In “The Eve of St Agnes”, Keats’characterisation of Madeline arguably reveals his apprehension of the female asa femme fatale, capable of enchanting and enthralling men. As is conventionalof the Romantic poet’s male protagonist, Porphyro seeks the ideal in terms of aunion with an elusive and angelic female, but Keats reveals the dangers of thisdesire; Madeline’s feminine charm ultimately causes the dissolution of Porphyro’sphysical, corporeal self, thus removing his autonomy and independence. Malepower, it seems, is dependent on his physical bodily advantage over a female,and Porphyro’s enthrallment with Madeline removes his awareness of the need forautonomy in corporeality, thus empowering her. In the study of “The Eve of St Agnes”, critics such as Karla Alwes denounceMadeline as “primarily docile, maidenly, and most importantly, mortal” (64). Thatshe is associated with purity and virginity cannot be argued – she is a”splendid angel” (25.223), and even her “chamber … is chaste” (21.
187) – butreaders and critics have overlooked the more dangerous and powerful aspects ofher character: she is “half hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed” (26.231). AlthoughPorphyro’s voyeuristic position in this moment in the poem initially suggeststhat Madeline is in an exposed, vulnerable position, she is arguably also in unobtainableone (Jordan). The mermaid is regarded as a typical female demon, appearing in muchof folklore and associated with enthrallment of fishermen and sailors, whomthey lure to their deaths. They are also associated with the sirens of Greekmythology, which have similar tendencies towards male ensnarement. Madeline,”half-hidden”, appears otherworldly and dreamlike to the mortal Porphyro, andmermaids are known to hide in seaweed not to negate their power, but to concealit.
In this characterisation of Madeline, Keats has created a conventionalfemme fatale, who enchants Porphyro with her divine, mysterious beauty. Porphyro,upon witnessing Madeline in this position, “grew faint” (25.224) – a visionwhich is far from empowering. It serves to diminish both his physical andmental strength, illustrating how Madeline’s feminine, mysterious beauty hasenchanted him to the point where even his consciousness is threatened. Hermermaid-like feminine charm has had such an effect on his body and mind thatshe cannot possibly be considered merely “docile and maidenly” (Alwes 64).
Keats presents Porphyro, whose “heartis on fire / For Madeline”, as fixated on his male quest to obtain her, theangelic, glorified female, to the extent that his freedom and independence arethreatened. 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).
Indefining Madeline as his own personal “heaven” – a state of eternal paradise – andprofessing himself her “eremite”, meaning “hermit; devotee” (Ferguson, Salter,and Stallworthy 914), Porphyro has, it seems, fallen utterly under her spell. Inthis act, Porphyro has effectively cast aside the Biblical heaven – and, byextension, God Himself – replacing them with only Madeline. This religiousdiction, while superficially a sign of admiration and glorification, may infact indicate Porphyro’s fear: “even the male’s glorification of women has its source … in hisdesire to conceal his dread” (Horney 136) – by artistically objectifying the woman as “sowonderful, so beautiful, … so saintly” (Horney 136), the male convinceshimself that there is no need to fear her. However, immediately after this,Porphyro feels the strain of remaining autonomous in Madeline’s presence: “Openthine eyes, for meek St Agnes’ sake, / Or I shall drowse beside thee, so mysoul doth ache” (31.278-9). In imploring her to “open her eyes”, Porphyroreveals his need to bring Madeline back into the waking world, which isgoverned by the physical laws of corporeality rather than the unknown, divinemagic that Madeline currently embodies.
As well as his inability to wake her, itseems Porphyro most fears that Madeline is capable of encompassing him in hercharmed sleep with her. His enthrallment with Madeline, it seems, threatens hisautonomy in the physical world, and leaves him in danger of falling into theunknown, spiritual dimension of her “midnight charm” (32.282). That Madelinethreatens Porphyro’s “soul” as well as his body demonstrates the full extent ofher power; his desire is more than merely sexual – it runs soul-deep, thusincreasing the potency of her charm.Critics traditionally view the climax of the poem in terms of Porphyro’spenetration of his real, physical self into Madeline’s dream, focusing onPorphyro’s act of self-assertion, and denouncing Madeline as passive, evenvictimised: “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’ descriptionspecifically 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 – isuniformly distributed within the solvent – the major component. Here, Porphyro becomesthe solute to Madeline’s solvent, which in turn illustrates his loss ofautonomy in her presence; his identity and physical self “melts” into andbecomes indistinguishable from hers. Rather than the two melting together tocreate one being, in which control is shared equally between them, Porphyromelts into Madeline to form a minor component within her charmed dream.
A largepart of the male’s power arguably derives from his dominant physical strength,so by removing Porphyro’s corporeality, Keats has eradicated any physicaladvantage he may have over Madeline. Without this upper hand, Porphyro cannotremain 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 hisletters to his love interest, Fanny Brawne, reveal a similar loss of maleautonomy: “You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment asthough I was dissolving … you have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannotresist” (Hanson). This image of Keats’ physical self dissolving mirrors his descriptionof Porphyro melting into Madeline’s dream. The Romantic era stresses theimportance of expressing authentic personal emotion, and Keats arguably usedpoetry primarily as an expression and exploration of his own experiences. Withthis in mind, the characterisation of Madeline as capable of assimilatingPorphyro’s identity and autonomy into her own arguably reveals Keats’ personalfears and apprehensions of feminine charm.
Keats repeatedly expresses hisconcern that the attraction women hold for men is capable of undermining their veryexistence; 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 extentthat his individual physical self is lost to hers, and this absence ofcorporeal freedom empowers her over him. The penultimate stanza of “The Eve ofSt Agnes” suggests that Porphyro remains dissolved in Madeline’s dream and isdisembodied with her on their exit from the castle.
The lovers “glide, likephantoms” (41.361) – a concept Keats reiterates within two lines – whilst “inall the house was heard no human sound” (40.356). By likening Porphyro andMadeline to “phantoms”, Keats has left human agency conspicuously absent, abolishingPorphyro’s corporeal advantage in physical strength, and condemning him toremain dissolved in Madeline’s “midnight charm” (32.
282). His identity isindistinguishable from hers, and his autonomy is completely removed. In havingthe 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 thecastle that has ensnared Porphyro – it is Madeline herself. That Porphyro caninhabit the harsh reality of the “storm” outside and still fail to re-asserthis physical dominance demonstrates that Madeline’s power is more than merelytemporary.
While Madeline has traditionally been denounced as “primarily docile,maidenly, and most importantly, mortal” (Alwes 64), upon closer examination, itappears that the power of her feminine charm offers far greater complexity inher character. Madeline, it seems, gains power in removing Porphyro’scorporeality. Without his physical advantage of strength, he is mentally andspiritually weaker than she, and so fails to undo her enchantment and preserve hisautonomy. However, Keats’ attitude towards this female power is in factdecidedly ambivalent; his conflicting desire for and apprehension of the femalefigure is revealed in Madeline’s characterisation as both a “splendid angel”(25.223) and a dangerous femme fatale. He seems unable to conclude whether womenare to be desired or feared, thus Madeline is simultaneously angelic anddemonic, capable of offering eternal bliss at the price of Porphyro’s autonomy.