In conventional femme fatale, who enchants Porphyro with

In “The Eve of St Agnes”, Keats’
characterisation of Madeline arguably reveals his apprehension of the female as
a femme fatale, capable of enchanting and enthralling men. As is conventional
of the Romantic poet’s male protagonist, Porphyro seeks the ideal in terms of a
union with an elusive and angelic female, but Keats reveals the dangers of this
desire; Madeline’s feminine charm ultimately causes the dissolution of Porphyro’s
physical, corporeal self, thus removing his autonomy and independence. Male
power, it seems, is dependent on his physical bodily advantage over a female,
and Porphyro’s enthrallment with Madeline removes his awareness of the need for
autonomy in corporeality, thus empowering her.

In the study of “The Eve of St Agnes”, critics such as Karla Alwes denounce
Madeline as “primarily docile, maidenly, and most importantly, mortal” (64). That
she is associated with purity and virginity cannot be argued – she is a
“splendid angel” (25.223), and even her “chamber … is chaste” (21.187) – but
readers and critics have overlooked the more dangerous and powerful aspects of
her character: she is “half hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed” (26.231). Although
Porphyro’s voyeuristic position in this moment in the poem initially suggests
that Madeline is in an exposed, vulnerable position, she is arguably also in unobtainable
one (Jordan). The mermaid is regarded as a typical female demon, appearing in much
of folklore and associated with enthrallment of fishermen and sailors, whom
they lure to their deaths. They are also associated with the sirens of Greek
mythology, which have similar tendencies towards male ensnarement. Madeline,
“half-hidden”, appears otherworldly and dreamlike to the mortal Porphyro, and
mermaids are known to hide in seaweed not to negate their power, but to conceal
it. In this characterisation of Madeline, Keats has created a conventional
femme fatale, who enchants Porphyro with her divine, mysterious beauty. Porphyro,
upon witnessing Madeline in this position, “grew faint” (25.224) – a vision
which is far from empowering. It serves to diminish both his physical and
mental strength, illustrating how Madeline’s feminine, mysterious beauty has
enchanted him to the point where even his consciousness is threatened. Her
mermaid-like feminine charm has had such an effect on his body and mind that
she cannot possibly be considered merely “docile and maidenly” (Alwes 64).

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Keats presents Porphyro, whose “heart
is on fire / For Madeline”, as fixated on his male quest to obtain her, the
angelic, glorified female, to the extent that his freedom and independence are
threatened. Indeed, upon seeing her, he is entranced by her divine appearance:
“my seraph fair … / Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite” (31.276-7). In
defining Madeline as his own personal “heaven” – a state of eternal paradise – and
professing himself her “eremite”, meaning “hermit; devotee” (Ferguson, Salter,
and Stallworthy 914), Porphyro has, it seems, fallen utterly under her spell. In
this act, Porphyro has effectively cast aside the Biblical heaven – and, by
extension, God Himself – replacing them with only Madeline. This religious
diction, while superficially a sign of admiration and glorification, may in
fact indicate Porphyro’s fear: “even the male’s glorification of women has its source … in his
desire to conceal his dread” (Horney 136) – by artistically objectifying the woman as “so
wonderful, so beautiful, … so saintly” (Horney 136), the male convinces
himself that there is no need to fear her. However, immediately after this,
Porphyro feels the strain of remaining autonomous in Madeline’s presence: “Open
thine eyes, for meek St Agnes’ sake, / Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my
soul doth ache” (31.278-9). In imploring her to “open her eyes”, Porphyro
reveals his need to bring Madeline back into the waking world, which is
governed by the physical laws of corporeality rather than the unknown, divine
magic that Madeline currently embodies. As well as his inability to wake her, it
seems Porphyro most fears that Madeline is capable of encompassing him in her
charmed sleep with her. His enthrallment with Madeline, it seems, threatens his
autonomy in the physical world, and leaves him in danger of falling into the
unknown, spiritual dimension of her “midnight charm” (32.282). That Madeline
threatens Porphyro’s “soul” as well as his body demonstrates the full extent of
her power; his desire is more than merely sexual – it runs soul-deep, thus
increasing the potency of her charm.

Critics traditionally view the climax of the poem in terms of Porphyro’s
penetration of his real, physical self into Madeline’s dream, focusing on
Porphyro’s act of self-assertion, and denouncing Madeline as passive, even
victimised: “at best,
critics depict the crucial scene in the poem as a seduction … at worst,
Porphyro is an unprincipled cad, a quasi-rapist” (Housser 126). However, Keats’ description
specifically refers not to the dissolution of Madeline’s “midnight charm”
(32.282), but to Porphyro himself, who fails to melt this “iced stream”
(32.283) and instead dissolves into it: “into her dream he melted, as the rose /
Blendeth its odour with the violet, – / Solution sweet” (36.320-2). A
“solution” is a liquid mixture in which the solute – the minor component – is
uniformly distributed within the solvent – the major component. Here, Porphyro becomes
the solute to Madeline’s solvent, which in turn illustrates his loss of
autonomy in her presence; his identity and physical self “melts” into and
becomes indistinguishable from hers. Rather than the two melting together to
create one being, in which control is shared equally between them, Porphyro
melts into Madeline to form a minor component within her charmed dream. A large
part of the male’s power arguably derives from his dominant physical strength,
so by removing Porphyro’s corporeality, Keats has eradicated any physical
advantage he may have over Madeline. Without this upper hand, Porphyro cannot
remain autonomous from Madeline, and his identity dissolves into her dream,
which puts her in a position of power over him as the solvent of this spell.

In the same year that Keats wrote “The Eve of St Agnes”, many of his
letters to his love interest, Fanny Brawne, reveal a similar loss of male
autonomy: “You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as
though I was dissolving … you have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot
resist” (Hanson). This image of Keats’ physical self dissolving mirrors his description
of Porphyro melting into Madeline’s dream. The Romantic era stresses the
importance of expressing authentic personal emotion, and Keats arguably used
poetry primarily as an expression and exploration of his own experiences. With
this in mind, the characterisation of Madeline as capable of assimilating
Porphyro’s identity and autonomy into her own arguably reveals Keats’ personal
fears and apprehensions of feminine charm. Keats repeatedly expresses his
concern that the attraction women hold for men is capable of undermining their very
existence; they hold a “Power men cannot resist”. The “fire in Porphyro’s heart”
(9.75) blinds him to the need for separation from Madeline, even to the extent
that his individual physical self is lost to hers, and this absence of
corporeal freedom empowers her over him.  

The penultimate stanza of “The Eve of
St Agnes” suggests that Porphyro remains dissolved in Madeline’s dream and is
disembodied with her on their exit from the castle. The lovers “glide, like
phantoms” (41.361) – a concept Keats reiterates within two lines – whilst “in
all the house was heard no human sound” (40.356). By likening Porphyro and
Madeline to “phantoms”, Keats has left human agency conspicuously absent, abolishing
Porphyro’s corporeal advantage in physical strength, and condemning him to
remain dissolved in Madeline’s “midnight charm” (32.282). His identity is
indistinguishable from hers, and his autonomy is completely removed. In having
the couple exit Madeline’s chamber to “flee away into the storm” (42.371),
Keats demonstrates that it is not merely the magic within the chamber or the
castle that has ensnared Porphyro – it is Madeline herself. That Porphyro can
inhabit the harsh reality of the “storm” outside and still fail to re-assert
his physical dominance demonstrates that Madeline’s power is more than merely
temporary.

While Madeline has traditionally been denounced as “primarily docile,
maidenly, and most importantly, mortal” (Alwes 64), upon closer examination, it
appears that the power of her feminine charm offers far greater complexity in
her character. Madeline, it seems, gains power in removing Porphyro’s
corporeality. Without his physical advantage of strength, he is mentally and
spiritually weaker than she, and so fails to undo her enchantment and preserve his
autonomy. However, Keats’ attitude towards this female power is in fact
decidedly ambivalent; his conflicting desire for and apprehension of the female
figure is revealed in Madeline’s characterisation as both a “splendid angel”
(25.223) and a dangerous femme fatale. He seems unable to conclude whether women
are to be desired or feared, thus Madeline is simultaneously angelic and
demonic, capable of offering eternal bliss at the price of Porphyro’s autonomy.

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