Thursday, 13 December 2012

St Agnes' Eve, ah, bitter chill it was...

...OK I know it's not actually the 20th Jan (allegedly the coldest day of the year) but it's beginning to feel like it.

For the fourth consecutive day,  we have thick frosts, and it's not even Christmas yet.... at this rate, January is going to be truly horrible.  The only ray of hope is that the forecast is set to get milder - with heavy rain, alas - on Friday, with the winds swinging round to the south.

Well, I could do with a milder week, I have masses to do in all of my gardens, and it would be lovely to be able to get out there and get on with it.

So who is St Agnes?  Patron saint of chastity, gardeners, young girls, rape victims and engaged couples, amongst others. How did she become a patron saint? Oh, another of those horrible stories of religion: she lived in Roman times, around 300ad, and by the age of 12 was beautiful and sought-after, but she had committed herself to god and would not accept any offers of marriage.

A local big-wig (The Prefect Sempronius) wanted her to marry his son, and when she refused, he condemned her to death.  Charming.  Apparently it was against the law at that time to execute a virgin, so - are you ready for this? - the Prefect had her stripped naked and dragged through the streets to a brothel, specifically for defiling, to make her eligible for execution.

Tales of what happened there vary: some versions say she grew hair all over her body, ie to make her repulsive to men (although frankly the sort of men who would drag a naked child through the streets to a brothel would not, one assumes, be that fussy), some say that anyone who tried to rape her became impotent *laughs heartlessly and hysterically at that one*, some versions say they were struck blind: all versions agree that she was sentenced to death by being burned alive. However, the wood would not burn, so one of the soldiers had to cut her head off with a sword. Or stab her to death.  Accounts vary.

All of which seems a little harsh for a vow of chastity.

Her day of martyrdom is the 21st Jan, and on the night before, legend has it that if a virgin fasts, she will see the face of her future husband.

And the only reason we even know about this is the Keats poem, St Agnes' Eve, a chilling celebration of how cold winter was, before the invention of central heating, global warming, and the general effect of the industrial revolution.

If you are not familiar with it, I highly recommend it. I studied it as part of my English Literature A level at school, and it's one of those poems, like the Ode to Autumn, which just stays with you all your life.

Without wishing to get started on a dissertation, I will just repeat my favourite parts, from the first two stanzas.

The famous opening line sets the scene:

St Agnes' Eve, ah bitter chill it was

Bitter chill, you notice - not any old chill, but a bitter one.

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold

Lovely image of the owl, feathers fluffed up, yet still cold. Or, a-cold, as the poet would have it, in order to make it scan properly.

The hare limp'd, trembling, through the frozen grass

Oh, the poor hare! He not only limped - pronounced the way we pronounce it, the removal of the "e" prevents readers of that time from saying "limm-ped"  which is how they tended to say things back then - but he was also trembling. Awww, sad.

And silent was the flock in woolly fold

Which to me nicely sums up the dumb resignation of sheep, who are not exactly noted for their intelligence. The hare was on the move, presumably trying to find somewhere less cold for the night, but the flock just stood there, silently, suffering. 

We then go on to a bit of description of the beadsman, a sort of religious servant, paid by rich people to say prayers for them when they could not be bothered to do so themselves. He shivers his way around the family chapel, his breath rising in great wreaths, and he can barely contemplate the dead entombed bodies lying there: they have those carved effigies above them, made from cold, cold stone, surrounded by what are described as "black, purgatorial rails", mmm, lovely, and - my favourite line - of this beadsman

....and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

I love that! His "weak spirit", and the way it "fails" altogether, at the thought of how very much colder than himself they are: the hoods are bad enough, but the "mails", metal chain mail - can you imagine how cold it would be to wear metal mail in cold weather?

And the relevance to gardening? Sometimes, when confronted with a massive task, or something really unpleasant, I say that last line to myself, to remind me that my spirit is not weak, and it will not "fail" before the challenge.

And then I get on and do whatever it is.

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