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

IV. Keats

§ 4. Hyperion

And Wordsworth helped to draw him nearer to one whose poetry provided a yet sterner discipline for the effeminate elements of his genius. In Milton, he recognised a poet who “with an exquisite passion for poetic luxury, had yet preferred the ardours to the pleasures of song.” It was under these conditions and in this temper that he prepared to carry out the intention expressed in the preface to Endymion. Six months after the completion of Endymion, Hyperion was begun. It was a giant step forward, which neither the intimate study of Milton nor his first experience, on the Highland tour, of grand scenery, of mountain glory and gloom, or of the relics of fallen faiths (like the druid cirque at Keswick), makes less wonderful. In the story of Hyperion, he found a theme equal in its capacity for epic grandeur to that of Paradise Lost, and, with apparent ease, he rose to its demands, as if Milton had merely liberated a native instinct of greatness from the lure of inferior poetic modes. Endymion was a tissue of adventures, the romantic history of a soul; in Hyperion, we watch a conflict of world-powers, the passing of an old order and the coming of a new, the ruin and triumph of gods. The indecisive dreamy composition gives place to a noble architectonic. Keats was not at all points at a disadvantage in his bold rivalry with Milton. If he could not bring the undefinable weight of experience, of prolonged and passionate participation in great and memorable events, which is impressed on every line of Paradise Lost, his austerest restraint is touched with the freshness and entrain of young genius. If he has less than Milton’s energy, he has more than his magic; if he has less of dramatic passion and movement, he has more of sculpturesque repose. It is here, however, that the doubt arises whether the magnificent torso could have been completed on an epic scale. Milton’s theology introduced a conflict of purpose into his epic which is never overcome; but it secured to the vanquished fiends a cause and a triumph; they move us by their heroic resolve as well as by their suffering. Keats’s “theology” was the faith proper to a devotee of the principle of beauty in all things, “that first in beauty shall be first in might”; but this law, recognised and proclaimed by the defeated Titans themselves, makes any enterprise like Satan’s not merely unnecessary to the scheme of things, but in flagrant contradiction with it. The ruined Titans are inferior not only in nobility, but in strength and spirit. The pathos of a hopelessly and finally lost cause broods from the first over the scene; the contrast between the passionate recovery of the still mighty archangel from his fall, and the slow, sad awakening of aged Saturn, is typical. Satan’s defiance is more poetic and so, in the deeper sense, more beautiful, than the sad resignation of Adam and Eve; but, in Keats, it is sorrow, not hate, that is “more beautiful than beauty’s self.”

Hyperion, incomplete, perhaps inevitably incomplete, as it is, remains the greatest achievement of Keats in poetry. Yet, its want of root in his intimate experience compels us to class it among the sublime tours de force, not among the supreme poems, of the world. And the effort to be Miltonic, even in his own way, finally grew oppressive. If Milton liberated, he also constrained, and Keats, in the later parts of the fragment, is often himself in a way that is un-Miltonic. After the close of 1818, Hyperion was only fitfully pursued; in September, 1819, he writes that he has definitively given it up. Two months later, however, he had new plans with it. During November and December, he was “deeply engaged,” records Brown, “in remodelling the fragment of Hyperion into the form of a vision.” Though The Fall of Hyperion betrays the impending failure of his powers, it is of surpassing interest as an index to the ways of his mind. There is little doubt that, from Milton, he had passed, during 1819, to a renewed study of Dante (in Cary’s translation). In the pregnant symbolism of The Divine Comedy, he found a mode of expressing ideas more akin to his own than Milton’s austere grandeur. Dante’s gradual purification, also, in Purgatory, by pain, answered to his own youthful conception (in Sleep and Poetry) of a progress, through successive illusions, towards the true state of the poet. And, as Dante has to climb the mountain and pass through the fire before he can receive the vision of Beatrice, so Keats represents himself as passing successively through the indolent romance of the dreamer, the “garden” and the “temple,” up to the “shrine” where the poet, taught, at length, to grapple directly with experience, endures the fiery proof of those

  • to whom the miseries of the world
  • Are miseries, and will not let them rest.
  • Only thus may he receive the vision of the meaning of beauty disclosed in the story of Hyperion, now, at length, retold. Moneta, the Beatrice of this vision, is, however, no radiant daughter of heaven, but a “forlorn divinity,” the “pale Omega of a wither’d race,” though, also, as the fostress of Apollo, the “Alpha” of a new. Thus, insistently, did Keats, with symbol and image, press home the thought that beauty, the ideal, can only be won through pain, and that poetry is incomplete if it evade and leave unexpressed “the agonies, the strife of human hearts.” Though The Fall does not approach Hyperion in sustained splendour, and diverges from it in the passages common to both, mostly for the worse, yet, it contains some lines which he never surpassed; and his attempt to charge the myth with a richer and deeper import, unskilful as it was, justifies the surmise that, had his powers not failed, he might have given to England a poem more nearly comparable than any other with Goethe’s Faust.