One cold winter in January 1819, the youthful poet, John Keats, found himself staying with friends in Chichester at 11, Eastgate Square. He got into the habit of taking tea with an elderly lady who lived in the Vicar’s Hall in South Street. The crypt below the building – which still exists today and is a cafe – is believed to be the oldest domestic building in the city, dating back to the twelfth century.
The crypt has had a long and mysterious history. Before the Reformation it was used by the church and indeed, even in more recent times, old waxen effigies from the cathedral were stored in the crypt. The writer and naturalist, W.H. Hudson had a strange and disturbing vision here which he described in his chapter on Chichester in his book Nature in Downland.
Did Keats keep returning to visit the old woman because he valued her company or was it to soak up the atmosphere of this ancient building with its strong associations with the turbulent history of an ancient city? Whatever it was that called him to make these visits, it inspired one of the most evocative and mystical poems in the English language.
Keats based his poem on the folk belief that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes (20th January); that is she would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her. In the original version of his poem, Keats emphasized the young lovers’ sexuality, but his publishers, who feared public reaction, forced him to tone down the eroticism.
Does Madeline, the young woman of poem represent a pure spirit in a dark realm? Is her lover a real man or rather an ethereal spirit – her fantasy of manliness and sensuality?
The ‘beadsman’ is one of the leading characters in the poem. He is described as an old man and retainer of ‘The Baron,’ whose purpose is to pray for the souls of his aristocratic master and his family. Then there is Angela, the old woman (perhaps based on the old woman Keats visited in Chichester?) who helps bring the young man to Madeline’s bedroom.
The chill of winter pervades the poem as does the dissolute condition of the Baron’s guests and servants: the only warmth is that created between the two young lovers. The poem ends with uncertainty. Do all the protagonists die or are they elevated to new life? Are we left feeling hope or despair? It is left to the reader to decide.
Most remarkable of all is that Keats was only 23 when he wrote The Eve of St Agnes and he was to die in Rome only three years later – weakened by illness and unconsummated love.
Local historian, Andrew Berriman, has told us that Keats was in Chichester from January 21st to January 23rd, 1819; in his diary he wrote that ‘I went out twice at Chichester to old dowager card parties‘; among these ladies was Mrs. Mary Lacy, who lived in the crypt below the Vicars’ Hall, with its mediaeval pillars and arches and diamond windows; in the poem he describes the maiden Madeline as sleeping in just such a room while waiting to discover the identity of her future husband; Keats described the room as ‘pale, latticed, chill, and silent as a tomb’; no doubt based on the room in which he had played the then fashionable game of ‘loo’ with the ladies.