Lectures/Literary criticism/John Keats/Keats's epic

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Keats's Hyperion poem was never completed but was left in two fragments: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.


Gitting- Maiden thought 211, 238 Grand March of Intellect, 211 212

In Endymion, Keats promised that he would write a poem about Apollo when he wrote "Thy lute-voic'd brother I will sing ere long".[1] After Keats finished Endymion, Taylor proposed to Keats that he would create a frontispiece for the poem. However, Keats responded to Taylor (in a letter to Haydon) that he should wait for Hyperion to create a painting because 23 January 1818, to Haydon "it would be as well to wait for a choice out of Hyperion — when that Poem is done there will be a wide range for you — in Endymion I think you may have many bits of the deep and sentimental cast the nature of Hyperion will lead me to treat it in a more naked and grecian Manner — and the march of passion and endeavour will be undeviating — one great contrast between them will be — that the Hero of the written tale [i.e. Endymion] being mortal is led on, like Buonaparte, by circumstance; whereas the Apollo in Hyperion being a fore-seeing God will shape his actions like one."[1]

Keats began composing Hyperion during the fall of 1818,[2] and in a letter to his brother George, 18 December 1818, he describes the plot of his epic:[3] "I think you knew before you left England that my next subject would be 'the fall of Hyperion.' I went on a little with it last night, but it will take some time to get into the vein again. I will not give you any extracts because I wish the whole to make an impression. I have however a few Poems which you will like, and I will copy out on the next sheet."[4] However, on 14 February 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George saying, "I have not gone on with Hyperion - for to tell the truth I have not been in great cue for writing lately — I must wait for the spring to rouse me up a little."[5]

While working through the third act of Hyperion, Keats came to a stand still, and he later wrote to Hayden, 8 March 1819,[6] saying that he was "in a sort of qui bono temper, not exactly on the road to an epic poem."[7] He returned to the poem and began to write the scenes in which Apollo takes on his mantle of divinity. The words began to flow into his mind and, he says, they "seemed to come by chance or magic - to be as it were something given to him".[6] However, Keats was forced to abandon the poem, shortly after Apollo ascends, for three months. On 19 April, he gave Woodhouse a copy of the poem and stated that he could not complete it. After Brown encouraged him to finish Lamia, he began working on ideas about the poem, but became busy with the play Otho the Great.[8]

On 22 September 1819, Keats told Reynolds:

I have given up Hyperion — there were too many Miltonic inversions in it — Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful, or, rather, artist's humour. I wish to give myself up to other sensations. English ought to be kept up. It may be interesting to you to pick out some lines from Hyperion, and put a mark X to the false beauty proceeding from art, and one II to the true voice of feeling. Upon my soul 't was imagination — I cannot make the distinction — every now and then there is a Miltonic intonation - but I cannot make the division properly.[9]

341-343, 346-347, 367-347


The Hyperion epic was planned to encompass the whole of the Titanomachy and the war of the giants against the new gods. In Woodhouse's annotated copy of Endymion was written: "The poem if completed would have treated of the dethronement of Hyperion, the former God of the Sun, by Apollo, - and incidentally of those of Oceanus by Neptune, of Saturn by Jupiter. etc., and of the war of the Giants for Saturn's reestablishment, with other events, of which we have but very dark hints in the mythological poets of Greece and Rome."[10] The extent of the first Hyperion, if completed to the original model, would have amounted to only one quarter of the total epic. After coming to a stand still, Keats tried to move away from abstraction and instead recast the poem in terms of the poetical experience that he was already introducing into the poem.[11]

Horace Scudder explains why Keats deviated from his original plan:

It is not impossible that besides the inertia produced by diminution of physical powers, another reason existed for Keats's failure to complete his poem. In the two full books which we have, he has stated so fully and explicitly the underlying thought in his interpretation of the myth that his interest in any delineation of a hopeless struggle might well have been unequal to the task. The speeches successively of Oceanus and Clymene which so enraged Enceladus were the masculine and feminine confessions that as their own supremacy over the antecedent chaos has been due to the law which made order expel disorder, so the supremacy of the new race of gods over them was due to the still further law 'That first in beauty should be first in might'.' Nay, more, the vision they have is not of a restoration of the older order, but of the defeat of the new by some still more distant evolution.[10]

The purpose of Keats's epic is to fulfill his desire to create a humanistic means of attaining salvation. [12] To Keats, the Christian Milton was trapped in a limited understanding of good and evil, and an epic on Hyperion would allow him to truly discuss the relationship between good and evil. Suffering comes to individuals regardless of their deserving it or not.[13] He describes how man develops in his letter to Reynolds, 3 May 1818, on the "Mansion of Many Apartments":

I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me - The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think - We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle - within us - we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the nature and heart of Man — of convincing one's nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression — whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open - but all dark - all leading to dark passages — We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist - we are now in that state — We feel 'the burden of the Mystery.'[14]

In Hyperion, the Titans were unable to progress through these stages, but Apollo, with his understanding of humanity was able to progress to the point of attaining the final stages. Hyperion stops abruptly after this point, and Keats abandoned the poem completely in April 1819. When Keats returned to working on his epic, in the form of The Fall of Hyperion, he clarified his views on suffering and his "system of Salvation" in his 21 April 1819 letter to his brother about his concept of "the vale of Soul-making":[15]

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways. Not merely is the Heart a Horn-book, It is the Mind's Bible, it is the Mind's experience, it is the text from which the Mind or Intelligence sucks its identity. As various as the Lives of Men are — so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence. This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not offend our reason and humanity — I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it — there is one which even now strikes me — the salvation of Children. In them the sparks or intelligence returns to God without any identity — it having had no time to learn of and be altered by the heart - or seat of the human Passions. It is pretty generally suspected that the Christian scheme has been copied from the ancient Persian and Greek Philosophers. Why may they not have made this simple thing even more simple for common apprehension by introducing Mediators and Personages, in the same manner as in the heathen mythology abstractions are personified? Seriously I think it probable that this system of Soul-making may have been the Parent of all the more palpable and personal schemes of Redemption among the Zoroastrians the Christians and the Hindoos. For as one part of the human species must have carved Jupiter; so another part must have the palpable and named Mediator and Saviour, their Christ, their Oromanes, and their Vishnu.[16]

After redeveloping his views on salvation, Keats switched the focus in his epic from Apollo and his development to the development of a poet. The poet slowly progresses through the stages of life until he is able to attain an understanding of his own identity as a poet.[17]



Main source: Hyperion (poem)

The Fall of Hyperion[edit]


Hyperion: A Fragment is divided into three books and The Fall of Hyperion is divided into two Cantos, which represents the influences of Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's Divine Comedy respectively.[18] The type of meter Keats relied on was blank verse: lines of iambic pentameter with no rhyming. Blank verse was relied on by Milton and became standard for English epics, but it was also used at the time for other kinds of poetry. Although he used Milton as his model, he differed from Milton in his use of words; Keats relied little on Latin based words and polysyllabic words that relied heavily on consonants. This choice of diction also differs Keats's Hyperion from his Endymion.[19]

Keats relied on assonance and emphasized the sound of vowels in Hyperion, a feature that predominates in his writing between the end of 1818 and the summer of 1819.[20] These poems rely on assonance more often than the poetry of most other major poets, with 51% of his lines in Hyperion Book I incorporating simple assonance, assonance of a single vowel. Keats also relies on a complex form of assonance relying on multiple vowels, which occurs in 16% of the lines of Hyperion Book I. Sometimes Keats would alter lines to incorporate greater assonance, such as changing Hyperion III, line 84, "Why should I tell thee what thou so well know'st"(assonance pairs: Why, I; tell, well) to "Why should I tell thee what thou so well see'st" (assonance pairs: Why, I; tell, well; thee, see'st) or changing Hyperion I, line 250, "And bid old Saturn seize his throne again" (assonance pairs: And, Saturn; bid, his; old, throne) to "And bid old Saturn take his throne again" (assonance pairs: And, Saturn; bid, his; old, throne; take, again).[21] Walter Jackson Bate points out that:

it should be reasserted that this sort of interplay of vowels is not a really common phenomenon in English verse, even in the verse of poets who have striven specifically for phonetic effect and little else. It should also be re-emphasized that any similar patterning is so rare in the verse which Keats wrote before Hyperion as to necessitate painstaking and deliberate search for its discovery; and that it is also infrequent int he verse written after May, 1819, when Keats appeared to have ceased striving for the rich and weighted intensity of expression which had until that time been both a conscious and unconscious goal.[22]

Hyperion - 66-91, 93, 96-97, 105, 107-108, 110, 113, 116, 118, 141, 143-144, 146, 148-150, 158, 160, 167, 173, 182, 197, 209

Fall of Hyperion - 94, 171-182, 208

alterations 174-180

Dante influence 180-181


Classical myth[edit]

The plot of the Hyperion poems are a revision of the Titanomachy found within Hesiod's Theogony. Although the poems discuss the same revolution within the heavens, Keats focuses only on the aftermath of the war between titans and gods.[23]

Christian epic[edit]

The plot of Hyperion is related to the first two books of Milton's Paradise Lost, with the titans paralleling the fallen angels and Hyperion acting like Satan. The titans, like the fallen angels, debate but Keats's version is a parody of Milton's and Keats, unlike Milton, refuses as a narrator to favor one side of the debate.[24] The original scheme, including the larger wars in the heavens was related to the war in Heaven of Paradise Lost found in Books V-VIII.[11]

However, unlike the fallen angels, the titans refuse to discuss the reasons for their fall.[25] Although The Fall of Hyperion lacks some of the Miltonic poetic devices, Keats still relies on many of Milton's themes and reinterprets Paradise Lost into his own vision.[26] At the beginning of the poem, the narrator reenters the Eden of Paradise Lost.[27]

There are also many Dantean elements in the first Hyperion poem, such as the scenes of pain and torment that the titans are placed into. The titans, are put in this position, as in Dante, suffer for the benefit an outsider looking onto the scene. However, this is more true of The Fall of Hyperion where the poet is able to witness his own experience as an outsider.[28]

Keats felt that the Divine Comedy would serve as a means to better model to discuss Apollo's role with absolute knowledge and the poet's self.[11] In particular, it was Dante's use of dream vision that allowed Keats to focus on the narrator's progress of understanding good and evil, and his experience with suffering.[17] Also, The Fall of Hyperion is related to many of the themes of Dante's Purgatorio and is a type of purgatorial poem. According to Stuart Sperry, there are few that would disagree that there is a relationship between the two poems.[29]


Apollo and poets[edit]

There are many versions of what kind of figure Apollo represents, and each version of Apollo allows for different interpretation of the poems's meaning.

Keats, as poet, also suffers with Apollo, and the supplanting of Hyperion by Apollo is connected to the supplanting of the poet's old self with a new one.[1] While working on Apollo's ascension, Keats began to add to the moment his own search for knowledge. In doing so, it forced Keats to abandon the book while serving as a contradiction to his theory of Negative Capability. Apollo transitioned, in Keats, from a god of nature to a god of knowledge, and a poet, like Keats, could not continue to discuss Apollo because of the pain that comes from absolute knowledge that only Apollo could endure.[6]

In The Fall of Hyperion, Keats distinguishes between those who write poetry for themselves and for a greater cause.[30] Mortals are able to be given the tragic vision and the emphasis on the titans at the end of The Fall of Hyperion is unnecessary because Apollo is the only essential figure needed to achieve this understanding.[31]

Some critics believe that Apollo represents aspects of poetry. Stuart Sperry relates the actions of the dreamer of The Fall of Hyperion and Apollo by saying that both are guided to "the point of ultimate comprehension and understanding".[32] Harold Bloom believes that Apollo is "a god of poetry within a poem or a poet within life".[33] M. H. Abrams points out that Apollo is "the god of tragic poetry, the high genre which, in this very poem, displaces the simple pastoralism of the Golden Age" found under Saturn.[34] Likewise, Tobias Gregory claims that "Keats's gods appear as figures for old and new forms of poetic inspiration".[35] Thomas Reed admits , "It is possible to assert that Saturn... and Apollo... are meant to suggest the difference between the Restoration and the nineteenth century in English poetry."[25]

To Reed, "Apollo represents a vision of the future, and the working out of progress; he is both the 'Father of all verse' and the modern poet" and "forces a consciousness of the world we know, forever banishing the Titans' innocence and unsurfeited happiness. He is meant to be the knowledge described by the eighteenth-century historiographers, and especially by Voltaire, whose Essai sur les moeurs is devoted to explaining the pain of historical change."[36]

Hyperion as hero[edit]

Hyperion, in the first Act of Hyperion is cast in the Gothic protagonistic role whose home is in ruins and without any of his previous possessions. He is like a ghost.[37]

Poet as hero[edit]

By lacking form or manifestation within the poems, characters like Jupiter are abstractions of universal ideas. The conquering gods have become objective parts of reality.[38] The poems, in this interpretation, could represent aspects of the poet. To Brinks, they "represent the constitution of the male Romantic poet as a Gothic subject" who suffers and is tortured. The poet is connected to each of the characters in Hyperion and they reflect parts of his own experience.[39]

According to Bloom, Keats's Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are an internalization of the quest-romance genre. Bloom, refering to M. H. Abrams's concept of the Romantic "apocalypse of imagination", he says, "Keats's closest approach to an apocalyptic vision comes when he studies Moneta's face, at the climax of The Fall of Hyperion, but even that vision is essentially Wordsworthian, seeing as it does a perpetual change that cannot be ended by change, a human countenance made only more solitary in its growing alienation from nature".[40] Keats internalizes the quest-romance genre in order to bring nature and the consciousness into a new relationship. The first stage of the quest, a Promethean state of existence that is represented by Hyperion. The poet rebels against traditional societies in this stage and is an ally with nature. The second stage, represented by Apollo, is of the imagination, and the poet has to overcome his own identity.[41]

This results in a "widened consciousness of the poet", which, according to Bloom "did not give him intimations of a former union with nature or the Divine, but rather of his former selfless self."[42] However, Keats's premature death kept him from being able to finally complete the quest even though The Fall of Hyperion depicts how this moment would have come if he would have lived longer.[43] In the poem, the Promethean Keats does not rely on nature, but instead puts a greater emphasis on dreams. However, he is quick to renounce this stage in the poems. Likewise, he abandoned Apollo's quest for identity in Hyperion for to discuss his role as a poet and his ambitions in The Fall of Hyperion, which represents, according to Bloom, that Keats has "achieved the quest".[44]


The fragmentary nature of the poems represents Keats's struggle with form and common to Romanticism.[45]

Language and knowledge[edit]

Language, or the aspect of language, is connected to power. Saturn's silence after Oceanus's speech represents the titan's loss of power. All other attempts to rationalize the situation falls apart, and the last titan in power, Hyperion, is unable to command the forces of nature. Clymene's attempt to sing but she was unable to compete against Apollo's song that, even from the pre-ascended Apollo, causes her to experience pain. His song overwhelming Clymene represents both the fall of the titans and a transition into a new form of art.[46]

Following the pattern of intellectual development in Keats's theory of the "Mansion of Many Apartments", the Titans are able to feel mortal pains and desires, but they are unable to attain understanding. Apollo, like the Titans, is overwhelmed by ignorance but he is able to transcend it through Mnemosyne's revelation that suffering and destruction is part of the universal process. Apollo takes on "the burden of Mystery" and dies into life.[47]


Oceanus tells the titans that there is a progression made in truth and explains how they were not meant to rule forever. It was natural law, not Jupiter, that brought about their downfall. Instead of supporting the titans' effort to rebel against the gods, Oceanus explains that there can not be another rebellion. The titans refuse to listen to Oceanus because they are unable to accept change, a concept that none of them can accept or understand.[48] Leigh Hunt Oceanus's speech when saying, "Intellect, he gives them to understand, was inevitably displacing a more brute power".[49]

To Keats, suffering is necessary for a hero or individual is able to progress in the formation of their identity. Although Keats did not finish Hyperion, Apollo's apotheosis at the end of the fragment was to be based on this view.[50] There is also a progression of election in which the narrator is then allowed to write epics and granted poetic authority. One type of progression present is the Gothic: the figure experiences pain and suffering which are important attaining power. However, some like Ellen Brinks, believe that "Keats recognizes himself in this negative loss of power".[51]


To Keats and the English Romantics, myth was used for political purposes.[52] The function of the poet, and their poetry, was

Critical response[edit]

When Woodhouse first saw the poem, he stated "It has an air of calm grandeur that is indicative of true power".[53]

Leigh Hunt wrote in the London Journal, 1835, "Doubtless his greatest poetry is to be found in Hyperion; and had he lived, there is as little doubt he would have written chiefly in that strain; rising superior to those languishments of love which made the critics so angry."[54]

Critical opinion. According to Walter Jackson Bate, "starting with Hyperion (when he was twenty-three), Keats showed his sudden brilliance and power in the art of prosody and versification; we must go back to Milton, or at least Pope, to find his superior",[55]



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Gittings 1968 p. 185
  2. Bate 1962 p. 43
  3. Ando 1995 pp. 35-36
  4. Keats 1899 p. 342
  5. Keats 1899 p. 355
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Gittings 1968 p. 297
  7. Keats 1899 p. 371
  8. Gittings 1968 pp. 331–332
  9. Keats 1899 p. 408
  10. 10.0 10.1 Keats 1899 p. 189
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Gittings 1968 p. 332
  12. Abrams 1973 p. 67
  13. Abrams 1973 pp. 125–127
  14. Keats 1899 pp. 301–302
  15. Abrams 1973 pp. 126–127
  16. Keats 1899 p. 370
  17. 17.0 17.1 Abrams 1973 p. 127
  18. Ando 1995 p. 37
  19. Bate 1962 pp. 66–67
  20. Bate 1962 pp. 56–57
  21. Bate 1962 pp. 59–62
  22. Bate 1962 p. 65
  23. Brinks 2000 pp. 434–435
  24. Bloom 1993 p. 394
  25. 25.0 25.1 Reed 1988 p. 208
  26. Sperry 1962 p. 78
  27. Bloom 1993 p. 422
  28. Brinks 2000 p. 433
  29. Sperry 1962 p. 77
  30. Bloom 1993 p. 429
  31. Bloom 1993 p. 431
  32. Sperry 1962 p. 83
  33. Bloom 1993 p. 398
  34. Abrams 1973 p. 127
  35. Gregory 2006 p. 219
  36. Reed 1988 pp. 211–212
  37. Brinks 2000 p. 431
  38. Brinks 2000 pp. 435
  39. Brinks 2000 pp. 431–434
  40. Bloom 1970 p. 10
  41. Bloom 1970 p. 11
  42. Bloom 1970 pp. 15–16
  43. Bloom 1970 p. 17
  44. Bloom 1970 pp. 22–23
  45. Brinks 2000 p. 427
  46. Reed 1988 pp. 209–210
  47. Abrams 1973 pp. 125–127
  48. Reed 1988 pp. 208–209
  49. Reed 1988 qtd p. 210
  50. Ward 1998 p. 61
  51. Brinks 2000 pp. 428–430
  52. Reed 1988 p. 196
  53. Gittings 1968 p. 331
  54. Reed 1988 qtd p. 195
  55. Bate 1998 p. 55


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