Madeline, Mermaids, and Medusas in "The Eve of St. Agnes."

Article excerpt

While recent scholarly interest in Keats has focused on gender issues in increasingly complex ways,(1) Keats's ambiguous depiction of Madeline in "The Eve of St. Agnes" has not attracted the attention it deserves. Commenting that Keats's characterization is "intriguingly undecided," Susan J. Wolfson enumerates the guises Madeline presents: "she appears variously as an innocent dreamer, an object of rapt devotion, a subject of soft ridicule, and a target for appropriative designs, opportunistic manipulation, and, some have argued, calculated betrayal" ("Keats's `Gordian Complication' of Women" 83). While this is an accurate inventory of critical positions on Madeline, this list does not take into account the full range of poetic images and mythical figures associated with Madeline in the poem. What is overlooked is the element of apprehension which counterpoints Porphyro's idealization of Madeline; for alternately saintly and enchanting, inspiring and tempting, passive and powerful, the depiction of Madeline is both an expression of Keats's often-noted ambivalence towards the female figure and a model of his increasingly self-conscious treatment of the male construction of the feminine. Furthermore, a view of Madeline as a locus of female agency and as a potential threat to Porphyro necessarily informs an understanding of the dreaming state to which she attracts him, making more apparent the relation of "The Eve of St. Agnes" to the poems of Keats's maturity in which suspicions of the visionary life and of the feminine so often coalesce.

Evidence in Keats's letters and other poems of his ambivalence towards women is well-documented.(2) Works such as "La Belle Dame sans Merci," "Lamia," and the later lyrics provide ample proof of what Wolfson calls "a crucial characteristic of Keats's imagination," that is, that "his deepest anxieties take shape in confrontations with power in a female form or in separations from, losses of, or betrayals by women" (77).(3) While "The Eve of St. Agnes" traditionally has been seen as written in "the first confident flush of [Keats's] love for Fanny Brawne" (Ward 310), I suggest that this work expresses a nascent form of the more obvious ambivalence towards women expressed in the poems and letters of ensuing months.(4)

Keats's depiction of women has been described by Leon Waldoff in terms of Keats's tendency either to "divide women into fair maids and femmes fatales" (54), or to unite this split image of woman in the depiction of one character with two distinct aspects, for example, "to present a single figure such as La Belle Dame as if she possesses two opposing natures, one engaging and seductive, the other abandoning and pitiless" (55). Keats himself was aware of his schematic classification of women, as he makes clear in his letter of 14-31 October 1818 in which he describes at great length the beautiful Anglo-Indian heiress Jane Cox, saying finally that she appeals to his "worldly" temper of mind, while telling his reader, his sister-in-law Georgiana, "as an eternal Being I love the thought of you. I should like her to ruin me, and I should like you to save me" (Letters 1: 395-6). Keats's self-consciousness regarding this split image of women is likewise evident in his depiction of Madeline in "The Eve of St. Agnes"; furthermore, this self-consciousness allows Keats to create in Porphyro a male spectator whose bifurcated view of Madeline dramatizes the tension between the idealization of feminine purity and fear of female agency that Keats is aware of in himself and in his culture. This combination of attractiveness with disturbing power is a recurrent pattern in the depiction of the feminine in Keats's poetry: in the months following the composition of "The Eve of St. Agnes," Keats goes on to explore, and in many ways quite sympathetically, strange, hybrid enchantresses in "Lamia" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci." In these poems Keats seems deliberately to unsettle the reader's assessment of his female figures, who appear as characters of ambiguous nature and virtue, radiating ripples of indeterminacy from the poems' female-occupied centers of meaning. …