Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” is a long Romantic narrative poem of 42 stanzas set in the Middle Ages.
The protagonist, Madeline is a pure and angelic creature who is in love with Porphyro, while their families are at war with each other.
It is the eve of St. Agnes’s feast day (20 January) and she has to attend her family’s party even though she would rather be asleep in bed. The reason is that she has been told that, according to a legend, virgins who follow a precise ritual will have the charming vision of their future husbands.
They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire. (1)
Meanwhile Porphyro arrives at the castle, manages to get into her bedroom with the help of a very old servant, and hides in a closet because he wants to admire his beloved while sleeping.
When Madeleine retires to bed, she performs the proper ritual hoping to be visited by the magical vision of her future husband in her dreams.
The young man admires her beauty in the moonlight for a while, then he eaves his hiding place. He brings out a feast of rich delicacies from the closet and approaches her bed in order to wake her up.
Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains:—’twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream: (2)
Since his whispering has not stirred her, he picks up her lute and plays it close to her
He played an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, ‘La belle dame sans mercy’. (*) (3)
until she opens her eyes and sees Porphyro in his ordinary form, not in the immortal form she cherished in her dream.
The transition from her vision to reality is painful and she begins to cry while the man, not knowing what to do, remains completely still by her side and looks at her.
Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly. (4)
(*) “La Belle Dame sans Mercy”(“The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy”) is a 15th-century French poem on courtly love revived by John Keats. In that poem the English poet used a number of the stylistic features of the ballad, such as simplicity of language, repetition, absence of details, and the supernatural: an economical manner of telling a story in sharp contrast to his lavish style in “The Eve of St. Agnes”.
… to be continued.
Le dissero come, alla vigilia di Sant’Agnese,
le giovani vergini potevano avere una magica visione
e ricevere dai loro amanti soave adorazione
a mezzanotte, ora dolce come miele,
se avevan compiuto bene il dovuto rituale;
a letto senza cena devono andare,
e supine adagiar le loro candide beltà
e non guardare dietro, né di lato, ma implorare
con gli occhi verso l’alto che il Cielo le esaudisca con magnanimità
Mentre così sussurrava, il suo braccio caldo e snervato
affondò nel cuscino. Il sogno di lei era ombrato
dalle scure cortine: – ma era l’incantesimo della mezzanotte,
impossibile da sciogliere come un torrente ghiacciato:
Suonò un’antica canzone da lungo tempo muta,
in Provenza chiamata “La belle dame sans mercy ”
I suoi occhi erano aperti, ma ancora poteva guardare
anche se sveglia, l’immagine del sonno:
doloroso però era il cambiamento, quasi da annullare
la beatitudine così pura e profonda del suo sogno;
allora la bella Madeline cominciò a lacrimare,
e mugolar parole senza senso e sospirare;
mentre il suo sguardo su Porphyro continuava a indugiare;
lui inginocchiato, con le mani giunte e gli occhi pietosi,
vedendola così trasognata, temeva di muoversi o parlare.