‘Unfit for Ladies’: A sensorial reading of Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes

Madeline after Prayer (from John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes, st
Madeline after Prayer (from John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes, stanza XIX, lines 4-5) After Daniel Maclise, Etching and engraving of chine collè, 1871, 61.5 x 44.1 cm, Metrpolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Whilst recently browsing through Entwistle’s The Fashioned Body I came across a passage describing the shortcomings of the costume museum with regards to the understanding of a garment:

“What it cannot tell us is how the garment was worn, how the garment moved when on a body, what it sounded like when it moved and how it felt to the wearer. Without a body, dress lacks fullness and movement; it is incomplete.”[1]

This got me thinking about the body upon which she places so much responsibility. Must the body be alive? Is it a present day body? How about a static body in a photo or picture?  How about a mannequin, or a fictional body? That evening, by some uncanny coincidence, a friend passed a beautiful edition of Keats’ Selected Works over to me and I opened it up at random. I began to read and realised that I had landed on one of the most sensually arousing descriptions of a dress in nineteenth century literature. The Eve of St Agnes tells the story of a young virgin who hurries herself off to bed on this special feast night having heard that she may have “visions of delight”.[2] Meanwhile, Porphyro – a smitten young admirer- has snuck into her room to watch her undress. There is a risqué interplay of religious eroticism at work- he swoons at her piety whilst watching her rush through her evening prayers- unbeknownst to him she’s just after these sweet dreams. In this poem, clothes are endowed with life. Even before the poetic striptease begins, Keats uses an anthropomorphic image by describing the female guests at the party as “many a sweeping train /Pass by”. The personified dresses do not require a body to exude a sense of movement. At the pinnacle of the poem, Keats’ tableau vivant is quasi-religious again. Madeline’s chamber is set against a large ornate arched casement. Imagery of sensual excess surrounds this structure as Keats describes the engravings and glass as oozing with “fruits and flowers” […] stains and splendid dyes”. The moon, almost as if a theatrical spotlight, bursts onto this rich tableau – throwing “warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast” and reminding us that the object of desire here is of an erotic nature. Keats’ slow motion striptease is the apex of the poem:

“Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.”

The pace of the poem is skilfully measured out linguistically- we can relate to the time consuming task of removing all the pearls from one’s hair. The jewellery pieces come off one by one and the bodice is loosened by degrees. For someone eagerly awaiting nightly visions Madeline does not seem to be in a hurry at all, and this tempo adds to the anticipation. This sensory unveiling of the body is by no means restricted to the visual senses. Madeline’s “warmed jewels” and “fragrant bodice” alongside her luxurious dress that “creeps rustling” are powerful conduits of touch, smell and sound. Keats’ gift lies in being able to communicate in words “the experience of a sound, a color, a gesture, of the feelings of arousal”[3], conjuring up, I would argue, the movement and fullness that the museum garment of Entwistle is lacking. It is this haptic immediacy that a museum lacks, and not a body. So, as debauched as Porphyro’s lingering eye may seem, we do not condemn it: the sensory description of erotic cloth is enough to give life to the dress and we, as readers, are as captivated.  In Keats’ poem, “cloth is a message carrier for both for desiring and being desired.”[4] No wonder it was deemed “unfit for ladies”.[5]

[1] Entwistle, Joanne, The Fashioned Body, (Cambridge: Polity, 2000) p.10

[2] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173735

[3] Laura U. Marks, Touch, p.1

[4] http://www.ucreative.ac.uk/eroticcloth

[5] Bennet, Andrew, Keats, Narrative and Audience (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1994) p.5