The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Hyperion is a fragment of an epic poem in blank verse, divided into two complete books and a third incomplete book: Book I contains 357 lines, book II has 391 lines, and book III leaves off in mid-sentence at line 136. John Keats turned from this poem to compose his great odes in the summer of 1819 before returning to the subject of Hyperion. Instead of completing this epic, however, he began an entirely different poem (also incomplete) called The Fall of Hyperion (1856).

The title of Hyperion indicates the name of its hero, the ancient Greek god of the sun. Hyperion was one of the Titans, the offspring of Coelus (the sky) and Tellus (the earth). Saturn was ruler of the Titans, overthrown by his three Olympian sons, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto. Keats’s epic is based upon this episode of mythology, when the Olympians overthrew the Titans and Olympian Apollo took the place of Titanic Hyperion. The story of the poem begins at the point when all the Titans except Hyperion have been defeated.

Book I opens in a dark valley of great stillness, where Thea (wife of Hyperion) is searching for Saturn. She finds him alone, massive but deeply dejected and utterly stunned. Thea urges him to look up; then she ceases, realizing that theirs is a hopeless cause. The two of them do not move for four months. Then Saturn opens his eyes and asks Thea to help him understand what has happened; he is supposed to be king of the gods, but he is so impotent he must have lost his identity. He makes himself believe that he can still command a force to recover his throne. Thea feels hope and urges Saturn to follow her to where other fallen Titans have gathered.

The poem then shifts to observe the behavior of the only Titan not yet fallen. Hyperion is in his sky-palace, stalking its hallways nervously, feeling great dread. He asks if he is also about to fall, like all of his brethren. He cries out in defiance that he will attack the rebel Olympians. Hyperion threatens to drive the sun through the sky to start the day at an unnatural time, but not even a god can disturb “the sacred seasons.” His father, Coelus, sympathizes, urging Hyperion to use his remaining powers to help the Titans, to act and not wait to be acted against: “Be therefore in the van of Circumstance.” The first book ends with Hyperion plunging into the darkness below, “like to a diver in the pearly seas.”

Book II describes the arrival of Saturn and Thea at the dark den where the Titans have congregated. It is a woeful scene, where giant forms lie listlessly about in angry astonishment. They are roused when Saturn appears. He cannot explain their defeat, but he asks them how to respond to the Olympians.

The first to give advice is Oceanus, who counsels resignation. The triumph of the Olympians is a phase in the process of natural law, which governs history and creates progress, as the old must give way to the new in all things. The Titans should be wise and recognize the truth of natural process. Oceanus says that the Olympian gods are young and beautiful, a new generation of advancing truth; “first in beauty should be first in might.” The only consolation available to the Titans, he says, is to “receive the truth, and let it be your balm.”

While the other Titans remain quiet, little-regarded Clymene timidly ventures to express her feelings. She describes how she had tried to...

(This entire section contains 903 words.)

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console herself by blowing into a seashell to make music. She threw away the shell when she heard a strange, enchanting “golden melody” that seemed to drift across the ocean. She tried to stop her ears, but she heard the cry of a sweet voice, calling “Apollo! young Apollo!” Clymene tells her tale without interpreting it, simply illustrating the fact of a new regime.

Her brother Titan, huge Enceladus, is indignant at both the timidity of Clymene and the resignation of Oceanus. Enceladus offers to lead an assault on their conquerors, and he reminds them that Hyperion remains unfallen. At that moment, Hyperion appears, brightening the dark den with his burning presence. The Titans see that Hyperion is himself dejected, so they are tempted to become despondent again despite the fighting words of Enceladus. Some shout out the name of Saturn, and Hyperion answers the same. On this note, the second book ends.

Book III shifts to the young Apollo, about to assume his divine mission. He is wandering alone, perplexed about the strange emotions he feels. He sees a goddess approach, and he believes that he knows her from his dreams. She announces that she has been watching over his growth for some time, that she has forsaken her own people to be with him. Suddenly, Apollo recognizes that she is Mnemosyne (memory, mother of the Muses), and he struggles to control his feelings of sadness even as he speaks. Apollo explodes with a barrage of questions, asking Mnemosyne to account for the universe itself. Abruptly he halts his questioning and exclaims, as he looks into the eyes of the goddess, “Knowledge enormous makes a God of me.” Then he writhes in pain, his face grows pale, and even his hair begins to move. He shrieks in agony, and the poem stops without completing its last sentence.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

Hyperion was designed to follow the epic form of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). The opening is an imitation of the scene that opens Milton’s epic, describing the army of angels who have followed Satan in their rebellion against God and who have been cast down into Hell. The summoning of the Titans to a conference by Saturn is a repetition of the call by Satan. Keats’s poem strikes a new direction, however, by leaving its titular hero unfallen, awaiting the challenge from young Apollo. Yet perhaps there is an imitation here also, with some similarities between Hyperion/Apollo and Satan/Christ. Where the poem would have gone if finished cannot be known, and perhaps Keats abandoned it because he could not take it beyond Milton’s epic in a way satisfactory to Keats himself. When he returned to the subject in The Fall of Hyperion, Keats chose a new form and adopted a new style altogether, as he made himself the heroic medium for the transfiguration of Apollo into a god.

There is more to Hyperion, however, than an imitation of the narrative introduction and heroic characters found in Paradise Lost. The blank verse is “Miltonic” in its construction, using similar metric design and sentence structure. The normal subject-verb order is inverted, and the subject comes at the end of a long sentence, following a series of parallel modifying phrases. This device is a typical way to imitate the classic English epic style; thus, the poem opens in Book I with “Deep in . . ./ Far sunken from . . ./ Far from . . ./ Sat gray-hair’d Saturn.” This sentence is still not finished with the identification of its subject, for it continues with more balanced clauses for another two-and-a-half lines. The catalog of identifying features used here, and elsewhere, is representative of epic style as well.

There are distinctive figures of speech, usually similes, which mark Hyperion as a poem of epic ambition. The most common kind of epic simile is the extended comparison, as when Thea is compared (or contrasted) with an Amazon in book I and when the forest where Saturn lies is compared with a meeting of a senate, also in book I.

Long set speeches, particularly in the first two books, contribute to the epic form of the poem. These occur in book III as well, but they are interrupted by exclamations and hurried expressions of surprise and recognition. The style of book III seems deliberately varied, then, to reflect the changes which are occurring in the character of Apollo as well as in the order of divine government. The poem further imitates classic epic form by setting its action throughout the cosmos, transcending human affairs, and exploring all possible realms of being. When Keats wants to suggest how far the Titans have fallen, in fact, he compares them with human beings, as in book II, when he says, “As with us mortal men,” Saturn moves with a heavy heart.

The poet’s apostrophe to the Muse to ask for inspiration is another typical device of the epic, and it is employed, with some individuality, in Hyperion to open book III: “O leave them, Muse! . . ./ Leave them, O Muse!” The poet who calls out to the muse actually is commanding rather than pleading or requesting. This aggressive and demanding attitude by the speaker as epic and prophetic poet is maintained through most of the poem, as Keats uses the privileged voice of a bard to pass judgments on his characters and to surround them with an understanding which surpasses their own—even if they are gods and he is merely human. This attitude will be more completely realized as a shaping form of the poem when it is presented as dream and vision in the later The Fall of Hyperion.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

Ever since the composition of Paradise Lost, English poets with epic ambitions have written under the shadow of Milton. Hyperion, Keats’s effort along the Miltonic line, is powerful and extraordinary but a tour de force that he could not sustain.

As the poem begins, most of its action has already taken place. Saturn and the other Titans, with the sole exception of Hyperion, god of the sun, have been replaced by Jupiter and his fellow Olympians. Thus what occurs is not the issue. The questions to be raised are how and why benevolent gods have been overthrown. The difficulty of offering good answers combined with the static nature of the story to make Hyperion virtually impossible to complete.

Book I depicts, in sculptural detail, the throneless Saturn, whom Keats envisions as majestic, powerful, and beautiful--in fact, so thoroughly divine that it would be hard to imagine his superior. The second book brings Saturn to the gathering place of the Titans. Here, the deposed gods voice reasons for, and responses to, their great change of state. Oceanus, former ruler of the sea, advances the most convincing argument. The Titans are guiltless, he acknowledges, yet they have been superseded by beings yet more excellent--in a natural progression.

Book III bears out Oceanus’ claim by presenting the young Apollo, who has not yet replaced Hyperion but who feels an aching eagerness to assume his divinity. Mnemosyne, the Titan goddess of memory, shows Apollo what he has not yet realized, that suffering and destruction precede creation, that life is change. This tragic “knowledge enormous” makes a god of Apollo, and the fragment breaks off as he undergoes his apotheosis.

Attempting to complete the poem, Keats transformed Hyperion into The Fall of Hyperion. In revising, he moved away from the influence of Milton and toward that of Dante. The Fall of Hyperion begins with an allegorical vision in which a dreaming poet enters a temple where the goddess Moneta reveals the story of Hyperion to him. Again, however, the epic remained unfinished.


Critical Essays