The Eve of St. Agnes is built up of a series of deliberate contrasts. By means of a close examination of three distinct passages, explore Keats’ use of contrast in the poem. There are three main contrasts used in this poem – Christian/Pagan imagery, cold/warm images, and often the contrast of colour. In a way, temperature and colour are linked; deep reds, yellows and oranges represent heat and life, whereas blues and silvers indicate chill absence of life.
Also in The Eve of St.Agnes is a strong question of whether Porphyro’s intentions are honest and wholesome, or if he is somehow using Madeline’s trance-like state and helplessness to his perverse advantage. It is also full of wonderful Keatsian paradoxes, which will also be outlined in the contrast analyses. There is a strong element of the harsh outside world invading the warmth and safety of Madeline’s glowing room, and also the suspense of the other guests, who could catch the unwelcome Porphyro at any time.
Through constant clashes of colour, emotion, light and sound, Keats makes this a very unsettling and suspenseful poem, showing a far darker and more ominous side to the dominating man’s role in courtly love. ‘Full on this casement shone the wintry moon, And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast, As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon; Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest, And on her silver cross soft amethyst, And on her hair a glory, like a saint: She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest, Save wings, for heaven:- Porphyro grew faint: She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint. ‘
This stanza brings up some strong colour and religious contrasts. As the previously harsh and cold winter moon shines into Madeline’s bedroom, a previously described beautiful ornate casement transforms the cold blue light into ‘warm gules’, or deep, warm red. This gives the casement and Madeline’s environment as a whole a sort of holy, warm and safe feeling, protected from the cold outside world. Keats then goes on to describe Madeline’s piety as she kneels to pray ‘for heaven’s grace’. Keats often emphasises her holiness to reflect Porphyro’s perversity and almost sacrilege, as he gazes with a lusty eye upon such a pure, innocent girl.
However not all about Madeline seems entirely pure, as shown by Keats’ use of ‘seem’d a splendid angel’. This hint of nothing being as certain as you think is often used to emphasise ambiguity and leave an unsettling foreboding as to what will happen next. The very fact that Madeline partakes in this seemingly religious act just to find out who will take her virginity is a contradiction in terms – Madeline is in a way praying to lose her innocence, and that is exactly what happens. Notice also the amethyst on her cross. Again, the deep, warm, almost lusty amethyst colour contrasting with the cold silver of her holy cross.
At the end of the stanza, we are reminded of the ominous presence of Porphyro, crouching with lusty espying eyes and waiting anxiously to have his wicked way with this maiden. ‘That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft; And so it chanc’d, for many a door was wide, From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft, The silver, snarling trumpets ‘gan to chide: The level chambers, ready with their pride, Were glowing to receive a thousand guests: The carved angels, ever eager-eyed, Star’d, where upon their heads the cornice rests, With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts. ‘