The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IV. Keats

§ 2. Endymion

Endymion, the work of the twelve months from April, 1817, to April, 1818, has the invertebrate structure, the insecure style, the weakness in narrative and the luxuriance of colour and music, natural to one who still lived more in sensation than in thought; but, also, the enchanted atmosphere and scenery, and the sudden reaches of vision, possible only to one whose senses were irradiated by imagination, and “half created,” “half perceived.” “Poetry must surprise by a fine excess,” was a later dictum of Keats, justified by some of his finest work. At present, he spends his wealth wantonly, careless of the economies and reticences of great art. Yet, there are strokes of magic which no artistry could achieve, and many lines and phrases which help us to understand how, from the effeminate sentiment, was evolved the tender delicacy of The Eve of St. Agnes, and, from the riot of luxurious fancy, the noble and ordered opulence of the Autumn ode. Of such is the wonderful picture of the wave

  • Down whose green back the short-liv’d foam, all hoar,
  • Bursts gradual, with a wayward indolence.
  • The story of Endymion and the moon, as retold by the Elizabethans, had early captivated Keats’s imagination: the loveliness of the moon-lit world—even in a London suburb—had become a kind of symbol for all beauty, and he himself a new Endymion, the implicit hero of the story he told; and, by the same symbolism, a lover of all loveliness, so that nothing in the universe of real or imagined beauty was irrelevant to his quest. Hence, we pass easily to and fro from this to other legends not otherwise akin—Cybele, Glaucus and Scylla, Arethusa. Neither his grip upon his subject nor his technical mastery yet avail to make these felt otherwise than as digressions. On the other hand, the Hymn to Pan (book I), and the roundelay of Bacchus (O Sorrow) (book IV), where the dreamy pacing of the verse gathers into lyric concentration and intensity, mark the highest reach of the whole poem.

    In the brief, manly preface to Endymion—its sufficing comment—Keats told his critics that he recognised in it

  • a feverish attempt rather than a deed accomplished.… It is just that this youngster should die away; a sad thought for me, if I had not some hope that while it is dwindling I may be plotting, and fitting myself for verses fit to live.
  • In particular, he dreamed of trying once more to touch, “before I bid it farewell,” the “beautiful mythology of Greece.”

    Before Endymion was complete, he had planned with his friend Reynolds a volume of tales from Boccaccio. Keats chose the fifth story of the fourth day of The Decameron, that of Lisobeta and the pot of basil. It was, no doubt, an advantage for the author of Endymion to work upon a story which, with many openings for romantic and visionary imagination, was yet, in substance, close-knit and coherent. Its setting in the business world of an Italian city was less favourable to his art, and, throughout the first half of the tale, Keats is not completely at ease. But the romance owes to him almost all its delicate beauty. Boccaccio’s lovers give some pretext to the brothers’ violence; Isabel and Lorenzo are the innocent victims of a sordid crime, the memory of which comes back upon the perpetrators like the smoke of Hinnom. But it is after Lorenzo’s murder that the poetic transformation of the romance is most complete. The apparition in Boccaccio is a conventional ghostscene; Keats imagines the shadowy life of the murdered man in his forest-grave, slowly growing one with the earth and strange to mortal things, but quickened anew in the presence of Isabel. The great scene in the forest is told with an impassioned calm like that of Isabel herself, as she presses towards “the kernel of the grave.” Boccaccio had evaded the ghostlier suggestions of the scene by making the body miraculously intact. Keats does not evade them; but he ennobles what he will not conceal, and compels us to see not the wormy circumstance but “Love impersonate, cold—dead indeed, but not dethroned.”