Keats, a contemporary of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, is one of the 19th century romantic poets who dealt with the themes of beauty, nature, love, death, pain and fancy. He was inspired by Shakespeare and the classics and his poems contained a melancholy and sadness as a result of his tuberculosis and impending death. Keats deals with sadness but also infuses the elements of nature and beauty to his poems making it haunting and endearing at the same time. His poem Endymion is one such work which combines most of the themes he is known for.
Endymion is one of Keats’ long narrative poem written in iambic pentameter and also contains rhyming couplets. Keats’ intention of writing Endymion was not just to retell a classic Greek tale but to find himself as a poet and an attempt to fuse himself with the numerous creations of nature. Even though there is mortality and allusions to death in the poem, the poem is not dark, but rather a celebration of nature, its beauty and the poet’s desire to be one with it. Nature and its many components transcend the harsh realities of this world. In talking about Endymion’s love for Cynthia, Keats pours out his heart, his love not only for his beloved but for nature as well. The poem is more intricate and deeper than the pantheism so often found in the work of Wordsworth. The poem also uses the technique of enjambment,
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and asleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing (Keats 1-5).”
In the above lines, the first and the last line have a punctuation mark, an ending whereas the middle lines seem to go on seamlessly. Keats uses this technique in his poem to switch from one thought to another and expresses his multiple thoughts on the same topic- beauty. He tells the reader of the transcendence of beauty without pause.
Keats uses a lot of allegory in his poem and critics like Sir Colvin have long argues that the use of allegories by Keats in the poem was an attempt by him for an union with the ideal of beauty. Sir Colvin says that, " The essence of Keats's task is to set forth the craving of the poet for full communion with the essential spirit of Beauty in the world, and the discipline by which he is led, through the exercise of the active human sympathies and the toilsome acquisition of knowledge, to the prosperous and beatific achievement of his quest (Colvin 2004)." However it should also be noted that the poem was also open to a lot of criticism, mainly over its use of excessive and irrelevant rhyming. In Book III of the poem, unpen is used in the lines not for any poetic effect but for the sole purpose of rhyming with men.
“There are who lord it o’er their fellow-men
With most prevailing tinsel: who unpen
Their baaing vanities, to browse away
The comfortable green and juicy hay (Keats, Book III)”
Even though Keats was criticized for the irrelevant use of rhyming that made the poem long and meandering without no cause, it could also be said it was a reflection of him treating language as free and fluid. By taking poetic license with the words he uses in the poems he was also harking back to a previous era and breaking with traditions about how a poem should be written during his time.
The major theme running throughout the poem is melancholy. Although it is about the love endymion has for Cynthia, it is also a love that is unattainable. Endymion knows this and yet tries to get it. This realization that he has to go in search for his love and that he would be unable to get it is the source of the narrator’s melancholy. Endymion travels through the depths of the sea, earth and the air to seek his love. Keats equates the narrator’s love with a constant search for enlightenment. He physically embodies this quest by using the recurrent symbols of the moon and the sun throughout the poem. By fusing romantic love, the ideal of the beauty, creative imagination and the quest for the self, Keats brings in the different elements of romanticism. Although the style of the poem is more miltonic than that of the works of his counterparts, the themes are in tune with the romanticism of his period. The longing for an ideal past is also a recurrent theme in the romantic era and this can be seen in Endymion as well. Keats uses the allegory of Eden, the epitome of lost beauty.
Thus endymion, one of the epic poems of Keats encapsulates within itself the major themes that run through most of Keats’ work as well as the themes of romanticism. Keats uses different techniques throughout the poem to make the reader understand that his version of Endymion is more than just a retelling of the classic tale or a legend (Notcutt 2010). It is rather more about him as a poet trying to find an oneness with the beauty. Beauty or the ideal of the beauty is not dependant on any object. Rather he treats it subjectively, the ideal beauty remaining forever and bringing the person more joy as life progresses. Although much criticized, endymion is a brilliant work of Keats, something that was close to his heart even though he tired of it after finishing it.
Colvin, Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-Fame. New York: University Press of the Pacific. 2004.
Keats, John. Endymion. Bartleby. n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.
Notcutt. H. Clement. An Interpretation of Keats's Endymion. Johannesburg: Nabu Press. 2010.