December is finally with us! Here at Poetry Towers, we’re really starting to feel the bite of winter. Hurrying to work, our coat collars turned up against the cold, we’ve been gulping down warming mugs of hot chocolate, shaking the moths out of our woolliest mittens, and even sporting the odd tartan blanket over our knees…
This time of year has also got us thinking about some of our favourite wintry poems. From icicles hanging by the wall to woods on a snowy evening, we’ve been getting stuck into poetry that really makes us shiver. At the top of our pile (and with the frostiest opening of any poem we could find) is John Keats’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’:
“St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:”
There’s another reason for remembering this famous poem at this time of year. The eve of St Agnes is traditionally celebrated on 20th January, just a few weeks from now, and this year the Keats Foundation will be marking the occasion with a special reading at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. You could win the chance to have your poem read out at this prestigious c
elebration – read on to find out more about the poem, the challenge, and how you can enter.
Legend has it that St. Agnes’ Eve is the night when young women may dream about the man they are going to marry. In Keats’ 1819 poem, set in medieval times (and running to a whopping 42 stanzas), he describes a beautiful young noblewoman, Madeline, who is in love with a man called Porphyro. It is this Porphyro who Madeline hopes to dream about on St Agnes’ Eve as she goes to bed in her freezing castle, her chamber lit by the glow of “the wintry moon”.
Porphyro, meanwhile, “with heart on fire”, is making his way across the bitterly cold moors to find Madeline on this auspicious night, and (he hopes) persuade he that he is the man she is meant to marry. With the help of a serving woman, Porphyro steals into Madeline’s chamber, and, while she sleeps her “azure-lidded sleep”, prepares for her an exotic and extravagant feast.
“[…] he forth from the closet brought a heap
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 delicates 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 perfume light.—”
There are many reasons why this extraordinary poem is so compelling – and why people choose to commemorate it to this day, almost 200 years after it was written. The poem’s lengthy narrative form and its heavy use of iambic pentameter, of the poem compels us to read on, eager to discover what will happen to Madeline and Porphyro, and Keats’ richly descriptive language really lets us luxuriate in the world of the poem, with its luscious imagery and minutely detailed surroundings and sensations.
Part of what makes this such a fascinating winter poem is also the continued juxtaposition that Keats employs throughout between the freezing winter world outside the castle, through which Porphyro travels, and the warmth and life within, which reaches its peak at the moment when Porphyro prepares his banquet, revealing at the same time the strength of his love for Madeline. We can all empathize, both physically and emotionally, with the sensations of coming from bitterest cold to comforting warmth– the glorious, tingling sensation of immersing wind-chilled hands in a basin of warm water, for example, or that golden glow you feel when you finally see a loved one after a long, wintry absence.
The feast scene really is the centrepiece of the poems, a crescendo of luxurious description and mouth-watering imagery. It’s important that many of the foods Porphyro produces for Madeline’s feast are exotic delicacies from much hotter climes – dates and cinnamon and other “spiced dainties” from the Middle East. Not only do these foods bring to mind the heat and light of far-flung countries, they are also synonymous with extravagance – the costliness of imported delicacies, especially spices, was in medieval times a symbol of status and decadence. This is partly why spices such as ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon were, and still are, used so lavishly in the food with which we celebrate Christmas. It’s perhaps even more interesting that the feast is never actually eaten by the otherwise distracted Madeline and Porphyro (who ultimately escape together into the winter’s night), so it exists in the poem as a piece of pure spectacle, a symbol of lavish desire and devotion, and an example of Keats really glorying in the decadence of his own language.
Our challenge to you is to write your own poem describing a festive feast. This could be anything you like – perhaps you want to conjure up a banquet table piled high with golden pies and luscious trifles quivering beneath a foot of whipped cream. Perhaps your idea of a festive feast is something altogether more ascetic – a fragrant bowl of soup, or a single clementine. And it needn’t just be a Christmas feast, but any kind of occasion worth marking, for whatever reason. This could be a meal you yourself have experienced, or one that you dream of; it could be for an occasion celebrated long ago in the past, or for a special time yet to come.
Some ideas to consider:
- Think about what emotions will be associated with your feast – is this an occasion for happiness and celebration, or is it a family affair laced with enough tension and bad feeling to make even pudding taste sour?
- Consider the tone your poem will take. Is it going to be purely descriptive – a feast for the senses – or do you want to give your readers a message to digest along with their meal? You might want to glory in seasonal excess, or condemn gluttonous overconsumption, for example
- Decide who your feast is for – a friend, an enemy, a stranger? Or (like Lucullus) is it a meal prepared just for you? This might be the most important feast of all.
- Think about how Keats made the images of Porphyros’ banquet so sumptuous by juxtaposing them with the bare and icy world outside. Consider how you might use similar techniques of contrast and hyperbole to create an effective atmosphere in your own poem.
If you’re looking for more inspiration (and if you’re not keen to plough through all 42 stanzas of Keats’ poem), have a look at some further examples of literary feasting:
“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed by smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”
This description of the Cratchit family’s Christmas dinner is one of the most famous passages in all of Dickens’ writings – and is even credited with helping to popularize the idea of a Christmas dinner in the first place.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843
and another rather different Dickensian feast:
“The most prominent object was a long table with a table-cloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An épergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it”
This is the macabre description of Miss Haversham’s rancid wedding table – as withered and rotten as the abandoned bride herself.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861
“Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,
Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal.
Beef, mutton, and pork, and good pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest,
Cheese, apples and nuts, and good carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer. “
Thomas Tusser, ‘Christmas Cheer’, 1557
This relentlessly cheerful verse is taken from Tusser’s book, A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, a long, rhyming treatise about caring for home and farm in rural England.
“Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.”
Christina Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’, 1862
Another narrative poem with a very sinister flavour, this is the chant of goblin merchants, who sell their exquisite fruits at an unimaginable price.
This challenge is now closed.