Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Quote of the Day: “Lucent Syrops, Tinct with Cinnamon”

 

Dateline: Rome, January 21, 304 AD
The young virgin known as Agnes was martyred for her faith today. Beautiful in looks and spirit, she had captured the attention of Phocus, son of the Prefect Sempronius, and when she rejected his advances, saying that she was already betrothed to one even more powerful, Phocus revealed her to the authorities as a Christian. She was arrested and led to the temple of the Vestal Virgins, where she refused to comply with pagan practice and was threatened with rape. She was then led, naked through the streets to a house of ill-repute where all those who attempted to assault her were struck blind by protective and avenging angels.

Next, still professing her love for Christ, she was tried as a witch, was found guilty, and was taken to the stake so that she could be burned; however the bundles of sticks could not be set alight, and so her executioner took out his sword and struck off her head.

Her youth (she was thirteen years of age) and beauty, her steadfast faith, and the brutality of her death at the hands of her Roman tormentors so impressed the crowd that many of them converted to Christianity on the spot.

The accounts that we have of the life of St. Agnes come from the mid to late-fourth century (so starting about fifty years after her death). All we really know is that a noble young lady was executed at the order of Emperor Diocletian, having been revealed as a Christian, and having steadfastly refused to give up either her faith or the virginity which she had pledged to Christ. She was buried near the Via Nomentana in Rome. A church was later built over the place where she was entombed, and her bones are venerated at the site.

Although the date of her canonization is uncertain, veneration of Agnes as a saint began almost immediately after her death. Today, she is the patron saint of, among others, chastity, young girls and gardeners. She is usually depicted wearing the robes of a wealthy young woman, with a lamb either in her arms or at her feet, the lamb being the symbol of innocence and purity, as well as, in the Latin agnus, so similar to her in name.

John Keats’ poem, The Eve of St. Agnes, takes as its theme one of the legends that grew up around the young saint–that virgins who performed certain rituals on January 20th, the eve of her martyrdom day would dream that night of the young man each of them was to marry.

Like all of Keats’ poetry, it’s achingly beautiful. Lush images, gorgeous phrasing, gothic setting, perfect meter, just lovely. And the first four lines, I can’t help noticing, might have been written to describe what I see when I look out my window on St. Agnes’ Eve 2019, exactly two hundred years after the poem was written:

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:

Bitter chill? Check. Brrrrr. Owls?  Check. I hear them. Hares?  Check. I see them. Flock in woolly fold?  Well, they’re in the barn where I confined them yesterday, but close enough.

The poem tells the story of Madeline, a young maiden in love with Porphyro, a young man whose family is her own family’s sworn enemy. (I know. Tale as old as time, right?) She’s been told by the elderly family retainer, Angela, that if she completes the proper rituals for virgins on the night, in that

. . . supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire

she will dream of the man she’s to marry (and of course, she knows who that will be).

In the best tradition of elderly family retainers, though, Angela puts her thumb on the scale in a major way. Read and wallow in the loveliness for yourself, and whatever you do, don’t miss what might be my favorite stanza in all of English poetry (warning–spoilers ahead):

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While 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.

Whether you’re a fan of the Romantics or not, it simply doesn’t get better than that. A “word painting.” I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I can see it. I can taste it. I can feel it.

The popular myth is that George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the most “Romantic” of the Romantic poets. I beg to differ. Byron was thirty-six when he died of a fever while attempting to command a Greek rebel army (with absolutely no military experience at all) attacking the fortress of Lepanto in 1824. Good grief, he was old enough to be a grandpa. Not Romantic at all. And rather stupid to boot. (Byron’s greatest legacy, IMHO wasn’t his poetry; it was his daughter, Ada. But that’s another story altogether.)

“Johnny Keats” as Byron dismissively referred to him, overcame his humble beginnings, the death of his father when he was eight (causing more financial hardship to the family), and the death of his mother (whose family was quite well off, although that doesn’t seem to have translated to Keats’ own circumstances) from tuberculosis when he was fourteen. He’d been set as an apprentice to Thomas Hammond a surgeon friend of Keats’ guardian, and he qualified as an apothecary at a young age, continuing his medical training while writing the poetry that was becoming his obsession and taking up more and more of his time.

He was never informed of nor given the rather substantial bequests left to him by his grandfather or his mother’s estate, a dereliction of duty usually ascribed to his guardian, who wanted him to become a doctor, and so he remained in reduced circumstances, eventually leaving his medical training to care for his brother Tom who was suffering from tuberculosis. Tom died in 1818, and around this time, John Keats himself began to suffer from a series of “bad colds.”

At the same time, he was barely making a living publishing poetry (most of which was reviewed poorly) and becoming part of a circle of poets including Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. He also met a young woman, Fanny Brawne (was ever a romantic heroine so inaptly named?) and pined for her as he got more and more ill. Despite various traveling tours to sunnier climes, Keats’ health declined from bad to worse, and he died in Rome, like the Saint of his poem, but in very different circumstances, on February 23, 1821. He was just twenty-five years old, and he had written some of the most beautiful, the most technically perfect, the most evocative, and the most mature, poetry in the English language.

I read the Eve of St. Agnes every January 20th, and I think of the young girl who died so horribly, the young poet who wrote so beautifully, and the young lovers who . . . well, read that for yourselves, please. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

After I’ve finished with my musings, I take a deep breath and then I go back to my humdrum life.

Which reminds me, I must go down to the barn and check for lambs in a bit. It’s the time of year for them, and today is, certainly, the nastiest day of winter so far. Lambs are always born on the nastiest day of winter. (That’s why I penned the sheep in the barn yesterday. If you’d ever dragged a living ewe with a living lamb stuck halfway in and halfway out up a hillside, on a tarp, in the snow because she decided to have her lamb in the creek at the bottom of the field on the worst day of winter, you’d pen them in before it came to that, too.)

The little ones are lovely, though. And, as the early Christians knew, pure and innocent (William Blake knew that as well. “Little lamb, who made thee?”).

Every so often, mom has twins, or she needs a little help with her offspring for some other reason, and the denizens of Chez She, male and female, are only too happy to pitch in where needed. No toxic masculinity around here. Just precious life. I hope St. Agnes would approve.

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  1. Al French of Damascus Moderator

    Your life is humdrum? Borning lambs? Hah!

    Very evocative post, as usual.

    • #1
    • January 20, 2019, at 8:49 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  2. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    Blessed Sunday! A lovely reflection: Apt and apposite…2 feet of snow outside my door…The coming of lambs is a hopeful idea. Please do not ‘take your measure on the cobbles’ while outdoors. (I’ll have to take up some Keats, methinks.) 

    • #2
    • January 20, 2019, at 9:34 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  3. KentForrester Moderator

    She, beautiful post!

    I agree completely that Keats is the most romantic of the Romantic poets. His poems are so dense in imagery that they approach the poetic imagery of Shakespeare’s poems and dramas at times.

    And “The Eve of St. Agnes” is also my favorite Keats poem, though “Ode on a Grecian Urn” runs a close second.

    I was visiting Rome a long time ago when I came across a little plaque at the side of the Spanish Steps. Keats died in an apartment at the base of the Spanish Steps. That building is now a little museum, where all the Romantic poets are celebrated —but especially Keats and Shelley. As you know, both Keats and Shelley loved Rome and the two are now buried in a little Rome cemetery. 

    Those stories of the early Christian martyrs were really something, weren’t they? I can see why they might have converted some pagans to Christianity. 

     

    • #3
    • January 20, 2019, at 10:17 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  4. Vectorman Thatcher

    She: The little ones are lovely, though. And, as the early Christians knew, pure and innocent (William Blake knew that as well. “Little lamb, who made thee?”).

    The modern composer John Tavener has set Blake’s poem to haunting music:


    Join other Ricochet members by submitting a Quote of the Day post, the easiest way to start a fun conversation. We have many open dates on the February Schedule. We’ve even include tips for finding great quotes, so choose your favorite quote and sign up today!

    • #4
    • January 20, 2019, at 10:55 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    She: The little ones are lovely, though. And, as the early Christians knew, pure and innocent (William Blake knew that as well. “Little lamb, who made thee?”).

    The modern composer John Tavener has set Blake’s poem to haunting music:

    Beautiful, thank you.

     

    • #5
    • January 20, 2019, at 11:50 AM PST
    • 1 like
  6. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thanks everyone. No lambs yet. Still, supposed to go down to 4 tonight and 2 tomorrow, so there’s time . . . .

    @kentforrester thanks for telling us about the museum in Rome. I’ve not been to Rome, but will put that on my list. Agree with you about Shelley. Interesting fellow, and interesting family. 

    Apropos of nothing in particular, there’s a nice little movie, Bright Star, about Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawne. Keats is played by the charming, and suitably consumptive-looking Ben Whishaw, and Fanny by Abby Cornish. It’s quite lovely, actually, and is named for the sonnet Keats wrote about his love:

    Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art— 
    Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night 
    And watching, with eternal lids apart, 
    Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite, 
    The moving waters at their priestlike task 
    Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores, 
    Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
    Of snow upon the mountains and the moors— 
    No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable, 
    Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, 
    To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, 
    Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, 
    Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, 
    And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    (I’ll have to take up some Keats, methinks.) 

    You won’t be disappointed.

    • #6
    • January 20, 2019, at 12:00 PM PST
    • Like
  7. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    She: The little ones are lovely, though. And, as the early Christians knew, pure and innocent (William Blake knew that as well. “Little lamb, who made thee?”).

    The modern composer John Tavener has set Blake’s poem to haunting music:

    Thank you, @vectorman! Lovely…


    Join other Ricochet members by submitting a Quote of the Day post, the easiest way to start a fun conversation. We have many open dates on the February Schedule. We’ve even include tips for finding great quotes, so choose your favorite quote and sign up today!

     

    • #7
    • January 20, 2019, at 12:56 PM PST
    • 1 like
  8. Front Seat Cat Member

    Al French, sad sack (View Comment):

    Your life is humdrum? Borning lambs? Hah!

    Very evocative post, as usual.

    You had a lamb stuck halfway being born in a creek in winter and had to haul both parties on a gurney up a snowy hill?? Unbelievable! And we complain about razor blade commercials!

    • #8
    • January 20, 2019, at 1:02 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  9. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    Al French, sad sack (View Comment):

    Your life is humdrum? Borning lambs? Hah!

    Very evocative post, as usual.

    You had a lamb stuck halfway being born in a creek in winter and had to haul both parties on a gurney up a snowy hill?? Unbelievable! And we complain about razor blade commercials!

    Oh, gosh yes! That little episode turned out well (they usually do, actually). Rarely, there’s a nasty problem, but thankfully those episodes are few and far between. Sheep are incredibly dumb, though. If they fall “sideways” on a hill, with their feet facing uphill, you’d think they would just roll themselves 180 degrees so their feet are facing down the hill, and then just stand up. But, no. They’ll like there helpless until they expire if you don’t rescue them. I suppose giving birth to a lamb in a freezing, icy, muddy creek in the middle of a snowstorm, at the bottom of a steep hill, as far away from the barn as she could get, seemed like a good idea to the “mom” at the time. Usually the birth is a trouble-free process, and if there are problems, they are more like the ones I described in (shameless self-promotion alert) this post.

    • #9
    • January 20, 2019, at 1:18 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  10. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    She (View Comment):
    Sheep are incredibly dumb, though.

    No wonder Someone describes us as sheep – and himself as the Good Shepherd. :-D

    • #10
    • January 20, 2019, at 1:26 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Sheep are incredibly dumb, though.

    No wonder Someone describes us as sheep – and himself as the Good Shepherd. :-D

    My mom had a sermon on tape called “Super Sheep” where the giver describes how much he absolutely hated all the sheep imagery in the Bible because he knew sheep. Sheep were dumb, practically suicidally so! He wanted to be something better!

    And then he realized that yes, he was a sheep indeed.

    • #11
    • January 20, 2019, at 1:34 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  12. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This is a nice little book: A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.

    Mr. She had a nice little insight, many years ago (probably after an incident similar to the one described in this post, and after we’d both had a slug or two of Laphroaig to recover). He was musing on what hard work it can sometimes be to take care of livestock (especially stupid livestock like sheep), and he said:

    You know what? I just figured out the 23rd Psalm. Here’s the shepherd boy David, sitting in the field, feeling sorry for himself. Maybe he just disentangled a set of twins ready to be born, and got his entire arm bruised up to the shoulder, or maybe he just shoved the insides back into mom when they fell out, or set a broken leg, or got himself all worn out clipping the fleece off a strong and struggling, and extremely ungrateful, sheep, and he’s sitting there tired, miserable and probably hungry, wondering when it’s his turn. When he gets to win. When his ship comes in. As as he sits there, almost crying with tiredness and frustration, he thinks to himself, “Why do I have to take care of everything myself? Why isn’t there someone to look after me? Who feeds me, and puts me in the barn at night? Who takes care of me when I am sick? Huh?” Who is my shepherd?”

    And then he answers the question for himself.

    • #12
    • January 20, 2019, at 1:52 PM PST
    • 7 likes

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