See "Eve of St. Agnes," a "Romeo and Juliette-esque" poem by John Keats published in 1820, in which the maiden, Madeleine, retires to bed on St. Agnes' Eve while her awful family throws a large party in another section of the house. A "Beadsman" is a beggar who is hired to pray for his master. (Warning: the poem is rather sensual!)
Keats based his poem on an actual event that occurred when he was living in Rome. On St. Agnes' Eve, 1820, the poet's beloved mistress, whose name is not known, retired to bed. Her husband had brought them to Italy because he wanted to improve his business opportunities, but instead of working hard he spent most of his time drinking with his friends and having orgies with young women. When Madeleine did not appear at the party, her husband sent some servants to find her but they returned without her. Then he ordered his men to search the house but they could not find anyone except the maid who had escaped through a window.
This terrible incident caused Keats to quit his job and leave Italy. He went back home to England where he completed his poem "Endymion". This work is one of his best known today!
St. Agnes is a Roman Catholic saint who lived around 250-320 AD. She was born into a wealthy Roman family but when she was only twelve years old she decided to become a nun.
Agnes is a 42-stanza Spenserian Romantic narrative poem set in the Middle Ages. John Keats wrote it in 1819 and published it in 1820. Many of Keats' contemporaries and later Victorians believed the poem to be one of his best, and it was important in nineteenth-century literature. It has been called "one of the most beautiful poems in the English language."
The eve of Saint Agnes was March 19th. This day in 1380 was declared a holiday in England to honor the birth of Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist and inventor who developed the pendulum clock. The holiday still exists today on a different date depending on the month because there were some months (July through October) when this would have fallen on a Sunday.
Keats chose this particular date for two reasons: first, it was the anniversary of Huygens' death; second, it was the longest night of the year, which would have offered more time for dreaming.
Here is how the poem begins:
"On the third morn of St. Agnes' day,"
A maiden rose up under the greenwood tree
She saw a knight errant asleep in her flow'r
"Awake!" she cried. "Why sleepest thou thus?"
The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats/Authors
Despite his qualms, the comfort and speed of life there suited Keats very well, and it was here that he began to compose "The Eve of St. Agnes," one of his most critically successful and famous poems, which depicts the narrative of Madeline's elopement with her lover, Porphyro.
The setting for St. Agnes' Eve is January 20th, the eve of the Feast of St. Agnes (the Feast is celebrated on the 21st). It's really chilly outside. In his church, a beadsman, a professional man of prayer, is freezing. He briefly hears music coming from the house next to the church. Curious, he goes to see what it is and finds an entertainment: a dancing bear! The bear is dressed up like a lady and is being led by a little boy who is singing.
St. Agnes' Day is devoted to her memory. She was a young virgin princess who died in martyrdom at age nineteen. Her body was taken down from the cross and buried near her home town of Baux de Provence in southern France. Her head was put on display in a cathedral there until it was destroyed during the French Revolution. Today's version of her face can be seen in a stained-glass window at Notre Dame de Paris.
Now back to our story: the priest decides to honor St. Agnes by celebrating her feast day on a night when it is cold enough for people to wear clothes. So he calls for songs and dances to warm up the crowd before starting the service. After the Mass, people go home happy and hungry because it is late. The bear and the boy are probably still here in front of the church doing this every St. Agnes's Eve.
Have a blessed evening!
It was composed not long after Keats and Fanny Brawne's love affair. Keats purposefully stresses the severely cold weather of St. Agnes' Eve in order to underline the pleasant warmth of blissful love. He also uses alliteration to emphasize the severity of the winter chill.
Love makes you do strange things...
When St. Agnes' wool is knitted with reverence. " "Hello, St. Agnes!" It's St. Agnes' Eve, Porphyro, and I'm glad to see you! —It's St. Agnes' Eve! Good angels deceive this very night! But please allow me to laugh for a while; I only have a fraction of a second to mourn." She sits in the chimney corner, spectacled. He comes in wearing his black suit and holds a large basket of flowers.
Porphyro gives her the flowers. She smiles and says she's glad he came. Then she laughs again and tells him it's St. Agnes' Eve! "Good angels deceive this very night!"
He asks what is so funny. She replies that it's Saint's Eve, which is used to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It's the night before St. Agnes' Day, when young girls dreamed of being courted by princes. If they waited all night outside their windows, the gods would take notice and bring about their dreams.
Porphyro wants to know what kind of flowers those are. She tells him they're stargazers, or love-in-the-mist flowers. Then she adds that it's Saint's Eve, which is used to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
The poem "The Eve of Saint Agnes" by John Keats immortalized this tradition. Guarino, Santa Ines, 1650. Since the Middle Ages, Agnes has been represented as a young girl in robes, holding a lamb, a sign of her virginal innocence, and frequently, as with many other martyrs, a palm branch. The phrase "eve of Saint Agnes" came to refer to the night before any holiday that falls on an odd-numbered day of the month.
Oddly enough, today is the eve of Saint Agnes's Day, which comes only once every three years and is celebrated on January 20th this year. So if you're looking forward to it, think of it as the evening before another day off from work!
In England, France, and Italy, girls wear flowers in their hair and put on dresses or suits made of white material with red stripes or spots during this time. In Spain, Portugal, and Greece, girls wear roses instead of flowers in their hair and use red lipstick.
The tradition dates back at least as far as 1342 when the poet John Keats was born. He lived in England and his short poem "The Eve of St. Agnes" is considered one of the best examples of the metaphysical school of poetry. It was very popular in its time but is less known now than it used to be. However, it's still read and appreciated by many people.