John Keats' beautiful poem, "The Eve of St. Agnes," causes some disagreement among his readers. This work is often either interpreted as an enchanting love story with a fairy tale ending or the complete opposite, a story of deceitful seduction with a grave ending. However, "The Eve of St. Agnes" can be interpreted as a combination of these explanations. Porphyro neither seduces nor loves Madeline. He is, however, infatuated with her and unknowingly takes from her, her security and purity, resulting in a very unhappy ending.
Porphyro is unaware that the night he chooses to visit Madeline is The Eve of St. Agnes. In fact, he asks Angela when the girls are weaving wool for St. Agnes (line114-117). Even Angela responds with, it seems, a sudden realization that it is St. Agnes Eve (118). If he did deliberately come to Madeline on the Eve of St.
Agnes then the reader would understand that he did so to manipulate her. However, because this is not the case, the reader cannot assume that conclusion. It is true that Porphyro seeks Madeline out and comes to her home pining after her. However, the text provides clues that this behavior is not due to deceitful intentions, but to Porphyro's honest feelings for Madeline. For example, upon his entrance in the poem, he "implores all saints to give him sight of MadelineÃ¢ÂÂ¦that he might gaze and worship all unseen (lines 77-80)." It is immediately clear that he is obsessed with her. The fact that he wants to worship her and later on views her as an angel (line 222-225), reveals that he has an admiration and some sort of respect for her. This suggests that he is not corruptly and deviously planning to seduce her, because he could not do such a thing to someone that he both admired and respected. Instead, Porphyro's obsession with Madeline hints that he is infatuated. If it were true love that he felt then he would not idealize her so much but rather view her realistically, as a person with flaws. In addition, although, he speaks so highly of Madeline, giving the impression that he respects her, his actions speak otherwise. He does, in fact, sneak around at her home, persuade her nurse to let him see her, and then watch her without her knowing. His actions are very dishonest and very invasive, not the behavior of a devoted lover. Porphyro's behavior is very typical of someone who is infatuated; he is completely encompassed with her, yet he never considers her well being. He "loves" her because watching her, touching her, and being with her, makes him feel good. Although, this is incomprehensible for Porphyro, who believes himself to be very much in love, and therefore, could not be intentionally deceiving her.
The end of the poem ends very sadly, although on the surface this may be unclear. It is the typical fairy tale ending in which the hero sweeps his true love off her feet and rides away into the sunset, rescuing her from some horrendous existence. However, there is no sunset, but a storm for the setting, and she is not being rescued from something horrible, but instead removed from a place that offered her security. Before Madeline's encounter with Porphyro, the reader knew her to be pure, virginal, beautiful, and sweet. There is never mentioned one negative word about her appearance or her character. The reader cannot imagine her ever doing wrong. However, after she loses her virginity to Porphyro, "the frost-wind blows like Love's alarum, pattering the sharp sleet against the window-panes (lines 322-324)," and the reader senses that with her virginity, her pure and perfect image is gone too. It is soon after this, that with Porphyro's prodding, she defies her family by sneaking out of her home and running away. What is she and Porphyro running to? the storm. Madeline is no longer sheltered or protected; her secure world is gone, and the reader can only guess how this will deteriorate her character even further.
Keats' poem, "The Eve of St. Agnes" is not as cut and dry as some may think. Does Porphyro love Madeline, or does he seduce her? The answer is neither. He does not truly love her. Although, he thinks himself madly in love with her, he is really infatuated with her. He does seduce her in the sense that he acts in ways that do not honestly represent his feelings for her. However, this is not seduction in the sense that it is not intentionally deceitful. He shows her that he loves her because he thinks that he really does love her. Also, does this poem end happily or does it end badly? The ending is tragic in that Madeline is taken away from her home only to be brought into a storm that symbolizes more tragedy to come. However, the end of the poem should not be interpreted that Porphyro is now stealing her away after seducing and corrupting her, for he does not know the effects of his actions on her. The reader is left with the thought that now both Porphyro and Madeline are innocently left victim to the storm.