Site icon Books and Vines

The Eve of Saint Agnes, by John Keats, Barbarian Press (2003)

For a man that lived for just a bit more than 25 years, John Keats (1795-1821) has become one of the most influential and popular English poets of all-time.  Together with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, Keats brought the English Romantic movement to its peak. He remains one of the most read of all English poets, despite having only written poetry for six years, none of which resulting in sales success during his lifetime. His most known and admired works include the Odes (Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Indolence, Ode on Melancholy, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Psyche and  To Autumn) and The Eve of St. Agnes, a fine edition of which from Barbarian Press being the focus of this article.

St. Agnes is known as the patron saint of virgins (whose death in Rome, as a martyr, occurred in the 4th century). Since the feast day for St. Agnes is January 21, the eve refers to January 20.  The poem is based on an old superstition claiming that a girl could see her future husband in a dream, though only if on St. Agnes Eve she (according to Wikipedia):

…would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind.

In Keats’ poem, the young virgin is Madeline. Her wish is for Porphyro, who comes to her in what she thinks is her dream (though he has tricked her and is really there). Despite the deception, love is declared and they flee together into the night. The poem is reasonably short, at 42 stanzas, and exudes all the emotional power of Keats. Here are some samples of his verse.

Early in the poem, Madeline learns of what she must do in order to have the dream she desires.

As she had heard old dames full many times declare.
  They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
  Young virgins might have visions of delight,
  And soft adoring from their loves receive
  Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
  If ceremonies due they did aright;
  As, 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.

Porphyro hatches an idea of deception:

  Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
  Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
  Made purple riot: then doth he propose
  A stratagem, that makes the beldame start:
  ‘A cruel man an impious thou art:
  Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream
  Alone with her good angels, far apart
  From wicked men like thee. Go, go!–I deem
Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem.’

And lays out his plan:

  Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,
  Even to Madeline’s chamber, and there hide
  Him in a closet, of such privacy
  That he might see her beauty unespy’d,
  And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,
  While legion’d faeries pac’d the coverlet,
  And pale enchantment held her sleepy-eyed.
  Never on such a night have lovers met,
Since Merlin paid his Demon all the monstrous debt.

Porphyro sees the sleeping Madeline:

  Full on the 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 rest,
  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.

What follows is Keats at his best. Passion, desire and physical tension has rarely been better expressed, then in these lines:

  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 boddice; by degrees
  Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
  Half-ridden, 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 charms is fled.

{Ed. Note: see the excellent job artist Andy English does in representing the above stanza in ‘Sample Illustration #1 with Text’ below in the pictures section.}

Finally she awakens:

  And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
  Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
  Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes’ sake,
Or I shall drowsy beside thee, so my soul doth ache.

Keats wrote The Eve of St. Agnes in 1819 and published it in 1820. Later that same year, Keats developed serious tuberculosis. He moved to Rome in September of 1820 for warmer weather. However, neither the weather nor the medical care he received in Rome (including ‘bleeding’ him which certainly hurt more than helped) would help. He died in Rome on February 23, 1821.

As for this wonderful edition of this seminal work, Barbarian Press does its normal marvelous job. Beautifully designed by Crispin Elsted, and printed by Jan Elsted, this Barbarian Press Eve of St. Agnes is, in a word, charming. The binding of quarter violet cloth and decorated printed paper over boards, with spine label, done by Simone Mynen is undeniably handsome. The violet Bugra endpapers are a perfect match for the binding and the violet and black Goudy Text for display.  The text type is Poliphilus, done via Monotype composition by the one and only Michael Bixler. Crispin Elsted then put it through the stick, line by line, to re-space and to hang caps. I think you will agree when seeing below, the type choice is great; it is extremely readable and works well with the wood engravings. Speaking of the wood engravings, they are by Andy English and are printed from the wood. I really enjoyed this work from Mr. English. In fact, his representation of Madeline undressing as Porphyro looks on is astounding in its capturing of the passion this enticement elicits,  as you will see below with ‘Sample Illustration #1 with Text’ (trust me here, the picture below loses all drama in my photographic representation of the illustration, you really need to see it first hand).

This edition from Barbarian Press has long been sold out, and rarely comes up on the secondary market. If you see one, snap it up, as it goes quickly. Since it is not probable that you will find this, I suggest contacting the Elsted’s to reserve their upcoming The Ingoldsby Legends. After seeing an early copy at CODEX, it is truly a must have. I will do a review of it as soon as I get a copy, but since it will go quick, I suggest you get in line!

About the Edition

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Spine and Cover
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Macro of Spine
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Cover
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Macro of Cover
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Macro of Title Page
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #1
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Macro of Sample Text #1
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #2
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #3
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #1
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The Eve of Saint Agnes, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Colophon
Exit mobile version