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Balancing Act: Power in Both the Male and Female Gazes in John Keats’ “On the Eve of St Agnes”

Updated on February 17, 2017
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V Ron Dorn is a Canadian writer with a Bachelor's in English and World Language Studies and a Master's in English and Creative Writing.

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John Keats’ poem “On the Eve of St Agnes” is preoccupied with secret gazing in the night. The male gaze dominates much of the poem and at first appears one-sided and inappropriate. Angela has led the ardent Porphyro into unwitting Madeline’s room where he, while hidden in the closet, observes Madeline undress and fall asleep. This is unacceptable, even unnerving behaviour, and seems to represent an instance of almost abusive observation; Porphyro’s secret view of Madeline’s private room allows him a position of power in this scenario as the object of his gaze unknowingly displays herself, vulnerable, before him. And yet, despite this, the power of the gaze does not solely rest with Porphyro. Madeline too has her own secret view of her lover; she sees him in her dreams and in doing so can regain some control. Despite the fact that there appears to be an unbalanced system of power in favour of Porphyro’s dominating male gaze, the tradition of the St Agnes’ Eve vision has actually allowed Madeline her own form of secret access to Porphyro; she is not the victimized the object of the male gaze but rather engages with it, performing her own version by seeking out Porphyro within her own mind.

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At first, “The Eve of St Agnes” has all the hallmarks of an account of the stereotypical male gaze, one that holds power over its usually female object. The fact that Madeline is unaware of Porphyro’s presence is all the more concerning. Her nurse, Angela, without authorization, grants Porphyro’s “wish”

Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,

Even to Madeline’s chamber, and there hide

Him in a closet, of such privacy

That he might see her beauty unespied[.]

161-166

It is clear that neither Angela nor Porphyro have given Madeline any chance to consent to this turn of events, something that becomes even more alarming in the following lines which state that Porphyro may “win that night a peerless bride,/ While legioned faeries paced the coverlet,/ And pale enchantment held her [Madeline] sleepy-eyed” (167-169). Porphyro taking a bride who is “held… sleepy-eyed” would be a serious breach of consent, and, in the event of any kind of consummation, could even become an act of rape.

Up until this point, however, these are all just conjectures on the part of Angela and Porphyro, for as of yet Madeline has not actually come into view. When Madeline finally does arrive, Porphyro, instead of announcing his presence, retains his position of hidden power within the room and watches as Madeline engages in an intimate process,

As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon

Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together pressed,

And on her silver cross soft amethyst,

And on her hair a glory, like a saint:

She seemed a splendid angel, newly dressed,

Save wings, for Heaven – Porphyro grew faint;

She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint[.]

219-225

Here, Porphyro has infiltrated not only Madeline’s inner rooms but is also imposing himself on her prayers, something that should be a personal and private act between Madeline and God. In fact, Porphyro is in some ways replacing God in this scenario; he is the unseen, unheard, unknowable power that is observing the prayers, and as such his gaze grants him even more control over Madeline, the object of his desire.

Porphyro’s secret gaze does not only allow him access to Madeline’s religious rituals, but also to the perhaps even more intimate realm of her naked physical body. When Madeline rises,

…her vespers done,

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;

Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;

Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees

Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees[.]

226-230

Porphyro’s observation of Madeline, while never innocent, in this moment takes on a suddenly more dangerous element of sexual power. The assurances that Porphyro offered Angela earlier, that he “may ne’er find grace/…If one of her [Madeline’s] soft ringlets [he] displace,/ Or look with ruffian passion in her face” seem to have lost all meaning; hiding in the closet and watching while Madeline undresses would certainly imbue his gaze with such “ruffian passion” and thus the domination of his male gaze in the room intensifies (146-149). Porphyro has been granted forbidden knowledge of the maiden’s body as she has unknowingly bared her skin and made herself vulnerable before his eyes.

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Porphyro certainly seems to be holding much, if not all, of the power in this scenario. He is the unseen male eye whose gaze has infiltrated the innocent Madeline’s most private sphere. He is the unknown figure in the dark with visual access to both Madeline’s prayers and person. He is the subject aiming the secret lens, she is the oblivious object of its scope. At least, this may be true on any other night, but on this night, the Eve of St Agnes, Madeline has gained access to her own particular sort of power and has enacted her own version of the sexually charged gaze with which she has thus far been fixed. The magic of the traditions of the Eve of St Agnes have allowed Madeline to gaze privately upon Porphyro as well – in her dreams.

St Agnes, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion, was a “Roman martyr and the patron saint of virgins. Said to have been a Christian virgin who refused to marry, she was martyred during the reign of the Diocletian” (Oxford Dictionary). The evening of the feast of St Agnes has a long history of traditions, often involving young women dreaming, which clearly comes through in Keats’ work. A 1902 article in The Atlanta Constitution states that “St Agnes day… is a special day for youths and maidens… It is a mystic time, when supernatural influences prevail, and those who choose to avail themselves of the privileges of the occasion may see far into the future” (The Atlantic Constitution 32). A Boston Daily Globe article from the following year is even more specific, claiming that

it was thought possible for a girl to obtain on the Eve of St Agnes a knowledge of her future husband. There were certain forms to be observed, and then, lying on her back that night, with her hands under her head, the anxious maiden expected that her future spouse would appear in a dream and salute her with a kiss.

Boston Daily Globe 6

Both of these sources indicate that certain rituals had to be performed by the young woman in order for the dream-vision to occur, something that Keats’ poem itself acknowledges. For example, The Atlanta Constitution piece includes a simple rhyme about the traditions of the evening:

Supperless to bed you must retire,

Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require

Of heaven, with uplifted eyes, all that you desire.

The Atlanta Constitution 32

These stipulations are mirrored by Madeline’s own behaviour. First, she acknowledges heaven when she first enters the room and begins her prayers. Later, when she “sees,/ In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,/ [She] dares not look behind,/ Or all the charm is fled” which is in line with the “Nor look behind” warning present in the rhyme(232-234). This would indicate a certain knowledge on Madeline’s part of the steps she must follow in order to fully engage with the potential outcome of St Agnes’ Eve. She is not some ignorant girl who happens to dream of Porphyro while he at that very same moment is watching her, she is rather a powerful entity in her own right, capable of adhering to the traditions of this sacred night and thus becoming a “conjuror” in her own right (124).

Porphyro may be infiltrating Madeline’s physical sphere without her consent, but the same cannot be said for the realm of dreams. Rather than appearing uninvited in the vision, Madeline’s actions indicate that she desired that Porphyro should appear. Madeline has extraordinary power here, and in the safety of her own dream is able to fix Porphyro in her gaze in much the same way he has done to her. Both young people have, using their own unique and powerful methods, sought to view the other on their own terms, in their own secretive ways.

It is important to note that Madeline’s view of Porphyro is not limited to her dream; she does eventually wake up and is able to fix his real form as solidly in her gaze as she has so far been in his:

Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,

Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep [Porphyro] –

There was a painful change, that nigh expelled

The blisses of her dream so pure and deep.

At which fair Madeline began to weep,

And moan forth witless words with many a sigh,

While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;

Who knelt, with joinèd hands and piteous eye,

Fearing to move or speak…

297-306

Here the actual word “gaze” is specifically used in reference to the unique power that Madeline’s gaze holds over Porphyro. There is strength in the fact that, despite her distress, her gaze never falters from its object, and that she is “keeping” Porphyro, who now fears “to move or speak”. The power of Madeline’s gaze has shifted from the world of dreams to that of the physical; her power is at once present in, and capable of transcending, multiple realms, unlike Porphyro who’s gaze has been limited to objects on the purely physical plane. In this way the power of Madeline’s gaze actually surpasses that of Porphyro, as hers is so much wider and more multifaceted in scope.

While the idea of inherent power present in the male gaze is not necessarily debated by this poem, Keats’ “On the Eve of St Agnes” does bring another factor into the equation: the power and desire present in the female gaze. Porphyro has admittedly fixed Madeline as a non-consenting object in his secretive gaze as he hides in her room, but so too has Madeline sought out her own secret, unobstructed view of Porphyro. Porphyro uses his authority as a male to persuade Angela to grant him access to Madeline’s room, while Madeline uses her unique power as a young woman on the Eve of St Agnes to conjure up the image of her lover. The extraordinary traditions of the Eve of St Agnes have allowed Madeline to fix her keen female eye on Porphyro in both the physical and the dream worlds, helping restore more balanced sense of power to the male and female gazes in Keats’ poem.

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WORKS CITED

“ST AGNES’ EVE. Quaint and Romantic Ceremonies to be Performed – At the Stroke of 12 the Supernatural happens.” The Atlanta Constitution. Atlanta, Georgia: 19 Jan 1902. Pag. 32. Web. 18 March 2015.

“THIS IS ST AGNES’ EVE.” Boston Daily Globe. Boston, Massachusetts: 20 January 1903. Pag. 6. Web. 18 March 2015.

Delahuntey, Andrew and Sheila Dignen, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. N. pag. Oxford Reference. Web. 18 March 2015.

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