Reading ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ as Gothic

As today is National Poetry Day, I thought I would celebrate by re-reading Keats’s poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, and am struck anew by the poem’s Gothic atmosphere and use of Gothic tropes (my research focuses on the use of Gothic in poetry). The poem is a narrative of the ‘courtship’, for want of a better word, of Madeline by Porphyro, although it is in fact the account of a seduction which is tantamount to rape, and, eventually, she leaves behind her family to be with Porphyro. Like Tennyson’s poem of the same name, it opens in the cold, with the Beadsman praying in the chapel, where the ‘sculptur’d dead … seem to freeze’; the contrast between heat and cold reflects the poem’s approach to sexuality.

The chapel is indeed a sanctuary, a liminal space that is neither inside nor outside: it is cold, but it is safe, and the action there seems also frozen, for it is not until the poem moves into the house that the colour and movement of the poem really begin. Yet the poem seems to employ the Gothic trope of the threshold: to cross the threshold is to enter a different world which may be full of threats, but may also offer a freedom previously unknown to the heroine. The thresholds in this poem are numerous: Keats seems to take us on a journey from outside to chapel to public chambers to Madeline’s room. Porphyro stands ‘Beside the portal doors’, on the threshold, longing for a glimpse of his beloved. He enters the castle, and reaches its inmost place, the bedroom of Madeline. Crossing this threshold offers him a view of the forbidden – Madeline undressing – and the thresholds that he has already crossed are transformed into a metaphor for rape. She seems constructed in the poem as a passive, cloistered heroine whose function is decorative or at most figurative, associated both with heaven and metaphors for birds: the ‘spirits of the air’ and the ‘tongueless nightingale’. The poem manifests her desire for freedom from her cage, yet it is uncertain what freedom will bring.

The reader is closeted within the bedroom with Madeline and Porphyro, and also within Madeline’s dream-like trance: it is, after all, the Eve of St Agnes, when young women hope to dream of their future husband, and the dream causes her to be vulnerable to Porphyro. While the poem can be read as the triumph of young love over a repressive, unkind family, akin to Romeo and Juliet, Madeline shows little emotion or even enthusiasm: the poem leaves me with an uncomfortable sense that for the heroine to cross the threshold with Porphyro  may mean freedom, but it may also mean danger, and as the lovers leave the castle, like ‘phantoms’, the very bolts and chains of the door seem to be on their side.

The poem is structured to reflect thresholds, like Keats’s poem ‘This Living Hand’; we cross them as we read, and we are also spectators of the passive heroine, which constructs an uncomfortably voyeuristic paradigm. Perhaps it is this element, combined with the Gothic nature of the poem and its remarkably visual descriptions, which so appealed to the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

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