I have been on my own for two days. The family is away being athletic – not a talent I can share with them. So who could I turn to for company but John Keats?
Yesterday I re-read Isabella: or the Pot of Basil and was struck not by the undoubted flaws it contains, but by the wonderful storytelling and the way Keats lets his personality and his political views sneak in to some of the stanzas.
Today though, I have taken the reading of his poetry to another level, with The Eve of St Agnes.
I didn’t want to undertake a long analysis here, but to encourage you to read the poem, but put simply it is a poem populated by stock characters (young lovers, warring families, old nurses) but packed with description. It isn’t a story that rattles along; it lingers on detail and draws the reader in from the bitter cold of both the weather and the hearts of the violent families into the warmth of the chamber belonging to a young woman – Madeline – who undertakes the rituals of St Agnes’ Eve in order to dream of her future love. That lover appears in physical form as young Porphyro who bribes Madeline’s old nurse to allow him access to the bedroom where Madeline sleeps. He enters her dream, and when she wakes (here there is some doubt as to whether they consummate their love – an addition that shocked some readers at the time and worried Keats’ publisher enough to ask him to tone it down) Porphyro declares her his bride and they run away from the castle into the storm.
So does this old story oft repeated justify the title of this post? I will tell you why I believe so. It is because of stanza XXIV, in which Keats describes Madeline’s chamber….
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.
I would encourage you to read this aloud, or just under your breath. Feel and enjoy the words as if they were a plate of the most delicious food you can imagine. It is no surprise that Keats was a significant influence on the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian poets such as Tennyson. The poem as a whole is a visual delight, the colours sparkle through the text and it is as if Keats has had a vision of Millais’ or Holman Hunt’s representations of the story as he writes – he is literally creating a work of art on the page.
I think these literally are the most beautiful words in English Literature. A controversial assertion I am sure but one I feel confident making. A close second, and of a similar sensual nature, are also by Keats (you can tell I am not in the least biased…) from the second verse of Ode to a Nightingale..
O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
So what do you think? Challenge me by all means! I know there are passages in Shakespeare and many other poets that might be quoted but I stand by these as words I could literally consume. They send a tingle down the spine. Beat them if you dare!