The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IV. Keats

§ 5. The Eve of St. Agnes

In the meantime, however, a rich harvest of poetry had been gathered in. The Eve of St. Agnes, begun at Chichester, January, 1819, throws some light on the causes which had gradually detached his interest from Hyperion. For it betrays an almost conscious revulsion from the austere grandeur, the cosmic scenery and the high prophetic theme of Milton. It is, in the loftiest sense of the words, a young man’s poem, pervaded by the glow, the romance, the spiritual and sensuous exaltation of youth. Chatterton and Spenser here take Milton’s place with Keats, and both are more nearly of his kin. A few lines of Burton’s Anatomy, describing the legend, were, probably, the sole nucleus of this magical creation. The romance of Madeline and Porphyro, unlike that of Isabella and Lorenzo, shone out to his imagination against the background of harshly alien forces. But, everything that there made for drama and conflict is here subdued, almost effaced, while everything of purely beautiful and harmonious appeal, whether to soul or sense, is enriched and heightened. The menace of murderous kinsmen is now merely the distant clamour of gross revelry heard fitfully through an opening door. The “bitter chill” of the winter landscape, the snow and storm without, though drawn with an intensity of imagination hardly matched in winter-painting elsewhere, merely encompass with their aridity and torpor, but cannot invade or impair, the glow and warmth of fragrance and gracious soul-light of Madeline’s chamber. Everything here—from the tender glories of the painted window to the delicate cates of the banquet—is imagined with a consummate instinct for beauty which explores and exhausts all the sources of sensuous appeal, yet so transfigures them that nothing merely sensuous is left. The stanza—handled with a mastery equalled, save in The Faerie Queene, only in Adonais, where it is much less Spenserian—shows, with certain archaisms that Spenser was in his mind. But, Porphyro and Madeline are of a more breathing and human world than Spenser’s; their passion and their purity, the high chivalry, the awed rapture of the scene, are untouched by allegory; and, if Madeline, with the exquisite naïveté of her maiden love, has any lineage, it is not to be found in a Britomart or Una, radiant champions and symbols of chastity, but in an Imogen or a Perdita.