Literary insights - 13: The Eve Of St Agnes

Day 13, book 13. John Keats reminds adland how much can be added to a simple idea through execution.

Literary insights - 13: The Eve Of St Agnes

It is not, I’m afraid, the Eve of St Agnes. That falls on 20th January. But it is the Eve of St Agnes in this, our own surreal literary timeline.

So, 1700 years after Agnes - patron saint of virgins - died a martyr in Rome, and 195 years after John Keats wrote this - one of his finest and most influential poems - what can we in this industry learn?

Caught as we often are between the distillation of things and the expansion of things; stuck as this industry currently is between long and short form creativity; and charged as we invariably are with the creation of that which is greater in force and meaning than the sum of its parts, we should all read The Eve of St Agnes.

It reminds us just how much can be added to a simple idea through execution. In 42 Spenserian stanzas (the form created for the Faerie Queen), Keats takes one superstitious motif and one simple lovers-defy-society plotline, and weaves from them a spell of rhyming imagery that not only inspired a generation of artistic re-interpretation, but also did justice to (and, bizarrely, lent credibility to) the original myth.

The tradition was that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if, on the Eve of St Agnes, she lay naked on her bed with her arms at her sides and her gaze fixed on heaven.

Our virginal heroine, Madeline, does exactly this, in the hope that, in the "honeyed middle of the night" she will receive the "soft adorings" of Porphyro, the man she (rebelliously) loves.

Madeline achieves the maidenly dream-state, but while she does so Porphyro – the real man, not the saint’s day apparition – arrives from across the moors and enters her chamber. She wakes to find her dream, though altered, is real, and the two escape together.

Read the poem like a script, and ask yourself when you last saw anything so well constructed.

Read the descriptions of Madeline undressing, and ask yourself when you last saw anything so well penned.

Read every plot-advancing alternating rhyme and ask yourself when you last saw anything with such necessity of form as this.

Craft like this builds ideas from straw and sets them ablaze inside our minds. The attention economy bends to its will, and our subconscious bears the imprint forever, like a cherished scar.

To build brands is to love ideas is to love craft is to love Keats.

Giles Hedger is the chief strategy officer at Leo Burnett London & Worldwide.
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