n the twenty-first of January in what is customarily believed to be the year 304 A.D., a thirteen-year-old Christian girl, Agnes of Rome, was martyred when she refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods and lose her virginity by rape. She was tortured, and though several men offered themselves to her in marriage, either in lust or in pity ("Catholic Forum"), she still refused to surrender her viriginity, claiming that Christ was her only husband. She was either beheaded and burned or stabbed (sources vary), and buried beside the Via Nomentata in Rome. She became the patron saint of virgins, betrothed couples, and chastity in general, and iconographers almost always represent her with a lamb, which signifies her virginity. The eve of her feast day, January 20th, became in European folklore a day when girls could practice certain divinatory rituals before they went to bed in order to see their future husbands in their dreams. Fifteen hundred years after her death, St. Agnes' Eve would translate itself into one of the richest and most vivid literary and artistic themes in historys.
Of all the works, artistic or literary, that use the subject of St. Agnes' Eve as its basis, John Keats's narrative poem "The Eve of St. Agnes" written in 1819 is undoubtedly the most famous. There appears to be only one other poem that also uses this theme, which is Alfred Lord Tennyson's much shorter "St. Agnes' Eve", first published in 1837. Within the realm of painting however, six well-known Victorian artists chose to depict scenes from the poems, and five illustrated versions of Keats's poem have been published using the drawings of five different illustrators, who, again, lived in the Victorian era or the early twentieth century. Of the paintings, two were painted by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais) and one by a Pre-Raphaelite Associate (Arthur Hughes). The questions to which all this lead are what and why: what was Keats trying to say in his original poem and why say it through the filter of St. Agnes' Eve? Why did the Eve of St. Agnes theme become so popular among Victorians, and the Pre-Raphaelites in particular? Why did they feel it could express what they wanted to say in their art, visual or otherwise? Which elements of the theme did each artist or writer emphasize and why?
In order to answer all of these, we must begin by dealing with the first question, which deals with only Keats's poem, since all subsequent works drew from it. We do not know what prompted Keats to write "The Eve of St. Agnes", as we have very few comments from him on the poem itself, no less his motivation for writing it (Stillinger 32). The little that he said about the work is that it is" 'on a popular superstition'" (32), and also that he wrote at least two drafts of the poem before it was published in 1820, the first, according to critics, more "innocent" (25) and the second more explicitly sexual than the published version. No one will ever be certain if there is a single true meaning of the poem that Keats was trying to convey, and still less what that meaning is. In Reading "The Eve of St. Agnes" Jack Stillinger lists no less than fifty-nine different interpretations of the poem and still says that "These by no means exhaust the interpretive possibilities, and in any case the list and my summaries are simplifications of more complicated arguments" (39) and that "[t]he chief responsibility for understanding the poem continues to lie with the reader, where Keats lodged it from the beginning" (33). The options fall under subject headings as diverse as "Sex, Love, Marriage" , "Poetry, Art, Creativity", "Epistemology, Ambiguity" and "Politics." The oldest and most traditional interpretations generally fall under the "Sex, Love, Marriage" heading, while the more recent critics such as Stillinger, Earl Wasserman, and Harold Bloom instead focus on "issues of psychological motivation, philosophy, and genre" (Scott 88).
The visual artists were clearly most concerned with the poem's imagery and how they could portray it; I will discuss those later. The relation of Tennyson's poem to Keats's is somewhat more difficult to apprehend. Tennyson first published his work under the name "St. Agnes" but in 1857 changed the title to "St. Agnes' Eve", "thus bringing it near to Keats' poem, which certainly influenced Tennyson in writing it, as a comparison of the opening of the two poems will show" (Collins). This is not surprising, given that Keats influenced Tennyson greatly in many of his poems. I believe that it is worth actually juxtaposing the two opening stanzas of the poems in order to explicitly make this comparison, quoting Keats and then Tennyson:
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 the wooly 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. [ll. 1-9]
Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon:
My breath to heaven like vapour goes:
May my soul follow soon!
The shadows of the convent-towers
Slant down the snowy sward,
Still creeping with the creeping hours
That lead me to my Lord:
Make Thou my spirit pure and clear
As are the frosty skies,
Or this first snowdrop of the year
That in my bosom lies. [ll. 1-12]
Both stanzas use very similar images not only in creating scenes of a frozen winter's night, but even in specific details, such as the Beadsman's visible breath "taking flight for heaven" and the way in which Tennyson's speaker's breath "to heaven like vapour goes." On the other hand, while the Beadsman only functions as a minor character in Keats's poem, Tennyson's speaker, in recreating the actions of the Beadsman, subtly takes on the Beadsman's role and functions as the work's protagonist. This idea becomes even more reasonable when one takes into account the fact that the austere Beadsman appears to only be concerned with issues of religious devotion and that Tennyson's poem seems to be much more religious than Keats's -- notice that the scene takes place outside a convent and that the speaker's thoughts are concerned with God and Christ.
If one accepts this notion of Tennyson's narrator in the role of the Beadsman, Tennyson is essentially humanizing him, giving the reader a window into his mind. Keats narrates his poem in the third person and fills it with movement; one could imagine a playwright dramatizing it. Tennyson's poem, however, is static and describes just one picture of the world and what happens in the speaker's imagination. Through his speaker, Tennyson could very well be making a pro-religious statement, since all of his protagonist's beautiful fantasies are about God. The speaker goes from contrasting all that is mortal with all that is heavenly (finding the mortal lacking), prays for release into God's kingdom, and ends with a joyful fantasy of being united with Christ. Given that Tennyson used typological symbolism in other poems, a religious reading of the poem is perfectly plausible. By suggesting this heavenly union, he implies that the speaker's wish for his soul to follow his breath to heaven may not be as sad at it first appears, and that the Beadsman's death at the end of "The Eve of St. Agnes" "among his ashes cold" (l. 378) is only dismal from this world's point of view.
Yet God might not be the only thing that the speaker longs for when he wishes that his soul would fly to Heaven. In the chapter "Keats, Sexuality, and Tennyson's Reticence" from his book Victorian Keats, James Najarian proposes that Tennyson "uses Keats to hint at an eroticism that depends on Keats's sexually borderline reputation [Najarian explains how the Victorians viewed Keats as an effeminate and not completely heteronormative poet] and on the suggestion of not entirely heterosexual masculine desire in his verse" (71). Critics sometimes view his In Memoriam as a piece expressing same-sex desire (53), in particular for his late friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died in 1833. In this vein "St Agnes' Eve" might articulate the wish to be reunited with Hallam, especially if one reads the last line of the poem, "The Bridegroom with his bride!" (l. 36) as a representation of a more earthly coupling. Furthermore, in this somewhat ambiguous merger of Christ and an mortal lover, Tennyson elevates sensual love to a higher plane of value (which is one way of interpreting Keats' poem -- this is another way in which the second poem draws from the first ). In this sense too he adds another dimension to the Beadsman's character. Essentially Tennyson uses the language, the setting, and some of the imagery from "The Eve of St. Agnes" as a jumping off point in order to offer the possibility of a three-dimensional personality to a minor character, express religious and earthly love, and blend the two into a coherent whole.
Though Tennyson was certainly a Victorian, he was not a Pre-Raphaelite and it was the Pre-Raphaelites, especially in the early stages of the movement, who were particularly captivated by the works of Keats (even more so by the works of Tennyson himself; see Holman Hunt's The Lady of Shalott or Millais's h for example). They were fascinated by the theme of romantic love and medieval subjects, and "The Eve of St. Agnes" most definitely provides the first, and while Keats does not expressly set a time period for the poem, the "Knights, ladies" in line 16 and the "carved angels" and cornices in stanza four strongly suggest a medieval castle. More importantly for the artistic Pre-Raphaelite movement, it is a highly visual poem. Take, for example, stanza twenty-four:
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. [ll. 208-216]
These lines are filled with detailed descriptions of the architecture of and objects in Madeline's room, and one could easily imagine how an artist could paint a picture based on these descriptions. Even William Michael Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, said "'The power of "The Eve of St. Agnes" . . . lies . . . in making pictures out of words, or turning words into pictures'" (Scott 86), and Holman Hunt, who created the first important visual rendering of the poem, wrote to Millais in recommending it as paintable subject matter that "St. Agnes" was "'brimful of beauties that will enchant you'" (Scott 87). In his book Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts, Grant F. Scott claims,
[I]t was this notion of the poem as a storehouse of "beauties," as a material object rather than a transparent narrative, that came to epitomize the Pre-Raphaelite response. "St. Agnes provided a rich source of vibrant and colorful images for these artists, but more importantly, I think, it showed tham that Keats was doing in words what they so desperately wanted to achieve in paint — luxuriating in the texture of the medium itself. 
Essentially Scott posits that Keats is "attempting his own Pre-Raphaelite painting" (89) and goes on to cite the many instances in the poem in which the action stops and fixates upon description and the many descriptions that are analogized to aspects of visual art, such as when Porphyro is "[b]uttres'd from the moonlight" (l. 77) (a comparison to architecture) or when he is kneeling by Madeline's bedside "pale as smooth-sculptured stone" (l. 297). He also notes the importance of color in the poem and how Porphyro becomes associated with warm, dark colors such as vermilion and purple (not surprising, given his name), how Keats describes the couple's consummation scene in terms of melding colors, and lastly argues that Madeline is not associated with any color, thus, he claims, demonstrating that her dream of Porphyro is "positioned outside the material sublime of Keats's writing, as if some part of the poet, siding with Angela, wished to keep it and its heroine 'free from mortal taint'(l. 225)" (95). This reading of the poem for all intents and purposes falls under Stillinger's thirty-fifth interpretation in his list, that of "Pure aestheticism: art is the only thing that matters" (Stillinger 61). In accordance with Scott's analysis, Stillinger looks at Keats's letters and finds in his expository writings the things about him that made him appealing to the Pre-Raphaelites. For instance, he quotes Keats's letter to his brothers in which he says, "'with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration'"(Stillinger 61). He concludes by saying that art was by Keats's own intention a fundamental subject of "The Eve of St. Agnes" and that his overt concern with aesthetics made him "an instant hero to the Pre-Raphaelites" (61).
It was actually William Holman Hunt's Porphyro during the drunkenness attending the revelry (The Eve of St. Agnes) that was the instigation for bringing the PRB together in 1848. Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw the painting when the Royal Academy exhibited it that year, and though previously he had been superficially acquainted with Hunt, "[h]e now sought Hunt out loudly declaring that his 'picture of "The Eve of St. Agnes" was the best in the collection'" (Watkinson 40). A strong friendship developed when Rossetti subsequently came to visit Hunt in his studio and the two of them plus Millais became the three original members of the PRB. Meanwhile, they recruited four other promising young artists (William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, and F. G. Stephens) to join them in the Brotherhood.
Hunt's picture illustrates stanza forty-one of Keats's poem:
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 flagon 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. [ll. 361-69]
The work is typically early Pre-Raphaelite in its detail, its even lighting, and its bright "blue-greens, purples, violets, which came to be one of the marks of Pre-Raphaelite painting" (Watkinson 39), and in its close attention to nature. Hunt wrote of his painting,
I am limited to architecture and night effect, but I purpose after this to paint an out-of-door picture, with a foreground and background, abjuring altogether brown foliage, smoky clouds, and dark corners, direct on the canvas itself, with every detail I can see, and with the sunlight brightness of the day itself. [Watkinson 40]
But though technical aspects of the art were clearly of great concern to, he does not focus solely on art as his subject matter. His profound conversion to Christianity came after he finished the painting, but even before this religious experience he still had a "habitual fascination with moments that are turning points in human life, though here, of course, the subject is secular rather than religious" (Landow 480). Of the members of the PRB, he was the most serious, most moralizing, and after his conversion, the most religious. As in the poem itself, Hunt connects the spiritual and sensual. Another of his comments on the painting reads, "'In the meanwhile the story in Keats's "Eve of St. Agnes" illustrates the sacredness of honest responsible love and the weakness of proud intemperance, and I may practice my new principles to some degree on that subject'" (Pointon 32). He equates virtue with the devoted, if sensual, love of Porphyro and Madeline, and contrasts it with the debauchery of the intoxicated celebrants. Along similar lines, Paul Barlow makes the case for a different sort of moral representation in the painting in his essay "Pre-Raphaelitism and Post-Raphaelitism: the articulation of fantasy and the problem of pictorial space." He points out that Hunt chooses to depict the most psychologically intense point in the poem's story in that he shows the moment of the lovers' escape, the moment when the door could creak and the dog could bark, waking the drunken revelers, the moment when Madeline stops Porphyro from pulling out his sword. This tension, he argues, is part of the tension between fantasy and reality that is an element of the underlying structure of the picture, which in turn is created by pictorial space. The lovers, since they are posed near the castle door, are just about to make the move into the "real" (Barlow 73) world, and the drunken porter, who seems to stretch out "perversely"(Barlow 74) into the viewer's space, creates the division between the real and imaginary world. The conflict between the real and the artificial is never resolved. Barlow concludes,
The Eve of St. Agnes . . . undermines at its conclusion the progressive movement from artifice to reality. It turns back on itself once it reaches the border between the two. This is Hunt's confrontation with the problem of style from within a pictorial regime which presupposes a norm of notional stylelessness. It is through these mechanisms that pictorial morality is established, a concern which was to dominate Hunt's thinking about art throughout his career. [Barlow 77]
Hunt wanted to bring art to a higher plane, believing that whether it is pictorial or literary it is best when it uplifts the viewer or reader morally or spiritually. After his religious illumination, he turned toward even more explicitly religious subjects and religious symbolism, the most famous of these being The Light of the World and The Shadow of Death.
Left: Mariana. Right: St. Agnes' Eve from the Moxon Tennyson -- both by John Everett Millais
John Everett Millais was a close friend Hunt even before Hunt met Rossetti. As a painter, he was the most technically talented of the PRB and the most critically acclaimed. He did no less than three different works using the St. Agnes' Eve theme, whether taking his inspiration from Tennyson's or Keats's poem. The first, a small pen and ink drawing created in 1854, derives from the Tennyson version and depicts a nun looking out a window over snow-covered roofs of the convent. The nun is effectively the speaker in Tennyson's poem, waiting for her "Heavenly Bridegroom" (l. 31). In "Millais's "Mariana": Literary Painting, the Pre-Raphaelite Gothic, and the Iconology of the Marian Artist", Andrew Leng calls attention to the similarities between this drawing by Millais and his full sized painting Mariana done in 1851, focusing on the likenesses in subject matter (both show lone women standing before an open window) and iconography. Mariana, longing for her lover, Angelo, thoroughly sick of her embroidery, and trapped and miserable in her castle, looks out of her window and stretches sensually, emphasizing her body and its sexuality. Leng calls the nun in St. Agnes' Eve the "ascetic counterpart of Mariana" in that the nun longs for the absent Christ and says that the crucifix in front of her altar is "the nun's equivalent of Mariana's glass angel." Millais does not approve of her situation any more than he does Mariana's miserable one, as her virginity is a counterpart to the freezing landscape outside; Leng cites Herbert Sussman in saying that "'the twisted body of the crucified Christ above her personal altar is equated with the gnarled leafless tree in the garden.'" In biographical context, this reading of the drawing is quite reasonable. Millais drew the picture on the now infamous trip to Glenfinals with John Ruskin and Ruskin's wife Effie, during which Millais and Effie fell in love. In a letter to her mother, Effie writes that the nun's face bears a remarkable resemblance to the face of Millais himself. In this way, the nun's melancholy virginity represents Millais's own unhappiness in longing for his heavenly spouse.
His next rendition of the same poem from 1857 for the Moxon Tennyson is even smaller than the first (4.5 x 3.3 inches) and is purely book illustration. His later The Eve of St. Agnes however, relies on Keats's poem and is much more sensual. The original study for the painting was done in 1849 and shows Madeline's clothes as they fall from her body. Marcia Pointon remarks,
Represented thus, neither a naked model nor a clothed woman, the figure of Madeline is highly provocative. Clothing as a social practice defines the boundaries between nature and culture, and the act of divesting the clothing is an act of avowal in the physical, a declaration of the body. It is the sight of the empty dress, after all that entranced Porphyro in Keats's poem. [Pointon 114]
Millais compounds the eroticism with the addition of Madeline's thick, flowing hair and long neck (similar to D.G. Rossetti's eroticized Fair Lady), and the addition of moonlight streaming through the window. Furthermore, Madeline stares longingly not out the window but at the bed, expressing the wish for a more earthly union as opposed to a spiritual one like the nun wishes for as she stares out at the heavens. But conversely, another interpretation of the painting proposed in 1894 by Esther Wood claims that there are no references to Madeline's sexuality in the scene and that it in fact highlights her innocence:
There is about her an extraordinary spiritual loveliness, born of the utter artlessness and sincerity of her pose and the girlish innocence of her look, as if the absolute naturalness of the situation were its own protection from all thought of ill. Everything around her speaks of her simple holiness and purity, and seals, as it were, the pledge of the answering purity of Porphyro's love. [E. Wood 249]
This interpretation of the picture is probably a function of the time in which Wood created it. Keats undeniably meant that Madeline and Porphyro have a sexual union in the poem. We know this not only from his unpublished second draft of the poem, but also from Richard Woodhouse's letter to John Taylor (both were friends of Keats, Woodhouse his publisher) in which he writes about the revisions made to the poem to make it less explicit. This letter was published in 1925 in Amy Lowell's biography, and for Wood, writing before the twentieth century, it would easier to deny erotic implications in either Keats's or Hunt's works. Since 1925 though, critics have had to factor sexuality into their assessment of the poem. Given this and the previously mentioned aspects of the painting that indicate an erotic meaning, it would be fairly simple to effectively undermine Esther Wood's argument.
In terms of its technical aspects, the painting is typical of Millais's later style after he married Effie; now that he had a family to support, he wrote that "he could no longer afford to spend a day painting an area 'no larger than a five shilling piece'"(C. Wood 37), referring to the obsessive detail that characterized the early Pre-Raphaelite works. His looser style is evident in this painting in that Madeline is the only carefully painted object; the walls and the decoration on them in the background, the bed in the foreground, are all somewhat blurred.
Though Hunt and Millais were the only members of the PRB to base pictures on "The Eve of St. Agnes," they were not the only members of the Brotherhood to have an intense admiration for it. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was particularly fascinated by the medieval elements of Keats's poems, and in fact it was Rossetti "who chose Keats as spiritual leader of the Brotherhood: he bragged that he had discovered and then popularized Keats's verses between 1844 and 1846. Critics have recently shown how Keats's aesthetic acted as a prelude to Rossetti's own poetics, and to the Aesthetic Movement" (Bottai). His favorite of Keats's poems were "Eve of St. Mark," "Isabella," and, of course, "The Eve of St. Agnes"; he wrote, " 'The Eve of St. Agnes" "and the fragment 'The Eve of Saint Mark' are in manner the choicest and the chastest of Keats' works'"(Bottai). It was even the seventy pounds that Hunt received for his rendition of the poem that enabled the two to move into an apartment together and set the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in motion.
Outside the Brotherhood, the most important artist to create a pictorial version of "The Eve of St. Agnes" was Arthur Hughes. Hunt's earlier painting probably influenced him, and his triptych is very much in the Pre-Raphaelite style, with the bright colors, great detail, moonlight, and stained glass (C. Wood 52). William Morris, an artist and poet associated more with the second phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, owed a debt to Keats's "St. Agnes" when he wrote the poems "Jason," "The Lovers of Gudrun," and "Interlude for April", especially in his choice of diction (Short 514-515). Other lesser known Victorian era artists (not Pre-Raphaelite associates) such as Charles Hutton Lear, James Smetham, and Daniel Maclise also created paintings illustrating scenes from the Keats poem.
It would seem that all of the artistic translations of Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes" created by Pre-Raphaelites and their associates focus on the tension between romantic and sexual love abd between love and aesthetics; given the nature of Pre-Raphaelitism (especially early Pre-Raphaelitism, which was the period in which most of the renditions were created) this is not surprising. Each artist or poet, however, was able to create a highly individual work: Tennyson both humanizes a minor poetical character and adds a religious element to secular love, bringing it to a higher plane; Hunt establishes a moral message through his subject matter and the way he uses pictorial space; Millais aggrandizes romantic-sexual love in the contrasting ways he depicts Tennyson's and Keats's two poems. All of these variations on a theme barely begin to exhaust its possibilities, for numerous other artists have worked with the St. Agnes ' Eve subject as well. It is a tribute to Keats's power as a poet and to the human mind's power of imaginative expatiation.
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Last modified 21 December 2004