The night before last was St Agnes’ Eve, which is another way of saying that yesterday was the feast of St Agnes. We have mentioned St Agnes before in these virtual pages (purity, exposure in a brothel, lambs, decapitation, burning). This year I am remembering how decades ago when I was a student at Milton Academy Girls Upper School (MAGUS) our entire class recited, in unison, Keats poem, St Agnes' Eve. All 42 stanzas. As I recalled this, as certain never-to-be-forgotten lines ran through my mind
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,
They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright; 50
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.,
it struck me as an odd choice of performance poetry for a gaggle of barely-adolescent girls. The poem refers to the legend that on that night, young girls – virgins of course – go to be superless and naked, and they will dream of their husbands to be.
Keats tells of Madeline who sets out to do just this, while her beloved Porphyro hides in the closet (with the classic collusion of the trusty nursemaid) and presents himself in the flesh. Thinking he is but a dream’s phantasm, Madeline takes him to her bed and they do the deed; waking & realizing what has transpired, they run off together. So much for virginity.
Ten years later my sister was a student at Milton, and sadly, the 8th grade girls no longer recited St Agnes’ Eve at assembly. I wonder why.
Eve of St Agnes by Millais
And then we have the honey’d middle of the night, a designation that I did not appreciate in my callow youth for its sticky sweet allusions. I also note that to call the middle of the night honey’d is to not suffer from insomnia.