Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. II. Love
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
CONTENTS · BOOK CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume II. Love.  1904.
 
VI. Lovers
The Eve of St. Agnes
John Keats (1795–1821)
 
SAINT AGNES’ EVE,—ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the beadsman’s fingers while he told        5
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seemed taking flight for heaven without a death,
Past the sweet virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.
 
His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;        10
Then takes his lamp and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees;
The sculptured dead on each side seem to freeze,
Emprisoned in black, purgatorial rails;        15
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.
 
Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere music’s golden tongue        20
Flattered to tears this aged man and poor;
But no,—already had his death-bell rung;
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on Saint Agnes’ Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among        25
Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.
 
That ancient beadsman heard the prelude soft:
And so it chanced, for many a door was wide,
From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft,        30
The silver, snarling trumpets ’gan to chide;
The level chambers, ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
The carvèd angels, ever eager-eyed,
Stared, where upon their heads the cornice rests,        35
With hair blown back, and wings put crosswise on their breasts.
 
At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new-stuffed, in youth, with triumphs gay        40
Of old romance. These let us wish away;
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one lady there,
Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and winged Saint Agnes’ saintly care,
As she had heard all dames full many times declare.        45
 
They told her how, upon Saint Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honeyed middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;        50
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
 
Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline;        55
The music, yearning like a god in pain,
She scarcely heard; her maiden eyes divine,
Fixed on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
Pass by,—she heeded not at all; in vain
Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,        60
And back retired, not cooled by high disdain.
But she saw not; her heart was otherwhere;
She sighed for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.
 
She danced along with vague, regardless eyes,
Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short;        65
The hallowed hour was near at hand; she sighs
Amid the timbrels, and the thronged resort
Of whisperers in anger or in sport;
Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn,
Hoodwinked with fairy fancy; all amort        70
Save to Saint Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.
 
So purposing each moment to retire,
She lingered still. Meantime, across the moors,
Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire        75
For Madeline. Beside the portal doors,
Buttressed from moonlight, stands he, and implores
All saints to give him sight of Madeline;
But for one moment in the tedious hours,
That he might gaze and worship all unseen;        80
Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss,—in sooth such things have been.
 
He ventures in: let no buzzed whisper tell:
All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
Will storm his heart, love’s feverous citadel;
For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes,        85
Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords,
Whose very dogs would execrations howl
Against his lineage; not one breast affords
Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.        90
 
Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came,
Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
To where he stood, hid from the torch’s flame,
Behind a broad hall-pillar, far beyond
The sound of merriment and chorus bland.        95
He startled her; but soon she knew his face,
And grasped his fingers in her palsied hand,
Saying, “Mercy, Porphyro! hie thee from this place;
They are all here to-night, the whole bloodthirsty race!
 
“Get hence! get hence! there ’s dwarfish Hildebrand;        100
He had a fever late, and in the fit
He cursèd thee and thine, both house and land;
Then there ’s that old Lord Maurice, not a whit
More tame for his gray hairs—Alas me! flit!
Flit like a ghost away!” “Ah, gossip dear,        105
We ’re safe enough; here in this arm-chair sit
And tell me how—” “Good saints, not here, not here;
Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier.”
 
He followed through a lowly archèd way,
Brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume;        110
And as she muttered, “Well-a—well-a-day!”
He found him in a little moonlight room,
Pale, latticed, chill, and silent as a tomb.
“Now tell me where is Madeline,” said he,
“O, tell me, Angela, by the holy loom        115
Which none but secret sisterhood may see,
When they Saint Agnes’ wool are weaving piously.”
 
“Saint Agnes! Ah! it is Saint Agnes’ Eve,—
Yet men will murder upon holy days;
Thou must hold water in a witch’s sieve,        120
And be liege-lord of all the elves and fays,
To venture so. It fills me with amaze
To see thee, Porphyro!—Saint Agnes’ Eve!
God’s help! my lady fair the conjurer plays
This very night; good angels her deceive!        125
But let me laugh awhile, I ’ve mickle time to grieve.”
 
Feebly she laugheth in the languid moon,
While Porphyro upon her face doth look,
Like puzzled urchin on an aged crone
Who keepeth closed a wondrous riddle-book,        130
As spectacled she sits in chimney nook.
But soon his eyes grew brilliant, when she told
His lady’s purpose; and he scarce could brook
Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold,
And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.        135
 
Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his painèd heart
Made purple riot; then doth he propose
A stratagem, that makes the beldame start:
“A cruel man and impious thou art!        140
Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep and dream
Alone with her good angels, far apart
From wicked men like thee. Go, go! I deem
Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem.”
 
“I will not harm her, by all saints I swear!”        145
Quoth Porphyro; “O, may I ne’er find grace
When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer,
If one of her soft ringlets I displace,
Or look with ruffian passion in her face:
Good Angela, believe me by these tears;        150
Or I will, even in a moment’s space,
Awake, with horrid shout, my foemen’s ears,
And beard them, though they be more fanged than wolves and bears.”
 
“Ah! why wilt thou affright a feeble soul?
A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing,        155
Whose passing-bell may ere the midnight toll;
Whose prayers for thee, each morn and evening,
Were never missed.” Thus plaining, doth she bring
A gentle speech from burning Porphyro;
So woful, and of such deep sorrowing,        160
That Angela gives promise she will do
Whatever he shall wish, betide her weal or woe.
 
Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,
Even to Madeline’s chamber, and there hide
Him in a closet, of such privacy        165
That he might see her beauty unespied,
And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,
While legioned fairies paced the coverlet,
And pale enchantment held her sleepy-eyed.
Never on such a night have lovers met,        170
Since Merlin paid his demon all the monstrous debt.
 
“It shall be as thou wishest,” said the dame;
“All cates and dainties shall be storèd there
Quickly on this feast-night; by the tambour frame
Her own lute thou wilt see; no time to spare,        175
For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare
On such a catering trust my dizzy head.
Wait here, my child, with patience kneel in prayer
The while. Ah! thou must needs the lady wed,
Or may I never leave my grave among the dead.”        180
 
So saying, she hobbled off with busy fear.
The lover’s endless minutes slowly passed:
The dame returned, and whispered in his ear
To follow her; with aged eyes aghast
From fright of dim espial. Safe at last,        185
Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
The maiden’s chamber, silken, hushed and chaste;
Where Porphyro took covert, pleased amain.
His poor guide hurried back with agues in her brain.
 
Her faltering hand upon the balustrade,        190
Old Angela was feeling for the stair,
When Madeline, Saint Agnes’ charmèd maid,
Rose, like a missioned spirit, unaware;
With silver taper’s light, and pious care,
She turned, and down the aged gossip led        195
To a safe level matting. Now prepare,
Young Porphyro, for gazing on that bed!
She comes, she comes again, like ring-dove frayed and fled.
 
Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died;        200
She closed the door, she panted, all akin
To spirits of the air, and visions wide;
No uttered syllable, or, woe betide!
But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side;        205
As though a tongueless nightingale should swell
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled in her dell.
 
A casement high and triple-arched there was,
All garlanded with carven imageries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,        210
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damasked wings;
And in the midst, ’mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,        215
A shielded scutcheon blushed with blood of queens and kings.
 
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,        220
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint;
She seemed a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven. Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.        225
 
Anon his heart revives; her vespers done,
Of all its wreathèd pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmèd jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees;        230
Half hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair Saint Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
 
Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,        235
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplexed she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppressed
Her soothèd limbs, and soul fatigued away;
Flown like a thought, until the morrow-day;
Blissfully havened both from joy and pain;        240
Clasped like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.
 
Stolen to this paradise, and so entranced,
Porphyro gazed upon her empty dress,        245
And listened to her breathing, if it chanced
To wake into a slumberous tenderness;
Which when he heard, that minute did he bless,
And breathed himself; then from the closet crept,
Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness,        250
And over the hushed carpet, silent, stept,
And ’tween the curtains peeped, where, lo!—how fast she slept.
 
Then by the bedside, where the faded moon
Made a dim, silver twilight soft he set
A table, and, half anguished, threw thereon        255
A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet:—
O for some drowsy Morphean amulet!
The boisterous, midnight, festival clarion,
The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarionet,
Affray his ears, though but in dying tone:—        260
The hall-door shuts again, and all the noise is gone.
 
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanchèd linen, smooth and lavendered;
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;        265
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferred
From Fez; and spicèd dainties, every one,
From silken Samarc and to cedared Lebanon.        270
 
These delicates he heaped with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathèd silver. Sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light.—        275
“And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite;
Open thine eyes, for meek Saint Agnes’ sake,
Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.”
 
Thus whispering, his warm, unnervèd arm        280
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains;—’t was a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as icèd stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies;        285
It seemed he never, never could redeem
From such a steadfast spell his lady’s eyes;
So mused awhile, entoiled in woofèd phantasies.
 
Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be,        290
He played an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence called “La belle dame sans merci;”
Close to her ear touching the melody;—
Wherewith disturbed, she uttered a soft moan:
He ceased; she panted quick,—and suddenly        295
Her blue affrayèd eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.
 
Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep.
There was a painful change, that nigh expelled        300
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep;
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joinèd hands and piteous eye,        305
Fearing to move or speak, she looked so dreamingly.
 
“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tunable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear;        310
How changed thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
O, leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thou diest, my love, I know not where to go.”        315
 
Beyond a mortal man impassioned far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flushed, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose        320
Blendeth its odor with the violet,—
Solution sweet; meantime the frost-wind blows
Like love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes: Saint Agnes’ moon hath set.
 
’T is dark; quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:        325
“This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!”
’T is dark; the icèd gusts still rave and beat:
“No dream? alas! alas! and woe is mine!
Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.
Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?        330
I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine,
Though thou forsakest a deceivèd thing;—
A dove forlorn and lost, with sick, unprunèd wing.”
 
“My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?        335
Thy beauty’s shield, heart-shaped and vermeil dyed?
Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest
After so many hours of toil and quest,
A famished pilgrim,—saved by miracle.
Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest,        340
Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think’st well,
To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.
 
“Hark! ’t is an elfin storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise, arise! the morning is at hand;—        345
The bloated wassailers will never heed:
Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,—
Drowned all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake, arise, my love, and fearless be,        350
For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.”
 
She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
For there were sleeping dragons all around,
At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears;
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found,        355
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-drooped lamp was flickering by each door;
The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
Fluttered in the besieging wind’s uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.        360
 
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall!
Like phantoms to the iron porch they glide,
Where lay the porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flagon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,        365
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns;
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide;
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
 
And they are gone! ay, ages long ago        370
These lovers fled away into the storm,
That night the baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmared. Angela the old        375
Died palsy-twitched, with meagre face deform;
The beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought-for slept among his ashes cold.
 
 
CONTENTS · BOOK CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 
Loading
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors