Bringing Keats to life

Posted on 26th February 2019

Bedales students were transported back in time on 11 February as they took part in a poetry experience day to enhance their study of a John Keats classic.

A Level English Literature students in 6.2 (Year 13) participated in a series of activities inspired by Keats’ 1819 poem, The Eve of St Agnes, in an exercise designed to cement their understanding of the revered text.

The poem, which is set in the Middle Ages, was inspired by the legend that unmarried women could see their future husband in their dreams if they performed certain rituals on 20 January – the eve of St Agnes.

It follows the young maiden Madeline as she escapes a loud and festive family party to go to her bedroom and perform the rituals, hoping to see her lover Porphyro in her dreams, despite being from opposite sides of two rival families.

As Keats fans will recall, Madeline does see Porphyro in her dreams, but her dreams morph into reality as her lover – having snuck into her room while she was at the party – emerges from his hiding place in the closet and attempts to rouse her by laying out a feast and playing the lute.

Students’ interaction with the poem began ahead of the experience day as they worked in groups to produce tableaux representative of the poem. The images were exhibited in Bedales Reception, where students gathered to observe, match each tableau to the stanza they felt it best represented and support their answers with quotations from the poem.

Students then made their way to the school’s Lupton Hall, where a room behind the stage had been luxuriously set-dressed to evoke Madeline’s chamber – the scene of the climax of the poem.

There, students were asked to identify elements of the room that they recognised from the poem, as well as a few inaccuracies. They also enjoyed a selection of food reminiscent of Porphyro’s feast of Madeline, complete with what Keats describes as “spiced dainties”, including candied gourd, jelly and cream, which had been prepared for the experience by English teachers Julia Bevan and Lucy McIlwraith.

Having dressed up as Porphyro and Madeline’s nurse, Angela, for the experience, Julia and Lucy also brought two of the poem’s characters to life in a visual way.

For the final stage of the experience, students were invited to recreate a stanza for The Eve of St Agnes in the correct Spenserian stanza form, using lines and words that Keats himself wrote but didn’t use in the finished poem.

The day was well-received by students, who reacted positively to the immersive sensory learning experience. Many noted that through the tableaux they had already created, the room in the Lupton Hall and the teachers in medieval dress, the poem became very visual.

Julia Bevan said: “As Keats is a poet of the senses, Lucy and I wanted our students to taste, touch and even smell the rich world of candied fruit, fragrant bodices and “lucent syrups with cinnamon” that the lovers inhabit. The Memorial Library and Lupton Hall became beautiful settings for the students to capture on camera – and hopefully in their minds too – an important moment in this tapestry of medieval scenes and characters surrounded by fantasy and dreams.”