“Into the Storm”: The Ambiguous Fate of Madeline and Porphyro in Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes”
In Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” we are faced with a somewhat ambiguous ending to the “story of two adolescent lovers whose relationship is threatened by their feuding families” (Havird 91). After Porphyro sneaks into Madeline’s room and wakes her from her dream-like vision of her lover, himself, a gift only endowed to virgins who perform a ritual on the Eve of St. Agnes, the two consummate their love then flee into a powerful storm of strong wind, “iced gusts,” and sleet (Keats 997). Although there is no plainly-given answer to the nature of their fate, a close reading of the text reveals that the motif of temperature and the parallels of this poem to older texts give us a hint of Porphyro and Madeline’s destiny, one I believe to be tragic.
Death is the cold reality that finds us all, and by using gothic, wintry imagery in the first two stanzas and after, Keats makes certain we are aware of this. Havird writes that there “may be no stanzas in English poetry colder” than the five that begin the tale (92). A hare “limp[s] trembling through the frozen grass” and a man fingers his rosary and exhales “frosted breath” (Keats 989). The beadsman thinks of the “sculptur’d dead” and how they must “ache in icy hoods and mails” (Keats 989). The temperature remains chilly as Porphyro meets with his only sympathizer, Madeline’s maid, Angela, in a room that is “chill, and silent as a tomb” (Keats, 992). He weeps at “the thought of those enchantments cold,” the ritual of the Eve of the St. Agnes in which virgins are granted visions of their lovers at midnight. However, this is not a real encounter, and so to Porphyro it seems chilly, like a reflection in cool water of a warm, real body.
If cold is death and distance from other people, then warmth is life and intimacy. Heat only enters the story when the person of Madeline is in close proximity to Porphyro. She literally transfigures cold into warmth when “pallid moonshine,” part of the cold outside world, becomes “warm gules” on her skin. She takes off “warmed jewels” before slipping into the “poppied warmth” of sleep (Keats 994-5). As Madeline sleeps, Porphyro fills the “chilly room” with “perfume light” from an Edenic array of fruits and other foods. Then his “warm, unnerved arm” sinks into her pillow as he wakes her up and they are physically intimate soon afterward (Keats 996).
What does this dichotomy of warmth and cold mean for our lovers’ fate? The last two lines of this poem should startle the reader: “The Beadsman, after thousand aves told, / For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold” (Keats 999). To end on the phrase “ashes cold” after emphasizing the link between death and coldness implies that when the “lovers [flee] into the storm,” they are really fleeing into death (Keats 999).
The parallels to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Milton’s Paradise Lost also support this conclusion. “The Eve of St. Agnes” parallels Paradise Lost in several ways. When Porphyro is alone, he is not happy and longs for a woman. He spreads the table “with gooey fruits and sweets, transform[ing] Madeline’s bedroom into a sensual Eden” where she, like Eve, wakes from a dream of her lover to find him present in the flesh (Havird 92). After the sinful act of consummating their love (especially heinous considering it was committed on a holy night), a loose parallel to eating of the fruit of the forbidden Tree, they must flee “Love’s fev’rous citadel” into the blinding storm and face the death that awaits in the cold (Keats 991). Angela confirms their sinfulness by naming Porphyro “cruel” and “impious” after he divulges his plan, saying “thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem” (Keats 992).
However, Porphyro and Madeline are “more Romeo and Juliet than Adam and Eve” (Harvid 92). Just like Romeo and Juliet, the two are victims of feuding houses with only a nurse as a go-between, Angela (whose name is suspiciously close to Angelica, the name of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet), who prays for Porphyro “each morn and evening” (Keats 993). She warns Porphyro to leave for fear of Madeline’s male relatives bringing him to harm. She “kn[ows] his face” and bids him “hie thee from this place: / They are all here to-night, the whole blood-thirsty race!” She names Hildebrand who has “cursed thee and thine, both house and land” and Lord Maurice “not a whit / more tame for his grey hairs” (Keats 991). Instead of waiting in an orchard beneath her window to catch a glimpse of Juliet, Porphyro waits in a “closet, of…privacy” from where he can watch Madeline’s room (Keats 993). Both enter the woman’s space. Just as Lady Montague, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris were collateral damage of the love of Romeo and Juliet, the lovers’ actions bring about death and sadness for Madeline’s family. Angela “die[s] palsy-twitched” and the Baron and his guests “were long night-mared” (Keats 999). It is possible to equate Madeline and Porphyro’s mad rush into the deadly storm with the tragic suicide performed first by Romeo, then Juliet.
At the finish of “The Eve of St. Agnes, we wonder along with Harvid: “Does the escape of the lovers from the house, their flight into the storm, presage their death or life elsewhere together?” (92). The lovers seem optimistic; Porphyro dismisses the tempest as “an elfin-storm” and a “boon,” and gives Madeline hope by telling her of a home “on the southern moors” (Keats 998). Yet, the evidence of the deathly nature of the cold, the tragic fate of Romeo and Juliet, and the divinely sanctioned exile and death of Adam and Eve testify that our lovers met their tragic end in storm or soon after. I think it is safe to conclude that this gothic tale ends in the frigid, deathly tones in which it begins.
Havird, David. “Passion Before We Die: James Dickey And Keats.” Southern Literary Journal
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Hunt, William Holman. The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending
the Revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes). 1848. Walker Art Gallery, Minneapolis, Minnesota. The
Athenaeum. 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.
Keats, John. “The Eve of St. Agnes.” 2012. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The
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