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.
– from “The Eve of St. Mark” by John Keats, 1819
The Christian martyr Saint Mark, or Mark the Evangelist, is the traditionally purported to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. He is said to have founded the Church of Alexandria, one of the most important episcopal sees of Early Christianity. His feast day is celebrated on the 25th of April (this coming Saturday as I type).
If you’re in Britain over the next few days and happen to find yourself enjoying the warm weather near grassland, hedgerows, or woodland you might well encounter a small swarm of bulbous-eyed, black, hairy, dangly-legged flies. These are the males of the Bibio marci species and their dancing flight is intended to impress the smaller females which, if you look closely, you may find perched on nearby leaves. They are sometimes known as Hawthorn Flies, but more commonly and widely so as Saint Mark’s Fly because of their uncanny habit of emerging out of the earth on, or around, the Saint’s feast day.
The exact meaning of John Keats’ unfinished 1819 poem “The Eve of St. Mark” (quoted in part above) remains a matter of debate among scholars and other interested parties, but the atmosphere of the piece is unmistakably gloomy and foreboding. Indeed, early in 1818 Keats had become convinced that he had only three years left to live, the themes of death and dying becoming more prevalent in his works in the year that followed (he did pass away on the 23rd of February, 1821 of tuberculosis). Isabella Jones (who also inspired his contemporaneous work “The Eve of St. Agnes,” ) was Keats’ lover at this time and it has been speculated that it was she who told the poet about the folk traditions attached to Saint Mark’s Eve. According to Chambers Book of Days, 1869: “St. Mark’s Eve appears to have enjoyed among our simple ancestors a large share of the privileges which they assigned to All Saints’ Eve (the Scottish Halloween)”. It seems equally likely that Keats would also have known of, and perhaps been deliberately alluding to, a poem published some thirteen years before he penned his own entitled “The Vigil of St. Mark”.
“The Vigil of St. Mark” was one of twenty poems written by James Montgomery, published in his 1906 collection The Wanderer of Switzerlandand Other Poems. Lord Byron, Keats’ Romantic contemporary (though the pair did not get on), was a fan of the titular poem and Montgomery was successful and well known throughout the early 1800s. Montgomery’s poem tells of Edmund “monarch of the dale” and his desire to wed (and bed) Ella “the lily of the vale”. It just so happens to be the eve of Saint Mark’s Day and, to prove his mettle and win Ella’s hand in marriage, Edmund agrees to sit the vigil of Saint Mark.
” ‘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.
The custom of the vigil is explained in Chambers Book of Days as follows:
In the northern parts of England, it is still believed that if a person, on the eve of St. Mark’s day, watch in the church porch from eleven at night till one in the morning, he will see the apparitions of all those who are to be buried in the churchyard during the ensuing year.
In some versions of the custom it is supposed to be necessary to sit three successive Saint Mark’s vigils before the spectres of those yet to pass will be seen. (Three years, the span mysteriously yet accurately foretold by Keats in 1818).
Another Saint Mark’s Eve custom is described, yet again, in Chambers Book of Days:
On St. Mark’s eve, at twelve o’clock,
The fair maid will watch her smock,
To find her husband in the dark,
By praying unto good St. Mark.’
We presume that the practice was to hang up the smock at the fire before going to bed; the rest of the family having retired, the anxious damsel would plant herself to wait till the resemblance of him who was to be her husband should come in and turn the garment. The divination by nuts was also in vogue. A row being planted amongst the hot embers on the hearth, one from each maiden, and the name of the loved one being breathed, it was expected that if the love was in any case to be successful, the nut would jump away; if otherwise, it would go on composedly burning till all was consumed:
“If you love me, pop and fly,
If not, lie there silently.’
Love and death seem to be the recurring themes here; this is neither a celebratory time of new life and rebirth (like Easter), nor a cursing, or driving away the death and darkness of winter (like Yule). The folklore surrounding Saint Mark’s Eve seems (to me) to be about engaging with the fact that everyone and everything dies – everything is transient – a tragic, yet romantic notion which I’m sure Keats would have appreciated.
The St. Mark’s Fly has a very short adult life cycle – the males emerge first, the females a day or so later. After mating, they lay their eggs in the soil (“the deep-delvèd earth” as Keats might have it) and die soon after.
In October 1819 John Keats wrote the following in a letter to Fanny Brawne – a woman with whom he was passionately in love with but had never, and would never, be with:
I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.
Yet, as the poet himself also once wrote “the poetry of the Earth is never dead“; the next generation of Saint Mark’s Flies sleep beneath the soil, already doomed to live and love and die within a pre-allotted time span. Every Saint Mark’s Eve the males keep their vigil, awaiting their brides and sealing their fates.