Monday, February 05, 2007

From St. Agnes' Eve

by John Keats

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:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere Music’s golden tongue
Flatter’d to tears this aged man and poor;
But no—already had his deathbell rung;
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St. Agnes’ Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among
Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.

* * *

It is so cold here today. The highs were supposed to be in the single digits. I don't know if it really got that high or not; my internal thermometer breaks down at these temperatures. All I know is that it wasn't this cold back home . . .

But take a look at the first stanza of this poem especially. The first six lines each have at least one word implying cold. Doesn't it make you feel cold just to read it? Keats is a master of descriptive language.

As well as of other things. This stanza form, borrowed from Spencer, is perfect for narrative poetry, laying down each stanza softly with an extra-long line. Between the imagery and the prosodic mastery, Keats hardly needs to have a meaning to his poems -- but of course he has one all the same.

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