Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes”:
A Consumerist Fantasy
essay by Allison Birt
Nineteenth century London witnessed an exponential increase in the number and variety of shops available to its citizens. Goods from Britain’s growing colonial empire and increasingly sophisticated manufacturing sector filled these shops with ready-made luxury items that were very popular among consumers. According to James Walvin, shopkeepers went through great trouble and expense to create elaborate and eye-catching window displays to entice consumers into their shops. In contrast to the markets or fairs from which Londoners traditionally bought their goods, the windows of the new shopping districts “offered an endless (and endlessly changing) seduction; visually attractive, tempting – irresistible to many” (157). The proliferation of lavish window displays generated a new and popular pastime for nineteenth century Londoners: window shopping. The pavement outside fashionable shops was often crowded with bystanders peering in at the artistically lit and invitingly arranged displays of luxury items for sale. Among the items on display were an increasing number of books, each competing for the consumer’s attention. It was under these conditions that Keats published “The Eve of St. Agnes,” a poem in which he exploited the public’s penchant for browsing by simulating the experience of window shopping in hopes of increasing his sales. Keats regularly featured consumer culture in his writing, and while I believe he was willing to commodify his poetry in order to augment his income, his views on the subject were somewhat ambivalent and are worth further exploration.
While window shopping was a by-product of the burgeoning consumer culture in nineteenth century London, it was not necessarily motivated by a desire to purchase commodities. As Colin Campbell points out, window shopping allows people to:
indulge in ‘shopping’ without actually buying anything at all, although clearly deriving pleasure from the experience. In part, of course, the enjoyment is strictly aesthetic, involving an appreciation of the art of the designers and window-dressers involved. On top of this, however, there is the pleasure which comes from the imaginative use of the objects seen; that is from mentally ‘trying on’ the clothes examined, or ‘seeing’ the furniture arranged within one’s room. (92)
Campbell contends that consumers use their imagination to insert themselves into the window display, creating a daydream in which they have already purchased the item of their desires. This daydream “makes[s] desire itself a pleasurable experience” (86), allowing the consumer to get more satisfaction from wanting than from having. Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” is a commodity that, once purchased, allows the reader to continue the experience of unfulfilled desire through its daydream-like qualities and tantalizing description of commodities.
In stanzas XXIV to XLII of “The Eve of St. Agnes,” the reader has an experience akin to window shopping. Stanza XXIV begins with a description of an elaborate window casement, like one might find in an upscale shopping centre in London. The casement is “high and triple-arch’d” (208) with “carven imag’ries / of fruit, and flowers, and bunches of knot grass / and diamonded with panes of quaint device” (209-211). The description creates a frame through which the reader peers to watch the scene unfold in Madeline’s chamber. The moonlight streaming through the stained-glass window illuminates Madeline’s bare skin as she undresses, recalling the “lavish displays of lighting” (Walvin 158) used by London shop keepers to enhance the appearance of their products. The theatrical lighting bathes the commodified Madeline in hues of “gules” (218), “rose-bloom” (220) and “amethyst” (221) lending her an angelic appearance that makes Porphyro faint with desire. This reading of Keats’s sensual scene supports Proma Tagore’s view that he treats human bodies as “both subjects and objects of consumption” (67). Tagore observes that “Porphyro can be said to voyeuristically ‘consume’ or ‘devour’ Madeline with his very eyes” (70). From his hidden vantage point, Porphyro’s unreturned gaze allows him to enjoy viewing Madeline’s bedtime ritual unobserved, just like a shopper surveying a window display. Porphyro prolongs his scopophilic pleasure by delaying the moment he must wake Madeline. Instead, he “gazed upon her empty dress” (245) and “’tween the curtains peep’d,” (252) to watch her sleep. As long as she does not return his gaze, she continues to be a commodity that leaves him “entoil’d in woofed phantasies” (288).
While Madeline is the main attraction in this particular window display, her desirability is accentuated by its luxurious surroundings. While she sleeps in her well-appointed bed, Porphyro dresses the scene with a lavish banquet. According to Colin Campbell, “food and drink can provide pleasure via the senses without any being ingested, as is the case with the aroma of a steak or the bouquet of a wine” (61). I propose that Keats’s eloquent description of the feast Porphyro lays out for Madeline while she sleeps provides a similar experience:
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.
These delicacies he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfumed light. (264-275)
This meticulous illustration of the exotic delicacies and their artful display could easily be applied to one of the shop windows so popular in nineteenth century London. Keats not only describes the flavours and textures of the foods, but also highlights the striking tableware used to exhibit them. The same theatrical moonlight that illuminated and commodified Madeline a few stanzas earlier now reflects off the gold and silver of the dishes to produce a “perfumed light.” The commerciality of the description is enhanced by the allusions to the growing trade with distant parts of the Empire. Keats emphasises that these delicacies are available to English consumers thanks to the fleet of ships bringing novel commodities from exotic locations like Fez, Samarcand and Lebanon. Furthermore, Daniela Garofalo calls attention to the ease with which Porphyro produces the feast. Like a display that might grace the window of a high-end delicatessen, the food is conjured up ready-made with no preparation necessary.
The experience of window shopping is simulated not only by the origin and the display of the banquet, but also in the description of the food itself. Keats’s language in these lines is extremely evocative, conjuring a vivid image of a beautifully laid out feast of rich foods. Laura Wells Betz asserts that the “dense sonic and tactile language” (308) of these lines privileges the physical effects of the feast over the visual image. She astutely assigns a “gustatory verisimilitude” (310) to the rich mouth-feel of the p’s and l’s in “apple,” “plum” and “jellies,” the sticky oozing s sounds in “soother,” “lucent,” and “syrops,” and the chewy c’s in “creamy curd.” I would argue, however, that for a population literate in the visual grammar of the shop window, the visual image would dominate and the texture of the diction would help flesh out the daydream inspired by the luxurious picture. This argument is strengthened by the fact that neither Madeline nor Porphyro ever consume the food in the poem. The feast is present as a visual stimulant only, meant to be consumed with the eyes but not the mouth (Morton 155).
The idea that the food in the poem is intended to be seen but not eaten is just one of many examples of self-denial in “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and such abstention is integral to the practice of window shopping. Daniela Garofalo discusses self-denial in “The Eve of St. Agnes” as a source of fetishistic pleasure in the Lacanian sense; she agrees with Colin Campbell that “the desiring mode constitutes a state of enjoyable discomfort, and that wanting rather than having is the main focus of pleasure seeking” (86). While browsing in a shop, a consumer is allowed to imagine owning any of the commodities for sale, without committing to any purchases. This creates a situation with endless possibilities for the consumer, who delays making a purchase by daydreaming about the goods for sale. All of the characters in “The Eve of St. Agnes” practice self-denial and many seem to take pleasure in it. Madeline in particular is expected to abstain in many ways as a part of St. Agnes’ ritual; in order to be rewarded with a dream of her beloved, she must abstain from sexual satisfaction, refrain from speaking, and go to bed without dinner. She seems to actively delay the ritual as long as possible, staying late at the party even though she does not seem invested in it, and slowly undressing and saying her prayers before retiring to bed. Even the dream that she has been anticipating is not a consummation of her desire, but a continuation of her pleasurable self-denial. Campbell describes this as “the desiring and dreaming modes becom[ing] interfused, with a dream element entering into desire itself” (85). From stanza XXIV to stanza XXXVII the poem has a very dreamlike atmosphere, heightening the sense of unsatisfied desire. Porphyro wishes for an amulet from Morpheus, Greek god of dreams, to extend the fantasy and thus the pleasurable sensation of desire, and to some extent his wish is granted. The strength of his desire for her allows him to melt into her dream and consummate their physical relationship.
Campbell describes the disappointment that can result from attaining a long-desired object as it eliminates anticipatory pleasures and reality is “unlikely to compare favourably” (86) with the dream. This can be demonstrated when Madeline awakes from her dream to find Porphyro there in the flesh; the transition from dream to reality is described as a “painful change, that nigh expell’d / the blisses of her dream so pure and deep” (300-301). She exclaims “how changed thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!” (311) when she compares her beloved in her dream with the reality in front of her. In the following stanza the lovers appear to “make a purchase” by consummating their physical relationship. From this point on, the desire-infused daydream of window shopping disappears. The moon that lit their tryst so beautifully has set, the “iced gusts” (327) rattle the windows and Porphyro tells Madeline, “This is no dream, my bride” (326). Having given him her virginity, Madeline worries that he will “leave [her] here to fade and pine” (329) while he browses in other shops. Porphyro shows no signs of “buyer’s remorse” and convinces Madeline to elope with him; but the anticipatory fantasy is over and the world is now an austere and dangerous place, populated by “sleeping dragons” (353) and nightmares of “witch, and demon, and coffin worm” (187).
“The Eve of St. Agnes” is not only a poem about commodities, but as a part of Keats’s 1820 volume, a commodity in itself. Elizabeth Jones asserts that Keats was aware of “his role as a producer in the literary marketplace” (347), intentionally writing his odes as commodities in hopes of increasing his public popularity. As “The Eve of St. Agnes” was published in the same volume as the odes, it is reasonable to extend her argument to include it. Jones refers to Keats’s letters to elucidate the financial difficulties that motivated him to cultivate public popularity rather than literary fame with his writing. In order to pay his bills, he had to sell more poetry; thus, he began to “cater to the sensational ‘wants’ of the public” (347). Colin Campbell outlines what those “wants” were during the Romantic period. He contends that the rise of consumer culture was driven by the new purchasing power of the middle classes and therefore reflected middle class values. As luxury items that enhanced leisure time, books were extremely popular. Public taste favoured “not only the reading of fiction and romantically motivated behaviour, but also indulgence in luxury consumption” (35), and “The Eve of St. Agnes” satisfies on both accounts. It is a poem that epitomizes luxury consumption, especially the banquet scene, which “evokes a capitalist fantasy wherein a bourgeois subject is able to consume the poem in the act of reading” (Tagore 71). Its simulated window shopping experience allows the reader to sustain the anticipatory pleasure of browsing without buying, even after purchasing the book. Campbell also notes a rise in the cultural importance of romantic love; for the first time “love, and love alone, was the sovereign consideration in the choice of partners” (27) and critics were worried that literature of the period would encourage young women to elope. Madeline and Porphyro’s love affair and subsequent elopement is exactly the sort of story that critics condemned but consumers loved.
Another popular new commodity, according to Timothy Morton, was the “domestic antique” (122). Just as one might design a new piece of furniture to look antique, it was common in romantic literature to purposely use archaic language or forms to appeal to the prevailing Gothic or medievalist fashion. “The Eve of St. Agnes” is an excellent example of this technique. It is written in Spenserian stanzas, a form that alludes to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. The “antiquing” effect of this medievalizing form is intensified by the notable amount of archaic language in the poem. As Betz points out, the opening lines exhibit an antiquated syntax (“St Agnes’ Eve–Ah, bitter chill it was! / The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold”) and recall the timeworn tradition of oral story telling (305). Betz also highlights a number of archaic verb forms such as “saith” and “riseth” (305) that contribute to the appearance that this poem was written in an earlier age. In addition, the arched windows with heraldic stained glass set the action in the gothic architecture of a medieval castle. These medieval touches place the poem in the sensational Gothic genre that Wordsworth condemns in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and allude to the new commodity available to the middle classes: the antique. Keats included these “antiquing” techniques to help his literary commodity appeal to the public in hopes of selling more poetry, and it appears he was successful. The 1820 volume was well reviewed. Notably, one critic reported that he had “perused [the poems] with the heartiest pleasure” (quoted in Jones 364), using the language of window shopping to describe his experience.
If Keats was making use of the growing consumer culture for his own financial gain, does this mean that he approved of the practice? This topic has been a major source of debate among Keats scholars over the last few decades. For example, Porscha Fermanis examines “Lamia” and “Isabella” through a Marxist lens and concludes that Keats used his poetry to emphatically condemn British consumer culture. Proma Tagore highlights the destructive side of consumption in Keats’s poetry and connects it to themes of illness and death. At the other end of the spectrum, Ayumi Mizukoshi implies that Keats’s investment in sensuous pleasure denoted an endorsement of commodity culture (quoted in Garofalo 353). In my opinion, these arguments are too black and white, failing to take in the contradictory evidence available by contrasting Keats’s sentiments in his personal letters with his poetry. Taking a more balanced approach, Laura Wells Betz examines Keats’s poetic diction in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and comes to the conclusion that Keats acknowledged poetry’s growing status as a commodity on the literary market and was willing to exploit the public desire for sensationalism to sell his poetry. Elizabeth Jones takes the argument one step further with her assertion that Keats’s Odes were not only poems about commodities, but specifically intended to be commodities themselves. Keats, she writes, “tapped into the current of commodification sweeping his country” (364). Colin Campbell seems to have the most nuanced understanding of the relationship between the use of commodity culture for profit and a moral endorsement of consumerism. He asserts that making a living by producing goods for consumption does not necessarily imply approval of consumerism as a way of life. I believe that Campbell’s assessment is the most astute. Keats’s poetry in the 1820 volume is filled with apparently favourable descriptions of commodities – from the banquet scene in “The Eve of St. Agnes” to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which apostrophises a mass produced copy of a luxury commodity that was ubiquitous during his lifetime. Cultural products, such as this volume of poetry, are “consumed because they serve as aids to the construction of day-dreams” (Campbell 92). The 1820 volume would have enhanced readers’ experience of imaginative window shopping, allowing them to relate the commodities in poems to the contents of fashionable London shops. As Timothy Morton points out, the hyperbolic language Keats used to describe commodities “parodied the advertising language of luxury culture” (9), subverting the popularity of consumer culture. Keats’s letters reveal a disdain for the demands of the public, claiming it was “a cloying treacle to the wings of independence” (quoted in Jones 348). Nonetheless, he was willing to cater public fashions if it would help “lift [him] out of this [financial] mess” (quoted in Jones 349).
Keats’s willingness to exploit the burgeoning consumer culture for his own financial gain, regardless of his own contempt for public opinion, creates an intriguing and contradictory portrait. Like many artists, Keats had to balance his own need for artistic satisfaction with the practical considerations of making a living. “The Eve of St. Agnes” and the 1820 volume exhibit a deft handling of that dichotomy. Keats’s inventive simulation of the experience of window shopping simultaneously pleased the critics, was popular among consumers and helped to place him firmly in the pantheon of great English poets – all before the age of twenty five.
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