The Eve of St. Mark is a fragment of a poem by John Keats.
It was written in February of 1819, and it is usally assumed to be written
about a legend that says that if you watch the church from 11:00 to 1:00
on St. Mark's Eve (April 24), for three years in a row, then on the third
year you will see images of those who are going to die that year pass
by into the church. The poem, as it stands, says nothing of this, but simply
talks of a young girl, Bertha, sitting up late reading on St. Mark's Eve.
Keats' probably first heard of this legend from Isabella Jones, who also
inspired "The Eve of St. Agnes," written about the same time. If that
is indeed the subject of this poem, as one can only assume, it can be
speculated as well that it was his own haunting fear of death that made
him abandon it. Sometime in 1818 Keats became convinced that he had
exactly three years left to live; he was almost exactly right. There is
no evidence that by 1819 this fear had left him; quite the contrary. Much
of his work of this year is covered in death-imagery. "Now more than
ever seems it rich to die," he wrote, in "Ode to a Nightingale." "When I
have fears that I may cease to be," and "This living hand, now warm and
capable" are also good examples. While medical knowledge at the time
would have made it impossible for him to know for certain that he was
already infected with tuberculosis, there is plenty of evidence that he
was at least marginally aware of it. Not only was he trained as a surgeon
himself, but he had already watched his mother and younger brother
die of the same illness, and by 1819 was taking considerable pains
to avoid over-exerting himself, and to stay out of the cold.
However, with no complete thoughts or story, we are left with, well,
what Keats does best. Here we have a collection of images, or a lonely
walk through a quiet country town at dusk. A young girl sits up late,
surrounded by shadows and quiet sounds.
The Eve of St. Mark
Upon a Sabbath day it fell;
Twice holy was the Sabbath bell,
That call'd the folk to evening prayer.
The city streets were clean and fair
From wholesome drench of April rains,
And on the western window panes
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of anmatur'd green vallies cold,
Of the green thorny bloomless hedge,
Of rivers new with springtide sedge,
Of primroses by shelter'd rills,
And daisies on the anguish hills.
Twice holy was the Sabbath bell;
The silent streets were crowded well
With staid and pious companies,
Warm from their fireside orat'ries,
And moving with demurest air
To even song and vesper prayer.
Each arched porch and entry low
Was fill'd with patient folk and slow,
With whispers hush and shuffling feet,
While play'd the organs loud and sweet.
The bells had ceas'd, the prayers begun,
And Bertha had not yet half done
A curious volume, patch'd and torn,
That all day long, from earliest morn,
Had taken captive her two eyes
Among its golden boundaries;
Perplex'd her with a thousand things--
The stars of heaven, and angel's wings,
Martyrs in a fiery blaze
Azure saints mid silver rays,
Aaron's breastplate, and the seven
Candlesticks John saw in heaven,
The winged Lion of St. Mark,
And with the Covenantal Ark,
With its many mysteries,
Cherubim and golden mice.
Bertha was a maiden fair
Dwelling in the old Minster Square;
From her fireside she could see
Sidelong its rich antiquity,
Far as the bishop's garden wall,
Where sycamores and elm trees tall,
Full leav'd, the forest had outstript,
By no sharp north wind ever nipt,
So shelter'd by the mighty pile.
Bertha arose and read awhile,
With forehead 'gainst the window pane;
Again she tried, and then again,
Until the dusk eve left her dark
Upon the legend of St. Mark.
From pleated lawn-frill fine and thin
She lifted up her soft warm chin,
With aching neck and swimming eyes,
And dazed with saintly imageries.
All was gloom, and silent all,
Save now and then the still footfall
Of one returning townwards late,
Past the echoing minster gate.
The clamorous daws, that all the day
Above tree tops and towers play,
Pair by pair had gone to rest,
Each in its ancient belfry nest,
Where asleep they fall betimes
To music of the drowsy chimes.
All ws silent, all was gloom,
Abroad and in the homely room;
Down she sat, poor cheated soul,
And struck a lamp from the dismal coal,
Leaned forward, with bright drooping hair,
And slant book full against the glare.
Her shadow in uneasy guise
Hover'd about, a giant size,
On ceiling beam and old oak chair,
The parrot's cage and pannel square,
And the warm angled winter screen,
On which were many monsters seen,
Call'd doves of Siam, Lima mice,
And legless birds of paradise,
Macaw, and tender av'davat,
And silken furr'd Angora cat.
Untired she read; her shadow still
Glower'd about as it would fill
The room with wildest forms and shades,
As though some ghostly queens of spades
Had come to mock behind her back,
And dance, and ruffle their garments black.
Untir'd she read the legend page
Of holy Mark from youth to age;
On land, on seas, in pagan-chains,
Rejoicing for his many pains.
Sometimes the learned eremite,
With golden star, or dagger bright,
Referr'd to pious poesies
Written in smallest crow-quill size
Beneath the text; and thus the rhyme
Was parcel'd out from time to time:
--"Als writith he of swevenis
Men han beforne they wake in bliss,
Whanne thate hir friendes thinke hem bound
In crimpid shrounde farre under grounde;
And how a litling child mote be
A saint er its nativitie,
Gif thate the modre (God her blesse)
Kepen in solitarinesse,
And kissen devoute the holy croce.
Of Goddis love and Sathan's force
Her writith; and things many mo:
Of swiche things I may not shew;
Bot I must tellen verilie
Somdel of Sainte Cicille;
And chieflie what he auctorethe
Of Sainte Markis life and death."
At length her constant eyelids come
Upon the fervent martyrdom;
Then lastly to his holy shrine,
Exalt amid the tapers' shine