Endymion, one of John Keats’s most substantial poetic works, advanced his goal of creating a fully developed Romantic poetry that brought classical themes into his own times. In four books, each about 1,000 lines long, he combines description, narrative, classical allusion, and emotional-intellectual analysis into the story of one man’s quest and self-discovery. The luscious language, while it demonstrates Keats’s mastery, is also well-suited to the themes. The story is framed by the real environment of a terrestrial location, but at the end Endymion’s fulfillment it removes him from this realm. In between, he must conquer many obstacles in mysterious subterranean and subaquatic environments.
Endymion, a shepherd high in the Greek mountains, is a dreamy, melancholic sort of man. A simple existence tending sheep is not very fulfilling and, after he sees an ideal woman in a vision, his life is transformed. Nothing will satisfy him but to pursue this illusory woman, whom he believes is his spiritual mate. This desire takes him away from home, forcing him to take bold, decisive actions.
In Book II, his journey into a cavern deep into the earth brings him into contact with Venus, goddess of love, and Adonis. Riding deeper still on an eagle, he finds his dream lover and is drawn into her embrace. However, she tells him it is too soon for them to stay together. He sees they are separate like two streams, Alpheus and Arethusa.
Book III takes the hero to the ocean deeps, where he meets a condemned man, Glaucus. His tale of thwarted love concerns the jealousy of the sorceress Circe, who cast a spell on his lover Scylla. He is spending a thousand years placing drowned lovers’ bodies into a crystal shell. Deducing from a prophecy that Endymion is his savior, they perform the proper rituals to get the curse lifted off him and the other lovers.
In the fourth book, Endymion comes back to the surface and meets the lovely Indian Maiden. Although he falls in love with her too, he feels this betrays his true love for Cynthia. After a contemplative episode alone, as well as talking with his sister, he comes to terms with the futility of earthly love. When he does so, the Indian Maiden reveals that she is actually Cynthia. Now they can be together, and ascend into the skies together.
Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Keats’s first major work, represents the poet’s first sustained attempt to explore the relationship between the real world of human experience and the ethereal world of an idealized existence. Divided into four books, the poem traces Endymion’s progress from his initial desire to rise above his earthly existence by cultivating his love for Diana, the goddess of the moon, who represents ideal love, to his gradual reconciliation, in the end, to his mortal condition and the love that he feels for an Indian maiden whom he meets during his quest. Upon realizing the dangers of trying to deny his own human nature, Endymion suddenly discovers that the Indian maiden, his mortal counterpart, is really Diana, his immortal desire, in disguise. In the end, Endymion learns that he can only rise above his mortal nature and achieve some kind of idealized existence if he first accepts “his natural sphere.” Keats’s point, as in other poems, is that any attempt to achieve an abstract ideal must begin with an acceptance of concrete human experience.
Book 1, which opens with the often-quoted line, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” describes the source of Endymion’s discontent with his life as a local chieftain. His life as a man of action and worldly concerns is disrupted by a dream in which he imagines himself carried through the skies by a goddess. When she finally returns him to earth, he...
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