Characters in “The Eve of St. Agnes”

Many of John Keats’s poems, thus far in the course and in general, seem more “meta” than many of his contemporaries’ works. If this was already addressed in class while I was out sick, I apologize, and feel free to skip ahead; but time and again he addresses in praise other writers and even translators, as well as the concept of writing itself. His poem “The Eve of St. Agnes,” though beautifully written and intensely compelling in its imagery, seems less focused on the precise feelings and nuanced perceptions of its characters, and more focused on examining an archetype of a story.

The characters are little more than archetypes themselves; Porphyro is the valiant knight who will overcome any obstacle to be with his love, while Madeline is the demure, untainted object of affection. It is understandable why anyone identifying with Porphyro would want a Madeline, and vice versa*, and neither character is given any individuality that might distract from their perfection. That is not a criticism: both characters perfectly match the roles ascribed to them and allow Keats to direct his readers’ attention instead to the story framework at play.

An early editor’s note draws attention to the similarities between this work and Romeo and Juliet, and I noticed a similar choice in the play: Shakespeare never tells us why the Montagues and the Capulets are fighting or what the original slight was. The result is that readers cannot pick sides, censure either Romeo or Juliet for failing to immediately disown his or her family, and decide that one does not deserve the other’s love. The circumstances keeping the characters apart are carefully constructed to have absolutely no impact on readers’ perception of those characters themselves. Similarly, there is no room in either Madeline or Porphyro’s characters for either one of them to fail the other, which means, in turn, that readers cannot brush off the bleak final stanza as just because they weren’t right for each other.


*Unless you are, for some reason, averse to strange men hiding in your closet and watching you sleep.

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