Keats’ “The Eve of St Agnes” places an unusual strain upon Keats’ distinct genius, while also offering it an opportunity that his Odes and even the fragments of Hyperion, do not possess. Because it is a narrative, it has built into its structure the sense of the future, an inherent implication of telos, that the Odes can take up (and do take up) as a matter of choice, but that are not themselves fundamental to what it is to be an Ode; the Hyperion poems, though narrative in hypothetical design, are fragments.
The nature of Keats’ achievement especially, but not solely, in “The Eve of St. Agnes” is described in what I find to be the single most helpful critical study of Keats: John Jones’ John Keats’s Dream of Truth. It is a necessary pre-amble to Ricks’ Keats and Embarrassment, with the latter a elaboration and expansion of Jones’ insights, performing the crucial service of placing the insights of Jones’ study in the full context of the letters; for though Jones turns to from the letters, sees in them symptoms and clues of what is extraordinary in the poetry, he does not return to them as ends of critical attention. Doing so would be to honor the letters as the fullest expression of Keats’ intelligence, accommodating the quality of the poetry as Jones adumbrates it, alongside that sense for human relationship that, as Jones argues, Keats’ poems exclude, if not by design, then at least in the service of their effects. But Jones nonetheless undertakes the invaluable critical task of recognizing that something is isolated, developed, and refined in the poetry, and could not flourish into the poems that it does were it not thus isolated.
“The Eve of St Agnes” is not—in Jones’ estimate—the greatest of Keats’ poems (he estimates “To Autumn” to be the greatest), but it features as the culmination of his discussion, returning him, with the full unpacking of his thought, to his first pages on “Isabella,” finding in “The Eve of St Agnes” a poem greater than but comparable to that other. Both, it is not a matter of chance, are narratives; in both the pressure of ends that remain suspended in possibility is keenly felt in Keats’ imagining of other people, and in both, because they are narratives, there are unequivocally other people he imagines. Similarly, Ricks thinks “To Autumn” the most perfect of Keats’ poems (though he asks what that sense of perfection entails and maybe costs), but “The Eve of St Agnes” features at the heart of his study, the chapter on “Slippery Blisses” in which he lays out his central principles of art and ethics.
Jones is a difficult critic; he enjoins us to discover with him (whether the effect is by design or not), as he writes, and to adopt his snail-horn perceptions of language. He cannot be made to live by brief quotations or apercus. And because he discovers as he writes, his intuitions and claims are sometimes tentative and sometimes left undeveloped so as to call out for response or development. He has two exceptional critical strengths: he knows just which bits of language in an author are most interestingly alive (or not), and he opens up regions of critical articulation that depend on apprehension of language and life rather than ideas. (He is a perfect critic for Ricks to work from and on.) Working through Jones’ discussion, I cannot pretend to do justice to its many variegations and byways, but I will attempt to interpret it in terms that seem just to my sense of Keats’s poetry and “The Eve of St Agnes” in particular, and then I’ll try to show how it opens up an awareness of the language of that poetry.
For Jones, Romanticism as a European movement can be made coherent through the extraordinary pressure and novel purpose it brings to bear on the lexicon of feeling. But Keats, Jones argues, distinguishes himself even from the other Romantics by doing something quite different with the word and notion of “feel”—something remarked upon by even his friend Dilke who shuddered at the poet’s substituting, in Dilke’s view, the word “feel” for “feeling” in poems—and which Jones believes is a central clue to the originality of Keats’ imagination, relevant especially to that most famous concept of Negative Capability. Jones calls Keats’ sense of “feel” end-stopped:
Keatsian feels is obviously catholic in the range of feeling-situations which it embraces; there can be no question of it identifying some refined or specialized application of the broad term ‘feeling’. Now the width of feel goes hand in hand with a kind of stuntedness, and I mean to lay great stress on this particular coupling because it is the width that places Keats at the heart of the Romantic movement and the stuntedness that isolates him utterly. Romantic feeling-situations are everywhere in Keats, but they are subject to a process of guillotining which effects in the one stroke a physical truncation of the word feeling and a delimitation of his genius. The most direct road to his originality lies through the question, what does his feel mean? This provokes the answer that it bears the universal Romantic stamp of heart-certainty, but stands alone in being a heart-certainty about nothing beyond itself. When Keats talks about the feel of solitude or of Shakespeare, he conveys to us no insights into those promising subjects; all truth is contained in, and all attention driven back upon, the feel he has of them. His imaginative energy is driven back upon itself, and his talent fulfilled and exhausted in a very special self-guaranteeing exercise.
Jones tacks to an extreme in this account, but he steadies and rights himself elsewhere: the sense of feel that conveys only its own presence is not as narrow as this would make it seem. The full relevance of Keats’s “feel” comes when we consider how Keats imagines humans in his poetry—which he contrasts with the art of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, James, and Wordsworth. For all of these artists, the feeling for human beings in art depends on their having a feel for their interior life, where that interiority is shaped by a self-determined teleology: a sense of how their actions tend towards a fuller end of self-hood brought into some unity over time. Not so for Keats. Of the titular “Isabella,” at a moment of decisive import in her story, Jones remarks:
We are not given what she thought about at this moment of crisis, but what she felt, and what she felt was the impeding and obscuring curtain of hair in her eyes as she bent forward over her task….Dolly and Macbeth (for the gap between dramatic and novelistic creation has a bridge across it) live by convincing development towards credible ends. But Isabella enjoys no temporal reality at all, which means that we, reading, can grasp no scheme of ends, no natural teleology to credit her with. Keats’ creative act is a closed circuit, exhausting itself in a single apprehension of the blinding feel of hair.
He develops his claim:
Then if end-stopping is the essence of Negative Capability, how does Keats sustain his ‘human beings’ once he gets inside them?….The disappointing answer is that we must admit a very crucial sense in which there are no human beings in Keats’ poetry…
Life strikes us as invincible in Keats, but consciousness as radically unmental and discontinuous; with the result that the human self he projects bears a superficial resemblance to the people of a writer like Pirandello who is deliberately (as well as creatively) adumbrating a doctrine of multiple selfhood, or like Beckett, spokesman of the ordinary, laying his axe at the root of our ordinary waking expectations.
For Jones, the telling figure in Keats’ sense of negative capability is that of the billiard ball, where Keats imagines what it would be like to feel oneself to be a ball, losing oneself in its identity. That is a suitable image also because, unlike Dolly in Anna Karenina or Macbeth, the billiard ball does not set or direct its own ends; it is acted upon. The ball does not represent what Keats aspires to represent in his depictions of human beings in the poems, but it represents one limit in his mind against which he orients himself as he works out what it means to feel:
The spectrum of Negative Capability has the billiard ball at one end and human beings at the other, and in the middle such plant-animal existence as the metamorphosed brain and eye and ear. His imagination draws the two wings upon the center. Even in his letters we can see the human condition being metamorphosed to something more centralized and Keatsian-poetic.
Keats does not, in Jones’ view, offer us an imagination of full human beings, but instead, in his phrase, of human objects. Here we need to tread carefully, since Jones would not have wanted this to mean Keats objectifies, though it would be fair to say that his art necessarily, by its nature, runs the risk of being charged with objectification. Instead, “human object” needs to be heard with the stress on the former word, which begs the question, what does it mean to see another not just as an object, but as a human object—not least for those of us who subscribe to something like a Kantian notion of humanity being circumscribed by the power to set one’s own ends, and to be treated not merely as a means. Here, I think, Jones does not quite get himself out of the thicket, but he nonetheless shows the way when he explains how it is that Keats’ sense of the “human object” is itself magnanimous, not a word that Jones uses, but a word central to Ricks’ analysis, which I think takes several steps forward in its articulation of what Jones meant to mean. From Jones, on “Isabella” again:
These were the thoughts prompting my initial claim for Isabella, that it is often open and generous and even grand, where everything would seem to point towards an obsessive narrowness. The emphasis of Keats’s treatment is not, despite appearances, perverse; he conceives Isabella kissing Lorenzo’s exhumed head, and combing its hair and pointing its eyelashes, not in order to show what he can achieve in the teeth of decorum and good sense, but because his gift happens to be thus. And his gift is a large one, and marvellously sane. I laboured the subordination of sex to end-stopped feel (which includes Negative Capabilility) in an attempt to give his imagination elbow-room; and it only remains to say that the attempt was made as much for sex’s sake as for feel’s. I mean that the picture of Lorenzo and Isabella sitting at table and sensing their comfort for each other is as memorable as it is surely because it affirms sex’s underground connection, even in the young and emotionally frantic, with a whole complex of tender instincts reaching back and back towards a wellbeing in which silence and a shared meal and a loved presence merge in the profoundest dreamlike peace
The way out lies in the final statement, where Jones describes “a while complex of tender instincts reaching back and back towards a wellbeing”—this comes very close to something like a telos, a conception of the good towards which one acts or aspires. But Jones does not say that this is itself realized or envisioned in the poem; instead, the poem brings to the fore “a whole complex of tender instincts” that reach back towards that wellbeing (or perhaps towards it), and which are themselves connected to sex. In my clumsy-footed way of putting things, I’d say that Jones wants to say that Keats does not imagine humans as setting ends, but does imagine humans as being possessed of, and constituted by, the desires and intuitions, apprehended sensually, preternaturally, only dimly in full consciousness, which are themselves foundational to the possibility of setting an end for oneself. Taken two or three steps further, I’d say that Keats’ “feel” lives on the threshold of the depths that are full, free, self-consciousness and the exteriority that is objectification; or rather that his feel lives in that threshold, revealing the borders of inner and outer, judgment and intuition, desire and telos, consciousness and instinct, to be more capacious than we realize, a seat of human experience. It is this region that Ricks’ study of Keats enters into, and analyzes with that refinement of which so few have been capable, since embarrassment itself is at once a conscious and unconscious mode of apprehension, arising at the border of self and other, but also self as other, and inviting, curiously, others into its physical feeling.
For Jones, “feel” is connected with Keats’ returns to “ripeness” and ripening, to a temporality that is instantaneous, momentary, and that he can hold in stasis; this is, for me, his being able to write along the edge of desire becoming more than desire—an end or action that looks towards an end (Jones notes that Keats’ in his revision to “The Eve of St Agnes” removed a line in which Porphyro implores Madeleine, “Put on warm clothing sweet” and replaced it with “Awake! Arise! My love!”—the difference is not only that the original line had the grit of reality, and the latter, as Jones says, the pitch of the operatic, but that the former looks ahead, whereas the latter preserves us in the moment).
What makes Keats’ imagination of the human object humane (what makes it an imagination of the human object, rather than just the objectification of the human) is something else: that the feel itself, the feel of the experience, the desire, becomes the object of the poetry, such as it is felt both by the observing or imagining poet and also the observed or imagined creation. The poetry is alive to what Jones calls “end-stopped feel” when it takes feel as something that can be held from without even as it is imagined from within:
These are empty attitudes awaiting their conventional visual filling, and he can supply it. But the phrase which gave us momentary pause—
Thy ruby lips part sweetly
And so remain, because thou listenest:
Is on a different plane. An illustrator would be at a loss here because the attitude has already been filled, and the filling is not visual except in one of its effects. A stasis, spatial and time-defying, is the feat of imagination we are saying yes to. While we struggle to admire stasis justly, the need to relegate our vision to a secondary, consequential status grows clearer. Our sympathetic joy in Keats’ picture-making takes the form of a sudden grasp which, while not excluding sight, is never vision-dominated. To insist on this is not just to continue our running fight against the queen of senses, on behalf of inwardness and snailhorn perception. Nor is it just to draw attention away from the pictorial “sources” of his poetry. It is also to recognize that in-feeling, Negative Capability, has two sides. Keats’s “feel I have” of other existences is partly the ventriloquism which he feels through them—the seaweed and its undulating home for example. That side we have been discussing all along. The other (to stay inside the 1817 volume) is modestly exemplified by the girl listening with her mouth open. His feel of her is of the caught and held object, all alive, coming through in one piece, nothing left behind, nothing added. (155)
“Nothing left behind, nothing added” because what he has caught and held in the lines is the feeling object itself; the feeling of the object as it really entirely is becomes also the feeling of the object as something that really entirely feels, and feels with a desire that, caught at an instant of ripeness, is full of the potential to realize its potential in an end that it is not within the poet’s imagination to present or deny. This is the moment of desire as it comes into being, the feel not only of what this human feels, as they feel themselves to be a living object, but also the feel of holding another person in place as they are themselves alive on the threshold of feeling and consciousness, apprehension and comprehension, instinct and judgment.
Among Keats’ gifts as one of the great poet-critics of his time, though his criticism is scattered and occasional, is his sense for what others make of interiors and exteriors. Among his most perceptive critical remarks in the letters are his discussion of Wordsworth and the passages of the human heart; but Keats was no less perceptive in his notes on Milton, preserved in his edition of Paradise Lost, available online on the “Keats Library” page:
“Note in Keats’s Hand
Text circles around the outside margins (top, bottom, left, right), but not the inside gutter, of the two pages, 92 and 93
There are two specimens of a very extraordinary beauty in the Paradise Lost, they are of a nature as far as I have read, unexampled elsewhere—they are entirely distinct from the brief pathos of Dante—and they are not to be found even in Shakspeare—they are according to the great prerogative of poetry better described in themselves than by a volume the one is in this fol. ‘which cost Ceres all that pain’—the other is that ending ‘Nor could the Muse defend her son‘—they appear exclusively Miltonic without the shadow of another mind ancient or modern—”
“Which cost Ceres all that pain” both looks in at the depth of Ceres’ pain, the word “all” opening the mouth in awe, while also distancing us from the pain, the word “that” insisting on our remove.
I am interested in how Keats’ sensibility as Jones describes it is active in the language of the poetry. Jones substantiates his account with numerous instances and superb eye, but I am especially drawn to a remark early in his study, which I think can be generalized. Contrasting Keats’ use of “feel” with Wordsworth’s, Jones writes:
We have eyes only for the ‘what’, the experience, and we tend to lose all awareness of the frame “I have felt” within which the experience takes place. This is the reason for calling Romantic feeling open-ended, and the force of the contrast with Keats’ end-stopped feel. Nor must we let grammar and syntax deceive us. Wordsworth’s “I felt and nothing else” is nevertheless open-ended, while the end stopping of Keats’ ‘Do gently murder half my soul, and I| Shall feel the other half so utterly!” is not affected by the fact that the verb has an object.
When it comes to a feel that turns on itself, that finds depths in surfaces, and surfaces in depths, pronouns are the obvious place to look—in Keats as in Wordsworth (Ricks has an excellent essay on pronouns in Wordsworth). But Jones point is that the pronouns cannot contain, or do justice to, what Keats does with ‘feel’: “Nor must we let grammar and syntax deceive us,” he writes though perhaps he should have said “narrow our vision,” since grammar and syntax of course matter, but not in the ways we might predict. It is as if Jones is describing pronouns, transitive and intransitive objects, and syntax as effects of style rather than grammar and local arrangements of language. This is fruitful: we can look everywhere for the movement and orientation that is normally contained within, or sustained by, these features of grammar and syntax.
It can be felt throughout the language at the apex and climax of the poem:
Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be,
He play’d an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans mercy”:
Close to her ear touching the melody;—
Wherewith disturb’d, she utter’d a soft moan:
He ceas’d—she panted quick—and suddenly
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.
“Tumultous” stands apart, describing him, but also the scene as a whole, residing not solely within Porphyro, but also contained within its dashes, echoing within the hollow lute, a sound that emanates from its emptiness and that lives by its surfaces; it is the most marked sign of perturbation, the violence of the word contrasted with “disturb’d” and “soft moan”; elsewhere it is a scene tense with restraint and constraint. “Tenderest” is heart-felt but also the touch of fingers on the lute, the lute itself a sensual and suggestive object of touch; “tenderest” chords that are both tender to his hands and to the lute itself, as well as to her ear and heart; that it is her ear, and not only her heart, that is touched, we may recognize in “close to her ear touching the melody” where “close to her ear” suggests that he is physically close to her ear, close also to touching it, even as he touches the melody, by touching the fret and strings of the lute. “Tenderest” also pulls against “tumultuous” because of the presence of “rest,” making the word a covert portmanteau, a tender rest or a restful tenderness. Even the word “long” in “long since mute” is subtly tinctured by the feel of longing, even as that sense is itself muted in and by the word. “Close to her ear touching the melody” gives us at the center of the line the letters “her ear t” and the “heart” is itself touched but not entered by the melody, itself intangible. But the line suggests also that it might be that he touches the melody itself close to her ear, as if to say “setting the melody close by her ear,” so that the melody itself does not even penetrate the sinuous orifice. “To her ear” is not “by her ear,” the difference being that “to her ear” might be according to her ear, so that it is her feel for the melody that is accommodated also within the line. “Wherewith” does not specify what exactly has transpired in the previous line, the “where” pulling us in one direction (his location, her ear) and the “with” another (the means of touching). Her “disturb’d” is a movement of heart and body at once, and as it’s cooed “urb’d” melts into the final syllable of “utter’d”, that movement would seem to yield to speech, only to be something other, “a soft moan.” The word “soft” is not only the trappings of sensibility, but calls back to “tenderest” and to the “touching” of the earlier line; the sounds, not quite words, do touch. This all builds to the moment when Keats seizes her feel and feels her seize into a stasis that disarms Porphyro, active by its inactivity. In “she panted quick—suddenly,” her panting is sudden as well as quick, and the next movement is likewise quick as well as sudden; both words are necessary to clutch the tempo of the scene, and the thought of her expressing her breath in but a single pant is itself of a piece with the parsimony of gesture in the scene. “Affrayed” comes after “blue” as if the blue strikes Keats’ eyes first, until he looks closer, and “affrayed,” as well as being an archaism, suggests fraying, a loss of composure and violence done to her person, even as they “wide open shone.” Their shining is seeing, but is also a source of seeing, is the light that sees and is seen, and it is this that arrests Porphyro, whose name invokes the purpled marble, but who here is rendered as pale as another “smooth-sculptured stone,” where the visual is crowded out by the tangible weight and surface feel of the stone; the sexual suggestion is faint but present; most telling is the rhyme of “shone” and “stone,” a rhyme that, in the sense of sound, unites the senses of touch and sight, and insists on the surface of seeing and the sight of surfaces as well as the superficies of sound disarmed of sense (as rhyme).
Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
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 joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.
“Beheld” teases: the sight itself holds what she does not hold, and “still” hangs the perdurance of “always” upon the stasis of what she beholds in her stillness and what she beholds that is itself still (Porphyro, momentarily a sculpture). “There was a painful change” has some of the effect of Milton’s “all that pain,” in so far as “painful” points out a depth to pain, the suffix “ful” registering that something is filled, while “there was” refuses to locate or place it, and as we are excluded, the line runs on “that nigh expell’d”—the word “nigh” is an archaism that, once again, does good service to the verse, as it echoes later in the word “sigh,” so that this expulsion of the “blisses of her dream” and the unlocated “painful change” are themselves changed, as she begins to weep into the expulsion of a “sigh,” by which we know the pain was in her, and restoring, not her agency, but her life, as the action emanates from within her, and not only upon her. “At which fair Madeline” holds the sensual at abeyance: “fair” is stately, her beauty a formality, a composure of the verse as she loses her own, “moan forth witless words with many a sigh”; as in the last stanza, the utterance of language is rendered into something less articulate, both less and more expressive. “Blisses” earlier had itemized the sources of pleasure, and it also is echoed in “witless,” the joy of her dream dissolving into a pain that brings the dissolution of her consciousness. The word “still” returns, the stanza bracketed between the first “still” and this, as if this all were suspended in time, as if all of this happened while something transcendentally more remained undisturbed, somewhat as we might imagine the ripple of narrative beneath a sculpture by Bernini. But none of this is a passive or haphazard stillness: “her gaze on Porphyro would keep” because she holds it there, by willpower, but also with the suggestion that “her gaze” is a subject of its own accord, the agency residing in the gaze itself, rather than within her. In the final line, the sequence of words speaks of the depth and possibility of the stilled surface of the encounter, all that plays along the membrane that separates and defines the two: “fear” for going too far in breaking the moment, the fear born from, and a part of, the feel of stillness; then “move” and “speak,” negated here, merely potential, but that potential contained in their statuesque posture, and then “look’d so dreamingly” being how he looked to her as she looked, ceding also the possibility that it was his dream of how she looked that overtook reality and held him in suspended animation, and the word “dreamingly” adverbially giving depth of dream to the act of looking, to the passage of sight, but not to the mind that perceives or fantasizes.
“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thy diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”
“At sweet tremble in mine ear”: “at” and “in” do the heaviest lifting in the line, “at” making “sweet tremble” itself a place, the tremble belonging to his voice and being that which her ear felt, the trembling sweet in what it portended and in how it felt, and giving also the intimation of a tongue tasting as well as singing, her ear tasting as well as hearing. “”Those sad eyes” and “How chang’d thou art” repeat, in diminished form, and from the perspective of Madeline, “there was a painful change”; she holds herself in abeyance in response to his distance, and “pallid” and “chill” (though not “drear”) suggest the sculptured imagery from above. The perspective was not hers before, in either case, but when she is given voice, and imagines him, Keats constrains her to the feel of his feel. When she implores, “Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,” she makes his voice a human object and seeks to possess him; their live in mutual accord on the deep surfaces of the other, each holding themselves and the other in the ripeness of desire, as Keats holds them there too. “If thou diest, my love, I know not where to go” is melodrama, operatic, but also makes explicit Jones’ sense that there is no teleology except for the moment; “diest” might contain a pun on climax, the desire to finish at the same time, but more than that, to remain together in that moment of finishing, and seeking only to go, and be there.
Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
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.
Porphyro is magnified; “beyond” and “far” are not only comparative, but extend the imaginary space they inhabit, but rather than depths they give us distance, extending along an axis we might not expect; this effect would be startling on its own, but is developed in the lines that follow, when he is “like a throbbing star | seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose” so that his distance is situated not in the deeps of heaven, but in the depth of repose that the heavens offer; and this then gives way to “into her dream” so that “her dream” is the first noun of the passage that contains depth; even he does not have depth in his passion, as the passion sets him far beyond mortal men, without making him deeper; and yet as soon as he melteth into her dream, this depth of dream is dissolved into the most elusive of senses, smell, “as the rose | blendeth its odour with the violet,” reducing both Porphyro and Madeline to odors on the air—human, but not even objects (the odors are given body in this dissolution, too, just as “voluptuous accents” earlier gave mass not just to her voice, but to the inflections that live on the surface of her words, the addition that the human accent gives to words) . “Sweet” is right here because odors are tasted, but tasted without the satisfaction of digestion; they live on the surface of the tongue. “Meantime” is itself a mean (lowly, crude) interruption, but the figure is relevant, a thin pane, on which love’s alarm patters its sharp sleet, where the sharpness must be heard and not felt, except to the panes (which here do seem to know pain), whose feel Keats finally imagines, settling his poem on the figure of the membrane itself, translucent, separating Porphyro and Madeline from the real world contained without, but nonetheless with a capacity to feel, and, in apprehending and imagining that capacity, to itself be felt.