John Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes – Dark Poetic Fairy Tale

Categories: Fairy Tale

The Eve of St.


The classic fairy tale usually starts with a damsel in distress and needs her knight in shining armor to save the day. This same fairy tale usually ends in the most extravagant ways and two lovers live happily-ever-after in complete harmony. John Keats has taken on the role of taking the normal fairy tale and adding several dark allusions to it. Keats twisted the main theme of fantasy to tell the story of a dark fairy tale using imagery in his poem, The Eve of St. Agnes.

Keats’s poem, The Eve of St. Agnes, starts off as any normal fairy tale. There is a legend where young virgins are to go bed without eating dinner and they are to only sleep on their backs as told “As, supperless to bed they must retire,/ And couch supine their beauties,” (Keats, 51 and 52).The image of young, innocent girls to sleep on their back gives the image of sleeping royal princesses.

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The main innocent young virgin is Madeline, who is in love with Porphyro. Porphyro also happens to be the son of the enemy and thus their love is forbidden and unacceptable. Madeline is so infatuated with Porphyro, that she refuses any other pursuer in “amorous cavalier” (Keats, 60) because “her heart was otherwhere:” (Keats, 62). Madeline has her heart and her mind set on only one man, what is considered to be her knight and shining armor that is going to come get and marry her, Porphyro. Keats puts this as she is “Hoodwink’d with faery fancy;” (70), which he is saying that Madeline is being deceived by her own imagination.

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This is an image of a girl who is so far gone in her own imagination that she is completely cut off from her reality. Thus, this gives an allusion of foreshadowing of what is too come of whether or not she will be disappointed in her reality.

Porphyro is not introduced till stanza IX with his “heart on fire” (Keats, 75). He is on a mission to see his love, Madeline, and miraculously seeks into her territory without being seen, heard or destroyed because “For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes, // Hyena foremen, and hot-blooded lords,” (Keats, 86 and 87). Porphyro is pictured as Madeline’s knight with his burning love and bravery to enter her chambers to see her as he begs “All saints to give him sight of Madeline,” (Keats, 78). In comparison to the well-known love story of Romeo and Juliet, Porphyro acquires the help of Madeline’s maid, Angela. She is going to guide him, safely, to Madeline’s personal sleeping chambers before the walls of the castle became his “bier” (Keats, 108). Now Keats has developed a story where two young lovers will go to all means to be together while enlisting the help of the girl’s maid, which also sounds like the basic plot line of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead of writing a heart-warming tragedy, Keats turns the plot into something dark when the going gets good.

After enlisting the help of Angela, Porphyro tells her of a strategy to sneak into Madeline’s sleeping chambers and force himself onto being part of her vision as it is the Eve of St. Agnes. Angela is not on board at first but is then quickly convinced and she escorts him to Madeline’s closet. He wishes to watch her sleep and to “see her beauty unespied, // And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,” (Keats, 166 and 167). The actions of Porphyro seem to be intended to be filled with goodness but are actually, for lack of better terms, creepy. Angela is confident enough that the two love birds will marry since she feels comfortable enough to leave a boy alone in the chambers of a girl, which for that time would be highly unacceptable unless they were already married. She tells Porphyro to say prayers since “thou must needs the lady wed,” (Keats, 179).

The imagery of Madeline lying down is that “like a ring-dove fray’d and fled.” (Keats, 198). The couple is finally in the same room, alone, together and Keats gives off the image of a predator-prey situation where Madeline is compared to a helpless creature. The predator-prey allusion comes back again in the line “As though a tongueless nightingale should swell” (Keats, 206). This is a reference to a horrific myth of Philomela. The myth of Philomela is one that she is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, then he “tears out her tongue so she cannot speak, and confines her in a hidden cottage” (Dictionary of Literary Symbols) and ends up turning into a nightingale. The comparison of Madeline to the Greek myth of Philomela really sets up the chambers for a bitter situation and not so much as the romantic fairy-tale. To make matters a bit creepier, Madeline’s “wakeful swoon” (Keats, 236), is described as “poppied warmth of sleep oppress’d” (Keats, 237). Not only has Keats’s compared Madeline’s positioning as prey but her sleep now seems to be more drug-induced rather than enchanting.

In line 244, Madeline’s chamber is described as a “paradise” (Keats) but that is contradicted when Porphyro creeps to her bed “Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness,” (Keats, 250). The wilderness is the reference to the danger of Porphyro being there in the first place, since he is the rival of her family and her innocence makes the chamber a paradise. As for the use of the fear, Keats could possibly be referring to Porphyro as the fear in continuing the language and the imagery of a predator-prey situation. There has already been multiple references to Madeline being compared to helpless characters, now there are more words that relate to those compared to a predator, or in this case-Porphyro.

Porphyro calls himself an “eremite” (Keats, 277). He is now comparing himself to someone that solely worships God or Madeline in this case. He has made this quite obvious through his actions and his mission to make himself apart of Madeline’s vision and cunningness to get in her chambers and hide in her closet. When Madeline wakes up she sees Porphyro next to her, she seems disappointed as she exclaims, “How chang’d thou art! How pallid, chill, and drear!” (Keats, 311). She now seems disappointed in his current appearance has her dream image of her lover has given her high hopes. This is reflected back to when she was “Hoodwink’d with faery fancy” (Keats, 70). Usually it is a person’s dreams that deceive them when reality hits but in Madeline’s case, she seems to be tricked by her own reality. Porphyro is cold and “pale as a smooth-sculptured stone.” (Keats, 297). Then his character quickly changes presentation and he arose “Ethereal, Flush’d and like a throbbing star” (Keats, 318) and then “into her dream he melted, as the rose // Blendeth its odour with the violet-“(Keats, 320 and 321). The language here is very sexually explicit but it does not give the impression of love-making with the reference to a myth of a horrific rape in earlier lines. Her deception of her reality is even further more described as she comes to it and exclaims, “No dream, alas! alas! And woe is mine!” (Keats, 328). Porphyro convinces her that he is not the villain, although his actions and the setting around his actions speak otherwise, as described in line 342, “To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.” (Keats).

Just like any other fairy-tale, the knight (Porphyro) takes the princess away to his homeland, but in this fairy-tale it is undetermined if it is happily-ever-after. Their story ends on line 371 as “These lovers fled away into the storm.” (Keats). The setting of a storm gives the reader uncertainty of what is to become or what became of the tumultuous relationship. The rest of the poem ends on a note that all of the party guests “dreamt many a woe” (Keats, 372) and “of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,” (Keats, 374). The narrator does not necessarily say what happened to the lovers but ending the poem in death, ashes, and satanic associations gives the reader an image that the lovers did not live in happy harmony. In regards to the traditional fairy-tale, Keats has made a quite a few dark implications into his poem, The Eve of St. Agnes. The ending leaves a strong feel of a theme of tragedy but it is personalized in Keats own style that is much different than the Shakespearean way.

Updated: Feb 26, 2024
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John Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes – Dark Poetic Fairy Tale. (2024, Feb 26). Retrieved from

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