No. 13: The Eve of St Agnes, John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness… 

So wrote Keats. And he was right. Autumn hails the harvest; apples and squash and pumpkins and blackberries – the last of which always transports me back to my childhood. 

London has been startlingly beautiful these past few weeks. Crisp, foggy mornings evaporate into beautiful days. We’ve had stretches of perfectly clear, perfectly blue skies. The sun radiating low in the sky, brown leaves strewn across the streets. 

As a bit of a country bumpkin I like to be outdoors as much as possible, revelling in the seasons. Bar in winter, which, by now, we all know I dislike. 

Similarly, you might now know I’m not a great poetry reader, and this is where Keats and I come to blows. 

The Romantics… Sigh… I’m not a fan. Never have been, and I’m not sure I ever will be. There are die-hard romantic poetry readers out there who have stared agog after I’ve delivered this conclusion. 

Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake… Sorry, gents. You’re just not my gig. I said as much to my Romantic poetry lecturer, a man with four names (Matthew Scott Lawrence Thomas) of which l still wasn’t clear what sequence these came in after three years at uni. 

I have sat down to read The Eve of St Agnes, this week’s Little Black Classic, so many times and each time I struggle.  I found a reading online, so I took to listening to this instead.

It is the Feast of St. Agnes, a cold winter’s night on 20 January. Madeline, the daughter of a lord, living in a great Medieval castle,  has performed various rituals that will ensure she sees her lover in her dreams.

Her nurse, Angels, tells Porphyro, a suitor, of Madeline’s superstitious beliefs and plan, and so he hides in Madeline’s closet to act as the heavenly vision.

Sure enough, Madeline does dream of Porphyro, and is less than impressed when the real, material Porphryo disturbs her slumber by strumming her lute. No euphemism intended.

This doesn’t stop her from running off into the night with Porphyro, leaving those at the feast to encounter terrible dreams that night and, in some instances, die.

This felt different to Keats’ other poems and Odes, which are filled with seasons and nature. It harks back to Medieval romance – chivalry, damsels in distress etc.

Aside from a man hiding in a woman’s wardrobe being exceptionally dubious (and I’m with Madeline on being annoyed at being woken, particularly with a musical instrument), I struggled with this narrative poem. It’s exceptionally long and Madeline and Porphyro seemed rather two-dimensional, despite the length of descriptions. The conclusion is also completely bizarre and jarring.

Give me Goblin Market instead, please! The teasing goblins and flawed women jump off the pages of Rossetti’s narrative poem in a way that Madeline and Porphyro don’t. Unlike Goblin Market, I also couldn’t find any metaphor hidden beneath the lyricism, meaning my aversion to Keats and romantic poetry still, sadly, stands.

And so, on a beautiful Autumnal day, I dragged my lovely friend Sophie around Southwark in search of the man himself. 

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Many don’t know that Keats was, in fact, an apothecary and worked at Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge. A man of many talents and disciplines.

Sophie and I met in Borough Market, very near a house Keats once occupied, before we embarked on a search for a statue of the poet in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital. 

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After a few laps around the grounds, both feeling like impostors, we headed for a cloistered area, confident we’d find Keats there. Sure enough, in the shadow of the Shard, there he was, peering out wistfully at the hospital he had worked at, as if on the brink of a wonderful, poetic idea. 

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I once more trespassed, clutching my Little Black Classic, a few onlookers looking on bemused (all very standard with this blog). Sophie was an excellent accomplice. I have such a great group of friends – the things I make them do!

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It is, however, a charming statue in a quiet, peaceful garden. Sophie and I could have happily sat with Keats for some time and mulled over the Romantics. But, alas, we decided the pub was calling. Priorities.

Thank you, Ella, for choosing this week’s Classic. Next week… Coleridge! More romantic poetry… Sigh… 

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