“The Eve of St. Agnes”: A Reworking of the Spenserian Sonnet
As the values of the 18th century shifted from formal perfection to experimentation, so did the poetry. The writings of the 19th century romantic poets explored new forms and variations of the sonnet; they moved away from the heroic couplet, which was dominant during the preceding century by writers like Pope. John Keats utilized this romantic method habitually throughout his works. In his 1819 poem “The Eve of St. Agnes”, Keats refashioned the traditional Spenserian allegory to explore sinful qualities, and personal virtues such as lust, whereas Edmund Spencer’s customary sonnet form usually expressed chivalric and Christian values. This recasting is significant because Spenser would have seen Keats’ virtues as immoral and corrupt, and Keats resents this through the poem, contrasting sins and reality with a religious dream state.
The portrayal of these acts is best represented in stanzas 28 to 30 through the character of Porphyro, who commits several of the Cardinal Sins. Stanza 28 uses mostly punctuation, (caesuras and end stops) to reflect the relationship between form and content. In the first two lines, Porphyro lusts while he watches Madeline undress: “ Stól’n tó this páradíse, and só entránced, /Pórphyró gázed upón her émpty dréss,” The first line containing 11 syllables, and Keats’ use of the comma after the word “entranced”, forces the reader to remain on the line absorbing the situation laid out. The end stop enclosing the second line serves a similar purpose, pausing for the reader to actually gaze. This occurs again in the sixth line of stanza 28, when Keats uses a caesura after the word “himself: ” and, the reader breathes with Porphyro, because one naturally does so when punctuation occurs. Keats’ frequent use of punctuation slowly progresses the reader through Porphyro’s intentions and actions. In this stanza there is an end stop and or caesura in every line. This illustrates the fact that Porhpyro is making several different movements, but they are all very quickly and quietly executed, while still hiding in the closet.
As the latter stanza transitions into stanza 29, Porphyro begins to implement his plan to seduce Madeline, while she continues to dream. He first places a table out to set food upon: “A táble, ánd, half ánguish’d, thréw thereón/ A clóth of wóven crímson, góld, and jét:— (Keats 255-256) Keats’ color choice of the cloth for the table is interesting, because not one of the colors has solely positive symbolism. Crimson along with gold are colors of nobility and riches; crimson also representing sin in the Bible. (Patch) This association helps to portray Porphyro’s acts, as what Spenser would have seen as unchristian, because nobility and riches indicate gluttony, again representing the breaking of a Cardinal Sin.
Black (jet) is often associated with death, and in the beginning of “The Eve of St. Agnes” it also symbolizes cold, and reality: “The...