The Eve of St. Agnes has been criticised as building tension but not really fulfilling its potential. How far do you agree with this view point? The Eve of St. Agnes is an epic, romantic ballad which tells the story of conflict between the families of two lovers; Madeline and Porphyro. The Eve of St. Agnes was based upon a superstition whereby if a virgin girl fulfilled the rites on the eve, she would dream of her future husband that night. For me to look fully into this view point it is important to establish the meaning of the word ‘tension’.
I would describe it as a mental strain provoking feelings of anxiety, apprehension and suspense. As I study this poem in context of the view point I will keep making references to these emotions where relevant and discuss how these sections create tension. The poem begins with descriptions of a chilling, harsh environment. “The owl, for all his feathers, was a cold; the hare limped trembling through the frozen grass. ” In the second stanza it reinforces the idea of frailty with a description of the Beadsman as being “… meagre, barefoot, wan… ” and how “…already had his deathbell rung. ”
This is a stark contrast to stanza IV which has vibrant references to the sheer grandeur and wealth of Madeline’s home: “… glowing to receive a thousand guests: the carved angels, ever eager-eyed, stared”. It also creates a sense of inviting warmth from the Beadsman hearing the “… prelude soft; for many a door was wide”. It’s almost as if the music is lulling him. Tension is created through the use of the contrasting of stanzas I-III against IV-VI: Keats sets the cold, callous environment outside against the warmth within.
This can be seen in more detail in stanza IV where the Beadsman can hear the lute and the “snarling trumpets'” welcome the guests. Stanza V introduces us to the idea that Madeline has been thinking about the night to come all day long “… one lady there, whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day, on love, and winged St Agnes… ” This feeling of pre-occupation is emphasised in stanza VII “The music, yearning like a God in pain, she scarcely heard”. Madeline is not really paying attention to the party or the many suitors who keep approaching her.
These descriptions immediately form a sense of anticipation and apprehension; she is completely immersed in her thoughts of the night ahead. Keats then approaches Madeline’s nervousness at the prospect of her dream “She danced along with vague, regardless eyes, anxious lips, her breathing quick and short. ” Suspense is the most appropriate way to describe the atmosphere that is building; tension is shown through the tenseness of her breathing, and anxious lips suggest that her mouth is dry through anxiety. The feeling of suspense is carried through when the narrator changes his focus to Porphyro in stanza IX.
We are told how he has “heart on fire” for Madeline presenting his immense passion for her; he even begs all the heavens to let him see her. Yet this sense passion is soon tainted from the impending danger we are told about in stanza X. “He ventures in” begins the stanza and has negative connotations; he is entering an almost forbidden place. This danger is reinforced by the line “… a hundred swords will storm his heart. ” Just how dangerous a position is Porphyro in? The last line in stanza XI partly answers this question; the old woman warns him that the “whole blood-thirsty race” are there (meaning the guests).