Penguin Little Black Classic No.13: The Eve of St Agnes



I read this in a couple of hours on the train coming back from seeing Morrissey in Cardiff. Moz would be proud! I have only ever read the odd line and letter by Keats and have vowed this year to fully discover the Romantic poet’s best work. This seemed an easy place to start. Sort of. Due to the age of the language in these selected poems published in 1820, I had some difficulty following the plot and had to do a bit of online research to aid my comprehension.

The Eve of St Agnes is a 42 stanza poem based on the superstition that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rituals on the Eve of St. Agnes. This meant going to bed without any supper, laying on her bed completely naked with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens. The proposed husband would then appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her. In Keats’ poem the girl is Madeline who pines for the love of Porphyro.

Although I stumbled on the plot, I just loved reading the beautiful words, so lyrical and sensual.

But no – already had his deathbell rung, the joys of all his life were said and sung

Also included in this book are the poems; La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Lamia, Ode to Psyche, Ode On A Grecian Urn.

Here are my favourite lines:

And there she lolled me asleep

And there I dreamed, Ah! Woe betide!

The latest dream I ever dreamt 

On the cold hillside

And this is why I sojourn here

Alone and palely loitering

(La Belle Dame Sans Merci)

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all

Ye know earth, and all ye need to know

(Ode on Grecian Urn)

I am starting to fall for John Keats and will delve a bit more into his biography and works before reading more so that I appreciate the stories as well as the beauty of his carefully chosen words. I’d like to read his famous letters next. I’ll get back to you with how that goes!


Notes on the author – John Keats:

  • Born in 1795 in London. Died, aged 25, in 1821
  • A prominent figure in the second generation of Romantic poets alongside Byron and Shelley
  • Today, his poems and letters are some of the most studied and analysed in English Literature

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