Sunday, December 07, 2014

John Keats: Endymion (1817)

[ John Keats (1795-1821) ]

Endymion (1817), written at speed and completed when the author was just 22, is a difficult poem to read. Keats himself observed (in his introduction) that there was something wrong with it; the Blackwoods reviewer agreed; and nothing is easier. But if, instead, we want to read it, we have to read hard.

                        No, I will once more raise
   My voice upon the mountain-heights; once more
   Make my horn parley from their foreheads hoar;
   Again my trooping hounds their tongues shall loll
   Around the breathèd boar... (I, 477-481)

Thus Endymion promises his sister, and one part of our attention is quickened, because what’s promised is the kind of stirring material from which narrative poems are usually made. That tolling of the word “Again”, however, is enough to warn us that these promises are vain. We have learnt that, in art if not always in life, “you can’t go back”.

                           the maid was very loth
   To answer; feeling well that breathèd words
   Would all be lost, unheard, and vain as swords
   Against the enchasèd crocodile, or leaps
   Of grasshoppers against the sun.     (I, 711-715)

I remember once writing a critique of this passage. I complained that “swords” leapt out of the page with excessive force, unsuitable as a comparison to the softness of “breathèd words”, and basically in conflict with what Keats is saying about how useless they are. However, there is a certain point to the contradiction. In Endymion the intention is to tell a story that passes rapidly beyond the tackle of swords and trooping hounds. We have to learn to give up their concreteness, and this is not made easier by Keats’ power of brief evocation; what he wants us to relinquish is (as not in Shelley) something that is well represented in the text itself, though always as images never as the material of the story. Indeed, there must be few poems so heavily loaded. 

The reader’s difficulties, I’m suggesting, arise from Keats’ commitment to a story that intrinsically turns its back on the solidest things; on ploughshares, trade, cottages and fishing-nets. (Crabbe’s Tales, and Scott’s The Antiquary, are nearly contemporary.)

Book I

1-62. Introduction - The significance of beauty, its connection with “poesy”, its powers of granting health, repose, a “cheering light” etc. And hence the author’s commitment to the story of Endymion. His timetable (the timetable he kept to).

[Everything Keats writes provokes admiration for his character. There is something down-to-earth, something authoritative and far from jejune in his cry, “Oh for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy...”. He knew what he was about; a “supreme of power” in nothing “more boisterous than a lover’s bended knee”; and the end of it, “that it should be a friend / To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man” (quotations from Sleep and Poetry). Endymion is an absolutely deliberate attempt to fulfil his program.]

63-106  A mighty forest; within it, a wide lawn; in the middle a marble altar; dawn. 

[Another expectation in narrative poetry; topography. Man’s usual actions on the earth involve wanderings in a horizontal plane; for Endymion it will be different. Notice the adjectives in the précis above. We are used to dismissing certain contemporary poems as “excessively adjectival”, but in Endymion the adjective (and the adverb) are constant features of the verse. They are how the couplets are plumped out to the right length, if you like. They are also essential, like the loaded images.

              And crimson-mouthèd shells with stubborn curls  (II, 880)

It’s an interesting exercise to take a passage of Endymion and cut out all its adjectives and adverbs; what remains is sharper in some respects, but it’s not only a certain comfortable smoothness that is lost; the meaning of the poem vanishes, too - Keats’ meaning, the thing he’s committed to.]

107-184   Arrival of the goodly company, preceded by a troop of little children. Damsels, sunburnt shepherds, a priest, a fair-wrought car containing Endymion, with heroic appearance:

                              beneath his breast, half bare,
 Was hung a silver bugle, and between
 His nervy knees there lay a boar-spear keen.

Yet he is pining.

185-406. The priest rallies the company to praise of Pan. The Hymn to Pan. Their sports, and their imaginative engagement in them. The elders discoursing on the afterlife. Endymion uninvolved, and almost swooning.

407-539   Peona leads Endymion away to a bower on an island. He sleeps, awakes and feels superficially better; makes the vain promises quoted above (trying, as all do at such times, to avoid the painful confrontation) - asks for music. Peona sings for a while, then questions him in earnest. “Brother, ‘tis vain to hide / That thou dost know of things mysterious, / Immortal, starry.” Endymion agrees that no normal passion could cause this listlessness: “Ambition is no sluggard”.

[We might feel inclined to disagree; it’s a commonplace that adolescence is a time of sullen listlessness, and we might want to conclude that Endymion is a poem that merely expresses hormones. But Keats transcends that, though his poem is the more original for beginning to admit what in earlier cultures was never mentioned.]

540-710  Endymion recounts his dream of the meeting with his unknown beloved. He happens on the sudden blooming of a magic bed of poppies. He ponders it; feels dizzy and falls asleep. In his dream he watches the night sky, a beautiful moon, “a bright something, sailing down apace”, who turns into a beautiful woman. She takes his hand - he seems to faint, yet remembers being borne skywards, then swooping downwards; he embraces her; they drop into a bower on an alp. He falls asleep in this bliss; and wakes among the poppies, and in despair.

710-842  Peona tries to rally his ambition; thinks his love a wasteful thing. Endymion is pricked into justification. Defends the idea of his happiness, a “fellowship with essence” - instances of a sympathetic touch, of what is “self-destroying” - at its height, love understood as an intermingling of souls. He will not “speak against this ardent listlessness”; suggests that there are benefits to others, and that it perhaps even animates the world itself.

843-992   Applies this to his own case. Describes further visitations, and the despairs between - the face in the well, the voice in the cave. Then (some of the magic having naturally worn off by the expression of it), asserts that he will lay the whole thing aside. Departs with Peona.

[Book I as a whole establishes the distance of the locus of Endymion from more concrete places. The story will not deal with the topography of Latmos; or with the society of the shepherds; or even with the social conversation of brother and sister. All this is prefatory. It’s the dream, which at first appears merely an episode, that suddenly inverts and becomes the basic locus of the poem. From now on we will be inside the dream, looking out. Our company will not be sunburnt shepherds. The concrete business of boar-spears and lolling hounds-tongues will not occupy us. Journeyings will be non-journeyings, fantastic and inexplicable, and mostly in a vertical plane (up or down) rather than horizontal.]

Book II. Lines 1-43. Keats dismisses heroic material in favour of the intimate stories of love - Troilus and Cressid, Juliet, Pastorella...

[Keats is not entirely in earnest here; he is smiling (“Though old Ulysses tortured from his slumbers / The glutted Cyclops, what care?”), and enjoying Romeo and Juliet is no sufficient preparation for reading Endymion, whose portrayal of a non-human love must be taken seriously. I think he enjoyed the opportunity to venture beyond the confines of Greek mythology - Keats was not committed to reviving the trappings of an antique religion, though perhaps to reviving what he thought the essence of it.]

43-218   Endymion has fallen into sorrow again, “wandering in uncertain ways”. He finds a rosebud which opens, revealing a butterfly. He follows it, eventually to a fountain near a cavern’s mouth. It becomes a nymph, who pities him and vanishes. He confesses the benefits of having earthly ambitions, yet he prefers to stay here (“Alone? No, no...” - madness is near). He prays to Cynthia (not at this stage known as his beloved), but at the thought of his lost love he is almost overcome, and would have been lost, but for a voice urging him to descend into the cavern.  

218-350  He descends into a complex underground labyrinth, finally passing a temple to Diana, and then to and fro until he sits down weary and, in the absence of new wonders, miserable thoughts of self return. He feels solitude and longs for the surface of the earth. He rebels and cries No. Then prays to Dian for relief from the “rapacious deep”. Silence returns, he is despondent and bows his head to the marble floor. But then flowers and leaves appear through the slab. He hastens on (or perhaps in).

[A section full of delights created by diction, e.g.

     A hundred waterfalls, whose voices come
     But as the murmuring surge. Chilly and numb
     His bosom grew, when first he, far away,
     Descried an orbèd diamond, set to fray
     Old darkness from his throne ...  (242-46)

     A homeward fever parches up my tongue -
     O let me slake it at the running springs!
     Upon my ear a noisy nothing rings -
     O let me once more hear the linnet’s note! (319-22)

The delights are not dramatic - one person standing still in darkness. It is more a matter of a potion, a compound of natural and fantastic material.]

351-587 He walks quietly, hearing distant music (brief aside on the painfulness of music to a lover) - sees “panting light”, and comes to verdure, sees Cupids slumbering, comes to a myrtle-walled chamber in which a youth is sleeping, watched by silent Cupids. He is welcomed by a Cupid lyrist, whispering. Is offered delicious food, and told of Adonis and his winter sleep, which is just about to end. Venus appears, in her silver car pulled by doves. Venus and Adonis embrace; Venus speaks hopeful words of Endymion; they disappear, and the earth closes, leaving him in “twilight lone”.  (Presumably where he was, by the underground temple of Diana, but this is not stated.)

588-853   He journeys on, underground. Briefly dreary, he then sees “mother Cybele”; she disappears, he finds himself at a sheer drop. He bows to Jupiter; an eagle appears, and wafts him down to a spicy area of little verdant caves - is landed there, in a jasmine bower, his senses “Ethereal for pleasure”. Despite this joy, he fears its end in solitude. Longs for his beloved and prays for sleep; immediately sleepy and throws himself in mossy bed where his beloved appears. They share anguished talk and passionate embraces. She leaves him asleep.

854-1023  Endymion awakes, more dove-like. Comes to a sounding grotto; briefly reviews past events; two springs blaze out; he follows them, hearing the laments of Alpheus and Arethusa; and prays for Diana to assuage their pains. He follows towards a cooler light, and finds himself under the sea.

[The  “melodies” of Alpheus and Arethusa are abruptly cut short, with an effect both mimetic (as of turning a corner) and controlled. Prior to that, Keats’ imagination, working on streams and embraces, has enlarged. At first, he says the near-obvious (“in amorous rillets down her shrinking form”) - but later, the voice becomes more strange, as a stream’s might be: “where, ‘mid exuberant green, I roam in pleasant darkness”; “Doff all sad fears, thou white deliciousness”; “And pour to death along some hungry sands”.]

Book III

1-192.  Keats pours scorn on current sovereigns, but “Are then regalities all gilded masks?” - No, there are a thousand real Powers - and in particular, the moon - her special powers of benediction to earthly things (“The sleeping kine, / Couched in thy brightness, dream of fields divine..”) Now (returning to the time of the story) she is lovesick and sighing - a stress of love-spangles on the waves - no, a moonbeam directed into the Ocean to find Endymion; who feels the charm, and waits for dawn before passing on. The ancient trophies on the sea-bed had struck him with a “cold, leaden awe” - but now refreshed, he speaks of his own childhood moon-addiction, not faded until his “strange love” came - but then he stops dead, seeing an old man.

[A beautiful sequence of re-immersion into the depths to which Book II had pushed us.]

193-309. Description of the static Glaucus - his sighting of Endymion. His joy - Endymion’s hot aversion, followed by pity and sympathy. The old man’s dancing heart.

310-476. Glaucus begins his story. His solitary but happy youth by the sea, then the growth of “distempered longings” to more freely inhabit the sea; his metamorphosis into a water creature; his love for Scylla - he makes for Circe for relief; he swoons, awakens in a twilight bower where she seduces him; his “specious heaven”.

477-645  He discovers Circe’s wickedness, and prays for death. She mocks him, and curses him to a thousand years of pining. He wades into the ocean, finds Scylla dead. He becomes palsied, and a long time passes.

645-846  He helplessly witnesses a shipwreck, but from it recovers a scroll that prophesies his redemption, and a “youth elect”. Endymion and he join in using magic to restore a thousand dead lovers, including Scylla.

846-1032  They go to pay their piety to Neptune. Description of his palace, sea-gods and revels. Venus speaks comforting words to Endymion.  A hymn to Neptune, Venus and Eros, interrupted by the appearance of Oceanus and others. Endymion, “far strayèd from mortality”, swoons; hears the words of his love and wakes, beside a placid lake in a forest - presumably back in Latmos.

Book IV

1-29  A prayer to the “Muse of my native land” - cut short by the thought of “poets gone”.

30-361  Endymion encounters the Indian Maid, and instantly falls in love with her, inconstantly as he supposes, but fatalistically. She sings him a roundelay that describes her journey from India in the train of Bacchus. They give way to passion, interrupted by a voice (“Woe to that Endymion! Where is he?”). They wait for destruction, but Mercury appears, producing two black steeds. They fly into the air, Keats asking his “native Muse” if he is now truly inspired?

[In fact, this is a slapdash part of the poem, the roundelay looking especially improvised. Perhaps it can be accepted as a sort of fanciful masque (i.e. because the Maid has in fact no such history as the roundelay describes).]

362-512  They encounter Sleep, who is journeying to heaven’s gate to see Endymion’s marriage. The horses, and they, are overcome by slumber. Endymion dreams and sees Phoebe - wakes, and still sees Phoebe alongside the Maid (one fair, one dark). Torn between them, he denies his duplicity. (This must be the drift of “I have no daedale heart” - i.e. intricate, labyrinthine). The Maid wakes, he worries that she may “die from my heart-treachery” - yet he feels innocent, and confused. They fly off again - but at the sight of the moon, the Maid fades away from him, and her horse dives.

512-799   Endymion’s soul in anguish retreats into paradoxical quietude. (He thus misses a feathered multitude singing their way to Diana’s feast.) His steed lands on a hilltop and he finds the Maid. He renounces the cloudy phantasms of his other love, and fancies a simple life with the Maid. But she says she is forbidden. Both, lovelorn, wander into the green valleys (happening to sit under a tree that Endymion inscribed in childhood, but he doesn’t notice). (Keats, in passing, announces Hyperion - addressing Endymion, now “moonlight emperor”, as one who has aided him in his work.) The Maid secretly smiles.

800-1003. Peona appears. She welcomes him joyfully, for his companion and the “Good visions” they have seen in Latmos - why is he unhappy? Endymion asks Peona to care for the Maid; he will be a hermit, only Peona will visit him. All three are miserable. The two women move off, Endymion at the last moment requesting to meet them once more at evening, in the groves beside Dian’s temple. Endymion makes for the tryst in “deathful glee” - he laughs at nature, and (obscurely) at a “dusk religion”. They meet up - and the Maid becomes Cynthia. She and Endymion disappear - Peona goes home “in wonderment”.


It is natural to try and make sense of Endymion, i.e. to allegorize it. We might look for a “significance” in the appearance of Cybele, or Sleep; we might interpret Endymion’s rôle in the awakening of the undersea lovers as a way of meriting and hence winning his love; we might see Endymion’s futile attempt to imagine a mundane pastoral happiness with the Maid as meaning that the Imaginative vocation cannot be happily suppressed. The value of all this is limited, however, because at bottom it seeks to shrug off the profusion of the poem, to replace its confusing echoes and swoons with a plain narrative.  

Endymion begins and ends strongly, but its essential image - of haunted, unsatisfied, inner journeying is most deeply yielded to in Book II. The weakest section of the poem is the later part of Book III  and earlier part of Book IV; where Keats may be said to invite the allegorical reading by himself resorting to aspects of Spenserian practice that really have nothing to do with the positive and highly personal way in which Spenser influenced him.



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