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medieval romance has inspired literature for generations. The magic of the Arthurian romance can be traced to Celtic origins, which adds to it appeal when we look at it through the prism of post-medieval literature. The revival of the medieval romance can be viewed as an opposition against modern and intellectual movement that became vogue in modern Europe. These romances often emphasized the human emotions rather than the human intellect and a return to more classical traditions. Poets and writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not want to feel the oppression from the constraints of their time. Instead, they looked beyond the intellectual to a more mystical and emotional realm. They wanted to achieve another level in their writing -- one that allowed them to stretch their imaginations and their knowledge. The medieval aspects that we find in literature from this era accentuates a different type of thinking and writing that desired to be different yet familiar. John Keats and Alfred Tennyson are two poets that captured the essence of the medieval in their work, returning to a time that was simpler but just as exotic. Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin also refer to medieval aspects of society to enhance and emphasize their messages about society. These writers build on themes that are familiar to us only to expand on them. Their references allow us to make connections that might otherwise be lost in the barrage of descriptions.
John Keats and Alfred Tennyson are two poets that delved into the medieval to create worlds that recalled familiar moods, places, and names but also had a new quality that was new and fresh. Kerry McSweeney notes that the plots of these poems "involve a passage from one state of being to another" (McSweeney). In addition to having an "fantastic premise or supra-realistic appurtenances that combine with pronounced metrical and stylistic features to create a spell-like, magical atmosphere and to charge objects, actions, and binary oppositions with symbolic suggestiveness" (McSweeney). McSweeney observes that we are teased when we read these poems and "prompted, or propelled into interpretive considerations that are not the after-product of critical analysis but essential aspects of the experience of the poem" (McSweeney). Poems that illustrate this effect are Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci," "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Idylls of the King," "The Lady of Shalott," Past and Present, and The Stones of Venice are pieces of literature in which the past dances with the present and manages to open new worlds with each step.
In John Keats' poem, "La Belle Dame sans Merci," we see this type of return to the medieval with the knight and his mysterious vision. It is safe to assume that the meadows in which the knight finds himself are imaginary. The first few lines of the poem instantly create an air of mystery with its medieval references. This poem is also unique in that it is strange and yet wildly romantic. It is written in such a way that we cannot begin to analyze it but we try because it is so enchanting. The first lines awaken our curiosity because we are pulled into a medieval and supernatural world. When the narrator asks, "O what can ail thee, knight at arms" (Keats La Belle Dame sans Merci 1), we are hooked into discovering the mystery of this beautiful woman. The knight, they mystical lady, the mythological feel are fantastical as McSweeney mentions. The images all evoke questions and stir our imagination. The poet adds to this effect by never clearly answering the questions we have. Instead, he plays on them and lets us draw our own conclusions about who the man, the lady, and the meadow. This is a successful technique in that it allows us to make the story our own.
Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes," begins in the same mysterious and medieval tone, with a chill in the air and the dark mood of an abandoned chapel when we read of a "bitter chill" (Keats The Eve of St. Agnes 1) and "frozen grass" (3). The tombs are adorned with "sculptur'd dead, on each side, seem to freeze, / Emprison'd in black, purgatorial rails" (14-5). The Beadsman sees these knights and ladies "praying in dumb orat'ries" (17). Here we see how Keats is evoking the mood and feel of medieval romance with the chapel and the knights and ladies frozen in time with prayers on their lips. The poem is also filled sensual imagery, emphasizing the beauty of love. We find within the lines a sense of the poet attempting to keep this type of love alive. When he writes, "St. Agnes! Ah! It is St. Agnes' Eve -- /Yet men will murder upon holy days:" (118-9), we understand his position of the frailty of the human condition. However, this notion is not overcome within the context of the poem. Rather, it serves to heighten the lovers' experience, which in turn serves a s tribute to the medieval romances of days gone by.
Jason Bate notes that the characters in the poem are like the poem's "seduction" (Bate 442) itself in that they are "either elevated or else protectively muffled as one haunting stanza" (442). Bate also notes that "The Eve of St. Agnes" contains the "distinguishing quality" (442) of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in the "ebb and flow of emerging contrasts and partial resolutions, such as the advanced age and frailty of the two minor characters and the youth of the lovers; the temporary warmth and the all-enveloping cold; music and silence, the interplay of the religious and the erotic" (442). "The apex is reached when the central episode builds on Keats' familiar theme of dreaming and waking" (Bate 442). As with "La Belle Dame sans Merci," the poet is weaving together the medieval ideas of the past with supernatural aspects, all which seem fantastical, at the very least.
Woodring maintains that Keats weaves a "pattern of enchantment" (Woodring) into his "vivid tapestry" (Woodring) with the mention of Christian symbols, magicians, elves, and Porphyro and Merlin's rites. Madeline, too, is "trapped in the pagan conversion of Agnus Dei into Agnes Dies" (Woodring). In Woodring's estimation, the revelry that "The Eve of St. Agnes" evokes is "background to a contrived actuality that encloses one dream within another" (Woodring). The characters are draped with a certain type of medieval atmosphere that lends to the poem's mystery. For example, we read that Porphyro has come across the moors and stands "beside the portal doors,/Buttress'd from moonlight" (Keats The Eve of St. Agnes 76-7). Later, he envisions Madeline beguiled by fairies and his heart "revives" (226) as he gazes at her, "like a mermaid in sea-weed" (231). Even the storm is not a storm, for Porphyro declares it "an elfin-storm from faery land" (343) as it will permits the lover freedom from the "bloated wassaillers" (346). Here we see how the poet blends his vision of love with an ancient idea. Woodring notes that "Debate among scholars over Keats's sources for the poem may reflect a complexity in his own sense of poetic ancestry and influenced creativity" (Woodring). The Beadsman is the one character that moves "both with and against the 'coloring' and 'drapery' that Keats felt to be the principal merit of the poem" (Bate 442). He also observes that we are reminded of Shakespeare's phrases "death's eternal cold" when he walks down the freezing chapel past the "sculpter'd dead" (Keats The Eve of St. Agnes 15). Here we see how the poet is pulling from many different areas to create the mood he wants to convey.
Bate asserts that "The Eve of St. Agnes" reveals the predominant aspect of much Romantic poetry, which is a "dream -- like innocence -- that cannot be lived in the world without being violated; and yet, whatever is lost, actual happiness is impossible without an awakening from dream to reality" (Bate 446). In this poem, we find a love that goes beyond the physical in that it is a union of two spirits. The poet paints a lovely portrait of the lovers. For instance, we are told that Madeline's bed is "blanched linen, smooth and lavender." We are also told that she "lay/until the poppied warmth of sleep oppressed/her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away" (Keats The Eve of St. Agnes 237). Here the poet depicts a pleasing thought associated with Madeline's sleep. As the poets turns the dream into a reality, he continues to work with the magical qualities connected with medieval romances. The imagery he employs helps us see this kind of lover. For instance, the poet writes, "Into her dream he melted, as the rose/Blendeth its odour with the violet/Solution sweet" (320). The lovers' union is also crafted in such a way that it is conveyed as mystical, magical, and beautiful. For example, we read about the rare combination of the rose and violet fragrances. The lovers manage to flee the wrath of the dragons, spears,…[continue]
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