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CHAPTER VI (About John Keats by Sidney Colvin)

ENDYMION.—I. THE STORY: ITS SOURCES, PLAN, AND SYMBOLISM

Invention and imagination—What the moon meant to Keats—Elizabethan Precedents—Fletcher and Drayton—Drayton’s two versions—Debt of Keats to Drayton—Strain of allegory—The Soul’s quest for beauty—Phantasmagoric adventures—The four elements theory—Its error—Book I. The exordium—The forest scene—Confession to Peona—Her expostulation—Endymion’s defence—The ascending scale—The highest hope—Book II. The praise of love—Underworld marvels—The awakening of Adonis—Embraces in the Jasmine Bower—The quest renewed—New sympathies awakened—Book III. Exordium—Encounter with Glaucus—Glaucus relates his doom—The predestined deliverer—The deliverance—Meaning of the Parable—Its machinery explained—The happy sequel—Book IV. Address to the Muse—The Indian damsel—An ethereal flight—Olympian visions—Descent and renunciation—Distressful farewells—The mystery solved—A chastened victory—Above analysis justified.

Keats had long been in love with the Endymion story. The very music of the name, he avers, had gone into his being. We have seen how in the poem beginning ‘I stood tiptoe,’ finished at the end of 1816, he tried a kind of prelude or induction to the theme, and how, laying this aside, he determined to start fresh on a ‘poetical romance’ of Endymion on a great scale. When in April 1817, six weeks after the publication of the volume of Poems, he went off to the Isle of Wight to get firmly to work on his new task, it is clear that he had its main outlines and dimensions settled in his mind, but nothing more. He wrote to George soon after his departure:—

As to what you say about my being a Poet, I can return no Answer but by saying that the high Idea I have of poetical fame makes me think I see it towering too high above me. At any rate, I have no right to talk until Endymion is finished, it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination, and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed—by which I must make 4000 lines of one bare circumstance, and fill them with poetry—and when I consider that this is a great task, and that when done it will take me but a dozen paces towards the temple of fame—it makes me say—God forbid that I should be without such a task! I have Heard Hunt say, and I may be asked—why endeavour after a long Poem? To which I should answer, Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in, where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading…. Besides, a long Poem is a test of invention, which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails—and Imagination the rudder.—Did our great Poets ever write Short Pieces? I mean in the shape of Tales. This same invention seems indeed of late years to have been forgotten as a Poetical excellence—But enough of this, I put on no Laurels till I shall have finished Endymion, and I hope Apollo is not angered at my having made a Mockery at Hunt’s—

In his reiterated insistence on Invention and Imagination as the prime endowments of a poet, Keats closely echoes Joseph Warton’s protest uttered seventy years before: is this because he had read and remembered it, or only because the same words came naturally to him in pleading the same cause? When his task was finished he confessed, in the draft of a preface afterwards cancelled,—‘Before I began I had no inward feel of being able to finish; and as I proceeded my steps were all uncertain.’ But so far as the scale of the poem was concerned he adhered almost exactly to his original purpose, dividing it into four books and finding in himself resources enough to draw them out, all except the first, to a little over a thousand lines each.

Throughout Keats’s work, the sources of his inspiration in his finest passages can almost always be recognized as dual, some special joy in the delights or sympathy with the doings of nature working together in him with some special stimulus derived from books. Of such a dual kind is the whole inspiration of Endymion. The poem is a joint outcome of his intense, his abnormal susceptibility to the spell of moonlight and of his pleasure in the ancient myth of the loves of the moon-goddess Cynthia and the shepherd-prince Endymion (1) as made known to him through the earlier English poets.

The moon was to Keats a power very different from what she has always been to popular astrology and tradition. Traditionally and popularly she was the governess of floods, the presiding planet of those that ply their trade by sea, river, or canal, also of wanderers and vagabonds generally: the disturber and bewilderer withal of mortal brains and faculties, sending down upon men under her sway that affliction of lunacy whose very name was derived from her. For Keats it was her transmuting and glorifying power that counted, not her pallor but her splendour, the magic alchemy exercised by her light upon the things of earth, the heightened mystery, poetry, and withal unity of aspect which she sheds upon them. He can never keep her praises long out of his early poetry, and we have seen, in ‘I stood tiptoe,’ what a range of beneficent activities he attributes to her. Now, as he settles down to work on Endymion, we shall find her, by reason of that special glorifying and unifying magic of her light, become for him, at first perhaps instinctively and unaware, but more and more consciously as he goes on, a definite symbol of Beauty itself—what he calls in a letter ‘the principle of Beauty in all things,’ the principle which binds in a divine community all such otherwise unrelated matters as those we shall find him naming together as things of beauty in the exordium of his poem. Hence the tale of the loves of the Greek shepherd-prince and the moon-goddess turns under his hand into a parable of the adventures of the poetic soul striving after full communion with this spirit of essential Beauty.

As to the literary associations which drew Keats to the Endymion story, there is scarce one of our Elizabethan poets but touches on it briefly or at length. Keats was no doubt acquainted with the Endimion of John Lyly, an allegorical court comedy in sprightly prose which had been among the plays edited, as it happened, by one of his new Hampstead friends, Charles Dilke: but in it he could have found nothing to his purpose. Marlowe is likely to have been in his mind, with

—that night-wandering, pale, and watery star,
When yawning dragons draw her thirling car
From Latmus’ mount up to the gloomy sky,
Where, crowned with blazing light and majesty,
She proudly sits.

 

So will Shakespeare have been certainly, with the call—

Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion,
And would not be awaked,

uttered by Portia at the close of the most enchanting moonlight scene in all literature. Scarcely less familiar to Keats will have been the invocation near the end of Spenser’s Epithalamion, or the reference to ‘pale-changeful Cynthia’ and her Endymion in Browne’s Britannia’s Pastorals; (2) or those that recur once and again in the sonnets of Drummond of Hawthornden, or those he would have remembered from the masque in the Maid’s Tragedy of Beaumont and Fletcher, or in translations of the love-elegies and heroical epistles of Ovid. But the two Elizabethans, I think, who were chiefly in his conscious or unconscious recollection when he meditated his theme are Fletcher and Michael Drayton. Here is the fine Endymion passage, delightfully paraphrased from Theocritus, and put into the mouth of the wanton Cloe, by Fletcher in the Faithful Shepherdess, that tedious, absurd, exquisitely written pastoral of which the measures caught and charmed Keats’s ear in youth as they had caught and charmed the ear of Milton before him.

 

Shepherd, I pray thee stay, where hast thou been?
Or whither go’st thou? Here be Woods as green
As any, air likewise as fresh and sweet,
As where smooth Zephyrus plays on the fleet
Face of the curled Streams, with Flowers as many
As the young Spring gives, and as choise as any;
Here be all new Delights, cool Streams and Wells,
Arbors o’rgrown with Woodbinds, Caves, and Dells,
Chuse where thou wilt, whilst I sit by, and sing,
Or gather Rushes to make many a Ring
For thy long fingers; tell thee tales of Love,
How the pale Phoebe hunting in a Grove,
First saw the Boy Endymion, from whose Eyes
She took eternal fire that never dyes:
How she convey’d him softly in a sleep,
His temples bound with poppy, to the steep
Head of old Latmus, where she stoops each night,
Gilding the Mountain with her Brothers light,
To kiss her sweetest.

The particular points in Keats’s Endymion where I seem to find suggestions from Drayton’s Man in the Moone are these. First the idea of introducing the story with the feast of Pan,—but as against this it may be said with truth that feasts of Pan are stock incidents in Elizabethan masques and pastorals generally. Second, his sending his hero on journeys beside or in pursuit of his goddess through manifold bewildering regions of the earth and air: for this antiquity affords no warrant, and the hint may have been partly due to the following passage in Drayton (which is also interesting for its exceptionally breathless and trailing treatment of the verse):—In regard to Drayton’s handling of the story there is more to note. In early life he wrote a poem in heroic couplets called Endimion and Phoebe. This he never reprinted, but introduced passages from it into a later piece in the same metre called the Man in the Moone. The volume containing Drayton’s earlier Endimion and Phoebe became so rare that when Payne Collier reprinted it in 1856 only two copies were known to exist. It is unlikely that Keats should have seen either of these. But he possessed of his own a copy of Drayton’s poems in Smethwick’s edition of 1636 (one of the prettiest of seventeenth century books). The Man in the Moone is included in that volume, and that Keats was familiar with it is evident. In it, as in the earlier version, but with a difference, the poet, having enthroned his shepherd-prince beside Cynthia in her kingdom of the moon, weaves round him a web of mystical disquisition and allegory, in which popular fancies and superstitions are queerly jumbled up with the then current conceptions of the science of astronomy and the traditions of mediæval theology as to the number and order of the celestial hierarchies. In Drayton’s earlier poem all this is highly serious and written in a rich and decorated vein of poetry intended, it might seem, to rival Marlowe’s Hero and Leander: in his later, where the tale is told by a shepherd to his mates at the feast of Pan, the narrator lets down his theme with a satiric close in the vein of Lucian, recounting the human delinquencies nightly espied by Cynthia and her lover from their sphere.

Endymion now forsakes
All the delights that shepherds do prefer,
And sets his mind so gen’rally on her
That, all neglected, to the groves and springs,
He follows Phoebe, that him safely brings
(As their great queen) unto the nymphish bowers,
Where in clear rivers beautified with flowers
The silver Naides bathe them in the brack.
Sometime with her the sea-horse he doth back,
Amongst the blue Nereides; and when,
Weary of waters, goddess-like again
She the high mountains actively assays,
And there amongst the light Oriades,
That ride the swift roes, Phoebe doth resort;
Sometimes amongst those that with them comport,
The Hamadriades, doth the woods frequent;
And there she stays not; but incontinent
Calls down the dragons that her chariot draw,
And with Endymion pleased that she saw,
Mounteth thereon, in twinkling of an eye,
Stripping the winds, beholding from the sky
The Earth in roundness of a perfect ball,—

the sequel is irrelevant, and the passage so loose in grammar and construction that it matters not where it is broken off.

Thirdly, we have the curious invention of the magic robe of Glaucus in Keats’s third book. In it, we are told, all the rulers and all the denizens of ocean are figured and indued with magic power to dwindle and dilate before the beholder’s eyes. Keats describes this mystic garment in a dozen lines3 which can scarcely be other than a summary and generalized recollection of a long passage of eighty in which Drayton describes the mantle of Cynthia herself, inwoven with figures of sea and storm and shipwreck and sea-birds and of men fishing and fowling (crafts supposed to be subject to the planetary influence of the moon) in tidal or inland waters. And lastly, Keats in his second book has taken a manifest hint from Drayton where he makes Venus say archly how she has been guessing in vain which among the Olympian goddesses is Endymion’s lover. (4)

Not merely by delight in particular poets and familiarity with favourite passages, but by rooted instinct and by his entire self-training, Keats was beyond all his contemporaries,—and it is the cardinal fact to be borne in mind about him,—the lineal descendant and direct heir of the Elizabethans. The spirit of Elizabethan poetry was born again in him with its excesses and defects as well as its virtues. One general characteristic of this poetry is its prodigality and confusion of incidental, irrelevant, and superfluous beauties, its lack, however much it may revel in classical ideas and associations, of the classical instinct for clarity, simplicity, and selection. Another (I speak especially of narrative poetry) is its habitual wedding of allegory and romance, its love of turning into parable every theme, other than mere chronicle, which it touches. All the masters with whom Keats was at this time most familiar—Spenser of course first and foremost, William Browne and practically all the Spenserians,—were men apt to conceive alike of Grecian myth and mediæval romance as necessarily holding moral and symbolic under-meanings in solution. Again, it was from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as Englished by that excellent Jacobean translator, George Sandys, that Keats, more than from any other source, made himself familiar with the details of classic fable; and Sandys, in the fine Oxford folio edition of his book which we know Keats used, must needs conform to a fixed mediæval and Renaissance tradition by ‘mythologizing’ his text, as he calls it, with a commentary full not only of illustrative parallel passages but of interpretations half rationalist, half ethical, which Ovid never dreamt of. Neither must it be forgotten that among Keats’s own contemporaries Shelley had in his first important poem, Alastor, set the example of embarking on an allegoric theme, and one shadowing forth, as we shall find that Endymion shadows forth though on different lines, the adventures and experiences of the poetic soul in man.

The bewildering redundance and intricacy of detail in Endymion are obvious, the presence of an underlying strain of allegoric or symbolic meaning harder to detect. Keats’s letters referring to his poem contain only the slightest and rarest hints of the presence of such ideas in it, and in the execution they are so little obtruded or even made clear that they were wholly missed by two generations of his earlier readers. It is only of late years that they have yielded themselves, and even now none too definitely, to the scrutiny of students reading and re-reading the poem by the light of incidental utterances in his earlier and later poetry and in his miscellaneous letters. But the ideas are certainly there: they account for and give interest to much that, taken as mere narrative, is confusing or unpalatable: and the best way of finding a clue through the mazes of the poem is by laying and keeping hold upon them wherever we can.

For such a clue to serve the reader, he must have it in his hand from the beginning. Let it be borne in mind, then, that besides the fundamental idea of treating the passion of Endymion for Cynthia as a type of the passion of the poetic soul for essential Beauty, Keats wrote under the influence of two secondary moral ideas or convictions, inchoate probably in his mind when he began but gaining definiteness as he went on. One was that the soul enamoured of and pursuing Beauty cannot achieve its quest in selfishness and isolation, but to succeed must first be taken out of itself and purified by active sympathy with the lives and sufferings of others: the other, that a passion for the manifold separate and dividual beauties of things and beings upon earth is in its nature identical with the passion for that transcendental and essential Beauty: hence the various human love-adventures which befall the hero in dreams or in reality, and seem to distract him from his divine quest, are shown in the end to be in truth no infidelities but only attractions exercised by his celestial mistress in disguise.

In devising the adventures of his hero in accordance with these leading ideas, Keats works in part from his own mental experience. He weaves into his tale, in terms always of concrete imagery, all the complex fluctuations of joy and despondency, gleams of confident spiritual illumination alternating with faltering hours of darkness and self-doubt, which he had himself been undergoing since the ambition to be a great poet seized him. He cannot refrain from also weaving in a thousand and one irrelevant matters which the activity and ferment of his young imagination suggest, thus continually confusing the main current of his narrative and breaking the coherence of its symbolism. He draws out ‘the one bare circumstance,’ to use his own phrase, of the story into an endless chain of intricate and flowery narrative, leading us on phantasmagoric journeyings under the bowels of the earth and over the floor of ocean and through the fields of air. The scenery, indeed, is often not merely of a Gothic vastness and intricacy: there is something of Oriental bewilderment—an Arabian Night’s jugglery with space and time—in the vague suddenness with which its changes are effected.

Critics so justly esteemed as Mr Robert Bridges and Professor de Sélincourt have sought a key to the organic structure of the poem in the supposition that each of its four books is intended to relate the hero’s probationary adventures in one of the four elements, the first book being assigned to Earth, the second to Fire, the third to Water, the fourth to Air. I am convinced that this view is mistaken. The action of the first book passes on earth, no doubt, and that of the second beneath the earth. Now it is true that according to ancient belief there existed certain subterranean abodes or focuses of fire,—the stithy of Vulcan, the roots of Etna where the giants lay writhing, the river of bale rolling in flames around the city of the damned. But such things did not make the under-world, as the theory of these critics assumes, the recognized region of the element fire. According to the cosmology fully set forth by Ovid at the beginning of his first book, and therefore thoroughly familiar to Keats, the proper region or sphere of fire was placed above and outside that of air and farthest of all from earth. (5) Not only had Keats therefore no ancient authority for thinking of the under-world as the special region of fire, he had explicit authority to the contrary. Moreover, if he had meant fire he would have given us fire, whereas in his under-world there is never a gleam of it, not a flicker of the flames of Phlegethon nor so much as a spark from the anvil of Vulcan; but instead, endless shadowy temple corridors, magical cascades spouting among prodigious precipices, and the gardens and bower of Adonis in their spring herbage and freshness. It is true, again, that the third book takes us and keeps us under sea. But the reason is the general one that Endymion, typifying the poetic soul of man in love with the principle of essential Beauty, has to leave habitual things behind him and

wander far
In other regions, past the scanty bar
To mortal steps,

 

in order to learn secrets of life, death, and destiny necessary to his enlightenment and discipline. Where else should he learn such secrets if not in the mysterious hollows of the earth and on the untrodden floor of ocean? ‘Our friend Keats,’ Endymion is made to say in one of the poet’s letters from Oxford, ‘has been hauling me through the earth and sea with unrelenting perseverance’: and in like manner in the poem itself the hero asks,

Why am I not as are the dead,
Since to a woe like this I have been led
Through the dark earth, and through the wondrous sea?

 

But never a word to suggest any thought of the element fire—an element from which Keats’s too often fevered spirit seems even to have shrunk, for except in telling of the blazing omens of Hyperion’s downfall it is scarce mentioned in his poetry at all. Lastly, it is again true that in the fourth book Endymion and his earthly love are carried by winged horses on an ethereal excursion among the stars (though only for two hundred and seventy lines out of a thousand, the rest of the action passing, like that of the first book, on the soil of Caria). But this flight has nothing to do with the element air as such; it is the flight of the soul on the coursers of imagination through a region of dreams and visions destined afterwards to come true. Hints for such submarine and ethereal wanderings will no doubt have come into Keats’s mind from various sources in his reading,—from the passage of Drayton above quoted,—from the Arabian Nights,—it may be from like incidents in the mediæval Alexander romances (in which the hero’s crowning exploits are always a flight to heaven with two griffins and a plunge under-sea in a glass case), or possibly even from the Endimion of Gombauld, a very wild and withal tiresome French seventeenth-century prose romance on Keats’s own theme. (6)

Book I. This book is entirely introductory, and carries us no farther than the exposition by the hero of the trouble in which he finds himself. For its exordium Keats uses a line, and probably a whole passage, which he had written many months before and kept by him. One day in 1816, while he was still walking the hospitals and sharing rooms in St Thomas’s Street with his fellow students Mackereth and Henry Stephens, Keats called out to Stephens from his window-seat to listen to a new line he had just written,—‘A thing of beauty is a constant joy,’—and asked him how he liked it. Stephens indicating that he was not quite satisfied, Keats thought again and came out with the amended line, now familiar and proverbial even to triteness, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’ (7) Using this for the first line of his new poem, Keats runs on from it into a passage, which may or may not have been written at the same time, declaring the virtues of those things of beauty—sun, moon, trees, rivulets, flowers, tales of beauty and heroism indiscriminately—which make for health and quietude amidst the gloom and distemper of the world. Then he tells of his own happiness in setting about his cherished task in the prime of spring, and his hopes of finishing it before winter. He takes us to a Pan-haunted forest on Mount Latmos, with many paths leading to an open glade. The hour is dawn, the scene in part manifestly modelled on a similar one in the Chaucerian poem, The Floure and Lefe, in which he took so much pleasure. First a group of little children come in from the forest paths and gather round the altar, then a bevy of damsels, then a company of shepherds; priests and people follow, and last of all the young shepherd-prince and hero Endymion, now wan and pining from a new, unexplained soul-sickness.

The festival opens with a speech of thanksgiving and exhortation from the priest, followed by a choral hymn in honour of the god: then come dances and games and story-telling. Meantime Endymion and the priest sit apart among the elder shepherds, who pass the time imagining what happy tasks and ministrations it will be theirs to ply in their ‘homes ethereal’ after death. In the midst of such conversation Endymion goes off into a distressful trance, during which there comes to him his sister Peona (this personage and her name are inventions of Keats, the name perhaps suggested by that of Paeana in the fourth book of the Faerie Queene, or by the Paeon mentioned in Lemprière as a son of Endymion in the Elean version of the tale, or by Paeon the physician of the gods in the Iliad, whom she resembles in her quality of healer and comforter; or very probably by all three together). Peona wakes her brother from his trance, and takes him in a shallop to an arbour of her own on a little island in a lake. Here she lulls him to rest, the poet first pausing to utter a fine invocation to Sleep—his second, the first having been at the beginning of Sleep and Poetry. Endymion awakens refreshed, and promises to be of better cheer in future. She sings soothingly to the lute, and then questions him concerning his troubles:—

Brother,’tis vain to hide
That thou dost know of things mysterious,
Immortal, starry; such alone could thus
Weigh down thy nature.

When she has guessed in vain, he determines to confide in her: tells her how he fell asleep on a bed of poppies and other flowers which he had found magically new-blown on a place where there had been none before; how he dreamed that he was gazing fixedly at the stars shining in the zenith with preternatural glory, until they began to swim and fade, and then, dropping his eyes to the horizon, he saw the moon in equal glory emerging from the clouds; how on her disappearance he again looked up and there came down to him a female apparition of incomparable beauty (in whom it does not yet occur to him to recognize the moon-goddess); how she took him by the hand, and they were lifted together through mystic altitudes

Where falling stars dart their artillery forth
And eagles struggle with the buffeting north
That balances the heavy meteor stone;

 

how thence they swooped downwards in eddies of the mountain wind, and finally how, clinging to and embracing his willing companion in a delirium of happiness, he alighted beside her on a flowery alp, and there fell into a dream-sleep within his sleep; from which awakening to reality, he found himself alone on the bed of poppies, with the breeze at intervals bringing him ‘Faint fare-thee-wells and sigh-shrilled adieus,’ and with disenchantment fallen upon everything about him:—

All the pleasant hues
Of heaven and earth had faded: deepest shades
Were deepest dungeons: heaths and sunny shades
Were full of pestilent light; and taintless rills
Seem’d sooty, and o’erspread with upturn’d gills
Of dying fish; the vermeil rose had blown
In frightful scarlet, and its thorns outgrown
Like spikèd aloe.

 

Here we have the first of those mystic dream-flights of Endymion and his celestial visitant in company, prefiguring the union of the soul with the spirit of essential Beauty, which have to come true before the end but of which the immediate result is that all other delights lose their savour and turn to ashes. The spirit of man, so the interpretation would seem to run, having once caught the vision of transcendental Beauty and been allowed to embrace it, must pine after it evermore and in its absence can take no delight in nature or mankind. Another way would have been to make his hero find in every such momentary vision or revelation a fresh encouragement, a source of joy and inspiration until the next: but this was not Keats’s way. Peona listens with sisterly sympathy, but her powers of help, being purely human, cannot in this case avail. She can only try to rouse him by contrasting his present forlorn and languid state with his former virility and ambition:—

Yet it is strange and sad, alas!
That one who through this middle earth should pass
Most like a sojourning demi-god, and leave
His name upon the harp-string, should achieve
No higher bard than simple maidenhood,
Sighing alone, and fearfully,—how the blood
Left his young cheek; and how he used to stray
He knew not where; and how he would say, Nay,
If any said ’twas love: and yet ’twas love;
What could it be but love? How a ring-dove
Let fall a sprig of yew-tree in his path;
And how he died: and then, that love doth scathe
The gentle heart, as Northern blasts do roses.
And then the ballad of his sad life closes
With sighs, and an alas! Endymion!

 

 

His reply in his own defence is long and much of it beautiful: but we follow the chain of thought and argument with difficulty, so hidden is it in flowers of poetry and so little are its vital links made obvious. A letter of Keats, containing one of his very few explanatory comments on work of his own, shows that he attached great importance to the passage and felt that its sequence and significance might easily be missed. Sending a correction of the proof to Mr Taylor, the publisher, he says—‘The whole thing must, I think, have appeared to you, who are a consecutive man, as a thing almost of mere words, but I assure you that when I wrote it, it was a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a truth. My having written that argument will perhaps be of the greatest service to me of anything I ever did. It set before me the gradations of happiness, even like a kind of pleasure thermometer, and is my first step towards the chief attempt in the drama.’ The first ten lines offer little difficulty:—

Peona! ever have I long’d to slake
My thirst for the world’s praises: nothing base,
No merely slumberous phantasm, could unlace
The stubborn canvas for my voyage prepar’d—
Though now ’tis tatter’d; leaving my bark bar’d
And sullenly drifting: yet my higher hope
Is of too wide, too rainbow-large a scope,
To fret at myriads of earthly wrecks.
Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence; till we shine,
Full alchemiz’d, and free of space. Behold
The clear religion of heaven!

 

It seems clear that we have here shadowed forth the highest hope and craving of the poetic soul, the hope to be wedded in full communion or ‘fellowship divine’—or shall we say with Wordsworth in love and holy passion?—with the spirit of essential Beauty in the world. In the next lines we shall find, if we read them carefully enough, that Keats, having thus defined his ultimate hope, breaks off and sets out again from the foot of a new ascending scale of poetical pleasure and endeavour which he asks us to consider. It differs from the ascending scale of the earlier poems inasmuch as it begins, not with the toying of nymphs in shady places and the like, but with thoughts of olden minstrelsy and romantic tales and prophecies. The verse here is of Keats’s finest:—

—hist, when the airy stress
Of music’s kiss impregnates the free winds,
And with a sympathetic touch unbinds
Æolian magic from their lucid wombs:
Then old songs waken from enclouded tombs;
Old ditties sigh above their father’s grave;
Ghosts of melodious prophecyings rave
Round every spot where trod Apollo’s foot;
Bronze clarions awake, and faintly bruit,
Where long ago a giant battle was;
And, from the turf, a lullaby doth pass
In every place where infant Orpheus slept.

It is impressed upon us in the next lines that this is a relatively unexalted phase of imaginative feeling, and our thoughts are directed to other experiences of the poetic soul more enthralling and more ‘self-destroying’ (that is more effectual in purging it of egotism), namely the experiences of friendship and love, those of love above all:—

Aye, so delicious is the unsating food,
That men, who might have tower’d in the van
Of all the congregated world, to fan
And winnow from the coming step of time
All chaff of custom, wipe away all slime
Left by men-slugs and human serpentry,
Have been content to let occasion die,
Whilst they did sleep in love’s elysium.
And, truly, I would rather be struck dumb,
Than speak against this ardent listlessness:
For I have ever thought that it might bless
The world with benefits unknowingly;
As does the nightingale, upperched high,
And cloister’d among cool and bunched leaves—
She sings but to her love, nor e’er conceives
How tiptoe Night holds back her dark-grey hood.

 

If a man, next pleads Endymion, may thus reasonably give up even the noblest of worldly ambitions for the joys of a merely mortal love, how much more may he do so for those of an immortal. No, he re-assures Peona in reply to her questioning glance, he is not fancy-sick:—

no, no, I’m sure
My restless spirit never could endure
To brood so long upon one luxury,
Unless it did, though fearfully, espy
A hope beyond the shadow of a dream.

We have now been carried back to the top of the scale, and these lines again express, although vaguely, the aspirations of the poetic soul at their highest pitch, rising through thoughts and experiences of mortal love to the hope of communion with immortal Beauty. But that longed-for, loftiest phase of the imaginative life, that hope beyond the shadow of a dream, too vast and too rainbow-bright to be quenched by any fear of earthly disaster, Endymion cannot attempt to define, least of all to the practically-minded Peona. He can only try to convince her of its reality by telling her of later momentary visitations with which the divinity of his dreams has favoured him—her face reflected at him from a spring—her voice murmuring to him from a cave—and how miserably in the intervals he has pined and hungered for her. But now, he ends by assuring his sister, he will be patient and pine no longer. Yet it is but a sickly half-assurance after all.

There is a paly flame of hope that plays
Where’er I look: but yet, I’ll say ’tis naught,
And here I bid it die. Have I not caught,
Already, a more healthy countenance?

And with this, as she rows him back from her island, the anxious sister must rest content.

Book II. opens with a renewed declamation on the power and glory of love, and the relative unimportance of the wars and catastrophes of history. Juliet leaning from her balcony, the swoon of Imogen, Hero wrongfully accused by Claudio, Spenser’s Pastorella among the bandits, he declares,

Are things to brood on with more ardency
Than the death-day of empires.

 

 

The passage has caused some critics to reproach Keats as a mere mawkish amorist indifferent to the great affairs and interests of the world. But must one not believe that all poor flawed and fragmentary human loves, real or fabled, happy or miserable, are far off symbols and shadowings of that Love which, unless the universe is quite other than we have trusted, ‘moves the sun and the other stars?’ Are they not related to it as to their source and spring? It is quite true that Keats was not yet able to tell of such loves except in terms which you may call mawkish if you will (he called them so himself a little later). But being a poet he knew well enough their worth and parentage. And when the future looks back on today, even on today, a death-day of empires in a sterner and vaster sense than any the world has known, will all the waste and hatred and horror, all the hope and heroism of the time, its tremendous issues and catastrophes, be really found to have eclipsed and superseded love as the thing fittest to fill the soul and inspire the songs of a poet?

The invocation ended, we set out with the hero on the adventures that await him. He gathers a wild-rose bud which on expanding releases a butterfly from its heart: the butterfly takes wing and he follows its flight with eagerness. At last they reach a fountain spouting near the mouth of a cave, and in touching the water the butterfly is suddenly transformed into a nymph of the fountain, who speaking to Endymion pities, encourages, and warns him in one breath. Endymion sits and soliloquizes beside the fountain, at first in wavering terms which express the ebb and flow of Keats’s own inner aspirations and misgivings about his poetic calling. Anon he invokes the virgin goddess Cynthia to quell the tyranny of love in him (not yet guessing that his dream visitant is really she). But no, insensibility would be the worst of all; the goddess must, he is assured, know of some form of love higher and purer than the Cupids are concerned with; he prays to her to be propitious; dreams again that he is sailing through the sky with her; and makes a wild appeal to her which is answered by a voice from within the cavern bidding him descend ‘into the sparry hollows of the world.’ He obeys, (this plunge into a spring or fountain and thence into the under-world is a regular incident in a whole group of folk tales, one or another of which was no doubt in Keats’s mind): and we follow him at first into a region

nor bright, nor sombre wholly,
But mingled up; a gleaming melancholy;
A dusky empire and its diadems;
One faint eternal eventide of gems.

 

 

A vein of gold sparkling with jewels serves him for path, and leads him through twilight vaults and passages to a ridge that towers over many waterfalls: and the lustre of a pendant diamond guides him further till he reaches a temple of Diana. What imaginative youth but has known his passive day-dreams haunted by visions, mysteriously impressive and alluring, of natural and architectural marvels, huge sculptured caverns and glimmering palace-halls in endless vista? To such imaginings, fed by his readings and dreamings on

Memphis, and Nineveh, and Babylon,

Keats in this book lets himself go without a check. Now we find ourselves in a temple, described as complete and true to sacred custom, with an image of Diana; and in a trice either we have passed, or the temple itself has dissolved, into a structure which by its ‘abysmal depths of awe,’ its gloomy splendours and intricacies of aisle and vault and corridor, its dimly gorgeous and most un-Grecian magnificence, reminds us of nothing so much as of Vathek and the halls of Eblis or some of the magical subterranean palaces of the Arabian Nights. (Beckford’s Vathek and the Thousand and One Nights were both among Keats’s familiar reading.) Endymion is miserable there, and appeals to Diana to restore him to the pleasant light of earth. Thereupon the marble floor breaks up beneath and before his footsteps into a flowery sward. Endymion walks on to the sound of a soft music which only intensifies his yearnings: is led by a light through the alleys of a myrtle grove; and comes to an embowered chamber where Adonis lies asleep among little ministering Loves, with Cupid himself, lute in hand, for their chief.Memphis, and Nineveh, and Babylon,

Here follows a long and highly wrought episode of the winter sleep of Adonis and the descent of Venus to awaken him. The original idea for the scene comes from Ovid, in part direct, in part through Spenser (Faerie Queene, iii, 6) and Shakespeare. But the detail is entirely Keats’s own and on the whole is a happy example of his early luxuriant manner; especially the description of the entrance of Venus and the looks and presence of Cupid as bystander and interpreter. The symbolic meaning of the story is for him evidently much the same as it was to the ancients,—the awakening of nature to love and life after the sleep of winter, with all the ulterior and associated hopes implied by such a resurrection. The first embracements over, Endymion is about to intreat the favour of Venus for his quest when she anticipates him encouragingly, telling him that from her upper regions she has perceived his plight and has guessed (here is one of the echoes from Drayton to which I have referred above) that some goddess, she knows not which, has condescended to him. She bids her son be propitious to him, and she and Adonis depart. Endymion wanders on by miraculous grottoes and palaces, and then mounts by a diamond balustrade,

Leading afar past wild magnificence,
Spiral through ruggedst loopholes, and thence
Stretching across a void, then guiding o’er
Enormous chasms, where, all foam and roar,
Streams subterranean teaze their granite beds;
Then heighten’d just above the silvery heads
Of a thousand fountains, so that he could dash
The waters with his spear; but at the splash,
Done heedlessly, those spouting columns rose
Sudden a poplar’s height, and ‘gan to enclose
His diamond path with fretwork, streaming round
Alive, and dazzling cool, and with a sound,
Haply, like dolphin tumults, when sweet shells
Welcome the float of Thetis.

 

The fountains assume all manner of changing and interlacing imitative shapes which he watches with delight (this and much else on the underground journey seems to be the outcome of pure fancy and day-dreaming on the poet’s part, without symbolic purpose). Then passing on through a dim tremendous region of vaults and precipices he has a momentary vision of the earth-goddess Cybele with her team of lions issuing from an arch below him. At this point the diamond balustrade suddenly breaks off in mid-space and ends in nothing. (8) Endymion calls to Jove for help and rescue, and is taken up on the wings of an eagle, (is this the eagle of Dante in the Purgatory and of Chaucer in The House of Fame?) who swoops down with him,—all this still happening, be it remembered, deep within the bowels of the earth,—to a place of sweet airs of flowers and mosses. He is deposited in a jasmine bower, wonders within himself who and what his unknown love may be, longs to force his way to her, but as that may not be, to sleep and dream of her. He sleeps on a mossy bed; she comes to him; and their endearments are related, unluckily in a very cloying and distasteful manner of amatory ejaculation. It was a flaw in Keats’s art and a blot on his genius—or perhaps only a consequence of the rawness and ferment of his youth?—that thinking nobly as he did of love, yet when he came to relate a love-passage, even one intended as this to be symbolical of ideal things, he could only realize it in terms like these.

The visitant, whose identity is still unrecognized, again disappears; he resumes his quest, and next finds himself in a huge vaulted grotto full of sea treasures and sea sounds and murmurs. Here he goes over in memory his past life and aspirations,

—the spur
Of the old bards to mighty deeds: his plans
To nurse the golden age ‘mong shepherd clans:
That wondrous night: the great Pan-festival:
His sister’s sorrow; and his wanderings all,
Until into the earth’s deep maw he rush’d:
Then all its buried magic, till it flush’d
High with excessive love. ‘And now,’ thought he,
‘How long must I remain in jeopardy
Of blank amazements that amaze no more?
Now I have tasted her sweet soul to the core
All other depths are shallow: essences,
Once spiritual, are like muddy lees,
Meant but to fertilize my earthly root,
And make my branches lift a golden fruit
Into the bloom of heaven: other light,
Though it be quick and sharp enough to blight
The Olympian eagle’s vision, is dark,
Dark as the parentage of chaos. Hark!
My silent thoughts are echoing from these shells;
Or they are but the ghosts, the dying swells
Of noises far away?—list!—’

 

The poet seems here to mean that in the seeker’s transient hour of union with his unknown divinity capacities for thought and emotion have been awakened in him richer and more spiritually illuminating than he has known before. The strange sounds which reach him are the rushing of the streams of the river-god Alpheus and the fountain-nymph Arethusa; Arethusa fleeing, Alpheus pursuing (according to that myth which is told most fully by Ovid and which Shelley’s lyric has made familiar to all English readers); he entreating, she longing to yield but fearing the wrath of Diana. Endymion, who till now has had no thought of anything but his own plight, is touched by the pangs of these lovers and prays to his goddess to assuage them. We are left to infer that she assents: they plunge into a gulf and disappear: he turns to follow a path which leads him in the direction of a cooler light and a louder sound:

—and lo!
More suddenly than doth a moment go,
The visions of the earth were gone and fled—
He saw the giant sea above his head.

 

 

Throughout this second book Keats has been content to let the mystery and ‘buried magic’ of the under-world reveal itself in nothing of more original invention or of deeper apparent significance than the spring awakening of Adonis and the vision of the earth-goddess Cybele. His under-world is no Tartarus or Elysium, no place of souls: he attempts nothing like the calling-up of the ghosts of dead heroes by Ulysses in the Odyssey, still less like the mystic revelation of a future state of rewards and punishments in the sixth book of the Aeneid. Possibly the visit of the disguised Diana is meant to have a double meaning, and of her three characters as ‘Queen of Earth, and Heaven, and Hell,’ to refer to the last, that of a goddess of the under-world and of the dead, and at the same time to symbolize the power of the spirit of Beauty to visit the poet’s soul with joy and illumination even among the ‘dismal elements’ of that nether sphere. Into the rest of the underground scenery and incidents it is hard to read any symbolical meaning or anything but the uncontrolled and aimless-seeming play of invention. But in what is now to follow we are conscious of a fuller meaning and a stricter plan. That from Diana, conscious of her own weakness, indulgence for the weakness of her nymph Arethusa should be won by the prayer of Endymion, now for the first time wrought to sympathy with the sorrows of others, is a clear stage in the development of the poet’s scheme. The next stage is more decisive and significant still.

Book III. Keats begins his third book with a denunciation of kings, conquerors, and worldly ‘regalities’ in general, amplifying in his least fortunate style the ideas contained in the sonnet ‘On receiving a laurel crown from Leigh Hunt’ written the previous March in the copy of his Poems which he gave to Reynolds (see above, p. 57). When Keats read this passage to Bailey at Oxford, Bailey very justly found fault with some forced expressions in it such as ‘baaing vanities,’ and also, he tells us, with what seemed to him an over-done defiance of the traditional way of handling the rimed couplet. From denunciation the verse passes into narrative with the question, ‘Are then regalities all gilded masks?’ The answer is, No, there are a thousand mysterious powers throned in the universe—cosmic powers, as we should now say—most of them far beyond human ken but a few within it; and of these, swears the poet, the moon is ‘the gentlier-mightiest.’ Having once more, in a strain of splendid nature-poetry, praised her, he resumes his tale, and tells how Cynthia, pining no less than Endymion, sends a shaft of her light down to him where he lies on an under-sea bed of sand and pearls; how this comforts him, and how at dawn he resumes his fated journey. Here follows a description of the litter of the Ocean floor which, as we shall see later, is something of a challenge to Shakespeare and was in its turn something of an inspiration to Shelley. Endymion now in his own person takes up the inexhaustible theme of the moon’s praise, asking her pardon at the same time for having lately suffered a more rapturous, more absorbing passion to come between him and his former youthful worship of her. At this moment the wanderer’s attention is suddenly diverted,—

For as he lifted up his eyes to swear
How his own goddess was past all things fair,
He saw far in the green concave of the sea
An old man sitting calm and peacefully.
Upon a weeded rock this old man sat,
And his white hair was awful, and a mat
Of weeds were cold beneath his cold thin feet.

 

The old man is Glaucus, and the rest of the book is taken up almost entirely with his story. Keats’s reading of Ovid had made him familiar with this story: (9) but he remodels it radically for his own ethical and symbolic purpose, giving it turns and a sequel quite unknown to antiquity, and even helping himself as he felt the need to certain incidents and machinery of Oriental magic from the Arabian Nights.

Glaucus at first sight of Endymion greets him joyfully, seeing in him his predestined deliverer from the spell of palsied age which binds him. But Endymion cannot endure the thought of being diverted from his own private quest, and meets the old man’s welcome first with suspicious terror and then with angry defiance. The grey-haired creature weeps: whereupon Endymion, newly awakened to human sympathies, is struck with remorse.

 

Had he then wrong’d a heart where sorrow kept?
·······
He had indeed, and he was ripe for tears.
The penitent shower fell, as down he knelt
Before that careworn sage.

They rise and proceed over the ocean floor together. Glaucus tells Endymion his history: how he led a quiet and kind existence as a fisherman long ago, familiar with and befriended by all sea-creatures, even the fiercest, until he was seized with the ambition to be free of Neptune’s kingdom and able to live and breathe beneath the sea; how this desire being granted he loved and pursued the sea-nymph Scylla, and she feared and fled him; how then he asked the aid of the enchantress Circe, who made him her thrall and lapped him in sensual delights while Scylla was forgotten. How the witch, the ‘arbitrary queen of sense,’ one day revealed her true character, and ‘specious heaven was changed to real hell.’ (Is Keats here remembering the closing couplet of Shakespeare’s great sonnet against lust—

This all the world well knows; but none know well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell?)

 

He came upon her torturing her crowd of spell-bound animals, once human beings, fled in terror at the sight, was overtaken, and with savage taunts driven back into his ocean-home. Here he found Scylla cold and dead, killed by Circe’s arts. (In the original myth as told by Ovid and others Glaucus refuses the temptations of Circe, who in revenge inflicts on Scylla a worse punishment than death, transforming her into a sea-monster engirdled with a pack of ravening dogs and stationed as a terror to mariners at the Straits over against Charybdis). Glaucus then tells how he conveyed the body of his dead love to a niche in a vacant under-sea temple, where she still remains. Then began the doom of paralysed and helpless senility which the enchantress had condemned him to endure for a thousand years and which still binds him fast,—a doom which inevitably reminds us of such stories as that of the Fisherman in the Arabian Nights, and of the spell laid by Suleiman upon the rebellious Djinn, whom he imprisoned for a thousand and eight hundred years in a bottle until the Fisherman released him.

Glaucus goes on to relate how once, in the course of his miserable spell-bound existence, he witnessed the drowning of a shipwrecked crew with agony at his own helplessness, and in trying vainly to rescue a sinking old man by the hand found himself left with a wand and scroll which the old man had held. Reading the scroll, he found in it comfortable words of hope and wisdom. (Note that it was through an attempted act of human succour that this wisdom came to him). If he would have patience, so ran the promise of the scroll, to probe all the depths of magic and the hidden secrets of nature—if moreover he would piously through the centuries make it his business to lay side by side in sanctuary all bodies of lovers drowned at sea—there would one day come to him a heaven-favoured youth to whom he would be able to teach the rites necessary for his deliverance. He recognizes the predestined youth in Endymion, who on learning the nature of the promise accepts joyfully his share in the prescribed duty, with the attendant risk of destruction to both if they fail. The young man and the old—or rather ‘the young soul in age’s mask’—go together to the submarine hall of burial where Scylla and the multitude of drowned lovers lie enshrined. As to the rites that follow and their effect, let us have them in the poet’s own words:—

‘Let us commence,’
Whisper’d the guide, stuttering with joy, ‘even now.’
He spake, and, trembling like an aspen-bough,
Began to tear his scroll in pieces small,
Uttering the while some mumblings funeral.
He tore it into pieces small as snow
That drifts unfeather’d when bleak northerns blow;
And having done it, took his dark blue cloak
And bound it round Endymion: then struck
His wand against the empty air times nine.—
‘What more there is to do, young man, is thine:
But first a little patience; first undo
This tangled thread, and wind it to a clue.
Ah, gentle! ’tis as weak as spider’s skein;
And shouldst thou break it—What, is it done so clean
A power overshadows thee! O, brave!
The spite of hell is tumbling to its grave.
Here is a shell; ’tis pearly blank to me,
Nor mark’d with any sign or charactery— 
Canst thou read aught? O read for pity’s sake!
Olympus! we are safe! Now, Carian, break
This wand against yon lyre on the pedestal.’
’Twas done: and straight with sudden swell and fall
Sweet music breath’d her soul away, and sigh’d
A lullaby to silence.—‘Youth! now strew
These minced leaves on me, and passing through
Those files of dead, scatter the same around,
And thou wilt see the issue.’—‘Mid the sound
Of flutes and viols, ravishing his heart,
Endymion from Glaucus stood apart,
And scatter’d in his face some fragments light.
How lightning-swift the change! a youthful wight
Smiling beneath a coral diadem
Out-sparkling sudden like an upturn’d gem,
Appear’d, and, stepping to a beauteous corse,
Kneel’d down beside it, and with tenderest force
Press’d its cold hand, and wept,—and Scylla sigh’d!
Endymion, with quick hand, the charm apply’d—
The nymph arose: he left them to their joy,
And onward went upon his high employ,
Showering those powerful fragments on the dead.
And as he passed, each lifted up his head,
As doth a flower at Apollo’s touch.
Death felt it to his inwards: ’twas too much:
Death fell a weeping in his charnel-house.
The Latmian persever’d along, and thus
All were re-animated. There arose
A noise of harmony, pulses and throes
Of gladness in the air—while many, who
Had died in mutual arms devout and true,
Sprang to each other madly; and the rest
Felt a high certainty of being blest.
They gaz’d upon Endymion. Enchantment
Grew drunken, and would have its head and bent.
Delicious symphonies, like airy flowers,
Budded, and swell’d, and, full-blown, shed full showers
Of light, soft, unseen leaves of sounds divine.
The two deliverers tasted a pure wine
Of happiness, from fairy-press ooz’d out.
Speechless they ey’d each other, and about
The fair assembly wander’d to and fro,
Distracted with the richest overflow
Of joy that ever pour’d from heaven.

 

The whole long Glaucus and Scylla episode filling the third book, and especially this its climax, has to many lovers and students of Keats proved a riddle hard of solution. And indeed at first reading the meaning of its strange incidents and imagery, beautiful as is much of the poetry in which they are told, looks obscure enough. Every definite clue to their interpretation seems to elude us as we lay hold of it, like the drowned man who sinks through the palsied grasp of Glaucus. But bearing in mind what we have recognized as the general scope and symbolic meaning of the poem, does not the main purport of the Glaucus book, on closer study, emerge clearly as something like this? The spirit touched with the divine beam of Cynthia—that is aspiring to and chosen for communion with essential Beauty—in other words the spirit of the Poet—must prepare itself for its high calling, first by purging away the selfishness of its private passion in sympathy with human loves and sorrows, and next by acquiring a full store alike of human experience and of philosophic thought and wisdom. Endymion, endowed by favour of the gods with the poetic gift and passion, has only begun to awaken to sympathy and acquire knowledge when he meets Glaucus, whose history has made him rich in all that Endymion yet lacks, including as it does the forfeiting of simple everyday life and usefulness for the exercise of a perilous superhuman gift; the desertion, under a spell of evil magic, of a pure for an impure love; the tremendous penalty which has to be paid for this plunge into sensual debasement; the painful acquisition of the gift of righteous magic, or knowledge of the secrets of nature and mysteries of life and death, by prolonged intensity of study, and the patient exercise of the duties of pious tenderness towards the bodies of the drowned. At the approach of Endymion the sage recognizes in him the predestined poet, and hastens to make over to him, as to one more divinely favoured than himself, all the dower of his dearly bought wisdom; in possession of which the poet is enabled to work miracles of joy and healing and to confer immortality on dead lovers.

As to the significance in detail of the rites by which the transfer of power is effected, we are again helped by remembering that Keats was mixing up with his classic myth ideas taken from the Thousand and One Nights. Let the student turn to the Glaucus and Circe episodes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and then refresh his memory of certain Arabian tales, particularly that of Bebr Salim, with its kings and queens of the sea living and moving under water as easily as on land, its repeated magical transformations and layings on and taking off of enchantments, and the adventures of the hero with queen Lab, the Oriental counterpart of Circe,—let the student refresh his memory from these sources, and the proceedings of this episode will no longer seem so strange. In the Arabian tales, and for that matter in western tales of magic also, the commonest method of annulling enchantments is by sprinkling with water over which words of power have been spoken. Under sea you cannot sprinkle with water, so Keats makes Endymion use for sprinkling the shredded fragments of the scroll taken by Glaucus from the drowned man. First Glaucus tears the scroll, uttering ‘some mumblings funeral’ as he does so (compare the ‘backward mutters of dissevering power’ in Milton’s Comus). Then follows a series of actions showing that the hour has come for him to surrender and make over his powers and virtues to the new comer. First he invests Endymion with his own magic robe. Then he waves his magic wand nine times in the air,—as a preliminary to the last exercise of its power? or as a sign that its power is exhausted? Nine is of course a magic number, and the immediate suggestion comes from the couplet in Sandys’s Ovid where Glaucus tells how the sea-gods admitted him to their fellowship,—

 

Whom now they hallow, and with charms nine times
Repeated, purge me from my human crimes.

 

The disentangling of the skein and the perceiving and deciphering of runes on the shell (10) which to Glaucus is a blank are evidently tests Endymion has to undergo before it is proved and confirmed that he is really the predestined poet, gifted to unravel and interpret mysteries beyond the ken of mere philosophy. The breaking of the philosopher’s wand against the lyre suspended from its pedestal, followed by an outburst of ravishing music, is a farther and not too obscure piece of symbolism shadowing forth the surrender and absorption of the powers of study and research into the higher powers of poetic intuition and inspiration. And then comes the general disenchantment and awakening of the drowned multitude to life and happiness.

The parable breaks off at this point, and the book closes with a submarine pageant imagined, it would seem, almost singly for the pageant’s sake; perhaps also partly in remembrance of Spenser’s festival of the sea-gods at the marriage of Thames and Medway in the fourth book of the Faerie Queene. The rejuvenated Glaucus bids the whole beautiful multitude follow him to pay their homage to Neptune: they obey: the first crowd of lovers restored to life meets a second crowd on the sand, and some in either crowd recognize and happily pair off with their lost ones in the other. All approach in procession the palace of Neptune—another marvel of vast and vague jewelled and translucent architectural splendours—and find the god presiding on an emerald throne between Venus and Cupid. Glaucus and Scylla receive the blessing of Neptune and Venus respectively, and Venus addresses Endymion in a speech of arch encouragement, where the poet’s style (as almost always in moments of his hero’s prosperous love) turns common and tasteless. Dance and revelry follow, and then a hymn to Neptune, Venus, and Cupid. This is interrupted by the entrance of Oceanus and a train of Nereids. The presence of all these immortals is too much for Endymion’s human senses: he swoons; a ring of Nereids lift and carry him tenderly away; he is aware of a message of hope and cheer from his goddess, written in starlight on the dark; and when he comes to himself, finds that he is restored to earth, lying on the grass beside a forest pool in his native Caria.

Book IV. In this book Endymion has to make his last discovery. He has to learn that all transient and secondary loves, which may seem to come between him and his great ideal pursuit and lure him away from it, are really, when the truth is known, but encouragements to that pursuit, visitations and condescensions to him of his celestial love in disguise. The narrative setting forth this discovery is pitched in a key which, following the triumphant close of the last book, seems curiously subdued and melancholy. An opening apostrophe by the poet to the Muse of his native land, long silent while Greece and Italy sang, but aroused in the fulness of time to happy utterance, begins joyously enough, but ends on no more confident note than this:—

Great Muse, thou know’st what prison
Of flesh and bone, curbs, and confines, and frets
Our spirit’s wings: despondency besets
Our pillows; and the fresh to-morrow morn
Seems to give forth its light in very scorn
Of our dull, uninspir’d, snail-paced lives.
Long have I said, how happy he who shrives
To thee! But then I thought on poets gone,
And could not pray:—nor could I now—so on
I move to the end in lowliness of heart.—

 

Keats then tells how his hero, paying his vows to the gods, is interrupted by the plaint of a forsaken Indian damsel which reaches him through the forest undergrowth. (Such a damsel lying back on the grass with her arms among her hair had dwelt, I think, in the poet’s mind’s eye from pictures by or prints after Poussin ever since hospital and early Hunt days, and had been haunting him when he scribbled his attempted scrap of an Alexander romance in a fellow student’s notebook). Endymion listens and approaches: the poet foresees and deplores the coming struggle between his hero’s celestial love and this earthly beauty disconsolate at his feet. The damsel, speaking to herself, laments her loneliness, and tells how she could find it in her heart to love this shepherd youth, and how love is lord of all. Endymion falls to pitying and from pitying into loving her. Though without sense of treachery to his divine mistress, he is torn by the contention within him between this new earthly and his former heavenly flame. He goes on to declare the struggle is killing him, and entreats the damsel to sing him a song of India to ease his passing. Her song, telling of her desolation before and after she was swept from home in the train of Bacchus and his rout and again since she fell out of the march, is, in spite of one or two unfortunate blemishes, among the most moving and original achievements of English lyric poetry. Endymion is wholly overcome, and in a speech of somewhat mawkish surrender gives himself to the new earthly love, not blindly, but realizing fully what he forfeits. He bids the damsel—

Do gently murder half my soul, and I
Shall feel the other half so utterly.

 

 

A cry of ‘Woe to Endymion!’ echoing through the forest has no sooner alarmed the lovers than there is a sudden apparition of Mercury descending. The gods intend for Endymion an unexpected issue from his perplexities. Their messenger touches the ground with his wand and vanishes: two raven-black winged horses rise through the ground where he has touched,—the horses, no doubt, of the imagination, the same or of the same breed as those ‘steeds with streamy manes’ that paw up against the light and trample along the ridges of the clouds in Sleep and Poetry. Endymion mounts the damsel on one and himself mounts the other: they are borne aloft together,

—unseen, alone,
Among cool clouds and winds, but that the free,
The buoyant life of song, can floating be
Above their heads, and follow them untired.

 

The poet, seeming to realize that the most difficult part of his tale is now to tell, again invokes the native Muse, and relates how the lovers, couched on the wings of the raven steeds, enter on their flight a zone of mists enfolding the couch of Sleep, who has been drawn from his cave by the rumour of the coming nuptials of a goddess with a mortal. The narrative is here very obscure, but seems to run thus. Alike the magic steed and the lovers reclining on their wings yield to the influence of sleep, but still drift on their aerial course. As they drift, Endymion dreams that he has been admitted to Olympus. In his dream he drinks of Hebe’s cup, tries the bow of Apollo and the shield of Pallas; blows a bugle which summons the Seasons and the Hours to a dance; asks whose bugle it is and learns that it is Diana’s; the next moment she is there in presence; he springs to his now recognized goddess, and in the act he awakes, and it is a case of Adam’s dream having come true; he is aware of Diana and the other celestials present bending over him. On the horse-plume couch beside him lies the Indian maiden: the conflict between his two loves is distractingly renewed within him, though some instinct again tells him that he is not really untrue to either. He embraces the Indian damsel as she sleeps; the goddess disappears; the damsel awakes; he pleads with her, says that his other love is free from all malice or revenge and that in his soul he feels true to both.

What is this soul then? Whence
Came it? It does not seem my own, and I
Have no self-passion nor identity.

This charge, be it noted, is one which Keats in his private thoughts was constantly apt to bring against himself. Foreseeing disaster and the danger of losing both his loves and being left solitary, Endymion nevertheless rouses the steeds to a renewed ascent. He and the damsel are borne towards the milky way, in a mystery of loving converse: the crescent moon appears from a cloud, facing them: Endymion turns to the damsel at his side and finds her gone gaunt and cold and ghostly: a moment more and she is not there at all but vanished: her horse parts company from his, towers, and falls to earth. He is left alone on his further ascent, abandoned for the moment by both the objects of his passion, the celestial and the human. His spirit enters into a region, or phase, of involved and brooding misery and thence into one of contented apathy: he is scarcely even startled, though his steed is, by a flight of celestial beings blowing trumpets and proclaiming a coming festival of Diana. In a choral song they invite the signs and constellations to the festival: (the picture of the Borghese Zodiac in Spence’sPolymetis has evidently given Keats his suggestion here). Then suddenly Endymion hears no more and is aware that his courser has in a moment swept him down to earth again.

He finds himself on a green hillside with the Indian maiden beside him, and in a long impassioned protestation renounces his past dreams, condemns his presumptuous neglect of human and earthly joys, and declares his intention to live alone with her for ever and (not forgetting to propitiate the Olympians) to shower upon her all the treasures of the pastoral earth:—

O I have been
Presumptuous against love, against the sky,
Against all elements, against the tie
Of mortals each to each, against the blooms
Of flowers, rush of rivers, and the tombs
Of heroes gone! Against his proper glory
Has my own soul conspired: so my story
Will I to children utter, and repent.
There never liv’d a mortal man, who bent
His appetite beyond his natural sphere,
But starv’d and died. My sweetest Indian, here,
Here will I kneel, for thou redeemed hast
My life from too thin breathing: gone and past
Are cloudy phantasms. Caverns lone, farewell!
And air of visions, and the monstrous swell
Of visionary seas! No, never more
Shall airy voices cheat me to the shore
Of tangled wonder, breathless and aghast.

 

Here Keats spins and puts into the mouth of Endymion wooing the Indian maiden a long, and in some at least of its verses exquisite, pastoral fantasia recalling, and no doubt partly founded on, the famous passage in Ovid, itself founded on one equally famous in Theocritus, where Polyphemus woos the nymph Galatea. (11) Apparently, though it was through sympathy with the human sorrow of the Indian damsel that Endymion has first been caught, he proposes to enjoy her society now in detachment from all other human ties as well as from all transcendental dreams and ambitions.

But the damsel is aware of matters which prevent her from falling in with her lover’s desires. She puts him off, saying that she has always loved him and longed and languished to be his, but that this joy is forbidden her, or can only be compassed by the present death of both (that is, to the mortal in love with the spirit of poetry and poetic beauty no life of mere human and earthly contentment is possible); and so she proposes to renounce him. Despondingly they wander off together into the forest.

The poet pauses for an apostrophe to Endymion, confusedly expressed, but vital to his whole meaning. His suffering hero, he says, had the tale allowed, should have been enthroned in felicity before now (the word is ‘ensky’d,’ from Measure for Measure). In truth he has been so enthroned for many thousand years (that is to say, the poetic spirit in man has been wedded in full communion to the essential soul of Beauty in the world): the poet, Keats himself, has had some help from him already, and with his farther help hopes ere long to sing of his ‘lute-voiced brother’: that is Apollo, to whom Endymion is called brother as being espoused to his sister Diana. This is the first intimation of Keats’s intention to write on the story of Hyperion’s fall and the advent of Apollo. But the present tale, signifies Keats, has not yet got to that point, and must now be resumed.

Endymion rests beside the damsel in a part of the forest where every tree and stream and slope might have reminded him of his boyish sports, but his downcast eyes fail to recognize them. Peona appears; he dreads their meeting, but without cause; interpreting things by their obvious appearance she sweetly welcomes the stranger as the bride her brother has brought home after his mysterious absence, and bids them both to a festival the shepherds are to hold tonight in honour of Cynthia, in whose aspect the soothsayers have read good omens. Still Endymion does not brighten; Peona asks the stranger why, and craves her help with him; Endymion with a great effort, ‘twanging his soul like a spiritual bow’, says that after all he has gone through he must not partake in the common and selfish pleasures of men, lest he should forfeit higher pleasures and render himself incapable of the services for which he has disciplined himself; that henceforth he must live as a hermit, visited by none but his sister Peona. To her care he at the same time commends the Indian lady: who consents to go with her, and remembering the approaching festival of Diana says she will take part in it and consecrate herself to that sisterhood and to chastity.

For a while they all three feel like people in sleep struggling with oppressive dreams and making believe to think them every-day experiences. Endymion tries to ease the strain by bidding them farewell. They go off dizzily, he stares distressfully after them and at last cries to them to meet him for a last time the same evening in the grove behind Diana’s temple. They disappear; he is left in sluggish desolation till sunset, when he goes to keep his tryst at the temple, musing first with bitterness, then with a resigned prescience of coming death (the mood of the Nightingale Ode appearing here in Keats’s work for the first time): then bitterly again:—

I did wed
Myself to things of light from infancy;
And thus to be cast out, thus lorn to die
Is sure enough to make a mortal man
Grow impious. So he inwardly began
On things for which no wording can be found;
Deeper and deeper sulking, until drown’d
Beyond the reach of music: for the choir
Of Cynthia he heard not, though rough briar
Nor muffling thicket interpos’d to dull
The vesper hymn, far swollen, soft and full,
Through the dark pillars of those sylvan aisles.
He saw not the two maidens, nor their smiles,
Wan as primroses gather’d at midnight
By chilly finger’d spring. ‘Unhappy wight!
Endymion!’ said Peona, ‘we are here!
What wouldst thou ere we all are laid on bier?’
Then he embrac’d her, and his lady’s hand
Press’d saying: ‘Sister, I would have command,
If it were heaven’s will, on our sad fate.’
At which that dark-eyed stranger stood elate
And said, in a new voice, but sweet as love,
To Endymion’s amaze: ‘By Cupid’s dove,
And so thou shalt! and by the lily truth
Of my own breast thou shalt, beloved youth!’
And as she spake, into her face there came
Light, as reflected from a silver flame:
Her long black hair swell’d ampler, in display
Full golden; in her eyes a brighter day
Dawn’d blue and full of love. Aye, he beheld
Phoebe, his passion!

 

And so the quest is ended, and the mystery solved. Vera incessu patuit dea: the forsaken Indian maiden had been but a disguised incarnation of Cynthia herself. Endymion’s earthly passion, born of human pity and desire, was one all the while, had he but known it, with his heavenly passion born of poetic aspiration and the soul’s thirst for Beauty. The two passions at their height and perfection are inseparable, and the crowned poet and the crowned lover are one. But these things are still a mystery to those who know not poetry, and when the happy lovers disappear the kind ministering sister Peona can only marvel:—

Peona went
Home through the gloomy wood in wonderment.

 

The poem ends on no such note of joy and triumph over the attained consummation as we might have expected and such as we found at the close of the third book, at the point where the faculty and vision of the poet had been happily enriched and completed by the gift of the learning and beneficence of the sage. The fourth book closes, as it began, in a minor key, leaving the reader, like Peona, in a mood rather musing than rejoicing. Is this because Keats had tired of his task before he came to the end, or because the low critical opinion of his own work which he had been gradually forming took the heart out of him, so that as he drew near the goal he involuntarily let his mind run on the hindrances and misgivings which beset the poetic aspirant on his way to victory more than on the victory itself? Or was it partly because of the numbing influence of early winter as recorded in the last chapter? We cannot tell.

But why take all this trouble, the reader may well have asked before now, to follow the argument and track the wanderings of Endymion book by book, when everyone knows that the poem is only admirable for its incidental beauties and is neither read nor well readable for its story? The answer is that the intricacy and obscurity of the narrative, taken merely as a narrative, are such as to tire the patience of many readers in their search for beautiful passages and to dull their enjoyment of them when found; but once the inner and symbolic meanings of the poem are recognized, even in gleams, their recognition gives it a quite new hold upon the attention. And in order to trace these meanings and disengage them with any clearness a fairly close examination and detailed argument are necessary. It is not with simple matters of personification, of the putting of initial capitals to abstract qualities, that we have to deal, nor yet with any obvious and deliberately thought-out allegory; still less is it with one purposely made riddling and obscure; it is with a vital, subtly involved and passionately tentative spiritual parable, the parable of the experiences of the poetic soul in man seeking communion with the spirit of essential Beauty in the world, invented and related, in the still uncertain dawn of his powers, by one of the finest natural-born and intuitively gifted poets who ever lived. This is a thing which stands almost alone in literature, and however imperfectly executed is worth any closeness and continuity of attention we can give it. Having now studied, to the best of our power, the sources and scheme of the poem, with its symbolism and inner meanings so far as they can with any confidence be traced, let us pass to the consideration of its technical and poetical qualities and its relation to the works of certain other poets and poems of Keats’s time.


(1) In the old Grecian world, the Endymion myth, or rather an Endymion myth, for like other myths it had divers forms, was rooted deeply in the popular traditions both of Elis in the Peloponnese, and of the Ionian cities about the Latmian gulf in Caria. The central feature of the Carian legend was the nightly descent of the moon-goddess Seléné to kiss her lover, the shepherd prince Endymion, where he lay spell-bound, by the grace of Zeus, in everlasting sleep and everlasting youth on Mount Latmos. This legend was early crystallized in a lyric poem of Sappho now lost, and thereafter became part of the common heritage of Greek and Roman popular mythology. The separate moon-goddess, Seléné for the Greeks and Luna for the Romans, got merged in course of time in the multiform divinities of the Greek Artemis and the Roman Diana respectively; so that in modern literatures derived from the Latin it is always of Diana (or what is the same thing, of Cynthia or Phoebe) that the tale is told. It is not given at length in any of our extant classical writings, but only by way of allusion in some of the poets, as Theocritus, Apollonius Rhodius, and Ovid, and in Cicero and some of the late Greek prose-writers, as Lucian, Apollodorus, and Pausanias. From these it passed at the Renaissance into the current European stock of classical imagery and reference.

(2) In another place, Browne makes Endymion shut out from the favour of Cynthia stand figuratively for Raleigh in disgrace with Elizabeth: just as in Lyly’s comedy the myth had been turned into an allegory of contemporary court intrigue, with Elizabeth for Cynthia, Leicester for Endymion, Tellus for Mary Queen of Scots, Eumenides for Sidney, and so forth.

(3) Endymion, iii. 196-209.

(4) Endymion, ii. 569-572 and 908-916.

(5) Metam. i. 26-31, Englished thus by Sandys:—

Forthwith upsprung the quick and weightless Fire,
Whose flames unto the highest Arch aspire:
The next, in levity and peace, is Air:
Gross elements to thicker Earth repair
Self-clogg’d with weight: the Waters flowing round
Possess the last, and solid Tellus bound.

 

(6) Keats was more widely read in out-of-the-way French literature than could have been expected from his opportunities, and there are passages in Endymion which run closely parallel to Gombauld’s romance, notably the first apparition of Cynthia, with the description of her hair (End. i, 605-618), and the account of the sudden distaste which afterwards seizes him for former pleasures and companions. But these may be mere coincidences, and the whole series of the hero’s subsequent adventures according to Gombauld, his dream-flight to the Caspian under the spell of the Thessalian enchantress Ismene, and all the weird things that befall him there, are entirely unlike anything that happens in Keats’s poem.

(7) The authority for this story is the late Sir B. W. Richardson, professing to quote verbatim as follows from Mr Stephens’ own statement to him in conversation.

‘One evening in the twilight, the two students sitting together, Stephens at his medical studies, Keats at his dreaming, Keats breaks out to Stephens that he has composed a new line:—

A thing of beauty is a constant joy.

“What think you of that, Stephens?” “It has the true ring, but is wanting in some way,” replies the latter, as he dips once more into his medical studies. An interval of silence, and again the poet:—

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

 

“What think you of that, Stephens?” “That it will live for ever.”’

The conversation as thus related at second hand reads certainly as though it had been more or less dressed up for effect, but we cannot suppose the circumstance to have been wholly invented. A careful reading of the first twenty-four lines of Endymion will show that they have close affinities with much both in Sleep and Poetry and ‘I stood tip-toe’ in thought as well as style, and especially in their manner of bringing together, by reason of the common property of beauty, things otherwise so unlike as the cloak of weeds which rivulets are conceived as making to keep themselves cool in summertime (compare ‘I stood tip-toe’ II. 80-84) musk-roses in a woodland brake (compare Sleep and Poetry I. 5), the life of great spirits after death, and beautiful stories in general. My own inference is that Keats, having written these two dozen lines some time in 1816, used them the next spring as a suitable exordium for Endymion, and added the following lines, 25-33, as a (somewhat clumsy) transition to the actual beginning of the poem ‘Therefore with full happiness,’ etc., as written at Carisbrooke.

(8) There is a certain, though slight enough, resemblance between some of these underground incidents and those which happen in a romance of travel, which Keats may very well have read, the Voyage d’Anténor, then popular both in France and in an English translation. Anténor is permitted by the Egyptian priests to pass through the triple ordeal by fire, water, and air contrived by them in the vast subterranean vaults under the temple of Osiris. The points of most resemblance are the suspended guiding light seen from within the entrance, the rushing of the water streams, and the ascent by a path between balustrades. The Voyage d’Anténor was itself founded on an earlier and much rarer French romance, Sethos, and both were freely and avowedly imitated by Thomas Moore in his prose tale, the Epicurean (1827). Mr Robert Bridges has noticed a point in common between Endymion and the Epicurean in the sudden breaking off or crumbling away of the balustrade under the wayfarer’s feet. This does not occur in Sethos or Anténor, and was probably borrowed by Moore from Keats.

(9) How familiar, both with the text and the translator’s commentary, is proved by his adopting as his own, almost literally, a phrase which Sandys brings in by way of illustrative comment from the Imagines (a description of an imaginary picture-gallery) of Philostratus. Philostratus, coming to a picture of Glaucus, tells how the painter had given him ‘thick and arched eyebrows which touched one another.’ Keats writes,—

his snow-white brows
Went arching up, and like two magic ploughs
Furrowed deep wrinkles in his forehead large.

 

 

It was the look and expression of Keats in reciting this same phrase, the reader will remember, which so struck Bailey that he found himself vividly recalling it thirty years later (see above, p. 144).

(10) Mr Mackail sees in this shell and its secret characters a reminiscence of the mystic shell, which is also a book, carried in the right hand of the sheikh who is also Don Quixote in the dream narrated by Wordsworth in the third book of The Prelude. I owe so very much of the interpretation above attempted to Mr Mackail that I am bound to record his opinion: but as I shall show later (p. 251), it is scarcely possible that any passages from The Prelude should have come to Keats’s knowledge until after Endymion was finished.

(11) Ovid, Metam. xiii, 810-840; Theocr. Idyll. xi, 30 sqq.

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