In 304 A.D., a thirteen year-old Christian girl named Agnes of Rome was killed when she refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. She subsequently became the patron saint of virgins, chastity, and betrothed couples. On the eve of her feast day, January 20th, girls were historically told to perform rituals that would enable them to see their future husbands in their dreams.
This poem begins in a chapel. A "Beadsman" (a pauper hired to pray on behalf of wealthy patrons) is praying his rosary in the bitter cold; afterward, he goes to sit in ashes and grieves for his sins. He hears music, and in burst the members of a happy party. Keats then introduces us to "thoughtful Madeline," a young maiden who is looking forward to "Agnes' dreams" tonight.
A young man, Porphyro, is in love with Madeline and is on his way to her, hoping for "all saints to give him sight of Madeline" (line 78). He approaches her family's chambers carefully, because "his lineage" is not high enough to grant him direct entrance there. He is met by an old woman, Angela, who recognizes him but tells him to go away, since the members of the party surrounding Madeline have cursed him and his family. Porphyro convinces Angela that he will do no harm to Madeline, whom he loves. Angela grudgingly agrees to lead him to Madeline's room, where he can hide in a closet and watch her unnoticed.
Madeline returns from the party and dutifully kneels for her prayers. Then she takes off her jewelry and undresses (within Porphyro's sight) and gets into bed, as tradition dictates, without looking behind her. She settles into sleep. Porphyro brings out a feast from the closet. He tries to wake Madeline, but her sleep is too deep; he takes up her lute and she suddenly awakes. Madeline is disappointed that Porphyro's presence does not quite line up with the "immortal" voice she had just heard, but she does not want to be left "to fade and pine" (329). Porphyro quickly convinces her to run off with him to the southern moors. The two young people avoid all the dangers in their way out of the house -- guards and dogs -- and escape together.
The Baron, along with his warrior-guests, has nightmares that night. Angela dies, and the Beadsman sleeps "among his ashes cold" (378).
This poem is written in Spenserian stanzas: eight lines in iambic pentameter followed by a single line in iambic hexameter. Its chief theme is the intermingling of the spiritual/dreamy with the physical/sensual. "The Eve of St. Agnes" was, in fact, considered somewhat scandalous when it was first published, mainly on account of the apparent sensuality of Madeline and Porphyro's encounter in Madeline's chamber. There is a loose narrative to this entire composition, but Keats was mainly concerned with the imagery of his poem.
The poem describes a passionate, warm scene, but opens and closes with an air of coldness. Coldness seems to stand for cautiousness, religiosity, and age, while warmth represents youthful passion and the pursuit of pleasure. The first two stanzas of the poem depict a "Beadsman" praying the rosary on a bitterly cold night, acting out penance for sins not explicitly stated; "the joys of all his life were said and sung" (23). He cuts a desolate figure, and it is not clear whether Keats intends him as an object of respect or ridicule. In any case, the Beadsman has clearly renounced all earthly pleasures. The "argent revelry" of courtly people, who are decked out in "rich array" (37-38), provides a sharp contrast. The partygoers act as foils for the steadfast Beadsman, and appear to be concerned with ephemeral matters such as wealth, music, and dance. They are but "shadows haunting fairily" (39).
In contrast, Madeline seems to have her mind on a "divine" (57) things: a sanctified visit from her future husband. Madeline is repeatedly described in holy terms:
"...She knelt for Heaven's grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem'd a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven...
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint" (219-225).
Madeline also experiences the divine in her dreams; in her sleep, her soul is "fatigued away;/ Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;/ Blissfully haven'd both from joy and pain" (238-239). The spiritual perfection of her dream-life is not perfectly mirrored in earthly reality, at least not at first.
Porphyro, on the other hand, is all aflame with pure earthly passion, "heart on fire" (75) for Madeline. He hopes to "speak, kneel, touch, [and] kiss" (81) her: he is clearly not interested in her for purely spiritual reasons. Stanzas 24-26 carry on the dreamy atmosphere in highly visual language: a casement (window) is described as intricately decorated with sumptuous images of fruits, flowers, and a scutcheon (coat of armor). In a decided contrast to Madeline's pious nature, her surroundings are physically luxurious.
When Madeline awakens to Porphyro's lute-playing, the spiritual purity of her dreams is subject to "a painful change, that night expell'd/ The blisses of her dream so pure and deep" (300-301). The pure Porphyro that she had seen in her dream is no more: "Those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:/ How changed thou art! how pallid, chill and drear!" (310-311). However, Porphyro's encounter with Madeline makes him "ethereal, flush'd, and like a throbbing star" (318) and "into her dream he melted" (320). He becomes a spiritual creature through (apparently sexual) communion with her.
After the two lovers escape, Keats returns to the original scene of the poem. Inhabitants in and near the castle are suffering: the Baron and his guests have nightmares; Angela (Porphyro's guide) dies "palsy-twitched" (376), and the Beadsman sleeps among the ashes again.