Endymion: A Poetic Romance

by John Keats

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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