John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 50|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
Analyze the narrative. "The extreme tenuity of this poem," writes Rossetti, "coupled with the rambling excursiveness of 'Endymion' and the futility of the 'Cap and Bells,' might be held to indicate that Keats had very little head for framing a story—and, indeed, I infer that, if he possessed any faculty in this direction, it remained undeveloped up to the day of his death." We waive a debate about two of the poems mentioned,—the one an experiment in pure invention, the other a fragment done in broken health. We will apply the test to "The Eve of St. Agnes."
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One test for good narrative is the possibility of transformation into dramatic form. This poem is so finely conceived that with almost no re-arrangement, it acts itself out in the imagination like an exquisite little one-act play on the stage. The structure is here; only more elaborate dialogue needs to be supplied.
We are in a theatre. The beadsman appears like the prologue, and as he passes across the stage, counting his rosary, the orchestra plays the gay measures of a dance. The prayer and the music serve an an overture for the main theme, love's passion as a blending of holiness and worldly pleasure. Then the curtain rises upon a maiden's chamber with mediæval furnishings. A canopy bed on the left; a closet on the right. At the rear a triple-arched window of stained glass through which comes the moonlight in many colors. Subdued music from the hall of dancers below.
Old Angela enters, shaking with fear. She bears a tray of dainties and conceals it in the closet. She goes out and returns, leading Porphyro. He is aglow with sweet excitement. A dialogue follows about the legend of St. Agnes' Eve and Madeline's purpose. Porphyro proposes his ruse. The beldame, dreading evil consequences, falters, protests, relents, enjoins. The lover kneels and fervently abjures all ruffian passion. He secretes himself in the closet and Angela retires. Silence once more; silence, faint music, and the imagined swing of the dance. Then the door opens. Madeline enters, rapt, trembling, with candle in her hand. She tells her beads, rises without looking backward, begins to disrobe.
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps the warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice.
The moonlight shines upon her, giving her head a halo; for St. Agnes has lent a miraculous lustre to the moon in honor of her votary. The candle is extinguished; the smoke rises like incense; the maid creeps into her virgin bed and soon lies—
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut and be a bud again.
Silence again. Down below a door opens. The music breaks forth, "yearning like a god in pain" and is muffled as the door closes. Slowly the closet drapery is drawn aside. Porphyro moves stealthily across the floor—
Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness.
He spreads a crimson cloth on a table, sets out the golden dishes and the fruits. Then he approaches the bed, draws aside the curtain, beholds his beloved tenderly breathing—
In blanched linen, smooth and lavender'd.
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