|"The Eve of St. Agnes," by Millais|
Cockney? Sure. Aesthete? Absolutely. But John Keats also took many of his cues from the dominant culture of his time and place, and the dominant culture of nineteenth century London was as bourgeois as a lace antimacassar on an Empire settee. Consider, for example, his narrative poem “The Eve of St. Agnes.” For all of its medieval trappings—creepy gothic castles, feuding aristocratic dynasties, pale maidens, daring youths, bloated knights sprawled out dozing in the great hall with haunches of beef, flagons of ale, and drowsy hounds in attendance—the fundamental ideological architecture of the thing is of a piece with that of the great nineteenth century novels that taught the burgeoning middle class how to be, well, middle class.
Firstly there’s the emphasis on a kind of inner synthesis, a balancing of the individual’s urges. This is the stuff of many a bildungsroman: passions and reason, sociability and self-containment, sympathy and judgment—in one way or another, we find the great genre of the middle class creating protagonists who learn to police themselves. They model the creation of a personality type the sociologist David Reisman saw as typical of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the inner-directed subject. Such subjects were the result of populations torn from the tradition-bound life of pre-industrial villages, where mores were inherited from, and enforced by, a longstanding and close-knit community. In an age of increased mobility, greater personal freedom, and the disruption of old communities—in, that is, the capital-accumulating societies of western Europe and America in the nineteenth century—a new way of life called for a new kind of person. As Reisman put it, the new society bred “character types who can manage to live socially without strict and self-evident tradition-direction.” They do so with reference to an “internal gyroscope,” which allows them to reach some form of moral balance in the absence of external direction from established community. My personal touchstone for this kind of novel is Jane Eyre, where the passions symbolized by fire and the anti-social self-control symbolized by water threaten to overwhelm Jane until, at the end, we see her control and balance them, as she brings the chastened Mr. Rochester a tray with a glass of water and a candle—the emblems of forces she has learned to control.
In “The Eve of St. Agnes,” we see a synthesis of the bodily urges and the spiritual ones. We begin and end with images of unmitigated bodily bloat—in the form of a feast-hall of overstuffed and indolent nobles—and equally unmitigated spiritual sterility—in the form of a holy man, cold and alone, counting his rosary in ashen reverie. In between, we find the tale of Madeline, a pure maiden who goes to bed without eating in hopes of seeing a vision of her future husband on St. Agnes’ eve, the night when such things happen, according to ancient lore. Unknown to Madeline, the young Porphyro, scion of a rival noble house sworn to enmity with her own, has found his way into the castle and, planning to seduce her, has hidden himself in her chambers. The poem associates him with bodily lust and with the warm colors—red, purple—and her with spiritual purity and cold colors like white and silver. When the would-be lover sees Madeline in her chamber, we get a kind of fusion of the two symbolic colors, foreshadowing the union of spiritual and bodily elements in the birth of love:
A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
All garlanded with carven imag'ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush'd with blood of queens and kings.
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;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven:—Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.
Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
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.
Well, it goes on, with the sheer spiritual innocence of Madeline converting Porphyro’s bodily lust into something finer, and the physical presence of Porphyro leading Madeline out of the realm of spiritual visions and into the reality of love. It’s another one of those grand bourgeois moments of synthesis, forging an inner ethos for the characters. Sure, we’re in a castle, but we’re miles from the way actual medieval romances like, say, Gawain and the Green Knight, work, with their tests of whether a protagonist can live up to an externally determined virtue. With Keats, we’re much closer to the bildungsroman than to the medieval quest romance.
And then there’s the matter of the ending of “The Eve of St. Agnes.” The story of young lovers from feuding families inevitably brings Romeo and Juliet to mind, but Keats’ tale is significantly different. Shakespeare allows the tragic death of the lovers to bring the feuding houses together: we end with Montagues and Capulets reconciled, and inasmuch as there is any redemption in the play, it comes in the form of a restoration of harmony among noble houses. In Keats, the emphasis isn’t on the houses at all—dynasties simply aren’t as important in the world of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie as they were in Shakespeare’s day. Instead, we end with the two lovers escaping, not to an assured happiness, but to a storm. They leave Madeline’s clan behind, not for the security of Porphyro’s ancestral house, but to hazard their fortunes in a world of large and brutal forces, indifferent to their happiness or unhappiness:
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flaggon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:—
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;—
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar'd. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch'd, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.
A little domestic pair, removed from stability, exposed to the indifferent forces of the storm—it’s an image of the modern bourgeois couple, cut free from the traditional bonds of extended family, hoping for the best in a world in which they may or may not thrive, but which they cannot control. The presence of the beadsman and his “ashes cold” reminds us that fertility and worldly happiness depend on couples like Porphyro and Madeline, and that retreat from the stormy world they hazard is a retreat from modern life itself. We root for them, the way we root for any young couple setting out in the world capitalism has made. We wish them well, and tremble.