Custom demised: Porch Watching on St Mark’s Eve

The eve of St Mark: Customs

John Keats

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 unmatur’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 aguish hills—
Twice holy was the sabbath bell:
The silent Streets were crowded well
With staid and pious companies
Warm from their fire-side 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 organ 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 broideries—
Perplex’d her with a thousand things—
The Stars of heaven and angels’ wings,
Martyrs in a fiery blaze—
Azure saints in silver rays,
Moses’ breastplate, and the seven
Candlesticks John saw in heaven—
The winged Lion of St. Mark
And 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 plaited lawn-frill, fine and thin
She lifted up her soft warm chin,
With aching neck and swimming eyes
And daz’d 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 musick of the drowsy chimes,
All was 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 ceilingbeam and old oak chair,
The Parrot’s cage and panel 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—
Untir’d she read; her shadow still
Glower’d about as it would fill
The room with wildest forms and shades,
As though some ghostly Queen of spades
Had come to mock behind her back—
And dance, and ruffle her 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 crowquill size
Beneath the text; and thus the rhyme
Was parcell’d out from time to time:
—’Als writith he of swevenis
Men han beforne they wake in bliss,
Whanne that hir friendes thinke hem bound
In crimped shroude farre under grounde;
And how a litling child mote be
A saint er its nativitie,
Gif that the modre (god her blesse)
Kepen in solitarinesse,
And kissen devoute the holy croce.
Of Goddis love and Sathan’s force
He writith; and thinges many mo:
Of swiche thinges I may not shew;.
Bot I must tellen verilie
Somdel of Saintè Cicilie;
And chieftie what he auctorethe
Of Saintè Markis life and dethe.’

At length her constant eyelids come
Upon the fervent Martyrdom;
Then lastly to his holy shrine
Exalt amid the tapers’ shine
At Venice—

In search of traditional customs and ceremonies

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 “Tis now, replied the village belle,  St. Mark’s mysterious eve, And all that old traditions tell, I tremblingly believe; How, when the midnight signal tolls, Along the churchyard green, A mournful train of sentenced souls  In winding-sheets are seen. The ghosts of all whom death shall doom  Within the coming year, In pale procession walk the gloom,  Amid the silence drear.”

On this date curious people would wait up on the 24th of April, St. Mark’s Eve to see who would die in the Parish. The details varied a little according to location, but the basic idea was that you sat in a church porch and the spirits or wraiths of those who were to die that year ahead would be seen as ghosts. The watchers had to remain silent from when the church clock struck 11pm until the clock struck one, and a procession of the dead predicted that year would…

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About bemonzon

Historian, Educator. My areas of interest are medieval Spain and England, the history of medieval women, Catholicism, popular religion and Anglo-Spanish relations.
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