Sunday, November 28, 2010

“Hyperion, A Fragment”: An Introduction

Date of Composition
Hyperion was begun by Keats beside his brother’s sickbed in September or October, 1818. It is to Hyperion that he refers when he speaks in those days of “plunging into abstract images”, and finding a “feverous relief” in the “abstractions” of poetry. These phrases are applicable only to Hyperion. It was finished some time in April, 1819.

Keats’s Original Plan About This Poem
The subject of Hyperion had long been in Keats’s mind, and both in the text and the preface of Endymion he indicated his inten­tion to attempt it. At first he thought of the poem to be written as a “romance”, but his plan changed to that of a blank verse epic in ten or twelve books. His purpose was to describe the warfare of the earlier Titanic dynasty with the later Olympian dynasty of the Greek gods; and in particular one episode of that warfare, the dethronement of the sun-god Hyperion and the assumption of his kingdom by Apollo. Hyperion exists in two versions, both incomplete. The second version was a revision of the first, with the addition of a long induction in a new style which makes it into a different poem. The two versions of the poem extend over Keats’s greatest creative period. The first version was written mostly before the great Odes, the second mostly after them. As a matter of fact, the period covered by Hyperion is the period of Keats’s most intense experience, both of joy and sorrow, in actual life, and of his most rapid development.
The Dethronement of Hyperion, the Proposed Theme
The theme of the war between the Titans or the earlier generation of gods, and the later Olympians who overthrew them often occurs in the literature which Keats was fond of reading. The specific theme, the dethronement of Hyperion, the old sun-god, by Apollo the new, is Keats’s own. Apollo is also the god of poetry, and as Endymion had symbolised the fate of the lover of beauty in the world, so the story of Apollo and Hyperion was perhaps going to symbolise the fate of the poet as creator. Since the poem is unfinished, we cannot know.
The Miltonic Influence
The design of Hyperion owes much to Milton. The poem opens in the regular epic manner, in the middle of the story. The Titans, like Milton’s fallen angels, are already outcasts and have lost their power. Hyperion alone is not yet overthrown, and, like Milton’s Satan, he is the one hope of further existence. The open­ing scene is followed by a council to discuss the regaining of the lost dominion, in which Enceladus, like Moloch,[1] pronounces his sentence for open war, and Oceanus, like Belial,[2] stands for more moderate measures. Externally, at least, this is modelled on Paradise Lost, and marks a clear break with the loose and incoherent struc-ure of Endymion.
Keatsian Originality of Style Despite the Debt to Milton
In spite of its fragmentary condition, Hyperion remains Keats’s most imposing piece of work. According to the publishers, ‘the hostile reception given to Endymion discouraged Keats from conti­nuing with the poem. Keats himself said that he gave it up because of the excessive Miltonism of the style. “There were too many Miltonic inversions in it”, he wrote to Reynolds. “Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful or rather in an artist’s humour.” The Miltonic influence is certainly obvious in the verse and diction of the first Hyperion as it is in the design. There is, for instance, a constant use of inversions (“stride colossal”, “rest divine”) typical of Milton’s Latinized style. Especially noticeable is the trick of sandwiching a noun between two adjectives (“gold clouds metropolitan”). There are other fragmsnts of classical sentence-structure too:
                save what solemn tubes,   
Blown by the serious Zephyrs, gave of sweet              
And wandering sounds, slow-breathed melodies.
But the poem is hardly Miltonic in any stricter sense. In the matter of rhythm, Keats’s blank verse has not the flight of Milton’s. “Its periods do not wheel through such stately evolutions to so solemn and far-foreseen close; though it indeed lacks neither power nor music.” It is still the verse of Keats, but immensely purged and strengthened by contact with a severer master. Some of the most beautiful images in their delicacy and precision are utterly unlike Milton’s generalised verbal grandeur, and indeed could be by nobody but Keats:
                . . . .No stir of air was there                                                 
Not so much life as on a summer’s day                                           
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,                         
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.                  
(1, 7-10)
Books I and II. The Speeches of Oceanus and Clyniene
The first book of Hyperion gives us a picture of the fallen Titans, with Saturn as the central figure, but Hyperion as the only one who remains even potentially active. The second book shows them in council and the vital part of it is undoubtedly the speech of Oceanus. The sum and substance of his speech is as follows:
My voice is not a bellows unto ire.
Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof
How ye, perforce, must be content to stoop:
And in this proof much comfort will I give,
If ye will take that comfort in its truth.
We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force
Of thunder, or of Jove.                                                      (11,176-82)
Saturn was not the first power in the universe, and should not expect to be the last. Chaos and darkness produced light; light brought heaven and earth and life itself into existence; and the Titans were the first-born of life. Just as heaven and earth are more beautiful than chaos and darkness,
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us. …                                                  (11, 212-15)
The Titans should not grieve over the situation and should not envy their successors
                . . . .for ‘tis the eternal law,                                                  
That first in beauty shall be first in might.                  (11, 228-29)
The simple Clyniene follows and supports Oceanus by bearing testimony to the beauty of young Apollo’s music which she has heard. The lesson of all this is that Hyperion is to be a poem of evolution, of the super-session of lower forms by higher; and that the successors are to prevail because they are superior in beauty.
Apollo, the Subject of Book III
In the fragment of the third book the interest shifts from the Titans to the young Apollo. Mnemosyne (Memory) alone among the Titans has formed relations with the younger gods. She has watched over the childhood of Apollo, and now she finds him wavering and uncertain of his course. In his talk with her he finds the consciousness of his destiny and assumes his new-found godhead. At this point the poem breaks off.
Reasons Why the Poem Could not be Completed
It seems that what began as an epic poem about a mythological conflict has become a symbolical poem of a different kind. But in the process new difficulties have arisen for the poet. The conventional epic conflict would have afforded a wealth of scenes and incidents. The new scheme, of an evolution in beauty, presents far greater problems. It could hardly be put forth in events and actions, and would not therefore afford material for the ten books originally proposed. Perhaps there were other difficulties as well. The poem remains unfinished because Keats did not know how it was to go on.
Treatment of Greek Things, But Not in a Greek Manner
Although Keats has been called a Greek, he does not write of Greek things in a Greek manner. The very description of the palace of Hyperion, with its vague, far-dazzling pomps and phantom terrors of coming doom, shows that. Keats is here far in workmanship from the Greek purity and precision of outline, and from definition of individual images. Some of his pictures of Nature, too, show not the simplicity of the Greek, but the complexity of the modern, sentiment of Nature. But Keats shows a thorough grasp of the essential meaning of the war between Titans and Olympians. He illustrates with great beauty and force (in the speech of Oceanus in the second book) that essential meaning : the dethronement of an older and ruder worship by one more advanced and humane, in which ideas of ethics and of arts held a larger place beside ideas of Nature and her brute powers.
Keats’s Success in Animating the Colossal Gods
Again, Keats attains great success in conceiving and animating the colossal shapes of the early gods. He shows a masterly instinct in the choice of comparisons, drawn from Nature by which he tries to make us realise the voices of those gods, with their personalities between the elemental and the human.
A Dramatic Representation of Human Emotions
Indeed, Hyperion is Keats’s most serious and considerable attempt at the dramatic presentation of emotion, because the Titans are conceived in human terms, and their sorrows are human sorrows. There is far greater power, too, of discourse, of argument in verse, than ever before; there is no parallel in Keats’s earlier work to the speech of Oceanus.
Sublimity of Book I, and Intensity of Book III
The second book of Hyperion, relating the council of the dethroned Titans, has neither the sublimity of the first, nor the intensity of the unfinished third. In the first book we have a solemn vision of the fallen Saturn, followed by a resplendent vision of Hyperion threatened in his empire. In the third book we see Apollo undergoing a convulsive change under the afflatus of Mnemosyne, and about to put on the full powers of his godhead. But the third book has a ripeness and controlled power of its own which places it quite on a level with the other two.
One of the Grandest English Poems
“With a few slips and inequalities, and one or two instances of verbal incorrectness, Hyperion is indeed one of the grandest poems in the English language, and in its grandeur seems one of the easiest and most spontaneous. Keats, however, had never been able to apply himself to it continuously, but only by fits and starts. Partly this was due to the distractions of bereavement, of material anxiety, and of dawning passion amid which it was begun and continued: partly (if we may trust the statement of the publishers) to disapointment at the reception of Endymion; and partly, it is clear, to something not wholly congenial to his powers in the task itself.”
Important Note. Wherever Hyperion is printed in italics or within inverted commas, the reference is to the poem; and wherever Hyperion is printed in the ordinary type or without inverted commas, the reference is to the sun-god.
For instance: Hyperion is an epic poem. Or, “Hyperion” bears a Miltonic stamp.
In both these cases the poem is meant.
But: Hyperion had begun to feel apprehensive of a threat to his security.
Here the sun-god is being referred to.

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