The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 903 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 632 words.)


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.