During my trip to Devon earlier this year I had great hopes of adding to my National Trust Houses tour. Exquisite Saltram was nearby – a wonderful Georgian mansion I have long wanted to visit – and also the romantic Buckland Abbey, with its fascinating connection to Sir Francis Drake. But it was the wrong time of year and those gorgeous places were either closed for the winter or only partly opened, so visiting them had to be postponed for yet another day. A pity, but it was a lovely trip nevertheless. The scenery was breathtaking – windswept coastlines and weather-beaten shores – and on my way back I caught a tantalising glimpse of Tyntesfield, one of the most quintessentially Victorian country houses in England. I didn’t get to see the interior, the house was also closed by the time we got there so, having brought nothing new from Devon for the country house tour, for this month’s blog post I’ve chosen something rather different: a poem and a virtual peek at John Keats’ house in London. Why? Because it’s the 20th of January, St Agnes’ Day, and the myth of St Agnes has inspired many. John Keats was one of them and in 1819, while he was still living in his London home, he wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, one of his most famous poems.
John Keats lived in Hampstead, in the beautiful Georgian residence that now houses the John Keats Museum, from December 1818 till Sept 1820. This period is regarded as the most prolific of his writing career. Unfortunately his health steadily deteriorated (he was suffering from tuberculosis) and he was advised to move to a warmer climate. He died in Italy a year later.
The feast of St Agnes, patron saint of virgins, betrothed couples and chastity in general, was formerly held as a special holiday for women. The eve of her feast day became in European folklore a time when girls could practice certain divinatory rituals before they went to bed in order to see their future husbands in their dreams. On the eve of St Agnes a girl “might take a row of pins and, plucking them out one after another, stick them in her sleeve, while singing a paternoster, and thus insure that her dreams would present the person in question that night. Or, passing into a different country form that of her ordinary residence, and taking her right-leg stocking, she might knit the left garter round it, repeating:
I knit this knot, this knot I knit,
To know the thing I know not yet,
That I may see
The man that shall my husband be,
Not in his best or worst array,
But what he weareth every day;
That I tomorrow may him ken
From among all other men.
Lying down on her back that night, with her hands under her head, the anxious maiden was led to expect that her future spouse would appear in a dream and salute her with a kiss”. (Roy Strong and Julia Trevelyan Oman ‘The English Year’, Webb & Bower 1982)
In his poem, John Keats describes the ritual in beautiful detail, as his verse turns
‘…to one Lady there,
Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and wing’d St Agnes’ saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare.
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;
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.’
If you would like to read the rest of the poem, you can find it here. I do wonder what Elizabeth Bennet might have to say, were she to ‘retire supperless to bed’ and perform the ritual, only to find herself dreaming of being kissed by Mr. Darcy – there’s great scope for a delightful JAFF scene here, and I’m very tempted to include it in my next novel.
So, dear young, free and single Janeites, who did you dream of on the eve of St Agnes?