An Antecedent to 'The Eve of St. Agnes': Bowden, Newman and 'St. Bartholomew's Eve'

Rodney Stenning Edgecombe


Early in November 1818, John Henry Newman and John Bowden published the first canto of a collaborative poem entitled St. Bartholomew's Eve, though the completed work (in two cantos) appeared only in 1821. Since Keats wrote The Eve of St. Agnes between 18 January and 2 February 1819, a 'window of opportunity' for sight of that first canto opens in the two-and-a-half months between its publication and the composition of his own poem, even though we have no external evidence for his having read it. His chief contact with Oxford, Benjamin Bailey, had resigned from the University on 22 April 1818, and was a curate in Carlisle when the NewmanlBowden text appeared. However, it is at least possible that Bailey received a copy from an Oxford contact, and forwarded it to Keats. The cumulative internal evidence for such a transaction is in my opinion plausible. I am not suggesting that the derivative (but accomplished) poetry of St. Bartholomew's Eve made any real impression on Keats, but rather that it seeded his imagination with ideas of a verse romance, and lodged some gritty particles that would issue in the formation of pearls. Faint support for this notion can be found in a letter to Richard Woodhouse written on 18 December 1818 (midway through the 'window' period) which contains a reference to 'meretricious romance verse'. That at least shows the idea of medieval narrative was milling in his mind. And even if Keats did indeed see St. Bartholomew's Eve, I would argue that it figures in The Eve of St. Agnes not in adaptation or allusion, but rather in moments of 'absorption'. Edward Wilson recently made this distinction in an article on literary influence. Having drawn attention to the fact that both Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin employ the unusual epithet 'crouching' to describe a telephone, he makes it clear that the debt of the poet to the novelist was probably subliminal:
However, there is no conscious recollection in the poem (or, as we have seen in the Pym-Larkin correspondence) of the source of the image, such as is found, say in Larkin's 'Sad Steps' where the title recalls with deliberate irony 'With how sad steps, 0 Moone, thou climb'st the skies' (the opening line of sonnet 31 in Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella). The image of the crouching telephone has been not so much remembered as absorbed.
I shall accordingly focus this article on a comparable set of 'absorptions' (verbal or thematic echoes distinctive enough to suggest indebtedness, but falling short of deliberate invocations or incorporations). There are several moments in St. Bartholomew's Eve which, because they can be set against modified analogues in The Eve of St. Agnes, point to the likelihood - if not to the certainty - that Keats might have read its first canto.

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