Endymion: A Poetic Romance

by John Keats

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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