Hyperion, by John Keats

Introduction To Hyperion.

This poem deals with the overthrow of the primaeval order of Gods by Jupiter, son of Saturn the old king. There are many versions of the fable in Greek mythology, and there are many sources from which it may have come to Keats. At school he is said to have known the classical dictionary by heart, but his inspiration is more likely to have been due to his later reading of the Elizabethan poets, and their translations of classic story. One thing is certain, that he did not confine himself to any one authority, nor did he consider it necessary to be circumscribed by authorities at all. He used, rather than followed, the Greek fable, dealing freely with it and giving it his own interpretation.

The situation when the poem opens is as follows:— Saturn, king of the gods, has been driven from Olympus down into a deep dell, by his son Jupiter, who has seized and used his father’s weapon, the thunderbolt. A similar fate has overtaken nearly all his brethren, who are called by Keats Titans and Giants indiscriminately, though in Greek mythology the two races are quite distinct. These Titans are the children of Tellus and Coelus, the earth and sky, thus representing, as it were, the first birth of form and personality from formless nature. Before the separation of earth and sky, Chaos, a confusion of the elements of all things, had reigned supreme. One only of the Titans, Hyperion the sun-god, still keeps his kingdom, and he is about to be superseded by young Apollo, the god of light and song.

In the second book we hear Oceanus and Clymene his daughter tell how both were defeated not by battle or violence, but by the irresistible beauty of their dispossessors; and from this Oceanus deduces ‘the eternal law, that first in beauty should be first in might’. He recalls the fact that Saturn himself was not the first ruler, but received his kingdom from his parents, the earth and sky, and he prophesies that progress will continue in the overthrow of Jove by a yet brighter and better order. Enceladus is, however, furious at what he considers a cowardly acceptance of their fate, and urges his brethren to resist.

In Book I we saw Hyperion, though still a god, distressed by portents, and now in Book III we see the rise to divinity of his successor, the young Apollo. The poem breaks off short at the moment of Apollo’s metamorphosis, and how Keats intended to complete it we can never know.

It is certain that he originally meant to write an epic in ten books, and the publisher’s remark —

‘If any apology be thought necessary for the appearance of the unfinished poem of Hyperion, the publishers beg to state that they alone are responsible, as it was printed at their particular request, and contrary to the wish of the author. The poem was intended to have been of equal length with Endymion, but the reception given to that work discouraged the author from proceeding.’

— at the beginning of the 1820 volume would lead us to think that he was in the same mind when he wrote the poem. This statement, however, must be altogether discounted, as Keats, in his copy of the poems, crossed it right out and wrote above, ‘I had no part in this; I was ill at the time.’

Moreover, the last sentence (from ‘but’ to ‘proceeding’) he bracketed, writing below, ‘This is a lie.’

This, together with other evidence external and internal, has led Dr. de Sélincourt to the conclusion that Keats had modified his plan and, when he was writing the poem, intended to conclude it in four books. Of the probable contents of the one-and-half unwritten books Mr. de Sélincourt writes: ‘I conceive that Apollo, now conscious of his divinity, would have gone to Olympus, heard from the lips of Jove of his newly-acquired supremacy, and been called upon by the rebel three to secure the kingdom that awaited him. He would have gone forth to meet Hyperion, who, struck by the power of supreme beauty, would have found resistance impossible. Critics have inclined to take for granted the supposition that an actual battle was contemplated by Keats, but I do not believe that such was, at least, his final intention. In the first place, he had the example of Milton, whom he was studying very closely, to warn him of its dangers; in the second, if Hyperion had been meant to fight he would hardly be represented as already, before the battle, shorn of much of his strength; thus making the victory of Apollo depend upon his enemy’s unnatural weakness and not upon his own strength. One may add that a combat would have been completely alien to the whole idea of the poem as Keats conceived it, and as, in fact, it is universally interpreted from the speech of Oceanus in the second book. The resistance of Enceladus and the Giants, themselves rebels against an order already established, would have been dealt with summarily, and the poem would have closed with a description of the new age which had been inaugurated by the triumph of the Olympians, and, in particular, of Apollo the god of light and song.’

The central idea, then, of the poem is that the new age triumphs over the old by virtue of its acknowledged superiority — that intellectual supremacy makes physical force feel its power and yield. Dignity and moral conquest lies, for the conquered, in the capacity to recognize the truth and look upon the inevitable undismayed.

Keats broke the poem off because it was too ‘Miltonic’, and it is easy to see what he meant. Not only does the treatment of the subject recall that of Paradise Lost, the council of the fallen gods bearing special resemblance to that of the fallen angels in Book II of Milton’s epic, but in its style and syntax the influence of Milton is everywhere apparent. It is to be seen in the restraint and concentration of the language, which is in marked contrast to the wordiness of Keats’s early work, as well as in the constant use of classical constructions,1 Miltonic inversions2 and repetitions,3 and in occasional reminiscences of actual lines and phrases in Paradise Lost.4

In Hyperion we see, too, the influence of the study of Greek sculpture upon Keats’s mind and art. This study had taught him that the highest beauty is not incompatible with definiteness of form and clearness of detail. To his romantic appreciation of mystery was now added an equal sense of the importance of simplicity, form, and proportion, these being, from its nature, inevitable characteristics of the art of sculpture. So we see that again and again the figures described in Hyperion are like great statues — clear-cut, massive, and motionless. Such are the pictures of Saturn and Thea in Book I, and of each of the group of Titans at the opening of Book II.

Striking too is Keats’s very Greek identification of the gods with the powers of Nature which they represent. It is this attitude of mind which has led some people — Shelley and Landor among them — to declare Keats, in spite of his ignorance of the language, the most truly Greek of all English poets. Very beautiful instances of this are the sunset and sunrise in Book I, when the departure of the sun-god and his return to earth are so described that the pictures we see are of an evening and morning sky, an angry sunset, and a grey and misty dawn.

But neither Miltonic nor Greek is Keats’s marvellous treatment of nature as he feels, and makes us feel, the magic of its mystery in such a picture as that of the

tall oaks

Branch-charmèd by the earnest stars,

or of the

dismal cirque

Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor,

When the chill rain begins at shut of eve,

In dull November, and their chancel vault,

The heaven itself, is blinded throughout night.

This Keats, and Keats alone, could do; and his achievement is unique in throwing all the glamour of romance over a fragment ‘sublime as Aeschylus’.

1 e.g.

i. 56 Knows thee not, thus afflicted, for a god

i. 206 save what solemn tubes . . . gave

ii. 70 that second war
Not long delayed.

2 e.g.

ii. 8 torrents hoarse

ii. 32 covert drear

i. 265 season due

i. 286 plumes immense

3 e.g.

i. 35 How beautiful . . . self

i. 182 While sometimes . . . wondering men

ii. 116, 122 Such noise . . . pines.

4 e.g.

ii. 79 No shape distinguishable. Cf. Paradise Lost, ii. 667.

i. 2 breath of morn. Cf. Paradise Lost, iv. 641.


Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44