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.
“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 thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”
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.
Dreams have always held a complex relationship with imaginative literature, and this relationship is nowhere more prominent than in Keats's poetry. "Ode to a Nightingale," for example, traces the speaker's state of mind as he slips out of a painful reality into a dream-like trance, and then at poem's end he (perhaps) snaps back into reality—leaving us with the indeterminate question: "Do I wake or sleep?" This reality —> dream/enchantment —> reality occurs in many other poems as well, always with the implicit questions of values: "Which is 'better,' the dream or the real world? Is a life of illusory happiness better than a life of unhappy reality? Are the conditions of one's 'real' life altered by dreams? Do dreams offer some kind of insight into the real?" And so on...the list of questions could be much longer. If one considers the close analogy between dreams and works of imaginative art like novels, movies, paintings, and poems, then Keats's—or any writer's—preoccupation with dreams becomes all the more significant.
In The Eve of St. Agnes, these questions about the effects of dreams are given a distinctly narrative, even erotic treatment. At the beginning of the poem, the protagonist Madeline takes part in a ritual, the whole purpose of which is to induce a particular kind of dream. Despite the narrator's (and Angela's) skepticism, the ritual works. In the passage quoted above, Madeline is just being awakened from a dream of her future husband when she sees, very much to her surprise, the actual Porphyro. In other words, in waking up from her trance, Madeline's consciousness moves from dream to reality—from an absorption in her ritual-induced dream Porphyro to a fuzzy focus on the real flesh-and-blood Porphyro kneeling next to her bed. (I am reading the lines describing how she "still beheld ... the vision of her sleep" as indicating that Madeline was dreaming of Porphyro and then she wakes up to see the real Porphyro.) The shift is not a happy one. Her blissful dream was "pure and deep," but now she undergoes a "painful change" and "moan[s] forth witless words" when she confronts the physical reality of the actual Porphyro. As Madeline explains in stanza 35, the dream Porphyro's voice was a "sweet tremble" in her ear, and his "sad eyes were spiritual and clear"; the real Porphyro is, by sad contrast, "pallid, chill, and drear."
For his part, Porphyro initially gazes at Madeline with a devoted reverence, but soon his passion gets the better of him and he rises "like a throbbing star" and melts into her dream, "as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet." Or, to put this a little less obliquely, the two make love—and not just in their dreams. The act raises a number of moral and ethical issues, revolving chiefly around the question of Madeline's state of mind and consequently her consent. Is she fully awake? While stanza 34 says that she is "Now wide awake," some lines in the subsequent stanza—"No Dream! Alas!"—might suggest that she is still in a liminal, semi-dreamlike state. Whether awake or not, can she plausibly resist this man who, thanks to a "stratagem" and a helpful servant, has stolen his way into her bedroom? Or does Madeline's dream work better than even she might have imagined since she wakes up to find her actual lover already present and vowing never to forsake her?
My students tend to be harshly judgmental about Porphyro's actions here. In their view, Porphyro has his way with Madeline while she is incapable of offering any fully cognizant response, either consent or resistance. From a strictly legalistic perspective they may be right—and certainly Porphyro's excited "peeping" at the unsuspecting Madeline while she undresses for bed hardly seems like the behavior of a genuine Romantic hero (stanzas 26-28). Still, if we consider Madeline's narrative, her purpose at the beginning is quite intentionally to induce a dream, and her efforts are successful. Whatever view one might take of Porphyro, Madeline's desires—her initial intentions in the narrative—are satisfied. So couldn't we also view the conclusion of the poem as a triumph for her as well as for Porphyro?
No final answer seems quite right. The ethical complications keep us suspended, and this may well be one of the more striking effects of Keats's most romantic poem. As readers enchanted with Keats's narrative—the richness of the imagery, the stately measure of the Spenserian stanzas, the danger and intrigue of the hero's quest, etc.—we too are in a kind of liminal space not unlike that of Madeline. To paraphrase the Nightingale speaker, "Do we wake or sleep?"
In a famous passage from an 1817 letter to his brothers, Keats describes a condition that he calls "negative capability": "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.... This purused through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration" (Keats's Poetry and Prose, ed. Jeff Cox, Norton, 2009, p. 109). And perhaps this is the genius of The Eve of St. Agnes. As readers we are supposedly enchanted by the "Beauty that overcomes every other consideration." Whether such enchantment is the final and self-justifying purpose of poetry as Keats's letter would suggest, or whether it is simply a mystification that blinds us to some very real and potentially threatening ethical lapses...such is the issue posed by the poem. The answer, of course, has everything to do with the value of Art itself—which argument far exceeds the bounds of a simple blog posting!