St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold. (1)
The night between January 20 and January 21 is the eve of St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, who died a martyr during the reign of Diocletian (early 4th century.)
According to a popular legend, tonight young unmarried girls can see their future husbands in a dream. But they must follow a precise ritual: go to bed without any supper, undress completely and lie on the bed with their hands under the pillow. In addition, they have to look up to the heavens and not behind.
Only in this way the future husband will appear in their dreams.
John Keats took inspiration from this legend: his poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” was published in 1820 and, in its turn, inspired a beautiful painting by John Everett Millais in 1863. The Pre-Raphaelite painter took Keats’s poem and offered his own interpretation in the spirit of the nineteenth century, with none of the medieval qualities described by the poet. He seems to have been attracted above all by the moonlight that floods the bedroom where the protagonist, Madeleine, is represented in the act of undressing before going to bed.
His model was his wife Effie Gray (art critic John Ruskin’s ex-wife) and the setting was Knole Park, a large Jacobite house in Kent. The girl is placed in the centre of the room, standing before the bed where King James is said to have slept.
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in seaweed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees
In fancy fair St Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled. (2)
(1) La vigilia di Sant’Agnese- Ah, il freddo era pungente!
Il gufo pur con tutte le sue piume era infreddolito,
la lepre zoppicava tremando nell’erba gelata,
e silenzioso era il gregge nel lanoso ovile.
(2) Su questa finestra la luna invernale splendeva piena
gettando calde tinte rosse sul bel seno di Maddalena,
mentre in ginocchio pregava per la grazia e i doni del cielo;
da tutte le intrecciate perle lei libera i capelli;
apre a uno a uno gli ancor caldi gioielli;
allenta il corpetto profumato; lentamente
la ricca veste le scivola frusciando dalle membra:
come sirena fra le alghe lei resta semicelata,
pensosa e, pur desta, sogna e di veder le sembra,
la bionda Sant’Agnese nel suo letto coricata
ma non osa voltarsi, perché la magia non sia spezzata.
To be continued…