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Seen 'mid the sapphire heaven's deep repose;
'T is dark; quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
A dove, forlorn and lost, with sick unprunèd wing."
"My Madeline, sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
Thy beauty's shield, heart-shap'd, and vermeil-dyed? 16
"Hark! 't is an elfin storm from faery land,
She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
For there were sleeping dragons all around
In all the house was heard no human sound.
They glide like phantoms into the wide hall;
With a huge empty flagon by his side;
The watchful blood-hound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:
The chains lie silent on the foot-worn stones :
And they are gone; ay, ages long ago,
1" The Eve of St. Agnes."-St. Agnes was a Roman virgin, who suffered martyrdom in the reign of Dioclesian. Her parents, a few days after her decease, are said to have had a vision of her, surrounded by angels and attended by a white lamb, which afterwards became sacred to her. In the Catholic Church, formerly, the nuns used to bring a couple of lambs to her altar during mass. The superstition is (for I believe it is still to be found), that, by taking certain measures of divination, damsels may get a sight of their future husbands in a dream. The ordinary process seems to have been by fasting. Aubrey (as quoted in "Brand's Popular Antiquities") mentions another, which is, to take a row of pins, and pull them out one by one, saying a Paternoster; after which, upon going to bed, the dream is sure to ensue. Brand quotes Ben Jonson :
And on sweet St. Agnes' night,
2" The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold."—Could he have selected an image more warm and comfortable in itself, and, therefore, better contradicted by the season? We feel the plump, feathery bird, in his nook, shivering in spite of his natural household warmth, and staring out at the strange weather. The hare cringing through the chill grass is very piteous, and the "silent flock" very patient; and how quiet and gentle, as well as wintry, are all these circumstances, and fit to open a quiet and gentle poem! The breath of the pilgrim, likened to "pious incense," completes them, and is a simile in admirable "keeping," as the painters call it; that is to say, is thoroughly harmonious with itself and all that is going on. The breath of the pilgrim is visible, so is that of a censer; the censer, after its fashion, may be said to pray; and its breath, like the pilgrim's, ascends to heaven. Young students of poetry may, in this image alone, see what imagination is, under one of its most poetical forms, and how thoroughly it "tells." There is no part of it unfitting. It is not applicable in one point, and the reverse in another.
3" Past the sweet Virgin's picture," &c.—What a complete feeling of winter-time is in this stanza, together with an intimation of those Catholic elegances, of which we are to have more in the poem !
4" To think how they may ache," &c.—The germ of the thought, or something like it, is in Dante, where he speaks of the figures that perform the part of sustaining columns in architecture. Keats had read Dante in Mr. Cary's translation, for which he had a great respect. He began to read him afterwards in Italian, which language he was mastering with surprising quickness. A friend of ours has a copy of Ariosto containing admiring marks of his pen. But the same thought may have struck one poet as well as another. Perhaps there are few that have not felt something like it on seeing the figures upon tombs. Here, however, for the first time, we believe, in English poetry, it is expressed, and with what feeling and elegance! Most wintry
as well as penitential is the word "aching" in "icy hoods and mails ;" and most felicitous the introduction of the Catholic idea in the word "purgatorial." The very color of the rails is made to assume a meaning, and to shadow forth the gloom of the punishment
Imprisoned in black purgatorial rails.
5" Flattered to tears."-This "flattered" is exquisite. A true poet is by nature a metaphysician; far greater in general than metaphysicians professed. He feels instinctively what the others get at by long searching. In this word "flattered" is the whole theory of the secret of tears; which are the tributes, more or less worthy, of self-pity to self-love. Whenever we shed tears, we take pity on ourselves; and we feel, if we do not consciously say so, that we deserve to have the pity taken. In many cases, the pity is just, and the self-love not to be construed unhandsomely. In many others it is the reverse; and this is the reason why selfish people are so often found among the tear-shedders, and why they seem never to shed them for others. They imagine themselves in the situation of others, as indeed the most generous must, before they can sympathize; but the generous console as well as weep. Selfish tears are niggardly of everything but themselves.
"Flattered to tears." Yes, the poor old man was moved, by the sweet music, to think that so sweet a thing was intended for his comfort, as well as for others. He felt that the mysterious kindness of Heaven did not omit even his poor, old, sorry case, in its numerous workings and visitations; and, as he wished to live longer, he began to think that his wish was to be attended to. He had begun to think how much he had suffered-how much he had suffered wrongly and mysteriously-and how much better a man he was, with all his sins, than fate seemed to have taken him for. Hence he found himself deserving of tears and self-pity, and he shed them, and felt soothed by his poor, old, loving self. Not undeservedly either; for he was a painstaking pilgrim, aged, patient, and humble, and willingly suffered cold and toil for the sake of something better than he
could otherwise deserve; and so the pity is not exclusively on his own side we pity him, too, and would fain see him out of that cold chapel, gathered into a warmer place than the grave. But it was not to be. We must therefore console ourselves in knowing, that this icy endurance of his was the last, and that he soon found himself at the sunny gate of heaven.
“A little moonlight room.”—The poet does not make his "little moonlight room" comfortable, observe. The high taste of the exordium is kept up. All is still wintry. There is to be no comfort in the poem, but what is given by love. All else may be left to the cold walls.
7" Tears."—He almost shed tears of sympathy, to think how his treasure is exposed to the cold; and of delight and pride, to think of her sleeping beauty, and her love for himself. This passage, "asleep in the lap of legends old," is in the highest imaginative taste, fusing together the imaginative and the spiritual, the remote and the near. Madeline is asleep in her bed; but she is also asleep in accordance with the legends of the season: and therefore the bed becomes their lap as well as sleep's. The poet does not critically think of all this; he feels it and thus should other young poets draw upon the prominent points of their feelings upon a subject, sucking the essence out of them into analogous words, instead of beating about the bush for thoughts, and, perhaps, getting clever ones, but not thoroughly pertinent, not wanted, not the best. Such, at least, is the difference between the truest poetry and the degrees beneath it.
8 Since Merlin paid his demon all the monstrous debt.
What he means by Merlin's "monstrous debt," I cannot say. Merlin, the famous enchanter, obtained King Arthur his interview with the fair Iogerne; but though the son of a devil, and conversant with the race, I am aware of no debt that he owed them. Did Keats suppose that he had sold himself, like “Faustus ?"
9 Its little smoke in pallid moonshine died.
This is a verse in the taste of Chaucer, full of minute