Endymion: A Poetic Romance Analysis

John Keats

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,...

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Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Keats subtitled Endymion “A Poetic Romance,” and Endymion has some similarities to another verse romance, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). Like The Faerie Queene, Endymion uses allegorical figures and presents unrealistic adventures in an enchanted world. The allegory in Endymion seems less systematic than the allegory in The Faerie Queene, however, and the poem as a whole has been criticized for its inconsistencies and its somewhat disappointing conclusion. These structural problems may have resulted from the fact that Endymion was Keats’s first effort at a long poem, completed when he was only twenty-two, and that his attitude toward his subject changed as the work progressed. In fact, toward the end of the poem Keats apologizes to his main character for taking so long to reach a happy ending (see Book IV, 770773)—by Book IV, the themes introduced in Book I have become much harder to resolve. The ending of Endymion, which describes Cynthia and Endymion kissing Peona and then vanishing, seems oddly abrupt, as if Keats wanted to whisk the lovers away before any other complications could arise. Although the romance genre offered Keats some poetic freedom—he could dispense, for example, with realistic plot and focus on dream visions—Keats seems to have grown increasingly restive with the poem’s allegory. As a result, Endymion presents many problems for its...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator begins the poem with the famous line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” and the brief argument that “All lovely tales that we have heard or read” bring happiness because they “Haunt us until they become a cheering light/ Unto our souls.” The narrator then traces the story of Endymion, a young shepherd.

Endymion and his people gathered to worship the shepherd-god Pan at an altar on Mount Latmos. Endymion was not caught up in the mood of the festivities. Instead, he was depressed and dreamy. His sister, Peona, worried about him and pulled him aside to ask about the source of his sorrow. Endymion told her about the dream he had had. In the dream, he saw his idealized version of womanly perfection. He told Peona that he fell in love with the woman in his dream, and when he awoke to find himself alone, the world seemed repulsive and he felt heartbroken. Peona urged her brother not to waste away his life on a dream woman whom he would never find.

Endymion digressed and told his sister that there are various degrees of happiness, from the simplest to the loftiest. Peona asked her brother why he would pursue love over fame, and he replied that there are three sources of happiness. The first is sensual pleasure that comes from direct experience with nature, such as hearing the music the wind makes with an aeolian harp. The second is pleasure that comes from art, especially of old heroic stories. The third is the best source of happiness: relationships. Endymion spoke of the happiness of human “entanglements” that allow people to get beyond the self and the limits of a single existence. Endymion determined that friendship is a “steady splendor,” but love is loftier—a “radiance” where two souls “interknit.” Endymion explained that men who might have achieved deeds of heroism have chosen love instead, finding in it contentment because love makes the soul feel its immortality. Endymion suggested to Peona that love is worth more than fame. Endymion told Peona that since his dream, he saw the face of his dream lover in a well and heard her voice coming from a cave. Endymion resigned himself to a life of unrequited love and took Peona’s hand and “stept into the boat, and launch’d from land.”

Endymion began his search for his dream lover. He met a naiad who warned him that he must search in remote regions for the woman of his dreams if he wished to find consummation. When a voice urged him to descend, a despondent Endymion...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Mount Latmos

Mount Latmos (laht-MOHS). Pastoral location in Greece on which much of the poem takes place. At the beginning of the poem, John Keats tells readers that he needs to be outside the city and its noise in order to relate the story of Endymion and Diana. Many of his allusions are to Greek gods and goddesses whose powers help explain the wonders of natural creation. Keats also describes in great detail the forests, glens, and dales of Latmos. Shepherds personify perhaps the most peaceful human occupation imaginable. The land on which Endymion watches his sheep is a magical place, where a lamb separated from the flock would never be harmed. Latmos represents the best of the pastoral tradition, where Pan’s music can still be enjoyed.

A woodland altar on Latmos is a gathering place for the shepherd bands, damsels, and other youths who keep alive the pursuit of beauty under the guidance of the woodland god Pan, whom Latmos’s denizens adore. Music is valued as the truest expression of contentment. Ebony-tipped flutes fill the air with Pan’s music. Endymion’s evident distress stands in direct contrast to the peaceful setting, thereby hinting at conflict.


Bowers. Shady leaf-covered recesses on Latmos that are the centers of many of the actions in Endymion. Places of repose, bowers are usually located in beautifully wooded areas. To Endymion, they are sources of healing and rest—sanctuaries in which he can sleep, dreaming of his beloved Diana, who reveals herself to him in dreams and visions. With Peona, his beloved sister, Endymion voyages to an island bower to which Peona used to take friends. Keats describes this bower as being located in quiet shade, with a couch of flower leaves. Here Endymion...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Ende, Stuart A. “Keats’s Music of Truth.” English Literary History 40 (Spring, 1973): 90-104. Drawing on Yeats’s theory that for each poet there is a single myth that underlies his or her deepest meditations, Ende considers Keats’s poetic development in terms of the conflict between his desire for vision or imagination and his sense of separation from such redeeming states. Discusses Endymion: A Poetic Romance.

Mayhead, Robin. John Keats. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Discusses Endymion: A Poetic Romance in the context of Keats’s entire body of works. This study serves as a basic introduction to Keats and his works.

Stillinger, Jack, ed. Introduction to John Keats: Complete Poems, by John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1982. Stillinger, the definitive Keats scholar, presents all of Keats’s poems with a readable introduction that defines a basic critical approach.

Thurston, Norman. “Biography and Keats’s Pleasure Thermometer.” Wordsworth Circle 4 (Autumn, 1973): 267-270. Thurston discusses the “pleasure thermometer” in the letter to John Taylor as “a coherent and unified expression of Keats’s attitude toward Endymion” at the time Keats wrote the letter.

Walsh, William. Introduction to Keats. New York: Methuen, 1981. Walsh uses the commentaries of a number of respected Keats scholars to place Endymion: A Poetic Romance in the appropriate critical context and rank among Keats’s other works.