Dateline: Rome, January 21, 304 AD
The young virgin known as Agnes was martyred for her faith today. Beautiful in looks and spirit, she had captured the attention of Phocus, son of the Prefect Sempronius, and when she rejected his advances, saying that she was already betrothed to one even more powerful, Phocus revealed her to the authorities as a Christian. She was arrested and led to the temple of the Vestal Virgins, where she refused to comply with pagan practice and was threatened with rape. She was then led, naked through the streets to a house of ill-repute where all those who attempted to assault her were struck blind by protective and avenging angels.
Next, still professing her love for Christ, she was tried as a witch, was found guilty, and was taken to the stake so that she could be burned; however the bundles of sticks could not be set alight, and so her executioner took out his sword and struck off her head.
Her youth (she was thirteen years of age) and beauty, her steadfast faith, and the brutality of her death at the hands of her Roman tormentors so impressed the crowd that many of them converted to Christianity on the spot.
The accounts that we have of the life of St. Agnes come from the mid to late-fourth century (so starting about fifty years after her death). All we really know is that a noble young lady was executed at the order of Emperor Diocletian, having been revealed as a Christian, and having steadfastly refused to give up either her faith or the virginity which she had pledged to Christ. She was buried near the Via Nomentana in Rome. A church was later built over the place where she was entombed, and her bones are venerated at the site.
Although the date of her canonization is uncertain, veneration of Agnes as a saint began almost immediately after her death. Today, she is the patron saint of, among others, chastity, young girls and gardeners. She is usually depicted wearing the robes of a wealthy young woman, with a lamb either in her arms or at her feet, the lamb being the symbol of innocence and purity, as well as, in the Latin agnus, so similar to her in name.
John Keats’ poem, The Eve of St. Agnes, takes as its theme one of the legends that grew up around the young saint–that virgins who performed certain rituals on January 20th, the eve of her martyrdom day would dream that night of the young man each of them was to marry.
Like all of Keats’ poetry, it’s achingly beautiful. Lush images, gorgeous phrasing, gothic setting, perfect meter, just lovely. And the first four lines, I can’t help noticing, might have been written to describe what I see when I look out my window on St. Agnes’ Eve 2019, exactly two hundred years after the poem was written:
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Bitter chill? Check. Brrrrr. Owls? Check. I hear them. Hares? Check. I see them. Flock in woolly fold? Well, they’re in the barn where I confined them yesterday, but close enough.
The poem tells the story of Madeline, a young maiden in love with Porphyro, a young man whose family is her own family’s sworn enemy. (I know. Tale as old as time, right?) She’s been told by the elderly family retainer, Angela, that if she completes the proper rituals for virgins on the night, in that
. . . supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire
she will dream of the man she’s to marry (and of course, she knows who that will be).
In the best tradition of elderly family retainers, though, Angela puts her thumb on the scale in a major way. Read and wallow in the loveliness for yourself, and whatever you do, don’t miss what might be my favorite stanza in all of English poetry (warning–spoilers ahead):
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.
Whether you’re a fan of the Romantics or not, it simply doesn’t get better than that. A “word painting.” I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I can see it. I can taste it. I can feel it.
The popular myth is that George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the most “Romantic” of the Romantic poets. I beg to differ. Byron was thirty-six when he died of a fever while attempting to command a Greek rebel army (with absolutely no military experience at all) attacking the fortress of Lepanto in 1824. Good grief, he was old enough to be a grandpa. Not Romantic at all. And rather stupid to boot. (Byron’s greatest legacy, IMHO wasn’t his poetry; it was his daughter, Ada. But that’s another story altogether.)
“Johnny Keats” as Byron dismissively referred to him, overcame his humble beginnings, the death of his father when he was eight (causing more financial hardship to the family), and the death of his mother (whose family was quite well off, although that doesn’t seem to have translated to Keats’ own circumstances) from tuberculosis when he was fourteen. He’d been set as an apprentice to Thomas Hammond a surgeon friend of Keats’ guardian, and he qualified as an apothecary at a young age, continuing his medical training while writing the poetry that was becoming his obsession and taking up more and more of his time.
He was never informed of nor given the rather substantial bequests left to him by his grandfather or his mother’s estate, a dereliction of duty usually ascribed to his guardian, who wanted him to become a doctor, and so he remained in reduced circumstances, eventually leaving his medical training to care for his brother Tom who was suffering from tuberculosis. Tom died in 1818, and around this time, John Keats himself began to suffer from a series of “bad colds.”
At the same time, he was barely making a living publishing poetry (most of which was reviewed poorly) and becoming part of a circle of poets including Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. He also met a young woman, Fanny Brawne (was ever a romantic heroine so inaptly named?) and pined for her as he got more and more ill. Despite various traveling tours to sunnier climes, Keats’ health declined from bad to worse, and he died in Rome, like the Saint of his poem, but in very different circumstances, on February 23, 1821. He was just twenty-five years old, and he had written some of the most beautiful, the most technically perfect, the most evocative, and the most mature, poetry in the English language.
I read the Eve of St. Agnes every January 20th, and I think of the young girl who died so horribly, the young poet who wrote so beautifully, and the young lovers who . . . well, read that for yourselves, please. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
After I’ve finished with my musings, I take a deep breath and then I go back to my humdrum life.
Which reminds me, I must go down to the barn and check for lambs in a bit. It’s the time of year for them, and today is, certainly, the nastiest day of winter so far. Lambs are always born on the nastiest day of winter. (That’s why I penned the sheep in the barn yesterday. If you’d ever dragged a living ewe with a living lamb stuck halfway in and halfway out up a hillside, on a tarp, in the snow because she decided to have her lamb in the creek at the bottom of the field on the worst day of winter, you’d pen them in before it came to that, too.)
The little ones are lovely, though. And, as the early Christians knew, pure and innocent (William Blake knew that as well. “Little lamb, who made thee?”).
Every so often, mom has twins, or she needs a little help with her offspring for some other reason, and the denizens of Chez She, male and female, are only too happy to pitch in where needed. No toxic masculinity around here. Just precious life. I hope St. Agnes would approve.