Sunday, November 28, 2010

“The Fall of Hyperion”: An Introduction by John Keats

Cast in the Form of a Dream
                The second Hyperion is cast in the form of a dream, and the opening describes .this dream and its setting. It begins with a short prologue which affords an excellent example of the new tense and muscular verse:

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage, too,
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at Heaven! Pity these have not
Traced upon vellum or wild Indian leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance,
But bare of laurel they live, dream and die;
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable chain
And dumb enchantment.
This is an attempt to define the position of poetry. The poet has his dreams in common with other men, but he alone is able to secure them from oblivion. (Again the thought of the Ode To A Grecian Urn—only art can endure.) And the poet’s dream differs from the fanatic’s, because it is for the world, the fanatic’s only for a sect.
The Dream and the Poet’s Encounter with a Priestess
                The dream that Keats sees begins in a wood where the poet eats of the fruits and falls into a deep, sleep to find himself, when he wakes up, in a vast shrine. There are steps leading up to an altar. As the poet approaches the steps, the veiled priestess addresses him:
                                      If thou canst not ascend
These steps, die on the marble where thou art.
When he asks the priestess to explain the mysteries around him,
                “None can usurp this height”, returned that shade,
                “But those to whom the miseries of the world
                Are misery, and will not let them rest.”
This is the theme, already familiar in Sleep and Poetry and in the letters: that the poet must not rest in poetical dreams but must share the sorrows of humanity. In the lines that follow, the theme is carried further. The actively virtuous arc not to be found in the shrine; they are working in the world. The poet is here because of his weakness, because he is a dreamer. The priestess goes on to distinguish the poet and the mere dreamer:
The one pours out a balm upon the world,
The other vexes it.
Moneta’s “Wan Face”
                She then reveals that the temple is Saturn’s, the only remaining shrine of the old gods, and she is Moneta, the sole remaining priestess. (Moneta is the Latin name of Mnemosyne.) Then Moneta unveils herself, and is thus described:
                             Then I saw a wan face,
Not pin’d by human sorrows, but bright-blanch’d
By an immortal sickness which kills not;
…………………………………………………
………………deathwards progressing
To no death was that visage, it had pass’d
The lily and the snow ; and beyond these
I must not think now, though I saw that face.
But for her eyes I should have fled away.
The poet asks to be shown the hidden story that lies behind the mysterious temple. She agrees to reveal it to him, and the story of Hyperion and the Titans, much as it was narrated in the first version of the poem, then begins.
The Place of the Poet in the World
                This is Keats’s last attempt to define the place of the poet in the world. The poet is less than the man of active virtue, and Keats is still absorbed by the contrast between the realm of Flora and the other kingdom that he suspects to lie beyond. He has still not crossed the boundary, but he knows more of what to expect on the journey. It is notable how much of Keats’s poetry is about poetry, its function, its glories, and its limitations. It is as though lie is perpetually trying to find a bridge between art and life, but is perpetually led back to art itself. In The Fall of Hyperion, Keats draws two distinctions: one between the practical and the visionary mind; and the other between the creative visionary (the poet) and the mere dreamer who vexes the world with visions that he can do nothing to transmute into reality.
The Symbolism in “The Fall of Hyperion”
                The Fall of Hyperion was his last effort to integrate his faculties and impulses, and to set forth his conception of the poet and the poet’s function in the world. In Hyperion the meaning of Apollo’s spiritual birth-pangs had been left somewhat obscure; the objective manner of presentation was not natural to one who had always written directly out of his own feelings, and perhaps he did not quite know what to do with the god when he had got him. The narrative in The Pall of Hyperion seems to carry out the general intention of Hyperion, but, by the late summer of 1819, Keats’s failing health, the prolonged fever of his love for Fanny Brawne, pecuniary troubles, perhaps most of all the conviction that the topmost heights of poetry were not to be won by a divided soul, such causes as these had deepened and embittered his despair over himself, his past and his future. In the symbolism of the garden, the temple, and the shrine, we perhaps have another variation on the three Wardsworthian stages of development, from sensuous pleasure to humanitarian concern for the world. But the sketch of poetic evolution is not now, as in Sleep and Poetry, partly wishful prophecy. Keats is here looking back on what seem to him to be the facts of his brief career, and he condemns himself, with harsh sincerity, for having dwelt in an ivory tower, for having given to men the illusive balm of dreams, whereas true poets, by intense effort, seize upon the reality which is not illusive. To them, as to active benefactors of humanity, the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest.
The Schism in Keats’s Thinking
                One need not be a sentimentalist to feel the profound personal tragedy not only in the self-laceration of this last effort to feel the giant agony of the world, but also in Keats’s turning aside from The Fall of Hyperion to enjoy a last serene “sensation” in To Autumn. We do not endorse his condem­nation of a large part of his work, but we can understand his attitude, can even see that the whole course of his development made it inevitable. As he said himself, the genius of poetry must work out its own salvation in a man, and we cannot guess, if he had health and some measure of contentment, what would have been his ultimate solution and achievement. His house was. most of the time, divided against itself, but his consciousness of the fissure, his unceasing endeavour to solve the problem of sense and knowledge, art and humanity, are in themselves an index of his stature. No other English poet of the century had his poetic endowment, and no other strove so intensely to harmonize what may be called the Apollonian and the Faustian ideals of poetry. However high one’s estimate of what he wrote, one may really think that Keats was greater than his poems.

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