Study Guide

Hyperion

by John Keats

Hyperion Essay - Critical Essays

Hyperion, John Keats

Introduction

Hyperion John Keats

The following entry presents criticism of Keats's epic poem Hyperion, comprised of two unfinished versions, written in 1818 and 1819 respectively. See also, John Keats Criticism.

Constructed as two poems, Hyperion and its attempted revision as The Fall of Hyperion are considered important works by John Keats. Although both were unfinished, these poems are some of Keats's most ambitious and successful writings, within which he integrates his theories of aesthetics with his ideas on mortality and morality. In drawing upon mythology and earlier poets' works in the Hyperion poems, Keats addressed issues that were pivotal in the Romantic period, including concerns about beauty and truth, imagination, knowledge, and the connection between art and life.

Biographical Information

Hyperion was undertaken during what many critics consider Keats's most intense period of creative productivity, a period also marked by personal difficulties. After embarking upon a walking tour of Scotland and the Lake District, Keats returned home creatively energized. His publication of Endymion in 1818 drew harsh reviews, some of which included personal attacks. More significantly, his brother Tom's tuberculosis had worsened, and Keats felt responsible for his brother's care. Letters Keats wrote to his friends during this period indicate Keats felt divided between his obligations to Tom and his obligations to his poetry. After Tom's death in December 1818, Hyperion remained unfinished; Keats abandoned the poem entirely by April 1819. Late in 1819, after he had met and fallen in love with Fanny Brawne, Keats began to revise Hyperion extensively. By that time Keats was suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis, which eventually precluded him from working and left the revision, like the first version, incomplete. The Fall of Hyperion, as it is now titled, remained unpublished until 1856, long after Keats's death in 1821.

Plot and Major Characters

Stylistically and thematically influenced by earlier works, the Hyperion poems demonstrate Keats's interest in and response to classic literature. Hyperion exists in two fragmented versions, with narratives drawn from Greek mythology, and the second poem attempts to revise the first. It is stylistically different from the earlier poem, adding a long prologue and altering the poem's structure and theme. Reactions to these two versions vary: some critics consider The Fall of Hyperion mostly a revision, others claim it is an entirely new work, and yet others see it as a continuation of the first version.

Hyperion relates the fall of the Titans, elemental energies of the world, and their replacement by newer gods. The Olympian gods, having superior knowledge and an understanding of humanity's suffering, are the natural successors to the Titans. Keats's epic begins after the battle between the Titans and the Olympian gods, with the Titans already fallen. Hyperion, the sun god, is the Titans' only hope for further resistance. The epic's narrative, divided into three sections, concentrates on the dethronement of Hyperion and the ascension to power of Apollo, god of sun and poetry. Book I presents Saturn fallen and about to be replaced and Hyperion threatened within his empire. At the council of the Titans, Book II, Oceanus advocates acceptance of their inevitable defeat, though his speech is contrasted with those of other Titans. In the unfinished Book III, Apollo undergoes his transformation into the new ruling god. He meets with Mnemosyne, or memory and the mother of the Muses, in order to assume his powers and to attain immortality.

The Fall of Hyperion is darker than Hyperion, with the former suggesting that beauty can only be achieved through pain, and that poetry is incomplete if it evades and leaves unexpressed the suffering of humanity. In this fragment, the poet occupies the space of the poem in a dream-vision. The Poet asks for help, and he receives the vision of the fall of Hyperion and the ascension of Apollo, elements which structure the first Hyperion. The action begins in a forest, where the speaker, consciously portrayed as the Poet, consumes fruits and drinks a toast to all poets. This drink initiates a dream-vision where the Poet meets a Muse figure, Moneta, who challenges the Poet to ascend to the world of art, where fame offers a type of immortality. Although humbled by this challenge, the speaker enters a holy shrine to poetry, where he undergoes a death and rebirth. The Muse and the Poet debate the nature of poetry, happiness, visionary experience, and the role of the poet in the modern world. Moneta distinguishes poets from dreamers, whose imaginations focus only on individual ideals. True poets have awakened their imaginations to tragic pain but attempt to redeem sorrow with compassion and visionary acceptance. Moneta permits the speaker to enter the temple of Saturn, and she reveals to him her story. The Poet then describes Moneta's vision of the decline of the Titans. The speaker empathizes with the gods, and his ability to feel pain and suffering through imagination defines him as a Poet. The remainder of the poem narrates the laments of the Titans as they are replaced by the Olympian powers and led by Apollo. It ends with the introduction of Hyperion, who attempts to lead the final fight of the Titans against the new gods.

Major Themes

The thematic differences between the two versions of Hyperion have been extensively addressed by a wide variety of critics. In addition to Greek mythology, both poems draw from earlier poetic works, including Milton's Paradise Lost which is both imitated and challenged. Hyperion is often considered Miltonic in style and theme, and The Fall of Hyperion has been compared to Dante's The Divine Comedy, in terms of its structure as a dream-vision and in its use of a Muse figure.

Many themes introduced in the Hyperion poems are identifiable as those associated with Romanticism. Hyperion, which marks the exchange of the old powers for the new, addresses ideas about poetry, beauty, knowledge, and experience. These ideas are also present in The Fall of Hyperion. Hyperion's dominant themes address the nature of poetry and its relationship to humanity. The narrative suggests a thematic consideration of progress, particularly toward enlightenment and depictions of beauty, even as it evokes classical ideals found in Greek mythology. Visual and verbal representations, in the use of language and of Greek sculptural forms, contribute to this exploration. Through his representation of gods, Keats's commentary on Romantic opposites includes the real and ideal, history versus myth, finite versus infinite. The theme of truth is also prevalent. The speech of Oceanus and the ascension of Apollo both point to Hyperion's concern with truth and its relationship with beauty, knowledge, and suffering. Truth is closely associated with knowledge and both are acquired through pain, which results from the understanding and acceptance of change and impermanence. However painful, truth is pure and beautiful, and what is beautiful is eternal. It is this honorable truth that the human spirit strives to attain.

The structure of The Fall of Hyperion, assessed as a conscious integration of the Poet and his debates with Moneta, encourages a thematic consideration of the nature of art and beauty. In this version, the significance of the imagination is central. Here, the dream-vision structure emphasizes the Romantic tension between material representations and inner visions. The immortality offered by art, as opposed to human mortality or divine immortality, contribute to thematic issues with life and death. Like Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion is concerned with both pleasure and pain as integral to life and asserts the predominance of suffering. Also expressed is the relationship between knowledge, suffering, and divine power. Perhaps the strongest theme presented by the poem is the Poet's identity and his responsibility to humankind.

Many commentators have noted that the Hyperion poems illustrate Keats's aesthetic theories. One dominant theme in the poems is Keats's notion of “negative capability,” his assertion that the ability to entertain opposing ideas, images, and concepts without “any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is a poetic necessity. This aesthetic quality is believed to be present in those rare individuals who transcend Selfhood, leaving them able to identify with and express the experience rather than with their perception of the experience, and thus able to convey art's truth and beauty.

Critical Reception

The general critical reaction to Keats's Hyperion poems, like the reaction to much of his poetry, has focused on one of two dominant areas. Many critics examine the poems to illuminate Keats's life and aesthetic theories, while others use Keats's work to identify either characteristics of the Romantic period or to suggest possible connections between Romanticism and other influences. Keats's letters remain important to scholarship as articulations of Keats's intentions. In most assessments, Keats's Hyperion poems are considered as valuable for their biographical and cultural revelations as they are significant as art in their own right. The various approaches to the Hyperion poems reinforce that Keats's works are valued by scholars as representations of his developing aesthetic theories and as expressions of Romanticism.

Paul Sheats notes Keats's growth as a poet in the Hyperion’s increasingly restrained use of imagery and intensity of sensation. Marlon Ross, in examining Keats's patriarchal discourse, suggests Keats attempted to position himself as a “great poet” through the use of an obtuse language which would distinguish himself from those poets whose work he mimicked.

Those who primarily concentrate on the poems as demonstrations of Keats's aesthetic concerns are especially interested in The Fall of Hyperion. Irene Chayers looks at Keats's focus on the composition of poetry as demonstrated within that work, particularly in the passage which juxtaposes the poet and the dreamer. Responding to the poem in a similar manner. Stuart Sperry views the poem as an allegory for poets and poetry. Other critics discuss Keats's articulations of artistic development as evidenced in the poems. Geoffrey Hartman (see Further Reading), considers both Hyperions as a single work that offers a divine world representing Keats's struggles with artistic identity. Similarly, Christoph Bode characterizes the Hyperion poems as a developing expression of Keats's poetics and of his understanding of his “negative capability.”

Both Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion also have been examined for their embodiment of Romantic ideals, particularly in terms of Keats's influences. Paul Sherwin's examination of Hyperion asserts the poem is a response to Milton's Paradise Lost, evoking the poem yet attempting to subvert its message. Johnathan Bate claims that both Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are attempts to create a more progressive poem that minimizes the influence of Paradise Lost on the works. In her analysis of Keats's use of mythology and divine speech, Anya Taylor focuses on reflection of Romantic period traits, as do Warren Ober and W. K. Thomas, whose analysis of Keats's use of Pan as an embodiment of the Romantic Imagination

In addition to the two main schools of critical analysis of Hyperion, commentators have offered a variety of approaches. In her examination of masculinity and homoeroticism in the Hyperion poems, Ellen Brinks posits that a Gothic subtext is present, while Joel Faflak looks at connections between Romanticism and psychoanalysis in Hyperion. Carol Bernstein illustrates connections between Hyperion and modernism and postmodernism. Keats's Hyperion poems, as unfinished fragments, continue to generate scholarly analysis of ideas, development as a poet, and position as a Romantic.

Principal Works

Poems (poetry) 1817

Endymion: A Poetic Romance (poetry) 1818

Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (poetry) 1820

Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (letters and poetry) 1848

Another Version of Keats's “Hyperion” (poetry) 1856

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (letters) 1878

Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends (letters) 1891

The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats (letters and poetry) 1899

(The entire section is 65 words.)

Criticism

Bruce E. Miller (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Miller, Bruce E. “On the Incompleteness of Keats's Hyperion.College Language Association Journal 8, no. 3 (March 1965): 234-39.

[In the following essay, Miller asserts that Keats left Hyperion incomplete because he could not resolve the philosophical dilemma created through his profession that the world will inherently improve over time and his uncertainty regarding universal fate and individual will.]

Scholars have asked why Keats did not finish a poem which begins as prosperously as Hyperion. As for explanations, Thorpe has indicated the possibility that Keats' love affair may have interfered with work on a heroic poem;1...

(The entire section is 2146 words.)

Irene H. Chayers (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Chayers, Irene H. “Dreamer, Poet, and Poem in The Fall of Hyperion.Philological Quarterly 46, no. 4 (October 1967): 499-515.

[In the following essay, Chayers considers Keats's thematic and stylistic use of the composition of poetry in The Fall of Hyperion. Chayers focuses on the dialogue between the first-person narrator and the priestess Moneta, as well as the passage which reflects on the poet versus dreamer, as a representative example.]

                                                            How much toil!
How many days! what desperate turmoil! …
Ah, what a task!

—“Sleep and Poetry”

Although...

(The entire section is 7588 words.)

Paul D. Sheats (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Sheats, Paul D. “Stylistic Discipline in The Fall of Hyperion.Keats-Shelley Journal 17 (1968): 75-88.

[In the following essay, Sheats asserts that the style of The Fall of Hyperion utilizes a restrained use of imagery combined with intensity of sensation, which demonstrates Keats's growth and artistic discipline.]

The summer of 1819 abundantly fulfilled Keats's prediction, in June, that his “discipline was to come, and plenty of it.”1 In virtual retirement from the world at Shanklin and Winchester, he apprenticed himself to the new styles and forms of Otho and Lamia in a deliberate attempt to become a “popular...

(The entire section is 6323 words.)

Stuart M. Sperry (essay date 1975)

Sperry, Stuart M. “Tragic Irony in The Fall of Hyperion.” In English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by M. H. Abrams, pp. 470-85. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Sperry asserts The Fall of Hyperion is an expression of tragic irony. The critic also considers Adam and his dream as an allegory for poets and poetry.]

As prelude to the dreamer's coming vision, the brief paragraph of eighteen lines with which the induction to The Fall begins clearly establishes Keats's major theme—the dream itself, taken, as from the first he always had, as the fundamental source of poetry:

Fanatics...

(The entire section is 6081 words.)

Paul Sherwin (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Sherwin, Paul. “Dying into Life: Keats's Struggle with Milton in Hyperion.PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 93, no. 3 (May 1978): 383-95.

[In the following essay, Sherwin considers Keats's poetic reactions to Milton. He concentrates on Hyperion, noting both Milton's influence on its style, formal design, and mythological structure and Keats's attempt to create a poem of progress that subverts Milton's moral view.]

One of the most famous Romantic characterizations of Milton is Wordsworth's in the sonnet “London, 1802”:

Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound...

(The entire section is 9352 words.)

Anya Taylor (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Taylor, Anya. “Superhuman Silence: Language in Hyperion.SEL: Studies in English Literature 19, no. 4 (autumn 1979): 673-87.

[In the following essay, Taylor looks at depictions of divine speech in Hyperion. The critic also focuses on the use of silence and figurative language in Keats's reworking of mythology within the Romantic period.]

Ever since Keats set down his Hyperion to take up the burden of his brother's death, readers have joined him in finding the epic too abstract, in finding it a detour in Keats's artistic development, or in finding it too discontinuous in style, with the antique, chiselled frigidity of books one and two...

(The entire section is 6060 words.)

Warren U. Ober and W. K. Thomas (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Ober, Warren U. and W. K. Thomas. “Keats and the Solitary Pan.” Keats-Shelley Journal 29 (1980): 96-119.

[In the following essay, Ober and Thomas examine the implications of Keats's use of Pan in The Fall of Hyperion. They asserting that the character operates figuratively as the Romantic Imagination.]

One of the most fascinating cruxes in Keats's poetry occurs in lines 410-411 of Canto i of The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, as the utterly defeated Saturn in his dejection sends “Strange musings to the solitary Pan.”1 These lines near the close of the first canto appear in a passage in which the narrator, Keats's persona, having...

(The entire section is 9113 words.)

Alan J. Bewell (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Bewell, Alan J. “The Political Implication of Keats's Classicist Aesthetics.” Studies in Romanticism 25, no. 2 (summer 1986): 220-29.

[In the following essay, Bewell suggests that Hyperion reflects Keats's uncertainty of his own political voice, and should instead be read as a poem concerned with the aesthetics of sculptural form.]

“If I weren't a conqueror, I would wish to be a sculptor”

—Napoleon

Few would disagree that Keats's Hyperion, with its depiction of the overthrow of Saturn by the Olympian gods, of one form of power and sovereignty being displaced by...

(The entire section is 4225 words.)

Carol L. Bernstein (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Bernstein, Carol L. “Subjectivity as Critique and the Critique of Subjectivity in Keats's Hyperion.” In After the Future: Postmodern Times and Places, edited by Gary Shapiro, pp. 41-52. Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Bernstein considers the impact of subjectivity in Hyperion, drawing from theoretical debates about modernism and postmodernism.]

One of the problems of postmodernist literary criticism has been that of aligning it with other cultural objects of modernity and of postmodernity itself. Like Twemlow in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, who faces the bottomless abyss of deciding...

(The entire section is 4717 words.)

Marlon B. Ross (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Ross, Marlon B. “Beyond the Fragmented Word: Keats at the Limits of Patrilineal Language.” In Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, pp. 110-31. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Ross examines the presence of patriarchal language in Endymion and Hyperion. Ross asserts Keats recognized his continued imitation of patrilineal discourse in Hyperion and, in an attempt to subvert this tendency, shifted to an obtuse private language.]

In her study The Romantic Fragment Poem (1986) Marjorie Levinson asserts the intentionality...

(The entire section is 9643 words.)

Jonathan Bate (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Bate, Jonathan. “Keats's Two Hyperions and the Problem of Milton.” In Romantic Revisions, edited by Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley, pp. 321-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Bate discusses the influence of Milton's Paradise Lost on Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Bate focuses on Keats's repeated attempts to compose a more politically progressive, less Miltonic Hyperion.]

One of the most powerful chapters in Walter Jackson Bate's magisterial biography of John Keats is the thirteenth, ‘The Burden of the Mystery: The Emergence of a Modern Poet’.1 It is there that we are...

(The entire section is 8428 words.)

Carl Plasa (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Plasa, Carl. “Revision and Repression in Keats's Hyperion: ‘Pure Creations of the Poets Brain.’” Keats-Shelley Journal 44 (1995): 117-46.

[In the following essay, Plasa discusses the relationship between Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, and Milton's Paradise Lost. Plasa considers Keats's work as a re-envisioning of poetics that attempts to repress the Miltonic past.]

a poet's stance, his Word, his imaginative identity, his whole being, must be unique to him, and remain unique, or he will perish, as a poet.

Harold Bloom

language, for the...

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Joel Faflak (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Faflak, Joel. “Romantic Psychoanalysis: Keats, Identity, and (The Fall of) Hyperion.” In Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion, edited by Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner, pp. 304-27. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Faflak asserts that the Hyperion poems indicate how Romanticism invents, as opposed to prefigures, psychoanalysis. Faflak concentrates on the poems' construction of abject identity through an analysis that develops from Lacanian and Kristevan theoretical positions.]

Whereas in Paradise Lost, God is introduced by Milton to sanction his authority as a writer of epic verse, Book 3...

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Christoph Bode (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Bode, Christoph. “Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, and Keats's Poetics.” Wordsworth Circle, 31, no. 1 (winter 2000): 31-37.

[In the following essay, Bode analyzes Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion as part of a consistent, rather than a continuous, expression of Keats's poetics. Bode sees the poems as marking the development of Keats's thoughts on “negative capability.”]

According to many critics, John Keats gave up Hyperion and later recast it as The Fall of Hyperion, first, because he had experienced some fundamental change in his outlook on life, on the course of human history and the place of suffering in the world;...

(The entire section is 6093 words.)

Ellen Brinks (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Brinks, Ellen. “The Male Romantic Poet as Gothic Subject: Keats's Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 54, no. 4 (March 2000): 427-54.

[In the following essay, Brinks considers the construction of masculinity and homoeroticism as part of a Gothic subtext in Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.]

With Hyperion: A Fragment and The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, John Keats's efforts to write an epic in 1818 and 1819 failed. Yet the irony of this “failure” has not gone unnoticed: not only is it the grounds for the placement of these works at an interpretive center of the Keatsian canon, but poetic...

(The entire section is 10755 words.)

Brian Goldberg (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Goldberg, Brian. “Black Gates and Fiery Galleries: Eastern Architecture in The Fall of Hyperion.Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 2 (2000): 229-54.

[In the following essay, Goldberg examines Keats's use of Indian imagery in both Endymion and The Fall of Hyperion. Goldberg also looks at the prevalence of Indian exoticism in writings of the Romantic period.]

According to recent discussions, Keats's Hyperion fragments draw on a historiography of style that opens with the ancient sublimities of Egypt and moves on to the lucent beauties of Greece and Rome. This argument is based largely on descriptions of the Titans which allude to...

(The entire section is 11512 words.)