PODCAzT 127: The Eve of St Agnes and a Bleak Midwinter

A priest friend reminded me that today is the day before St. Agnes Day, “The Eve of St Agnes” and that, therefore, this would be a good day to post about the famous poem by John Keats.

And so I did!

I read Keat’s poem, in 42 Spencerian stanzas.  It is all very romantic and torrid and lush, with marvelous moments and imagery.  It is imbued with the revival of romantic, courtly love which was coming back into vogue in the early 19th century.  The poem takes inspiration in part from a superstition, which I explain in an introduction.

The Eve of St Agnes would inspire the Pre-Raphaelites, as a matter of fact.  One of their circle, was Christina Rossetti, a poet in her own right.

Christina Rossetti wrote a poem which later was made into a Christmas carol: In the Bleak Midwinter.  We are still within the Christmas cycle until Candlemas, after all.

There it is.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Supertradmum says:

    Love the Pre-Raphaelites, love the poems, and love the blessing of the lambs this weekend. Young girls, if they fast, etc. are supposed to dream of the young man they will marry, which is the point of the poem, as you note. Love the music in the podcast. What is it about January that we are so happy to have all these wonderful feasts in the Christmas season, as if the Newborn Baby wants us to be children all month? We have four birthdays and an anniversary in this month. And, I would hope chivalry is not dead-please let it last somewhere on earth. I laughed out-loud when you said we should use the term beads-man all the time. I wonder what all the people who say the rosary in the morning with me would think if I addressed them as such? Most are my parents age, which makes them really old… Ah, and I love the Barchester series and if people have not seen the series with many great actors. Here is a link for those who have not seen it. It is fantastic. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086667/

    Thanks for the “kulchure”, Father….

  2. benedetta says:

    Thanks Father Z!

  3. Michel says:

    Psalm 141 (I use KJV for all its faults because this is the probably the translation seen by Keats)

    Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense;
    and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
    Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth;
    keep the door of my lips.
    Incline not my heart to any evil thing,
    to practise wicked works
    with men that work iniquity:
    and let me not eat of their dainties.

  4. irishgirl says:

    This was the first time I have ever heard ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by John Keats. Thanks for the reading, Father Z! The music was great, too!
    I was reminded of my first trip to Rome, in 1977. The small pilgrimage group I was in (six of us all total, two couples, an elderly spinster lady, and me, the youngest) had as its guide a funny man by the name of Fernando (or, as he liked to be called, just ‘Nando). I was the only one he called by first name.
    When we rode past the Protestant Cemetery where John Keats was buried, ‘Nando had a problem pronouncing Keats’ last name-he said ‘Kits’. So he passed the microphone over to me and asked, ‘How do you pronounce it?’ I simply replied, ‘Keets’ (oh, how I hated hearing my voice over a loudspeaker!). A funny memory from my first trip to Europe…..
    Back on topic: ‘In The Bleak Mid-Winter’ is one of my favorite Christmas carols. I love the way it sounds with an English choir!
    Oh, I hope there will be video from ‘The Blessing of the Lambs’ this weekend! The little creatures look so sweet, lying there in the basket!

  5. Mariana says:

    Thank you, Father, a wonderful concoction from beginning to end!

  6. AnAmericanMother says:

    Great poem, read feelingly and with appropriate restraint.

    Kipling wrote an amazing short story in which this poem figures largely:


  7. AnAmericanMother says:

    “In the bleak midwinter” —
    Kings College sings it better than just about anyone, if you like that men-and-boys-choir sound.

    We used to sing the Holst setting quite a bit, but have sung the Darke setting the last several years for our carol service. It’s a little edgier, a little more difficult to sing well. I think I prefer it, at least for now.

  8. amrc says:

    Dear Fr. Z.,

    Lush language aside, why would you want to recite and post a poem which romanticizes the rape of a vulnerable, half-awakened woman? And which uses a Catholic saint, tradition and symbolism as window dressing for this erotic, hyper-sensually described crime? St. Agnes is a saint of purity and chastity; and notwithstanding the after the fact marriage, this is still a poem at best about fornication, at worst, about sexual violation. I didn’t listen to your podcast, bec. I remember how much reading this poem unawares recently sickened me. [This is the sort of weird stuff forced on us by feminists in my university. I warmly invite you to avoid this blog for as long as you like! o{]:¬) ]

  9. Supertradmum says:


    It is the modern approach in literary criticism which sees this poem as rape. or an unwanted physical manifestation. The argument that Keats was making a highly sexualized poem was based on the fact that the young man is watching the young lady get ready for bed and sleep and that one thing leads to another. Her reaction to him is that he has seen her deshabille and that she thinks she is dreaming when she lets him join her . It is not a rape. Her reaction is a Victorian and Christian response, of course, to immodesty, pre-marital sex, and voyeurism. But, she is clearly at fault as well. Only feminists interpretations and post-modernists see this as rape. The encounter is clearly consensual and the tension of the poem is in the fact that romantic and sexual love are closely intertwined. Remember when it was written, romance and marriage did not necessarily go together and although we know pre-marital sex is wrong, the poem is clearly a Romeo and Juliet scenario. the families are feuding. The young man and the lady are crossing many boundaries in the poem. But, none of the events would have happened if the young lady was not fantasizing herself on the Eve of St. Agnes. The Pre-Raphaelites were not exactly Christian in their own relationships and Keats was pushing the literary envelope here. The ambiguity of dreaming is there on purpose as a literary device. The poem to me is merely a story of not so pure love connected to a superstition about a pure saint. Such is the mind of the Romantic poet. You do not have to like it, but it is a fine poem just the same and clearly, as Father points outwith regard to the paintings, or at least inferring that , in the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, there was a preoccupation with women wanting physical relationships just as much as men. This was rather new in 1820. As Romeo and Juliet is my least favorite Shakespearean play, I am not a great fan of this poem, but Keats is a master poet nonetheless. I prefer his Ode to Autumn. But, we should be able to discuss pagan elements and Christian symbolism in poetry, unless we are Puritans.

  10. AnAmericanMother says:

    I don’t get that from the poem at all. Not only don’t I see rape here, it’s not entirely clear what happened in a physical sense. Keats puts it so delicately that it remains ambiguous, as was his wont (and given his times). The Pre-Raphaelites were an entire generation later, and they were far more blunt and physical in both their art and their conduct. What they made of Keats can hardly be blamed on him, dead and buried almost 30 years.
    Keats himself was an interesting and conflicted character, and he was torn between the physical and the emotional in love. His extremely poor health may well have affected that conflict.
    I think Kipling is extremely perceptive with regard to Keats in “Wireless”. Sometimes Kipling saw things very clear – I have great respect for his insight into the human heart.

  11. Patrick L. says:

    I enjoy the podcazts. As I spend most of my day at work reading computer screens, these afford a chance to give my eyes a break and also do other things while I’m listening.

  12. John Nolan says:

    It is clear from the drafts of the poem that Keats wanted to make more explicit the sexual congress between Porphyro and Madeline, but in the end settled for ‘solution sweet’. If people want to see this as rape it is their own business (Andrew Motion, in his biography of the poet, offers it as a possible interpretation) although since the lovers elope together the implication must surely be that the congress was consensual. I studied this poem as a sixteen-year-old, and its sensual, even febrile elements and the richness of its imagery had a profound effect on me (I can still quote large chunks of it from memory). But it is extremely well crafted in the far from easy medium of the Spenserian stanza.

    There is Catholic imagery in Keats’s poetry, and not just here. He was certainly an agnostic, perhaps even an atheist like his friend Shelley; but the arid protestantism of the pre-Oxford Movement Church of England would have repelled me also – “… the sermon’s horrid sound”. Pope Benedict’s remarks on Truth and Beauty raise the intriguing possibility that the Pontiff is familiar with the Grecian Urn ode. I like to think that if Keats had lived he might have been drawn to the one Church where Truth and Beauty are found, as Pugin was.

  13. Father K says:

    ‘We are still within the Christmas cycle until Candlemas, after all.’

    Well, only in the Extraordinary Form’s calendar. In the Ordinary Form’s calendar, which the vast majority of the Roman Rite follows, we are in time ‘per annum,’ or as it is often called, ‘ordinary time’ and we will be until Ash Wednesday.

  14. This poem brings back memories! I went to an all-girls school (Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart, class of ’79) and a group of my friends and I were over the moon about this poem. I was a kind of romantic kid, into Schubert songs, and my friends liked Tolkien and stuff. Anyway, we decided to observe the Eve of St. Agnes and do what the girl in the poem did. We combed the poem for clues on what to do (I remember looking up the word “supine”) and checked encyclopedias. We had to find white nightgowns, and I remember something about you had to put your shoes in a “T” and lie on the bed just right … Well, whatever, it didn’t work out. My sister came into my room with a flashlight and another girl, her father came into her room looking for the newspaper. I don’t remember anyone getting a prediction. But I still remember the thrill of that poem: “This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!” Beautiful!!

  15. Indeed, in the 1962 missal calendar . . . Following the Epiphany, we are now in the final part of the Christmas cycle which lasts until Septuagesima, the first pre-Lenten Sunday. The traditional Church year is divided into the two great cycles of Christmas and Easter that center on the birth and resurrection of Our Lord. The Christmas cycle consists of Advent, Christmastide, and the season after Epiphany. The Easter cycle begins with pre-Lent and includes Lent, Eastertide, and the season after Pentecost.

  16. John Nolan says:

    What is also remarkable about this poem (and indicative of Keats’s genius) are the tempo changes in a fairly rigid metrical structure which are startlingly dramatic.

    Into her dream he melted, as the rose
    Blendeth its odour with the violet,-
    Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
    Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
    Against the window-panes; St Agnes’ moon hath set.

    Here, after the semi-colon in the third line. John Keats was the greatest of the Romantic poets and the greatest English poet of the nineteenth century with the possible exception of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

  17. q7swallows says:

    Alas, Father, you made me weep with this pairing.

    Never having studied this poem before, I may have not understood it aright but from this thought sprang my tears: Our Lady did, but do WE “worship Him with a holy kiss,” He who stole into the bower of our world while we slept and looked upon us with more ardent love than ever moved fair Porphyro and Who seeks to spirit us away to His Castle Fair, far beyond our rusty dragon’s gate?  In our bleak mid-winter? How often do we think of God as a lover Who goes to this much trouble?

    Needless to say: I enjoyed this PODCAzT beyond words. As I so often do.

  18. AnAmericanMother says:

    John Nolan,

    Followed without a break ten or fifteen lines of bald prose—the naked soul’s confession of its physical yearning for its beloved—unclean as we count uncleanliness; unwholesome, but human exceedingly; the raw material, so it seemed to me in that hour and in that place, whence Keats wove the twenty-sixth, seventh, and eighth stanzas of his poem. Shame I had none in overseeing this revelation; and my fear had gone with the smoke of the pastille.

    ‘That’s it,’ I murmured. ‘That’s how it’s blocked out. Go on! Ink it in, man. Ink it in!’

  19. Aquinas says:

    Father Z, I very much enjoyed listening to The Eve of St Agnes. Brillianty read. The music was beautiful too. I hope we are going to be treated to more poetry.

  20. John Nolan says:

    @ AnAmericanMother

    Many many many thanks for referencing the Kipling short story which I had not come across before, despite the fact that he is one of my favourite writers! The internet is truly a wonderful thing.

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