The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Endymion is a long narrative poem in four books of about one thousand lines each, written mostly in heroic couplets. It is named after its hero, Endymion, a figure taken from Greek myth. According to the legend, Endymion was a shepherd who fell asleep on Mount Latmos and so entranced the goddess of the moon, Cynthia (also known as Diana or Phbe), that she fell in love with him. In Endymion, John Keats transforms this basic story into a lengthy and complicated quest in which Endymion desperately searches for a beautiful and mysterious goddess first glimpsed in a dream.

Book I of Endymion begins with Keats’s famous line, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” and a brief argument that beauty, especially the beauty found in such “lovely tales” as the story of Endymion, “moves away the pall/ From our dark spirits.” After this introductory section, Keats describes the pastoral world of Endymion and his people, who are gathered to worship the shepherd-god Pan. Whereas the other shepherds are in a festive mood, Endymion appears dreamy and depressed; concerned about his trancelike state, his sister Peona leads him away to learn the reason for his sorrow. Endymion tells her that in a dream he saw and fell madly in love with the embodiment of feminine perfection—when he awoke, he was alone and heartbroken in a world that seemed hideous. When Peona urges him not to ruin his life for a mere dream, Endymion replies that love is far more important than earthly fame, especially “love immortal.” Since his first vision, he explains, he has seen the reflection of his dream-lover in a well and has heard her voice coming from a cave. The book ends, however, with Endymion telling Peona that he is resigned to a life of unrequited love.

In Book II, Endymion begins his quest for his dream vision. He encounters a naiad who warns him that he “must wander far/ In other regions” before his love can be consummated. Endymion despairs, but a voice urges him to descend, and Endymion continues his journey until he comes upon the Garden of Adonis, where Adonis, the favorite of Venus, is slumbering. Venus arrives as Adonis begins to awaken from his “winter-sleep” and asks Love to pity Endymion’s misery. When Venus and her minions vanish, Endymion wanders on until he sees a huge eagle,...

(The entire section is 954 words.)