Thursday, January 29, 2009

"The Eve of St. Agnes" (1-9)

This passage has been on my mind for the last couple of days, probably because it's been so chilly outdoors. It's the opening stanza, lines 1-9, from Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes."

St. 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
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.

What I find most striking about the passage is not some "deep and profound meaning" but rather the sheer artistry of Keats's language. Of course the aim here is to create a sense of icy stillness and death-like quiet. The Spenserian stanza has a sculptural quality to it that, in my view, contributes to the effect (contrast with the more headlong, plot-driven, "what comes next?" feel of a poem in ballad stanzas). And Keats uses other metrical effects to slow the reading--like the hare that "limped trembling," with its impossible combination of consonants (li-MPDTR-embling), leading up to the metrically regular "And silent was the flock in woolly fold" (an image of stasis and quiet) followed by a full stop in the punctuation. One wonders about the adjective "woolly"--shouldn't it be a "woolly flock" rather than a "woolly fold"? Or are the sheep so closely packed into the fold that the whole thing as a unit looks "woolly"? In any event, everything here is still, silent, the expired breath of the beadsman floating ghost-like in its "flight for heaven."

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