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(This lovely picture is entitled “Alaska Moonlight” by JLS Photography.)

St. Agnes’ Eve by Tennyson forms an interesting counterpart to the Taylor’s Was There a Palace of Pure Gold (Meditation 24).  Both poems are driven by the desire to be with God.  

Both concern a present a present desire to be with God and the need to be fit for such a translation. But despite the similar concern the effect and content of both poems is remarkably different. 

The First Stanza:

Deep on the convent-roof the snows 

Are sparkling to the moon: 

My breath to heaven like vapour goes; 

May my soul follow soon! 

The shadows of the convent-towers 

Slant down the snowy sward, 

Still creeping with the creeping hours 

That lead me to my Lord: 

Make Thou my spirit pure and clear 

As are the frosty skies, 

Or this first snowdrop of the year 

That in my bosom lies. 

Summary: The poet is perhaps a nun of some sort “the convent-roof”; or at least a deeply religious person. One a cold night, while looking over the moonlight snow, the poet’s breath fogs and lifts toward heaven. That leads to a thought of the poet’s soul likewise ascending:

My breath to heaven like vapour goes; 

May my soul follow soon! 

In this desire to be with God, the present time consists of “shadow” and “creeping hours”.  Thus, the prayer that the poet’s spirit may ascend. Like Taylor the poet prays that the soul be purified, “Make thou my spirit pure and clear.” But unlike Taylor there is no meditation on one’s own sinfulness. In fact, the sense is different. The poet’s mediation is made a convent and the sense is a cold, chaste, unworldly desire. 

There are two other marked differences between the poets. Taylor rhythm and imagery are complex, contradictory, often jarring. But Tennyson writes great polish. 

The rhythm is meticulous held in check to draw attention precisely as the poet intends:

DEEP on the CONvent-ROOF the SNOWS 

Are SPARKling TO the MOON: 

My BREATH to HEAven like VAPour GOES; 


The initial deep slows down the entire scene. The line break, the semicolon and the two accented syllables slow down the movement of the verse and throw the emphasis on the initial syllable of the prayer, “MAY”. 

The imagery is all of a picture: nothing which is not organic to the scene intrudes. A cold night, the snow, the moon, the freezing breath are all of the same event.  

Taylor by contrast would draw together images which have a certain conceptual link, even if in “nature” they would never be found together. Taylor would bring together any number of beautiful images, even if those images have no natural correspondence in the “real world.” I could image Taylor writing of moonlight and the glint of a fish’s scales and the sunshine and a white flower and a ruby, because they all flash light: eventhough sun and moon can never both shine at once.

Here is another similarity to Taylor. Tennyson’s prayer acknowledges an unfitness for heaven, robes are “soiled”, the candle is pale, earthy. Taylor would rail and bemoan his unfitness. Tennyson is more Platonic and less moral. Tennyson sees the physical body as an ontological impediment. Taylor seems the human trouble as more profound.  Both speak of new clothes, but Taylor is more desperate and disgusted. Tennyson sees the current trouble being merely the need for an invitation to ascend:

As these white robes are soil’d and dark, 

To yonder shining ground; 

As this pale taper’s earthly spark, 

To yonder argent round; 

So shows my soul before the Lamb, 

My spirit before Thee; 

So in mine earthly house I am, 

To that I hope to be. 

Break up the heavens, O Lord! and far, 

Thro’ all yon starlight keen, 

Draw me, thy bride, a glittering star, 

In raiment white and clean. 

When Tennyson comes to the doors of heaven, he will be cleared of “sin”; it will be a purging at that time and place,

For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits, 

To make me pure of sin. 

Taylor too sees the need for the work to be on God’s side: “Oh! That my heart was made thy golden box.” And both see that they will be admitted by God’s grace. But there is one point on which they profoundly differ:

He lifts me to the golden doors; 

The flashes come and go; 

All heaven bursts her starry floors, 

And strows her lights below, 

And deepens on and up! the gates 

Roll back, and far within 

For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits, 

To make me pure of sin. 

The sabbaths of Eternity, 

One sabbath deep and wide— 

A light upon the shining sea— 

The Bridegroom with his bride! 

In Tennyson’s poem, the one who is praying has no conflict in the passions. The desire to be God is perfect and consistent: just like the flow of the poem’s language. All of is a consistent piece. The poet desires to be God. The poet trusts that God will work and raise the poet up. 

Taylor too has faith in God’s work and a desire to be God. But in Taylor there is a profound sense of the conflict and inconsistency of religious desire.  

Tennyson’s prayer contains no conflicting emotion.  The covenant towers which reach up toward heaven cast moon-shadows upon the earth. Time on earth creeps. The breath and soul ascend to God by their own nature movement. 

Taylor objectively sees how much better it is to be with God. But then he sees the conflicting desires of his heart which also seeks the earth. Taylor confesses to a desire contrary to God. Taylor is in love with the earth. The breath ascends upward from the convent. But Taylor would also be thinking of the warm bed which waits within, and of the good meal waiting in the morning.

Tennyson’s poem is the prayer of a “saint” who experiences no contrary desire. It is far more beautiful than Taylor’s conflicted mess. Tennyson’s saint would never call herself, “More blockish than a block.” She is a saint, after all. 

But that I thinks makes Taylor’s poem more honest. Tennyson’s saint has achieved a sort of earthly perfection. While Taylor’s penitent is horrified at his conflicted hearts which desires those things which are at odds with his own happiness. As John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

Tennyson’s saint admits to some lurking imperfect, but the poem does not express that terrified sense of sin which makes up Taylor’s meditations.