He had started the poem two days earlier at the suggestion of Mrs. Isabella Jones, intending it to be of similar length to ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, but on Wednesday 17 February 1819 he left it in mid-line:
At length her constant eye had come
Upon the fervent martyrdom,
Then lastly to his holy shrine,
Exalt amid the tapers’ shine
At Venice . . .
Did he abandon it because he’d learned that his publisher John Taylor was wooing Mrs Jones?
On Monday 15 February 1819, after Keats had finished writing ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ (suggested by Mrs Isabella Jones) he started on another poem based on her suggestion, ‘The Eve of Saint Mark’.
Upon a Sabbath-day it fell;
Twice holy was the sabbath bell
That call’d the folk to evening prayer.
The City Streets were clean and fair
From wholesome drench of April rains,
And, on the western window pains
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of immaturd, green vallies cold,
Of the green, thorny, bloomless hedge,
Of Rivers new with spring tide sedge,
Of Primroses by sheltered rills,
And daisies on the aguish hills.
Twice holy was the sabbath bell:
The silent streets were crowded well
With staid and pious companies
Warm from their fire-side oratries,
And moving with demurest air
To even song and vesper prayer.
Each arched porch and entry low
Was fill’d with patient crowd and slow,
With whispers hush, and shuffling feet
While play’d the organ loud and sweet.
The bells had ceas’d, the Prayers begun,
And Bertha had not yet half done
A curious volume, patch’d and torn,
That all day long, from earliest morn,
Had taken captive her fair eyes.
Among its golden broideries:—
Perplex’d her with a thousand things—
The Stars of heaven, and Angels wings;
Martyrs in a fiery blaze;
Azure saints ’mid silver rays;
Aron’s breastplate, and the seven
Candlesticks John saw in heaven;
The winged Lion of Saint Mark,
And the Covenental Arck
With its many Mysteries
Cherubim and golden Mice.
On Sunday 14 January 1819, Charles Brown (who thought he could best ‘protect’ Keats from Fanny Brawne by flirting with her) sent Miss Brawne a Valentine’s Day poem. There is no record of how mortified Keats felt when Brown and Miss Brawne chuckled over his lines:
Whene’er we chance to meet
You know the reason why
You pass me in the street
And toss your head so high—
Because my walking stick
Is not a dandy twig,
Because my boots are thick,
Because I wear a wig.
Because you think my coat
Too often has been worn,
And the tie about my throat
Is at the corners torn…
To see me thus equipped
What folly to be haughty!
Pray were you never whipped
At school for being naughty?
On Saturday 13 February 1819, Keats went to town for the first time in 3 weeks. He visited Richard Abbey to discuss Fanny Keats’s schooling (he couldn’t persuade him to let her continue her education), and saw the family solicitors. If only Mr Walton had been in, Keats might have learned about the inheritance he was due from grandmother Mrs Jennings (it wouldn’t be uncovered till after Keats’s death).
On Thursday 11 February 1819, Keats learned that Richard Abbey was taking his sister out of school — and objected to her receiving letters from Keats. He wrote to her:
My dear Fanny,
Your Letter to me at Bedhampton hurt me very much,—What objection can there be to your receiving a Letter from me? At Bedhampton I was unwell and did not go out of the Garden Gate but twice or thrice during the fortnight I was there—Since I came back I have been taking care of myself—I have been obliged to do so, and am now in hopes that by this care I shall get rid of a sore throat which has haunted me at intervals nearly a twelvemonth. I had always a presentiment of not being able to succeed in persuading Mr. Abbey to let you remain longer at School—I am very sorry that he will not consent. I recommend you to keep up all that you know and to learn more by yourself however little. The time will come when you will be more pleased with Life—look forward to that time and, though it may appear a trifle be careful not to let the idle and retired Life you lead fix any awkward habit or behaviour on you—whether you sit or walk endeavour to let it be in a seemly and if possible a graceful manner. We have been very little together: but you have not the less been with me in thought. You have no one in the world besides me who would sacrifice any thing for you—I feel myself the only Protector you have. In all your little troubles think of me with the thought that there is at least one person in England who if he could would help you out of them—I live in hopes of being able to make you happy.—I should not perhaps write in this manner, if it were not for the fear of not being able to see you often or long together. I am in hopes Mr. Abbey will not object any more to your receiving a letter now and then from me. How unreasonable!…
Your affectionate Brother
On Monday 25 January 1819 Keats and Brown visited Stansted Park, one of the finest houses in the area, built in the late 18th century, with a medieval core.
Its features included gold-embroidered chairs, a tapestry from Arras, and panelled rooms with intricate carvings by Grindling Gibbons. The chapel has a window with a triple arch, diamond-shaped panes of glass and coats of arms. All of these would appear in ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’.
Writing to his brother George: ‘The only time I went out from Bedhampton was to see a chapel consecrated—Brown, I, and John Snook the boy, went in a chaise behind a leaden horse. Brown drove, but the horse did not mind him. This chapel is built by a Mr. Way, a great Jew converter.’
Photos of the chapel by Peter Phillips.
“A window high and triple-arched there was…”
On Sunday 24 January 1819, Keats and Brown (staying with Dilke’s sister and brother-in-law in Bedhampton) wrote a joint letter to Charles Wentworth Dilke in Hampstead, full of dreadful puns. Keats’s contribution ends: ‘Remember me to Wentworth Place and Elm Cottage—not forgetting Millamant’.
[Elm Cottage was where Fanny Brawne (‘Millamant’ in this letter) lived.
In Congreve’s play ‘The Way of the World’ Millamant is described:
“I like her with all her faults; nay, like her for her faults. Her follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her, and those affectations which in another woman would be odious serve but to make her more agreeable.” (Act I Scene 3)]
On Saturday 23 January 1819, Keats and Brown left Chichester (where they had stayed with John Dilke’s parents) and walked to The Old Mill House at Bedhampton, where Keats would stay with John and Letitia Snook (Dilke’s sister and brother-in-law) and their children (“I was nearly a fortnight and Mr John Snook’s”).
For lovers of Keats’s poetry it was an important fortnight, as it was here that he would compose most of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’.
[Image of The Old Mill House at Bedhampton, from Pinterest]
On Wednesday 20 January 1819 Keats arrived in Chichester where (as he told his brother and sister-in-law) “I took down some of the thin paper and wrote on it a little poem called St. Agnes’s Eve”.
Here is the opening stanza:
St Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.
Around Sunday 17 January 1819 John Keats visited Mrs Isabella Jones, an enigmatic lady he had met near Hastings in 1817 (he wrote to his brother George “I had warmed with her and kissed her”).
On this day she told him about the legend of St Agnes Eve which inspired him to start writing his much-loved poem in Chichester three days later.
There will be a reading of the poem in Chichester on Saturday 19 January 2019, when the University of Chichester are holding an evening which includes:
5:15pm — a talk by Professor Fiona Price (of Chichester University) ‘Keats in Chichester’
5:25pm — a talk by Professor Nick Roe (St Andrews University) ‘John Keats and “The Eve of St. Agnes”’
6:30pm — ‘Keats in Chichester and the Eve of St. Agnes: A dramatic reading’ with a cast of seven readers.
Venue: St Pancras Church, 101 St Pancras, Chichester, PO19 7LJ