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Endymion is Keats's transformation of an ancient story of myth. The title figure is a shepherd-prince who is loved by the goddess of the moon, Selene (or Cynthia). Keats works various other fragments of Greco-Roman myth into his long narrative poem, divided into four books.

The story itself is one in which Endymion encounters the goddess, seemingly loses her, and travels into an underworld realm of marvels to look for her. Among other plot elements woven into the narrative, he is reunited with, separated from, and reunited again with Selene. In my view, however, the details of the story are less important than the poetry in which they are told. Keats creates a style he deems appropriate to his Romantic re-think of myth. Into the mold of that style he pours various elements of the poetry of the past. Even more than in most of his verse, the wording is deliberately archaic-sounding. In addition, the bare features of plot are spun out with many words, as if Keats is reveling in the musical sound of his verses and the mythological names of gods, goddesses, and places he effortlessly pours forth, even to the point where he seems to overextend himself, in his elaborate and luxuriously unique style.

I say unique, but Keats's poetic manner is hugely reminiscent of Edmund Spenser. It is typical of Keats, and of other Romantics, to focus on the distant past, a fairy-tale realm which is an escape from the modern and uncongenial nineteenth century. Though in Endymion Keats's material is sourced in remote antiquity rather than the Middle Ages, he is writing in a similar manner to that of his "Eve of St. Agnes" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci." A sample of the studied, archaic flavor of his diction is as follows (and this is not even the most extreme case):

Or, it may be, ere matron Night uptook

Her ebon urn, young Mercury by stealth,

Had dipped his rod in it: such garland wealth,

Came not by common growth . . . .

Keats, as can be seen, writes in rhymed iambic pentameter, but unlike the "heroic couplet" of the previous century, there is seldom a stop at the end of a line. Enjambment is his normal technique: the verses flow into one another freely. Altogether there is, even apart from the poem's basis in myth, a dreamlike quality to the whole poem, like Coleridge's "Kublai Khan," but without the sharp focus Coleridge gives us. There is a deliberate blurring, a vagueness to Keats's narrative. When Endymion first describes his vision of the goddess to his sister, it is difficult to follow the images he recalls or to grasp what has actually occurred in his encounters with Selene. Later, the story of Venus and Adonis is delved into as a parallel to the goddess-loving-a-mortal situation in which Endymion finds himself. The story is extended over four sections, or books, and, in the course of them, Keats seems to allude to every name, place, and happening in all of Greek mythology.

Keats inscribed Endymion to the memory of Thomas Chatterton, the poet of the previous century who wrote in an archaic style of his own devising as part of a literary hoax, an attempt to pass his work off as that of a fifteenth-century poet named Thomas Rowley (who was also Chatterton's invention). Chatterton met with little success during his lifetime, and he committed suicide in 1770 at the age of seventeen. A few decades later his work was "discovered" by the Romantic generation, and Chatterton was seen as a prototype of the misunderstood artist, neglected by the public of his time only to be lionized by the future. Keats and others identified with Chatterton. Endymion, like Chatterton's work, is an attempt to recapture the vanished past in both subject and style.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954

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, which he rides even farther down into the depths. After dismounting the eagle, he finally finds the goddess of his dream (having been given the “power to dream deliciously”), and the lovers embrace. Endymion’s mysterious lover tells him that she loves him passionately but cannot yet bring him to Olympus. Although she does not tell Endymion, she is Cynthia, a goddess who personifies chastity. After they have made love, Endymion falls asleep and the goddess departs. The remainder of Book II describes Endymion’s renewed sadness and the hopeless love of two streams, Alpheus and Arethusa, who want to intermingle but cannot because of Cynthia’s prohibition.

Endymion’s quest takes him to the bottom of the sea in Book III, and he encounters Glaucus, an ancient man who welcomes Endymion as a savior. Glaucus explains that he has been condemned to sit at the bottom of the ocean for one thousand years by the witch Circe, who was once his lover, because Glaucus spied on her as she tortured her deformed and bestialized victims. As he went into the sea to begin his punishment, Glaucus found the dead body of Scylla, his first love, and he placed her in a crystal structure far beneath the depths. After many years passed, a ship capsized, and Glaucus discovered a scroll clenched in a dead man’s hand. Glaucus learned from the scroll that at the end of his one thousand years of suffering he would be rescued by a youth, but until then it was his duty to place all drowned lovers side by side in the crystal edifice. Moved by Glaucus’ tale, Endymion agrees to help him; the two perform the necessary rituals to change Glaucus into a youth and reanimate the dead lovers in the crystal tomb. The lovers go to Neptune’s palace to rejoice, and Venus comes to tell Endymion that she has discovered the identity of his immortal lover. Overcome by the festivities in Neptune’s palace, Endymion faints and then hears (through his “inward senses”) the voice of his dream-lover assuring him that they will soon be together.

Book IV deals with Endymion’s final trials before he becomes “spiritualiz’d” enough to rise to heaven with Cynthia. After awakening from his swoon, he discovers a beautiful Indian Maiden who has been deserted by Bacchus and who longs desperately for love. Much to Endymion’s dismay, he falls hopelessly in love with this woman (who is actually Cynthia) and feels divided between the Indian Maiden and his dream-lover. He and the Indian Maiden then mount two flying horses and fall asleep in the air. In a dream, Endymion learns that the goddess of his vision and Diana are one, but he continues to feel an allegiance to the Indian Maiden. When she disappears, he enters a strange “Cave of Quietude,” a gloomy den which may represent a kind of despair or perhaps an important stage in Endymion’s spiritualization. After Endymion finally lands on Earth, he is still torn between his earthly and divine loves, and when the Indian woman tells him that his love for her is hopeless, Endymion decides to live as a hermit. The Indian Maiden then reveals that she is Cynthia, and, as Endymion’s sister Peona watches in amazement, the lovers abruptly vanish together.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

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 interpreters.

Critics have, however, been able to agree that the poem contains considerable eroticism, despite that fact that Cynthia, the object of Endymion’s passions, has traditionally been considered a chaste, even cold, moon goddess. Certainly Endymion’s encounters with her seem more physical than spiritual, even though the object of Endymion’s trials is supposed to be his spiritualization. When the lovers meet they kiss, sigh, faint, entwine, pant, and caress, and the chaste Cynthia speaks of melting into Endymion—the love is far from platonic. In fact, in her encounters with Endymion, Cynthia seems more intent on tantalizing him than on making him happy—the descriptions of their passionate embraces are soon followed by Endymion’s sleep and her unnoticed departure.

Sexual imagery is also used in the Garden of Adonis and Glaucus-Circe sections of the poem. In the Garden of Adonis, Venus’ lover, Adonis is presented as a beautiful sleeping youth watched over by Cupids. When he awakes, Venus “scuds with summer breezes, to pant through/ The first long kiss,” and they begin their seasonal love-making. Although Venus’ love for him appears to be sincere, there is a sense that Adonis is dependent and almost infantile—his relationship with Venus can never develop or mature. The love affair of Circe and Glaucus, on the other hand, is demoniacal, especially when compared with Endymion’s more idealistic passion for Cynthia. Like Venus, Circe reduces her lover to the status of a child: She takes Glaucus “like a child of suckling time/ And cradle[s] [him] in roses.” Circe proves to be a witch who has enchanted and deformed other men. She symbolizes the destructive lure of sexuality, and Glaucus’ story may serve as a warning to the lovelorn Endymion.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019

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 moved onward to the Garden of Adonis. He found Adonis, Venus’s love, asleep. Venus arrived as Adonis awoke. Adonis beseeched Venus to have pity on Endymion. Venus and her minions vanished. Endymion wandered farther and found a giant eagle that flew him farther into caverns. With the “power to dream deliciously,” Endymion found his dream lover. She told him that she loved him, but she could not bring him to Olympus. She did not reveal her name. (She was Cynthia, Moon goddess and the goddess of chastity.) After they made love, Endymion fell asleep and she left him. Endymion woke up in deeper despair. He came upon two streams, Alpheus and Arethusa—two streams who wanted to intermingle but could not because Cynthia would not allow it. Endymion pled his case to the “gentle Goddess of [his] pilgrimage” to “assuage” the lovers’ pains of Alpheus and Arethusa. The vision of the rivers disappeared, and Endymion saw “the giant sea above his head.”

At the bottom of the sea, Endymion met Glaucus, an ancient man who was condemned to sit at the bottom of the sea for a thousand years because he had witnessed Circe deform some of her lovers and turn others into beasts. Glaucus welcomed Endymion as his savior, the one who fulfilled the end of Circe’s curse. Glaucus’s curse had begun when he entered the sea. There, he had encountered his first love, Scylla, dead. Glaucus had placed Scylla’s body in a crystal mausoleum. Many years passed before he encountered another being. A ship capsized and Glaucus found a dead man clenching a scroll. The scroll foretold that a youth would rescue Glaucus at the end of his thousand years of suffering. Until the rescue, it was Glaucus’s responsibility to place all drowned lovers at each other’s side in the crystal mausoleum.

Moved by Glaucus’s tale, Endymion helped the old man regain his youth by performing rituals that reanimated the dead lovers in the crystal mausoleum. Rejoicing, the lovers went to Neptune’s palace. During the festivities at Neptune’s palace, Venus told Endymion that she had discovered the identity of his immortal lover. Endymion fainted and was carried upward by Nereids to a crystal bower. While unconscious, Endymion heard in his “inward senses” the voice of his beloved, who promised him that they would soon be together and bade him to awake.

Endymion awoke near a placid lake in a green forest and met a beautiful Indian Maiden. She longed desperately for love because she had been deserted by Bacchus. Despite his love for his dream lover, Endymion fell in love with the Indian Maiden (who was actually Cynthia). Endymion was torn between the two lovers. Two flying horses appeared to Endymion and the Indian Maiden. The lovers mounted the winged pair and flew upward. During the journey, they fell asleep. While asleep, Endymion learned that his dream lover and Cynthia were the same entity. Endymion was still also drawn to the Indian Maiden. When the Indian Maiden disappeared, Endymion entered the Cave of Quietude.

Endymion returned to Earth, still torn between his earthly love for the Indian Maiden and his divine love for Cynthia. Endymion encountered the Indian Maiden and told her their love was hopeless because of his love for Cynthia. Endymion decided to live out the rest of his life as a hermit. The Indian Maiden revealed that she was Cynthia. Peona watched as the two lovers disappeared together.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733

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 experiences the magic sleep that enables him to confide in Peona about his distress. At another point, the bower is referred to as a nest, a place of nurturing. When Endymion is at last united with his love, they are borne away to a crystal bower, at which time they vanish. Peona returns to Latmos, traveling through the dark forest unafraid.

Garden of Adonis

Garden of Adonis. Endymion’s first stop on his search for his dream lover. After meeting with a naiad who warns him that he must search in remote regions for the woman of his dreams if he hopes to find consummation, he descends to the Garden of Adonis, the mortal lover of the goddess Venus. Adonis awakens from his “winter-sleep” as Venus arrives and beseeches her to have pity on Endymion. When Venus and her minions vanish, Endymion wanders on until he sees a huge eagle, which he rides even farther down into the depths.

Cave of Quietude

Cave of Quietude. Secret grotto to which Endymion goes after a beautiful Indian maiden he meets disappears. The cave is a gloomy den that may represent a kind of despair or perhaps an important stage in Endymion’s spiritualization. After Endymion finally lands on Earth, he is still torn between his earthly and divine loves, and when the Indian woman tells him that his love for her is hopeless, Endymion decides to live as a hermit. The Indian Maiden then reveals that she is Cynthia, and, as Endymion’s sister Peona watches in amazement, the lovers abruptly vanish together.

Book I ends as Peona and Endymion go aboard ship, setting out across the river to the hollow, a fearful place, albeit set in the pastoral landscape. Searching and finding within the context of a darker pastoral setting suggests that Endymion must undergo trial before he succeeds.


Sea. Place of mystery, of Sirens who lure the unwary to doom. At the end of book 2, Endymion awakens to see the sea above his head. It frightens him, reflecting the Moon (Diana) growing pale, as if his lover is dying at the hands of the sea god, Neptune.

Here Endymion exhibits fear, an emotion unknown in his ideal Latmos. Endymion’s quest takes him to the bottom of the sea in book 3. There he encounters Glaucus, an ancient man who welcomes him as a savior, explaining that he has been condemned to sit at the bottom of the ocean for one thousand years by the witch Circe, who was once his lover. Endymion helps Glaucus escape. Afterward, Venus tells Endymion she has discovered the identity of his immortal dream lover.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 224

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.


Critical Essays