Endymion: A Poetic Romance

by John Keats

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What does the line "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever" from Endymion by John Keats mean?

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This quotation is explained by the lines which follow it in the poem. For example, "Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness"; in other words, something which is truly beautiful will only ever become more beautiful, and it cannot die. It "still will keep / A bower quiet for us, and a sleep / Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing." A bower refers to a shady, wooded place that feels somewhat enclosed: so, this beautiful thing will, figuratively, remain a private little place for us to enjoy. It will defy "despondence" or "gloomy days," lifting the darkness away from us.

The quotation presents a somewhat unusual statement in that we typically think of things that are very beautiful as things that will not, cannot, last. Youth is beautiful, and it fades. A flower is beautiful, and it dies. Innocence is beautiful, and it is eventually corrupted. Life is beautiful, but we are mortal. For Keats to make such a statement—that things of beauty will never, can never, die—really goes against common "wisdom" and makes this poem unusual.

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The line “A thing of beauty if a joy forever” from John Keats’s poem Endymion is usually read as a straightforward assertion that any beautiful thing gives unending pleasure.  This idea can be interpreted in several different senses, including the following:

  • A beautiful thing will give joy throughout one’s lifetime. One can return to the beautiful thing and never cease to find it a source of joy.
  • Even after one dies, the thing of beauty will continue to exist and will give joy to people of the next generation.  When they in turn pass, it will give joy to the generation after theirs, and so on.  Thus a beautiful thing may in that sense be a “joy forever.”
  • Even if the thing of beauty, experienced in the past, can’t (for whatever reasons) be experienced at the present moment, our memory of the past experience can still give present pleasure.
  • Even when we are depressed or despondent, our experience of a beautiful thing can help us shake off our gloom and can bring us joy:

. . . yes, in spite of all,

Some shape of beauty moves away the pall

From our dark spirits. (11-13)

  • Because human beings share the same basic natures and respond to the same stimuli in the same basic ways, a thing of beauty – even if lost for a time, perhaps even for centuries – will still have the ability to give joy to future generations if it is rediscovered later.
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Explain the phrase "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" in "Endymion".

These famous words are taken from the opening line to Keats' epic poem "Endymion". The full line is: "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness". What Keats means by this is that beauty is eternal; it will never fade. Though human beings may come and go, and certain features of the natural landscape decay and crumble into dust, beauty, in its various forms, will live on forever.

Endymion, the eponymous shepherd boy, lives in a dream-like world in which everything is beautiful. Surrounded on all sides by the beauties of nature, the trees, the "fair musk-rose blooms," the sun and the moon, the young man is entranced by everything that the world has to offer by way of beauty. At the same time, this "brain-sick shepherd-prince" is separated from the natural world by his trance-like, sleepy state. He is kept in this state by the deep love he once had for Cynthia, a woman he thought was a mortal Indian lady, but who in fact turned out to be the Greek goddess Artemis in disguise.

We can see, then, why a thing of beauty is a joy forever. The goddess Artemis, like the love that Endymion has for her, is eternal. Neither she nor her beauty will ever die, nor will Endymion's love.

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