St Agnes Eve January 20th

Porphyro looking at the sleeping Madeline by  Edward Henry Wehnert (1813-68)
Scanned image and text by Simon Cooke
Porphyro looking at the sleeping Madeline by Edward Henry Wehnert (1813-68)
Scanned image and text by Simon Cooke

I first discussed St Agnes and the Fraternity of St Anne and St Agnes on Distaff Sunday . St Agnes was a martyr who, at 13 years old, refused to marry a pagan, and was martyred by being stabbed in the throat. She is well attested and on a list of martyrs dating to AD345. She is the patroness of young women and of chastity.

Folklore held that a maid would dream of her future lover on St Agnes Eve if she took certain precautions. John Keats use this tradition in his epic poem, which begins with a great description of winter.

The Eve of St. Agnes

By John Keats

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:
       Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
       His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
       Like pious incense from a censer old,
       Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

Keats sets up the drama with a poetic description of the folklore:

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.

In the poem, the maid Madelaine goes to sleep to dream of her love Porphyro . He risks everything to visit the young girl, and watches her while she sleeps. She dreams of him and seeing him when she wakes she lets him in her bed thinking she is still dreaming.

When she realises her mistake, she tells him she cannot blame him as she loves him so much but says if he leaves her, she will be like “A dove forlorn and lost / With sick unpruned wing”.

The two lovers escape and run away together.

Keats lived in Cheapside, later in Hampstead, and was published in Welbeck Street in the West End. Keats was trained as a surgeon at Guys Hospital, but never practised, although he did consider a post as a Ship’s Surgeon.

First written in January 23, republished on January 20th 24

One Reply to “St Agnes Eve January 20th”

  1. Agnes comes from the Greek ‘agné’, which means ‘lamb’.
    ‘agnello’ in Italian and ‘agneau’ in French
    The lamb is a symbol of purity, chastity

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