Hyperion John Keats

The following entry presents criticism of Keats's epic poem Hyperion, comprised of two unfinished versions, written in 1818 and 1819 respectively. See also, John Keats Criticism.

Constructed as two poems, Hyperion and its attempted revision as The Fall of Hyperion are considered important works by John Keats. Although both were unfinished, these poems are some of Keats's most ambitious and successful writings, within which he integrates his theories of aesthetics with his ideas on mortality and morality. In drawing upon mythology and earlier poets' works in the Hyperion poems, Keats addressed issues that were pivotal in the Romantic period, including concerns about beauty and truth, imagination, knowledge, and the connection between art and life.

Biographical Information

Hyperion was undertaken during what many critics consider Keats's most intense period of creative productivity, a period also marked by personal difficulties. After embarking upon a walking tour of Scotland and the Lake District, Keats returned home creatively energized. His publication of Endymion in 1818 drew harsh reviews, some of which included personal attacks. More significantly, his brother Tom's tuberculosis had worsened, and Keats felt responsible for his brother's care. Letters Keats wrote to his friends during this period indicate Keats felt divided between his obligations to Tom and his obligations to his poetry. After Tom's death in December 1818, Hyperion remained unfinished; Keats abandoned the poem entirely by April 1819. Late in 1819, after he had met and fallen in love with Fanny Brawne, Keats began to revise Hyperion extensively. By that time Keats was suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis, which eventually precluded him from working and left the revision, like the first version, incomplete. The Fall of Hyperion, as it is now titled, remained unpublished until 1856, long after Keats's death in 1821.

Plot and Major Characters

Stylistically and thematically influenced by earlier works, the Hyperion poems demonstrate Keats's interest in and response to classic literature. Hyperion exists in two fragmented versions, with narratives drawn from Greek mythology, and the second poem attempts to revise the first. It is stylistically different from the earlier poem, adding a long prologue and altering the poem's structure and theme. Reactions to these two versions vary: some critics consider The Fall of Hyperion mostly a revision, others claim it is an entirely new work, and yet others see it as a continuation of the first version.

Hyperion relates the fall of the Titans, elemental energies of the world, and their replacement by newer gods. The Olympian gods, having superior knowledge and an understanding of humanity's suffering, are the natural successors to the Titans. Keats's epic begins after the battle between the Titans and the Olympian gods, with the Titans already fallen. Hyperion, the sun god, is the Titans' only hope for further resistance. The epic's narrative, divided into three sections, concentrates on the dethronement of Hyperion and the ascension to power of Apollo, god of sun and poetry. Book I presents Saturn fallen and about to be replaced and Hyperion threatened within his empire. At the council of the Titans, Book II, Oceanus advocates acceptance of their inevitable defeat, though his speech is contrasted with those of other Titans. In the unfinished Book III, Apollo undergoes his transformation into the new ruling god. He meets with Mnemosyne, or memory and the mother of the Muses, in order to assume his powers and to attain immortality.

The Fall of Hyperion is darker than Hyperion, with the former suggesting that beauty can only be achieved through pain, and that poetry is incomplete if it evades and leaves unexpressed the suffering of humanity. In this fragment, the poet occupies the space of the poem in a dream-vision. The Poet asks for help, and he receives the vision of the fall of Hyperion and the ascension of Apollo, elements which structure the first Hyperion. The action begins in a forest, where the speaker, consciously portrayed as the Poet, consumes fruits and drinks a toast to all poets. This drink initiates a dream-vision where the Poet meets a Muse figure, Moneta, who challenges the Poet to ascend to the world of art, where fame offers a type of immortality. Although humbled by this challenge, the speaker enters a holy shrine to poetry, where he undergoes a death and rebirth. The Muse and the Poet debate the nature of poetry, happiness, visionary experience, and the role of the poet in the modern world. Moneta distinguishes poets from dreamers, whose imaginations focus only on individual ideals. True poets have awakened their imaginations to tragic pain but attempt to redeem sorrow with compassion and visionary acceptance. Moneta permits the speaker to enter the temple of Saturn, and she reveals to him her story. The Poet then describes Moneta's vision of the decline of the Titans. The speaker empathizes with the gods, and his ability to feel pain and suffering through imagination defines him as a Poet. The remainder of the poem narrates the laments of the Titans as they are replaced by the Olympian powers and led by Apollo. It ends with the introduction of Hyperion, who attempts to lead the final fight of the Titans against the new gods.

Major Themes

The thematic differences between the two versions of Hyperion have been extensively addressed by a wide variety of critics. In addition to Greek mythology, both poems draw from earlier poetic works, including Milton's Paradise Lost which is both imitated and challenged. Hyperion is often considered Miltonic in style and theme, and The Fall of Hyperion has been compared to Dante's The Divine Comedy, in terms of its structure as a dream-vision and in its use of a Muse figure.

Many themes introduced in the Hyperion poems are identifiable as those associated with Romanticism. Hyperion, which marks the exchange of the old powers for the new, addresses ideas about poetry, beauty, knowledge, and experience. These ideas are also present in The Fall of Hyperion. Hyperion's dominant themes address the nature of poetry and its relationship to humanity. The narrative suggests a thematic consideration of progress, particularly toward enlightenment and depictions of beauty, even as it evokes classical ideals found in Greek mythology. Visual and verbal representations, in the use of language and of Greek sculptural forms, contribute to this exploration. Through his representation of gods, Keats's commentary on Romantic opposites includes the real and ideal, history versus myth, finite versus infinite. The theme of truth is also prevalent. The speech of Oceanus and the ascension of Apollo both point to Hyperion's concern with truth and its relationship with beauty, knowledge, and suffering. Truth is closely associated with knowledge and both are acquired through pain, which results from the understanding and acceptance of change and impermanence. However painful, truth is pure and beautiful, and what is beautiful is eternal. It is this honorable truth that the human spirit strives to attain.

The structure of The Fall of Hyperion, assessed as a conscious integration of the Poet and his debates with Moneta, encourages a thematic consideration of the nature of art and beauty. In this version, the significance of the imagination is central. Here, the dream-vision structure emphasizes the Romantic tension between material representations and inner visions. The immortality offered by art, as opposed to human mortality or divine immortality, contribute to thematic issues with life and death. Like Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion is concerned with both pleasure and pain as integral to life and asserts the predominance of suffering. Also expressed is the relationship between knowledge, suffering, and divine power. Perhaps the strongest theme presented by the poem is the Poet's identity and his responsibility to humankind.

Many commentators have noted that the Hyperion poems illustrate Keats's aesthetic theories. One dominant theme in the poems is Keats's notion of “negative capability,” his assertion that the ability to entertain opposing ideas, images, and concepts without “any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is a poetic necessity. This aesthetic quality is believed to be present in those rare individuals who transcend Selfhood, leaving them able to identify with and express the experience rather than with their perception of the experience, and thus able to convey art's truth and beauty.

Critical Reception

The general critical reaction to Keats's Hyperion poems, like the reaction to much of his poetry, has focused on one of two dominant areas. Many critics examine the poems to illuminate Keats's life and aesthetic theories, while others use Keats's work to identify either characteristics of the Romantic period or to suggest possible connections between Romanticism and other influences. Keats's letters remain important to scholarship as articulations of Keats's intentions. In most assessments, Keats's Hyperion poems are considered as valuable for their biographical and cultural revelations as they are significant as art in their own right. The various approaches to the Hyperion poems reinforce that Keats's works are valued by scholars as representations of his developing aesthetic theories and as expressions of Romanticism.

Paul Sheats notes Keats's growth as a poet in the Hyperion’s increasingly restrained use of imagery and intensity of sensation. Marlon Ross, in examining Keats's patriarchal discourse, suggests Keats attempted to position himself as a “great poet” through the use of an obtuse language which would distinguish himself from those poets whose work he mimicked.

Those who primarily concentrate on the poems as demonstrations of Keats's aesthetic concerns are especially interested in The Fall of Hyperion. Irene Chayers looks at Keats's focus on the composition of poetry as demonstrated within that work, particularly in the passage which juxtaposes the poet and the dreamer. Responding to the poem in a similar manner. Stuart Sperry views the poem as an allegory for poets and poetry. Other critics discuss Keats's articulations of artistic development as evidenced in the poems. Geoffrey Hartman (see Further Reading), considers both Hyperions as a single work that offers a divine world representing Keats's struggles with artistic identity. Similarly, Christoph Bode characterizes the Hyperion poems as a developing expression of Keats's poetics and of his understanding of his “negative capability.”

Both Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion also have been examined for their embodiment of Romantic ideals, particularly in terms of Keats's influences. Paul Sherwin's examination of Hyperion asserts the poem is a response to Milton's Paradise Lost, evoking the poem yet attempting to subvert its message. Johnathan Bate claims that both Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are attempts to create a more progressive poem that minimizes the influence of Paradise Lost on the works. In her analysis of Keats's use of mythology and divine speech, Anya Taylor focuses on reflection of Romantic period traits, as do Warren Ober and W. K. Thomas, whose analysis of Keats's use of Pan as an embodiment of the Romantic Imagination

In addition to the two main schools of critical analysis of Hyperion, commentators have offered a variety of approaches. In her examination of masculinity and homoeroticism in the Hyperion poems, Ellen Brinks posits that a Gothic subtext is present, while Joel Faflak looks at connections between Romanticism and psychoanalysis in Hyperion. Carol Bernstein illustrates connections between Hyperion and modernism and postmodernism. Keats's Hyperion poems, as unfinished fragments, continue to generate scholarly analysis of ideas, development as a poet, and position as a Romantic.