Sunday, November 28, 2010

Keats' "Endymion"

An Allegorical Meaning in This Poem
Endymion was written between April and November, 1817. At first Keats thought of the poem only as a vehicle for the story of Endymion which he would decorate as beautifully as he could. But a perusal of the poem in the context of his letters of 1817 and early 1818, shows that certain ideas had been gathering form in Keats’s mind, especially when he was writing Book III. Consequently an allegorical meaning in the poem is definitely perceptible. Certain critics have worked out extended allegories in their interpretation of the poem.

The Poem, a Test of Keats’s Poetic Powers
Endymion is a poem of discovery in which Keats attempted to test his poetic powers. “It will be a test”, he wrote to his brother in the spring of 1817, “a trial of my powers of imagination and chiefly my invention which is a rare thing indeed—by which I must make four thousand lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with poetry”.
The Critics’ Unfavourable Reception of the Poem
The poem got an unfavourable reception from critics. The Blackwood and the Quarterly came out with very adverse reviews of the poem. Keats, with his sensitive temperament, took the condemnation of these journals deeply to heart, though it would be wrong to think that he was killed by criticism—”snuffed out by an article”. He was deeply injured by the attacks, but he tried to ignore them. In fact he was himself aware of the faults and shortcomings of the poem, and hinted at these in his preface to the poem. His preface is a revealing piece of self-criticism and deserves to be quoted: “Knowing within myself the manner in which this poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public. What manner I mean will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished. The two first books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible, are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press; nor should they if I thought a year’s castigation would do them any good;—it will not: the foundations are too sandy. It is just that this youngster should die away: a sad thought for me, if I had not some hope that while it is dwindling I may be plotting, and fitting myself for verses fit to live.
“This may be speaking too presumptuously, and may deserve a punishment: but no feeling man will be forward to inflict it: he will leave me alone, with the conviction that there is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object…….
“The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy, but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted: thence proceeds mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must necessarily taste in going over the following pages.”
Written Independently But Without Judgment
In a letter he wrote: “J.S. is perfectly right in regard to the ‘slip-shod Endymion’. That it is so is no fault of mine. No! though it may sound a little paradoxical, it is as good as/I had power to make it by myself. Had I been nervous about its being a perfect piece, and with that view asked advice, and trembled over every page, it would not have been written, for it is not in my nature to fumble. I will write independently. I have written independently without judgment—I may write independently and with judgment, hereafter. The genius of poetry must work out its salvation in man…..I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.”
The First and the Second Parts of the Poem
The first book of Endymion is entirely introductory, and merely sets forth the feeling of puzzlement of the love-sick shepherd-prince, the hero, who appears at a festival of his people held in honour of the god Pan, and who is afterwards urged by his sister Peona to reveal to her the secret of the passion which is consuming him. Endymion tells Peona die story of those celestial visits which he is not certain whether he has experienced or merely dreamed. In the second book the hero sets out in search of the celestial visitor, and is led by obscure signs and impulses through a mysterious and almost trackless region of adventure. Keats lets himself go without a check in describing the natural and architectural wonders, unlocalised and half-realised, in this book. A Naiad, in the disguise of a butterfly, leads Endymion to her spring, and there reveals herself and counsels him not to give up hope. An airy voice next invites him to descend “into the sparry hollows of the world”, which done, he gropes his way to a subterranean temple where he is admitted to the presence of the sleeping Adonis and where Venus herself appears to give encouragement to Endymion. From there the hero wanders on by dizzy paths and precipices, and forests of leaping, ever-changing fountains. After seeing the vision of Cybele, Endymion is conveyed on an eagle’s back down a deep descent. He soon sees a jasmine bower where his celestial mistress again visits him. Next he encounters the streams, and hears the voices, of Arethus and Alpheus; and utters a prayer to his goddess in their behalf.
The Next Part of the Poem
Hitherto Endymion has been wholly absorbed in his own passions and adventures. But now the fates of others claim his sympathy: first those of Alpheus and Arethusa, and next, throughout nearly the whole of the third book, those of Glaucus and Scylla. Keats handles this latter legend with great freedom omitting the transformation of Scylla by Circe into a devouring monster, and making the enchantress punish her rival not by this vile transformation but by death, or rather a trance resembling death, from which after many ages Glaucus is enabled by Endymion’s help to rescue her and, together with her, the whole sorrowful community of true lovers drowned at sea.
The Fourth Part
In the fourth book, Endymion goes through a chain of adventures which seem certainly to have a moral and allegorical meaning. Returning to upper air, Endymion soon half-forgets his celestial mistress for the charms of an Indian maiden. This mysterious Indian maiden proves in fact to be no other than his goddess herself in disguise. But it is long before he discovers this, and in the mean time he is conducted to her through a bewildering series of aerial ascents, descents, enchanted slumbers and Olympian visions. All these, his broodings in the Cave of Quietude, his illusions and awakenings, his final farewell to mortality and to Peona, and his re-union with his celestial mistress in her own shape, make up a narrative which is very involved and confusing.
A Parable of the Soul’s Pursuit of the Ideal
Endymion may be regarded as a parable of a soul’s experience in pursuit of the ideal. The argument of the poem seems to be as follows: “Let a soul enamoured of the ideal once suffer itself to forget its goal, and to quench for a time its longings in the real, nevertheless it will be still haunted by that lost vision; amidst all intoxications, disappointment and lassitude will still dog it, until it awakes at last to find that the reality which has thus allured it derives from the ideal its power to charm,—that it is after all but a reflection from the ideal, a phantom of it.”
The Need of Service to Human Beings
The poem also implies that the pursuit of beauty as no aim in life is only justified when it is accompanied by the idea of devotion to human service. It is when Endymion, in his adventure with Glaucus, allows himself to be diverted from his own quest for the sake of relieving the sorrows of others, that the hope which before seemed ever to elude him draws at last nearer to fulfilment. Endymion, kissed by the moon-goddess, is the human soul awakened to ideal truth and goodness, and the way to the ideal lies through experience and through sympathy with human suffering. Endymion is the poet in his pursuit of ideal beauty. And he is also Keats himself, learning about life and poetry.
An Immature Poem But a Beautiful One
Endymion is undoubtedly an immature poem and has its faults. But it is a poem of too many beauties to be ignored or to die. Every reader must take pleasure in some of its passages and episodes. The account of the feast of Pan, for instance, contains passages which in the quality of direct Nature-interpretation are scarcely to be surpassed in poetry:
rain-scented eglantine      
Gave temperate sweets to that well-wooing sun;        
The lark was lost in him; cold springs had run          
To warm their chilliest bubbles in the grass;              
Man’s voice was on the mountains; and the mass     
Of Nature’s lives and wonders puls’d ten-fold,           
To feel this sun-rise and its glories old.
No less excellent is the realisation, in the course of the same episode, of the true spirit of ancient pastoral life and worship; the hymn to Pan especially, expressing perfectly the meaning of the Greek myth to Greeks and enriching it with touches of northern feeling.
In Book II, there shine out at intervals strokes of true poetry:
He sinks adown a solitary glen;     
Where there was never sound of mortal men,            
Saving, perhaps, some snow-light cadences
Melting to silence, when upon the breeze   
Some holy bark let forth an anthem sweet  
To cheer itself to Delphi:—
Similarly the personalities of old religion are strongly conceived and realised; for instance, mother Cybele who came alone “in sombre chariot”:
dark foldings thrown        
About her majesty, and front death-pale,     
With turrets crowned.
In Book III, Keats brings home his version of the myth of Glaucus with strong and often exquisite effect to the imagination. The picture of Circe pouring the magic phial upon her victims is most vivid, and the speech with which the enchantress turns and scathes her unhappy lover is most telling. In the same book, the description of the sunk treasures lying on the ocean-floor deserves comparison with the famous similar passage in Shakespeare’s Richard III. In Book IV, we have the strain of lyric poetry which Keats puts into the mouth of the supposed Indian maiden when she tells her story. There are certainly faults and immaturities in this lyrical speech, but it shows a great mastery over various sources of imaginative and musical effect, and it touches in a thrilling manner various chords of the reader’s spirit. A mood of tender irony and wistful pathos, a keen sense of the immemorial romance of India and the east, a power of evoking remote, weird and beautiful associations with single words, clear visions of Greek beauty—all these elements are here blended.
Two Exquisite Lyrics in the Poem
The speech begins with a tender invocation to sorrow, and then conjures up the image of a deserted maiden beside Indian streams. This is followed by the entry of the Asian Bacchus on his march, with a detailed picture of the god and the mob of his followers. Next comes the challenge of the maiden to the Maenads and Satyrs, and their choral answers. Finally, returning to the opening motive, the lyric ends as it began with an exquisite strain of love-lorn pathos:

Come then, Sorrow!          
                Sweetest Sorrow!
Like an own babe I nurse thee on my breast:             
                I thought to leave thee,    
                And deceive thee,              
But now of all the world I love thee best.    
                There is not one,               
                No, no, not one  
But thee to comfort a poor lonely maid;      
                Thou art her mother         
                And her brother,
Her playmate, and her wooer in the shade.
The high-water mark of poetry in Endymion is thus reached in the two lyrics of the first and fourth books. Indeed, a reader’s taste for literature may be determined by the degree to which he is able to appreciate and enjoy these two lyrics.
Beauties and Faults Mingled Together in the Poem
In the main body of the poem, beauties and faults are mingled together. Admirable truth and charm of imagination, exquisite freshness and felicity of touch mark certain passages. The very soul of poetry breathes in them. But the poem is also full of faults of execution and taste. Thus in the tale told by Glaucus, we find a line of strong poetic vision (“Aeaea’s isle was wondering at the moon”) standing alone in a passage of rambling and ineffective over-honied narrative. Or, again, a forced and vulgar couplet like the following:
I look’d—’twas Scylla! Cursed, cursed Circe!              
                O vulture-witch, hast never heard of mercy?
is followed three lines further by a masterly touch of imagination and the heart:
Cold, O cold indeed          
Were her fair limbs, and like a common weed           
The sea-swell took her hair.
A tendency to linger and luxuriate over every imagined pleasure with an over-fond and doting relish is unmistakable in the poem. The writer’s creative impulse is wayward and shows a lack’ of discipline and discrimination. Keats outdoes even Spenser in letting invention ramble and loiter uncontrolled, with imagination at its heels to dress if possible in living beauty the wonders that it finds. Sometimes the imagination is equal to the task and sometimes not. Even
invention occasionally flags, and catches hold of any idle clue the rhyme holds out: —
A nymph of Dian’s            
Wearing a coronal of tender scions:             
                Does yonder thrush,         
Schooling its half-fledged little ones to brush            
About the dewy forest, whisper tales?           
Speak not of grief, young stranger, or cold snails       
Will slime the rose to-night.
Keats’s Extension of the Resources of the Language
The poet endeavours also to extend the resources of the language, and to make them adequate to the range and freshness of his imagery, by the use of compound and other adjectival coin ages which are sometimes legitimate or even happy, but are often fantastic and tasteless: “far-spooming Ocean”, “eye-earnestly”, “dead-drifting”, “their surly eyes brow-hidden”, “nervy knees”, “surgy murmurs”. There is a sprinkling, too, of such archaisms as “shent”, “sith”, and “seemlihed”. There are arbitrary verbal forms—”to folly”, “to monitor”, “to fragment up”. Thus, even when in the other qualities of poetry the work is good, in diction and expressions it wavers and is full of oddities and discords.
The Metre; the Rhyme; and the Rhythm
In rhythm, Keats here follows the method he had adopted in Sleep and Poetry keeping the sentence independent of the metre, putting full pauses anywhere in his lines rather than at the end and avoiding any regular beat upon the rhyme. Leigh Hunt thought that Keats had carried this method too far, even to the negation of metre. But Keats, even where his verse runs most diffusely, rarely fails in delicacy of musical and metrical ear, or in variety and elasticity of sentence structure.
An Intricate and Flowery Narrative
The “one bare circumstance” of the story was expanded by Keats through four long books of intricate and flowery narrative, in the course of which the poet pauses again and again to linger or deviate, developing every incident into a thousand circumstances, every passion into a world of subtleties. He interweaves with the central myth the love of the moon-goddess and Endymion’s quest for her whatever others pleased him best, as those of Pan, of Venus and Adonis, of Cybele, of Alpheus and Arethusa, of Glaucus and Scylla, of Circe, of Neptune, and of Bacchus. The poet leads us through labyrinthine transformations, and on endless journeys under the earth and over the floor of the ocean. The scenery of the poem, indeed, is often not merely of a Gothic vastness and intricacy; there is something of Oriental bewilderment, an Arabian Nights jugglery with space and time, in die vague suddenness with which its changes occur.
Keats’s Preface to the Poem
As the best criticism on Keats’s Endymion is in his own preface, so its best defence is in a letter he wrote six months after its publication. “It is as good”, he says, “as I had power to make it by myself…..I have written independently without judgment. I may write independently and with judgment hereafter…...”
Keats’s Effeminate Treatment of His Heroes
In Keats’s treatment of his young heroes, there is always a touch of effeminacy or physical softness. The influence of passion is apt to make these heroes fever and to unman them quite. A helpless submission of all the faculties to the passion of love proved to be a weakness of Keats’s own nature. He partly knew it, and could not help it: but the result is that the love passages of Endymion, in spite of their beautiful imagery, yield little pleasure to the reader. On the other hand, in respect of other feelings he shows not only a great rhetorical facility, but the signs often of a lively dramatic power; as in the protest by which Peona tries to make her brother Endymion ashamed of his weakness:
Is this the cause?
This all? yet it is strange, and sad, alas!
That one who through this middle earth should pass
Most like a sojourning demi-god, and leave
His name upon the harp-string, should achieve
No higher bard than simple maidenhood,
Singing alone, and fearfully,—how the blood left
His young cheek; and how he used to stray
He knew not where; and how he would say, Nay,
If any said ’twas love: and yet it was love;
What could it be but love?.....
Aileen Ward on Endymion
The Sensual Character of the Poem
Aileen Ward points out that most critics have moralised this poem into an allegory of a kind of super-sexual love for a super-sensuous beauty. Endymion’s wanderings are regarded as the quest-of the poetic soul for communion with the ideal, and his painful vacillations between the maiden and the goddess, and the final change of the one into the other, are taken to indicate the seeming conflict and ultimate harmony of the actual beauties of this world with ideal Beauty. But Aileen Ward does not accept this allegorical interpretation. According to her, Keats, with his hunger for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts, was not the kind of poet to contrive an allegorical system. Aileen Ward also points out that none of the first readers of this poem found any hint of allegory in it. According to this critic, the poem is about sensual love. Endymion represents not the poetic soul but the ideal lover; his adventures are an assertion of “holiness of the heart’s affections”, and it is only because the poem expresses such an exalted idea of sexual love that the Victorian critics with their prudish outlook regarded Endym-ion’s quest as having a different goal.
A Young Man’s Discovery of the True Nature of Love
Discarding the allegorical approach to Endymion, Aileen Ward goes on to say that the poem certainly has a symbolic significance, which might be defined simply as a young man’s discovery of the true nature of love. Sexual love, as Endymion describes it near the end of the first book, is the highest reach of happiness, and as such it is the crown of all other values and the worthiest goal of our strivings.
A Work of Romantic Art
For all its obvious faults of immaturity, Endymion is a uniquely interesting work. It is a young man’s poem about a central experience of young manhood. Inevitably it has been compared to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Endymion lacks the verbal control and dramatic power of Shakespeare’s poem; but Shakespeare was twenty-eight when he wrote the poem, and Keats was only twenty-one. Keats was handicapped not only by his youth but by the sentimental tradition of his time, which left him no acceptable idiom for dealing forthrightly, as Shakespeare could, with physical love. For better, for worse, Endymion is a work of romantic art.
Keats’s Own Assessment of the Poem
And the final value of the poem is a peculiarly romantic one—its value to the poet himself. Endymion represents almost half of the poetry Keats published in his life-time, and occupied him through nearly one-fourth of his poetic career; writing it was a major factor in his creative development. Keats himself was the first to value the poem in this fashion, and this was all the value he eventually allowed it. “It is as good as I had power to make it—by myself, he wrote. “Had I been nervous about its being a perfect piece, and with that view asked advice, and fumbled over every page, it would not have been written.” In the end, he saw that, his having written it mattered more than what he had written. The writing of this poem brought him considerable valuable experience. Endymion made Keats a poet, whatever Keats made of Endymion. In the very experience of failure, he discovered the truth of achievement: “That which is creative must create itself.”
The Chief Fault of the Poem
The chief fault of the poem, Keats realised, was the inexperience of life underlying the original conception. “The imagination of boy is healthy”, he wrote, “and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted”—and from this sprang the “mawkishness” which he condemned in his preface to the poem.
Sidney Colvin on Endymion
Prodigality of Incidental and Superfluous Beauties
A general characteristic of Keats’s favourite Elizabethan poetry is its prodigality of incidental and superfluous beauties. Even in drama, it takes the powers of a Shakespeare to keep the vital play of character and passion unsmothered by such beauties and in most narrative poems of the age the quality is quite unchecked. To Keats, at the time when he wrote Endymion, such incidental and secondary luxuriance constitution an essential, if not the chief, charm of poetry. “I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess”, he writes. And with reference to his own poem during its progress, he says, “It will be a test, a trial of my powers of imagination, and chiefly of my invention—which is a rare thing indeed—by which I must make four thousand lines of one bare circumstance, and fill them with poetry”.
Graham Hough on Endymion
The Leading Idea of the Poem
The theme of the poem is one that is endemic in romantic literature—the pursuit in the world of an ideal love who has been glimpsed dimly in vision. So far it is the same as that of Shelley’s Alastor. Keats embodies it in a rehandling of the Greek fable of Diana’s love for Endymion, a mortal shepherd: but he lays emphasis on Endymion’s love for Diana rather than on hers for him. The goddess visits Endymion in sleep, and when he awakes he resolves to seek her through the world. Alter numerous confusing adventures he meets an Indian maiden who is sad and home-sick, lamenting a lost love. He is sorry for her, and because he is sorry for her comes to love her; and for a time he forgets his goddess. This seems an infidelity, but is not really so, for in the end Diana and the Indian maiden turn out to be the same. That is to say, ideal beauty can only be achieved by love and sympathy for the beauty imanent in human life. The conclusion is quite different from that of Alastor where the hero, not finding his veiled maid, can only die disappointed. Keats does not accept the frank Shelleyan dichotomy between the world of experience and the world of imagination. Endymion succeeds in his quest, but only by apparently compromising his love for a goddess by his love for a mortal. Keats is recurring here to the idea we have met already in Sleep and Poetry, and that we are to meet again in the second Hyperion; the idea that love of beauty, like other passions, cannot exist fruitfully in isolation, that it can only fulfil itself through participation in the actual conditions of human life. Thus the leading idea of Endymion is not something mawkish or undecided, but a quite vigorous existentialist principle that Keats saw clearly from the beginning of his life.”

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