Roses and Violets:
Integration of Masculine and Feminine
in Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes”
“Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet, –
Solution sweet…” (XXXVI: 3-7)
In the “Eve of St. Agnes,” John Keats embarks upon his own mythic quest for completion through the emotional, spiritual, and erotic union of his hero, Porphyro, and the mysterious, even frightening, aspect of feminine agency represented by Madeline. The exquisitely detailed narrative of Porphyro’s journey is only a subtle cover of alchemist’s gold, seducing eye and ear away from the heart of Keats’s inner battle between his conflicting emotions about women. What heroic acquisition of the ‘solution sweet’ Keats gained in his short life is uncertain; but the archetypal wisdom of the collective unconscious in “Eve of St. Agnes” is unmistakable – the poem is a lyrical, outward manifestation of his inner struggle to achieve a balanced, harmonious dance between the masculine and feminine aspects of human psyche in a patriarchal society.
Keats’s sensibilities toward the women of his century were defined by an emerging confusion of Victorian values and the uncomfortable certainty that these values were little more than what Dr. Mary Arsenau, author and expert on Romantic and Victorian Age literature, refers to as “male construction[s] of the feminine” (Arseneau, 227).
An examination of what has been called ‘ambivalence’ toward women in his poetry reveals that Keats was aware of the effects of patriarchy not only on women, but on men. The conflicted emotions he revealed so passionately in letters to friends and family expressed the damaging nature of Romantic Age gender constructions moving toward Victorian values: “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards women – at this moment I am striving to be just to them but I cannot. […] Is it because they fall so far beneath my boyish imagination?”(Arseneau, 230) In a decidedly uncharacteristic resolution for a man of his time, he further acknowledges, “I have no right to expect more than their reality” (Letters 1, 341).
His attempts to synthesize reality with the fantasies of Romantic ideals, especially beauty characterized by women, indicate that, even while Keats’s feared the loss of ‘self’ he experienced in the presence of beautiful women, his masculine aspect yearned toward the hidden feminine that struggled for emergence during the late Romantic period. His poetry reflects a constant search for a divine, unearthly quality of beauty, yet he refused the notion that the ‘visionary life’ was sufficient. He believed that truth could only be understood when the sensations of joy and pain in the physical world fused.
Keats’s philosophy resounds with the archetypal principle of the crippled Greek god Hephaistos. Laughed at by the other gods, his tortured soul gave birth to a singular level of creativity and artistry, described by Marie-Louise Von Franz, friend and student of analytical psychologist C.G. Jung, as “symbolic of what all truly creative people know: the woundedness of their souls through the creative impulse” (Von Franz, 123).
Von Franz further postulated that,
In most creative achievements an autonomous unconscious psychic reality intervenes, unpredictably and as if from nowhere, into the work. An unconscious dynamism, which Jung calls the “objective spirit,” begins to influence the writer and even often imposes upon him forms of expression which he does not intend to use consciously” (Von Franz, 119).
Keats’s own poetic artistry is the voice of his wounded psyche, gender-bound to a masculine construct that crippled his dance with the feminine.
The Heroic Quest
Myths, legends, and folk tales allow humanity to touch the soul of the past, take lessons for the present, and peer into the possibilities of the future. The collective voices of the ancients, rising in crescendo as they pour down through time, deliver the truth of the human condition and history. Jung, and his long-time friend Károly Kerényi, embraced this principle and introduced a system of hermeneutics to the study of mythology that focuses on the use of archetypes to describe a system of collective, universal truths – an analytical process of study that turns its critical eye toward understanding the intentions and meanings in myths. This branch of Mythological Criticism is founded on Jungian psychology, particularly Jung’s theories of the “collective unconscious” and the relationship between the masculine aspect in women, called the animus, and the feminine aspect in men, called the anima.
The “Eve of St. Agnes” can be read as a symbol of the heroic quest archetype: the relationship between Porphyro and Madeline is that which brings psychic completion, and the Bedesman is the ‘autonomous unconscious’ voice of Keats’s inner Hephaistos.
Young, ill, and facing immanent death, Keats was hounded by demons of time – cornering him in mental alleys where he imagined that his life would be ripped from him before he could produce the timeless poetry that would assure his place among the ‘greatest poets in history.’ In an outward representation of the culmination of Keats’s fears, the silent Bedesman’s “deathbell [had already] rung: The joys of all his life were said and sung” (Keats, III: 4-5). The implication is that his opportunity to speak out, or create, has passed by and left him seeking reprieve for his soul by doing penance for the souls of others. He is alone, bent with age and clothed in a beggar’s blue robe, “the effusion of his life evident only in his frosted breath” (Towell, 165) which rises “like pious incense from a censor old, […] taking flight for heaven” (Keats, I: 7-8). His breath is like a specter that leads the reader into the Bedesman’s unconscious dream, wherein is discovered the story of Porphyro and Madeline.
Early critics of “The Eve of St. Agnes” reviled it for its sexuality, failing in their narrow judgment to comprehend the depth and greatness of Porphyro’s Heroic Journey toward the goddess metaphor inherent in Madeleine’s character. The sexuality in the poem is real, but external. It is the internal subtext that reveals the true nature Porphyro’s quest: to win the consummation, or integration, of the masculine and feminine aspects that war against each other in the outer structure of the story.
This tale fits Joseph Campbell’s description of the Adventure archetype, or the Heroic Journey (Campbell, 245). The mythological hero, Porphyro, is called away from his commonday life to enjoin a physically or emotionally dangerous quest. From the beginning of Porphyro’s journey, Keats’s passion for beauty is understood as a driving force in his life. Porphyro proceeds to the ‘threshold of crossing,’ the place where he must commit to the quest or turn away. In the true Heroic quest, the Hero cannot ‘refuse the call’: to do so would mean that he cannot go home. Therefore, the hero is understood to be committed at the first sign of the call. Keats’s Porphyro is portrayed in this sense at the first mention of his name: “across the moors, had come young Porphyro, his heart on fire for Madeline” (Keats, IX: 3-5). Porphyro’s passion for Madeline mirrors Keats’s passion for beauty, especially the outward expression of feminine beauty. A far more subtle theme, however, is Keats’s yearning for the inward beauty that the feminine aspect represents. It is this need for integration with the feminine that drives his personal heroic journey.
Emma Jung described the masculine principle as that which expresses power, energy, courage, and aggression, while the feminine principle is characterized by second sight, an intuitive relationship with the elemental, intimacy with nature, open to the unconscious, and less averse to irrationality (Jung, 3). These are attributes of every psyche, male or female, that must, according to Jungian psychoanalysis, be in harmony and balance. Unfortunately, Romantic constructs defined them as physical, gendered characteristics.
This translated poorly for both men and women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, disallowing women to be courageous or bold, and forbidding men to be intuitive or irrational. High value was placed on masculine attributes, but the feminine was defined as weak, silly, needy of male domination. In a world of male-ordered values and masculine superiority, Keats and his contemporaries were unnaturally estranged from the feminine aspects of the humanity. Lacking any understanding of their own feminine aspect, their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives became victims of the self-defeating system of patriarchy. Without the necessary psychic balance, they were ill-equipped to understand not only the nature of the feminine, but women as well. Jeffery Satinover writes, “the dance [between the masculine and the feminine] is ordered both between us and within us. When, in our brokenness, we halt it within us, it stops as well between us” (True Masculinity). Early gender constructs generated a profound brokenness between the masculine and feminine, effectively shutting down healthy lines of communication and understanding between the men and women of these eras.
Out of the destructive gender-imprisoned role Keats was born into came his great need for inner balance and completion. In the “Eve of St. Agnes,” he calls this a “solution sweet” (Keats, XXXVI: 7). To win the elixir of life, however, his hero Porphyro must go through dangers and trials in which he is aided by a “helper.” He is oppressed by shadows and ominous beings who guard the passageway to his prize: “for him, those chambers held barbarian hordes, Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords, Whose very dogs would execrations howl Against his lineage: not one breast affords Him any mercy, in that mansion foul, Save one old beldame” (Keats, X: 4-8).
Of particular interest in this passage is the reference to Porphyro’s lineage. Those who would have taken issue with Porphyro’s presence in the hall that night would have done it on the basis of his lineage. This is not a reference to his quality of manhood or his physical attributes. In fact, no reference is made to suggest that his enemies are aware of a relationship between Porphyro and Madeline. What, then, can be the cause of this enmity? A Jungian lens reveals that those who would object to Porphyro are all men, and to a one are described in terms of the masculine: aggressive, bold, courageous. Although Porphyro is also a man, his ‘lineage’ represents a man in search of the feminine. Keats is describing the refusal of the patriarchal male to acknowledge an intrinsic need for the feminine. For both the mythical hero Porphyro and the Romantic man Keats, the quest was taboo. Keats wrote of the difficulty of enacting his need for a new attitude toward women to Benjamin Bailey,
The only way is to find the root of evil [the cause of the brokenness in his society], and so cure it “with backward mutters of dissevering Power. That is a difficult thing; for an obstinate Prejudice can seldom be produced but from a Gordian complication of feelings, which must take time to unravel, and care to keep unraveled” (Letters 1: 342).
The revelation of unacceptable lineage describes why Porphyro’s task becomes impossible without the intervention of a “helper.” Campbell describes the Hero’s Journey as it moves beyond the threshold:
The hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be revealed as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), […]; intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). At the return threshold, the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread. The boon that he brings restores the world (246).
What the reader encounters beyond the ‘portal doors’ in “Eve of St. Agnes” is Porphyro’s helper, the beldame, Angela. Her heart alone is sympathetic to his need, and she reveals to him the secret incantations Madeline plans to perform at the apex of St. Agnes’ moon that night. The palsied, aged Angela seems incapable of safely conveying Porphyro through the dangers that separate him from Madeline; yet that is what she does, with her own kind of magic, hiding him in a closet from which he can look in secrecy upon Madeline’s beauty.
Angela is like the repressed, indistinct inner voice of Keats’s feminine aspect, inviting him to behold and muse upon the secrets of his cloistered, hidden soul. Her weakness in the narrative mirrors the fragile nature of this calling in Keats. She fears for Porphyro’s life, for any hint of discovery in this covert mission, as, perhaps, Keats own conflicted thoughts are also chased by fears of discovery. But once in the chaste chamber, that place in which is hid the mysterious ideal so cherished by both Porphyro, he faces the supreme ordeal. Here, Porphyro’s greatest fears must be met and conquered: the light of the wintry moon reveals what, for Keats, was the beauty of the visionary life. Porphyro sees purity untouched by mortal taint. Keats is undone by the physical beauty of women, a thing he didn’t understand and boyishly attributed to the ethereal, unapproachable stature of a goddess. For the heroic Porphyro, as well as the tortured Keats, the object of desire represents an unknown power, it’s very mystery the greatest danger of all.
Porphyro grows faint when confronted by the moonlit image of Madeline kneeling by her bed. Madeline’s divine otherworldliness disempowers him, a profound metaphor for Keats’s own feeling that he would be ‘absorbed’ by beautiful women, effectively losing his individual self. His fear originated in what he perceived to be the suffocation of his masculine aspect by the feminine, always encountered in the presence of women. In order for either the hero Porphyro or the poet Keats to claim the elixir, or solution sweet, Madeline (the feminine) has to be recognized and acknowledged in her mortal, human state. This represents the transfiguration of a visionary ideal into a reality of the fused joy and pain in the ‘mutable world’ that Keats believed defined truth. He desperately sought a balance within himself that would unravel the Gordian knot of his gender constructs and prejudices.
Stanza XXVI is a turning point in the tale, as well as in the psyche of Keats, for this is where the transfiguration occurs. Madeline disrobes. Her hair is freed of its wreath of pearls, and her jewels are discarded one by one. Her ‘fragrant bodice,’ an intimidating robe of chastity, is freed of its restraints and slides, rustling, to her knees. Beneath the visionary and ideal, Madeline stands revealed: an alluring mermaid, her feminine aspect yearning toward the masculine she hopes to conjure in St. Agnes’ dream ritual. Porphyro is restored to his senses by her corporeality, breathtakingly exquisite though it be. It is hard to conjecture the depth or clarity of Keats’s epiphany regarding the feminine. Long after he wrote “Eve of St. Agnes,” Keats’s subsequent poetry, such as Lamia, expressed a continued attempt to understand the intractable knot of gender constructs.
It is evident, however, by the richly suggestive eroticism of the tale’s climax that Keats’s search for psychic resolution was substantially informed by some level of pain and/or joy in his commonday life:
[…] he arose,
Ethereal, flushed, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet, –
Solution sweet: (XXXVI: 2-7).
Keats’ imagery, though deeply erotic and suggestive of sexual penetration, poignantly describes a climatic emotional and spiritual integration of the masculine and feminine. It is here that Keats poetically asserts the natural, harmonious relationship that proceeds from an unrestrained, fearless dismissal of social constructs of gender and patriarchy.
Von Franz wrote: “It is inevitable that psychology should deal with literature, since both spring from the same womb: the human psyche […] the artist’s eternal but heavy task is to bring into form that which assaults him from the depths of the psyche” (119, 125). Jung, though a student of Freud, disagreed with him on the intrinsically evil nature of the unconscious; however, it is not a contradiction of Jung-inspired Mythological Criticism to suggest that Freud’s “dream-work” principle is apparent in “Eve of St. Agnes.” Freud believed that all attempts to understand dreams were historically focused on their ‘manifest’ content (Freud, 400), and meaningful interpretations must involve “their latent content, or […] the ‘dream-thoughts.’ It is from these dream-thoughts, and not from a dream’s manifest content, that we disentangle its meaning” (400). An examination of the relationships between latent and manifest content, therefore, will reveal how the latent has been changed into the manifest (400).
Because the theme of “Eve of St. Agnes” is played out in a dream, it is reasonable to examine the intricate relationships between the Bedesman, Angela, Porphyro and Madeline; further, to closely analyze Keats’s relationship to the roles of his mythical characters, and how the processes of their heroic transformations mirror the journey of Keats’s own assaulted psyche.
The reason why myths and other stories, like “Eve of St. Agnes,” built upon the mythological model make such strong connections with humanity is that they revolve around archetypes that reflect different aspects of the human psyche. Jung believed that “our personalities divide themselves into these characters to play out the drama of our lives” (Vogler, 10). From the Bedesman, to Madeline’s unaccepting kinsmen, to Angela, Porphyro, and Madeline herself, a case can be made that Keats worked out the drama of his own life in the design of the archetypes they represented. The visual and emotional sensuality of the poem is a clandestine literary device, carefully concealing Keats’s hope that humanity would move toward ever greater freedoms in thought and translation. Beneath such undefined general terms that the ‘freedoms’ are indistinct, one can easily believe that Keats was talking about not only the physical universal condition of humanity, but spiritual and emotional freedoms as well.
By the time St. Agnes’ moon sets upon the lover’s tryst, the elixir is safely acquired. Porphyro’s supreme ordeal, overcoming his fear of Madeline’s mystical purity, is the agency of his own transformation from the incompleteness of his masculine to integration with the feminine. The elixir, therefore, is new knowledge. Keats’s troubled acquisition of this knowledge in life, however, leads him to keep it concealed. He relies on a slow and steady unraveling of Gordian emotions, instead of the swift, bold blow of Alexander, to sever his connection with to the confusing gender constructions that plagued him. “Eve of St. Agnes” with its happy ending, then, can be read as a manifest projection of Keats’s latent need for a resolution to his inner conflict with the shallow nature of patriarchal gender constructs.
Below follows Keats’ poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes.”
The Eve of St. Agnes
By John Keats
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
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Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968.
Eggers, J. Philip. “Memory in Mankind: Keats Historical Imagination.” PMLA. 86.5 (1971): 990-998. JSTOR. Union Inst. & Univ., Gary Library, Montpelier, VT. 28 November 2008.
Keats, John. “The Eve of St. Agnes.” English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.
The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2004. 397-414.
Jung, Emma. Animus and Anima. Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1985.
Satinover, Jeffrey, M.D. “The True Masculine and the True Feminine: Are These the Same as Jung’s Anima and Animus?” Crisis in Masculinity. Online: 9 January 2008.
Towell, Lavaughn. “Effusion Imagery and the Elixir of Life in the Poetry of John Keats.” Interactions. 16.1 (2007): 165-174. Academic Search Premier. Thompson Gale Cengage. Union Inst. & Univ., Gary Library, Montpelier, VT. 15 November 2008.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Studio City, CA: Michael Weise Productions, 1998.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise. “Analytical Psychology and Literary Criticism.” New Literary History. 12.1 (1980): 119-126. Union Inst. & Univ., Gary Library, Montpelier, VT. 11 November 2008.
 Marie-Louise Von Franz was a Swiss Jungian Psychotherapist. She founded the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, wrote over 20 volumes on Analytical Psychology, and was a student and friend of Carl Jung from 1933 until his death in 1961. She is well known and respected for her analyses of the archetypal significance of myth, folklore, and fairy tale.
 Carl G. Jung was a pioneering psychoanalyst whose discoveries and theories solidified into a comprehensive view of the human psyche known as depth, or analytical, psychology. Although some feminists have redefined Jung’s work to be inclusive of the feminine, his views continue to shape and influence a modern understanding of psychoanalysis. The feminist revision of Jungian theory is called Post-Jungian Literary Theory.
 One of the founders of modern studies in Greek Mythology. d. 1973.
 Definition of hermeneutics interpreted by C. Moustakas in his 1994 text, Phenomenological Research Methods.
 Primal memories common to the human race. They exist in the subconscious and are defined by archetypes, or recurring images, patterns, themes, and symbols.
 Bedesman: man of prayer. From the Middle English, bede, meaning prayer. Bedesmen were nicknamed “Blue Robes” because of the long blue robes they wore. These were given to them yearly by the King on the King’s birthday.
 Teacher, lecturer, author, editor, and translator of many books on mythology, including The Mythic Image. He is widely known for an interview series with Bill Moyer called, ‘The Power of Myth.’
 Jeffery Satinover, M.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. He received his training in psychoanalysis at the C.G. Jung Institute of Zurich. He is the author of several books, including, The Quantum Brain: The Search for Freedom and the Next Generation of Man, and The Empty Self: C.G. Jung and the Gnostic Transformation of Modern Identity.
 Can be literal or metaphoric. It represents the prize, and can serve as a personal or communal healing agent, or wealth. It can have the power to restore life in the Ordinary World, or the Hero’s commonday life.
 The Gordian Knot originated in a myth about a peasant who tied up his ox-cart with a Gordian knot, a mathematical puzzle so intimidating to unravel that Alexander the Great was said to have solved the problem by slicing through it with his sword. References to the knot are metaphorical and represent intractable situations that can only be solved with a bold blow.