"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:"

Thus begins the exquisite poem by John Keats, first published in 1820, about the meeting of two lovers, Madeline and Porphyro . The basis of this poem is the superstitious belief that a maiden would see her future husband if she performed a certain ritual on the Eve of Saint Agnes, the twentieth of January. The feast day of St. Agnes is the 21st. When I was in high school my English teacher read the whole of this poem to the class, clutching the volume of verse to her chest at once point and lifting her eyes heavenward in a rapturous sigh. "Just listen to the beauty of these words," she said. And I did, smitten by the sumptuous sensual imagery, and it has a happy ending which is always richly satisfying.

St. Agnes is a virgin martyr, her symbol a young woman holding a palm leaf or a sword and a lamb. The flower of St. Agnes is the white Christmas rose. Agnes died for her faith in the early fourth century during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian who ordered the last great persecution of Christians. Only 12 yrs old at the time, she was beheaded for her refusal to marry a Roman prefect, an unbeliever. She had already chosen not to marry and be a bride of Christ. Her death had a profound impact and she became one of the most honored of Roman martyrs and Christian saints, and is regarded as the patron saint of young women and bodily purity.

Many old customs prevalent on the Eve of St. Agnes involved rites in which young maidens would discover their future husbands. Dreams were also important. If a maid went to bed without supper or fasted all day and ate only a salt-filled egg at night, she would dream of her future husband. Another custom was to take a sprig of rosemary and thyme, sprinkle each three times with water, and put one in each shoe. Then a shoe with its sprig was put on either side of her bed, while she repeated:

"St. Agnes, that's to lovers kind,
Come, ease the trouble of my mind."

She then was certain to dream of her husband. There are other rites associated with the Eve of St. Agnes, one, if a maiden went to bed without looking behind her and lay on her back with her hands under her head, her future husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her.

"The Eve of St. Agnes" is one of Keat's best-loved works. Another of my favorite passages:

"Her vespers done, Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees; Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one; Loosens her fragrant bodice; 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..."

Contributed by Beth Trissel, a big Keat’s fan.


9 comments

  1. Arkansas Cyndi // January 21, 2009 at 10:27 AM  

    I liked this...Keats hit a homerun with this one, didn't he?

    And I love all the ways a young lady could "discover" her future love. Beats twisting an apple stem out of apple while reciting the alphabet..which is what we did in junior high!

  2. Beth Trissel // January 21, 2009 at 10:29 AM  

    Never heard the apple one. There are oodles associated with herbal lore. :)

  3. Anonymous // January 21, 2009 at 1:05 PM  

    I remember studying this also and I remember a "General Electric Theater" (or it may have been "Alfred Hitchcock Presents")version starring Jeannie Carson (a nice Scottish lass none of you probably remember) wherein the young lady turned around after seeing her lover in the mirror and terrible events ensued. It was called "Time to Go Now." She meets the young man, marries him and then on the next St. Agnes Eve, he tells her "It's time to go now," and disappears because she didn't follow the instructions correctly. When they find her, her hair is white and she's mumbling, "He said it was time to go." Chills... Anyone else remember seeing that one?

  4. Mary Marvella // January 21, 2009 at 6:25 PM  

    The romance of such beliefs. Poor girl became a saint!

    Ah, trust Keats to get to your heart in one way or another.

  5. Scarlet Pumpernickel // January 21, 2009 at 8:51 PM  

    I love Keats! So very romantic and inspiring. The mini lesson on St. Agnes and maidenly discovery was delightful as well.

    Scarlet

  6. Julie Robinson // January 21, 2009 at 10:51 PM  

    Hey Beth,
    I'm really upset. As soon as I saw your message this morning, I came and left a comment before leaving.
    I looked on the posts recently on this site but didn't see it, so I guess it vanished into thin air!

    I had said that I didn't know you were a Keats fan too. When I was in my early 20's I fancied myself in love with him. When I met my husband at 25, he had to gently tell me, "You know, he's been dead for 200 years." LOL

    But who could resist such a romantic figure.
    Ach, 'this living hand . . . .'

    Julie

  7. Beth Trissel // January 22, 2009 at 11:05 AM  

    Sorry your comment got lost Julie. Thanks for trying again. Lovely about your being in love with Keats. Or fancying yourself to be.
    Who can help but fall in love with the beauty of his words and consequently him? :)

  8. Beth Trissel // January 22, 2009 at 11:06 AM  

    Regarding that Alfred Hitchcock flick, no, I don't remember it.
    Sounds creepy.

  9. Joanne // January 24, 2009 at 9:30 AM  

    St. Agnes--my aunt's home Catholic parish in upstate NY.

    Thanks for posting, Beth. Interesting!