Endymion: A Poetic Romance

by John Keats
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374

"Endymion: A Poetic Romance" is a poem by English Romantic writer John Keats. The poet was one of the leading figures of the Romantic movement in England, and one of the most popular literary tropes by the Romantics was referencing Greek mythology.

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The first major theme of the poem is beauty. The titular character, Endymion, was known as a handsome shepherd in the original Greek myth. Endymion was the lover of the moon goddess, Selene, in Greek mythology, who is renamed Cynthia in the poem. The first line in the poem is a reference to beauty: "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever." In the Romantic style of poetry, beauty also meant aesthetic beauty. The Romantics believed in the divine quality of beautiful design, whether they be people, objects, or natural wonders.

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The other major theme of the poem is love and, particularly, trying to attain love. In the poem, Endymion literally searches for Cynthia, whom he loves. In this sense, the desire to grasp love is both literal and figurative. The poem's main narrative is essentially a journey towards love. Like all epic journeys, the path to possessing one's goal is filled with torment, long distances, and struggles. This theme is featured frequently in other Greek myths, and the poem reiterates the theme by depicting Endymion's journey to find Cynthia.

Another related theme is the nature of love itself, particularly whether love can be fleeting or it remains static. For example, during the journey to find Cynthia, Endymion falls in love with a mortal woman. When Endymion finally finds Cynthia, he tells her that he has already fallen in love with the mortal maiden, and he chooses the latter over Cynthia. When Endymion and his new love return to earth, the maiden tells him that she does not love him anymore. This shows that both Endymion and the maiden have a fleeting experience with love; they could easily fall in and out of love with different people. When it is revealed that the mortal maiden was in fact Cynthia in disguise, it is Cynthia who shows that love could be permanent, for it is Cynthia who remained loyal to her love for Endymion whilst he chose to be with someone else.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

As the first book makes clear, one of the main themes of Endymion is the nature of happiness. On January 30, 1818, Keats wrote to his publisher, John Taylor, that Endymion’s speech to Peona describes “the gradations of Happiness even like a kind of Pleasure Thermometer.” According to Endymion, there are several kinds of happiness: The lowest is fellowship with nature and man, the next two involve humanitarian friendship and heterosexual love, and the highest level of happiness on the pleasure thermometer results from loving an immortal. Thus, for Endymion, his love for the goddess of his dream represents the greatest happiness possible and, in comparison, makes his role as shepherd king or a normal life of action seem insignificant and worthless. So although Peona continues to question Endymion’s wisdom in searching for his goddess, Endymion pursues her throughout the poem, even though (as he suspects in Book IV) he may be loving “a nothing.” That loving a goddess can be potentially disastrous is suggested by Glaucus’ experience with the witch Circe—notwithstanding the conviction with which Endymion delivers his speech on happiness, his ideals often seem questionable. It is significant that Keats calls Endymion a “Brain-sick shepherd prince.”

Although the allegory in Endymion is never completely clear, the ideal represented by Cynthia seems to be spiritual in nature, and therefore Endymion cannot easily rise to the goddess’ level. While his fellow shepherds follow the more earthly god Pan, Endymion must overcome his ties to the physical world by forgoing a life of action, wandering in solitude, performing a selfless humanitarian service to Glaucus and the drowned lovers, and renouncing his love for the Indian Maiden. He must experience utter despair and be reduced to the stunned indifference of the “Cave of Quietude.” When, in Book IV, Endymion chooses to live the life of a hermit apart from the Indian Maiden, Cynthia finally pronounces him sufficiently spiritualized to join her in heaven. Yet Endymion’s choice between the Indian Maiden (passionate, physical, real) and Cynthia (elusive, spiritual, ideal) ultimately proves to be an illusion, as the Indian Maiden and Cynthia turn out to be the same being. Whereas the protagonist of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor (1816) ignores the Arab Maiden who loves him and dies pursuing his feminine ideal, Keats combines the Indian Maiden and Cynthia, thus allowing Endymion to enjoy both his earthly and spiritual loves.

In some ways Endymion is about the growth of a human mind through the imagination. By means of his dream visions, Endymion learns that the ideal can be attained through the real, that a life of contemplation and love is superior to a life of action, and that sorrow (as the Indian Maiden’s “Ode to Sorrow” attests) is an important element of both love and beauty. Any final declaration about Endymion, however, must take into account the fact that the poem ends abruptly and unconvincingly. Endymion and Cynthia vanish with almost unseemly haste—their final bliss in Olympus is never described. The reader, like the deserted Peona, is left in “wonderment,” and the highest level of Endymion’s pleasure thermometer is never glimpsed.

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