foes and call down the feud. Like Romeo he has the audacity to steal his bride from the hostile house. Madeline, like Juliet, has the courage of love's impulse to forsake her family and flee. We have been told long enough that Keats' lovers are all the impotent victims of swoons and ecstasies. This is superficial criticism. "Isabella" may be a tale of helpless victims. "The Eve of St. Agnes" certainly has executive characters and dramatic action.
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