Paganism and Christianity in Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes, Ode to a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale
Many of Keats' poems reflect his spirituality, his sense of the connection between the environment and the link between pagan and Christian images that exist in daily life. The Eve of St. Agnes, for example, is a poem that defines many of these links and demonstrates the premises of Keats' focus on romanticism, spirituality and imagery based in nature. Other poems, including Ode to a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale, contain these elements Keats' lushly evocative imagery. Keats celebrates a decidedly spiritual, rather than religious, awareness of all that is around him in nature and other people. Keats' utilization of the images and language of both the Christian and pagan traditions reflects the social and cultural elements that have defined western society's transition from a pagan identity to a Christian identity. For example, the mysticism represented in The Eve of St. Agnes, as well as the spiritual references in his other poems, underscore the role that paganism and Christianity play within the lives of modern people. Farnell emphasizes that while Keat's treatment of paganism is usually positive, he tends to be critical of Christianity (402-3).
The Eve of St. Agnes features an enticing blend of contrasting images and concepts, including the pagan and Christian, warmth and cold and noise and quiet.
The silver, snarling trumpets 'gan to chide:
The level chambers, ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
The carved angels, ever eager eyed (31-4)
The preceding line perfectly describes the stone angels, and the description is enhanced by the later reference to Madeline's eyes: "She danc'd along with vague, regardless eyes" (64). The union of the dance of the pagans and the perspective depicted by the carved angels underscores the key to Keats' sensibility. At the same time, The Eve of St. Agnes demonstrates that Keats does not deny Christianity or paganism as primary forces in the development of the Romantic sensibility. Instead, he attempts to show complicity, to demonstrate the links that have brought together elements of pagan ritual with the observances of the Church in a way that acknowledges both as fundamental to the existing religious structure.
Keats reveled in experimentation both with poetic forms and imagery. He chooses the perfect voice and poetic cadence to suit the stories told in his poetry, and he used his own structural and thematic union to support the basic tones of his works. For example, the Spenserian stanza he chose for The Eve of St. Agnes perfectly suits the sensual and sentimental interactions of the two lovers (Stillinger 82). Keats is able to present song, image, dance and unity throughout the progression of his themes and through the rhythm of his structural format.
One of the great and certainly most enjoyable of Keats' talents represented in his poems is his ability to guide the reader through the framework of a specific place and time. He creates opportunities for the reader to experience a range of what are fundamentally polar opposites on the scale of emotions. For example, he juxtaposes intoxicating revelry and sober reality, the joyfulness of village life and the forest and wilderness, life and death, youth and old age and, finally, the spectrum of subjective feelings with objective reality.
In Ode to a Grecian Urn (one of his most easily recognizable works), Keats uses the urn as a representation of the culture and life of ancient Greece. Keats' notions regarding the woman in the picture on the urn demonstrate the unifying themes in many of his works: transcendence, awareness of beauty, spirituality and eternity. He reminds the reader that the woman will always be fair and that she will always invoke feelings of love and admiration in all who see her (19-20). However, the ironic twist in her perfection arises from her inaccessibility. The peculiar twist in his poetry regarding the beauty around him is also about inaccessibility. If what he experiences at any given moment can be so perfect, beautiful and filled with life, it must be spiritual. Even when he examines the process of transformation as it occurs as a human ages in Ode to a Nightingale, he glories in the experience of it. This provides a clear link with The Eve of St. Agnes, demonstrating the progression of elements that have transformed religious rituals and have marked people's own transformation.
In Ode to a Nightingale, Keats combines a sensual spirituality with an attraction to death.
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring fourth thy soul abroad
In such ecstasy! (55-8).
Despite his drugged sense of despair, the speaker is able to acknowledge the "light-winged Dryad" (7). The dryad is a tree nymph, the female soul or human incarnation of the oak tree. While mere mortals may die, a dryad will not die until her tree does. As Keats expounds upon the joy and taste of earth, he acknowledges the beauty of that which he apparently seeks to escape. It will not do for the speaker of this poem to imagine that joy is only available to him in Christian communion with its single god, or through a socially prescribed life of goodness while on earth.
The Eve of St. Agnes, as well as a number of Keats' other poems, underscores the depth of Keats' universality and the attention that he focuses on associations between paganism and Christianity. Though many of the elements of Christianity appear to be deeply rooted in biblical premises, it is Keats' contention, as is demonstrated in his works, that Christianity has a conflicting history and a base in the rituals and elements of paganism, its precursor. Keats is able to demonstrate the remnants of pagan rituals and the overwhelming presence of antiquity in the nature and development of Christian perspectives, and he relates these through his poetic imagery.
Keats is able to demonstrate the elements of the human spirit that are the same whether within the design of pagan experiences or in the scope of Christianity. He recognizes that lovers are lovers and nature is beautiful, whether they are considered in pagan terms and related to the history of ancient civilizations or whether they are embraced as factors in determining people's dedication to God and a socially-sanctioned Christian life. It must be noted that Keats himself appeared to favor the sensuality of paganism over the restrictions of Christianity.
Farnell, Gary. "'Unfit for Ladies': Keat's The Eve of St. Agnes." Studies in Romanticism, 34, 1995: 401-12.
Keats, John. The Eve of St. Agnes, Ode to a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ed. 6, Vol. 2. M. H. Abrams, editor. New York: Norton, 1993.
Stillinger, Jack. "The Hoodwinking of Madeline: Skepticism in The Eve of St. Agnes. New York: Modern Language Association, 1954.