Hellenism of John Keats in Hyperion

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The Greek fascination for Keats

      The remark of Shelley that Keats was a Greek has its own meaning. In Hyperion, we have instances of Keats’s Hellenism. What had chiefly fascinated Keats in Greek was its mythology and romance. There was in Keats the newest sense and enjoyment of beauty and this gave him a fellow feeling with the Greek master minds. He recognized in them the most perfect representation of the beautiful. Keats imbibed his Hellenic spirit through Greek literature and sculpture and above all through his inherent tendency. The majesty and the calm grandeur of Hyperion, its symmetry and simplicity, its economy and ornamentation and subordination of parts to the whole speak of the tremendous influence that Greek literature and sculpture had on the mind of Keats. Equally notable are Keats’s expression of truth informs essentially beautiful, the spontaneous unquestioning delight in the life of nature and its incarnation informs human, for the freshness and vitality with which Keats depicts them in Hyperion. Not only did Keats personify everything in life, even the division of time like hours and minutes, in the perfect Hellenic manner and employ the use of Homeric similes, but also did he create an atmosphere charged with the Hellenic spirit throughout the poem. The very theme of the poem is Hellenic.

      Finally, let us sound a word of warning about Keats’s Hellenism lest it should be played up. His acquaintance with the Greek masters was not first hand, but through translators. Neither did he know, nor did he ever care to know anything about Greek history or civilization. The world of Plato and the world of Pericles were closed to Keats. He was fascinated only by legend and mythology and by what he knew about the Greek plastic art. The legends of the medieval age had equally fascinated him and they had conjured up imageries before his mind in the same manner as the Greek legends had done. So we must not exaggerate the influence that Greek literature and sculpture had on the mind of Keats. He was too great a poet to be overshadowed by any single influence. He imbibed various influences, accumulated them well in the store of his poetic talent and finally gave them his own form and expression so that in the long run all the various influences carry with them the unifying force of Keats’s poetic genius.

A Greek and no Greek

      As a boy in the Enfield school, Keats had yielded to the fascination of Greek legends. It was a fascination that he could never shake himself free of. What was common to the genius of Keats and the soul and form of those legends? He had the same delight as the Greek had in sensuous beauty the same disposition to see in the manifold forms of nature a spirit at work akin to the human, the same urge to incarnate those forms of the sun, the moon, the clouds, waves, flowers and seasons, sunrise and sunset, dawn and night— “in forms human, but of more than human loveliness”. He might thus have lived in that far antiquity when the myths sprang up from the poetic heart of the world, clothed in the living light of wonder, with all the enthralling race of human form that a beauty-loving race dreamed of. That was why he turned to Greek legends for inspiration when he bethought himself of themes for the three poems Endymion, Hyperion and Lamia—in which he sought to embody “fully his inner experience and his poetic ideals”.

      If by nature, Keats approached the Greek spirit, he did so partly by culture too. Under the influence of his friend, Haydon, he addressed himself to the study of the Elgin marbles and grasped the principles that directed the technique of the Greek sculptor, clear, definite outline, economy of means, harmony in construction, the accuracy of detail. The development of Keats’s art is a growth of this power of achieving a purer outline, a finer sense of form, and unity of design. In his great Odes we see these qualities pre-eminently not standing by themselves, but combining with the romantic qualities of mystery, strangeness, and subjective coloring and resulting in work of art that are at once classical and romantic standing midway between Endymion and the Odes. Hyperion is the most classical of Keats’ poems classical in its restraint, in its lucidity of outline and dignified march of narrative. There are passages in the first and second books that bear unmistakable evidence of Keats’s study of sculpture. The figures of the Naiad who

‘Mid her reeds
Pressed her cold finger closer to her lips’

      and of Saturn

Upon the sodden ground
His old right hand lay neweless, listless, dead,
Unsceptred; and his realmless eyes were closed;
While his bow’d head seeme’d list’ning to the Earth,
His ancient mother, for some, for some comfort yet.

have been rightly cited as “examples of concentrating an emotion into a supreme moment and presenting it in pure outline against the sky, with the calm dignity and the sublime grace which is the supreme triumph of the sculptor’s art”. We have the same statuesque effect in the lines describing Saturn and Thea

Postured motionless,
Like natural sculpture in cathedral cavern
The frozen God still couchant on the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet:

      The same clearcut chiselling is evident in the grouping and description of the Titans at the opening of Book II. It must be granted, however, that the influence of a static art has impaired the dynamic quality of the poem.

      Shelley’s ejaculated praise of Keats, ‘He was a Greek’! is famous. We have seen in what sense this is true. Keats recaptured more completely than Shelley of Wordsworth “the intense humanizing vis on of nature of which the primeval myth was born” He strove after the Greek sense of form and definiteness of outline and the study of Greek sculpture has left its imprint on his mature art, particularly in Hyperion.

      But it is equally true that the over mastering elements in Keats’s genius were romantic, and far away from the Greek spirit. His poetry is largely subjective, his imagination found itself at home in the world of mystery and enchantment. Hyperion is inlaid with lines charged with the wonder, strangeness and dream quality that are of the very essence of romanticism; with lines breathing the magic of nature. The simile of the green rob’d senators of mighty woods, dreaming all night without a stir, branch charmed by the earnest stars, aims at giving expression to the sense of a mystic communion between earth and sky. From the same alembic of romanticism we have: the lines about sorrow being rendered more beautiful than Beauty’s self; all ‘those acts which Deity supreme Doth ease its heart of love in’ the 'omens drcar' that 'perplexed' Hyperion; the old spirit leaved book which Starry Uranus saved from the shores of darkness; Glmene’s description of the enchantment on the shifting w’ind, doves with music wing’d instead of silent plumes; the timorous brook fearing to meet the sea and shuddering at the meeting; the hoar locks of Saturn shining like bubbling foam about a Keel when the prow sweeps into a midinight cave; sad spaces of oblivion and tormented streams; Apollo’s lyre, all golden, whose strings touched by his fingers,

all the vast
Unwearied ear of the whole universe
Listen’d in pain and pleasure at the birth
Of such new tuneful wonder;

      his yearning to make the silvery splendor of one particular beauteous star pant with bliss; and his apotheosis at the close, when with “fierce convulse he dies into life?”

      In discussing the classical inspiration in Keats’s poetry we must remember that his poetry of Greek legends did not spring from a first-hand knowledge of Greek literature, but from the inspiration of Elizabethan poets of Chapman, Lyly, Fletcher, Drayton, Spenser and George Sandys. The ancient fables wooed him not in their own garb but in “the sumptuous bravery” of rich Elizabethan attire. To the Elizabethans “the world of ancient mythology, which had just dawned on their horizon, seemed but an extension of their own kingdom”. Their vivid imagination”, observes Dr. de Selincourt, ‘‘absorbed its beauty and found in it a wealth of material by which to illustrate and, to interpret their own most deeply felt emotions, so that it became for all its apparent aloofness, only another means of passionate self-expression. For them the distinctions of classic and romantic, and distinctions of schools would appear at their best a meaningless piece of pedantry, and at their worst a denial of what was to them a vital truth—the essential unity of human feeling and human experience wherever and whenever it is to be found. And so it is for Keats”.

      The style of Hyperion shows a sinewy compactness as the style Edymion does not. This change in style does not represent a conscious switch-over from the romantic to the classical spirit. It is a Consequence of the supersession of Spenser by Milton. It is not from Greek poets but from Milton that he learned his first great lesson in economy, the rejection of all surplusage. “The example of Milton gave just the necessary curb to the faults natural to a poet of Keats’s temperament and he gained a strength and dignity, something, as Hunt remarked:

Of the large utterance of the early gods,
for which Endymion may be searched in vain”.

      On the other side of the question there is truth in the observation that Keats, who saw the Greek world through Elizabethan glasses saw it truly; that if the Greek touch is not his, he penetrated “with a sure insight into the vital meaning of Greek ideas’’, though they re-emerged from him with the glamour of romance.

      In discussing the Greek elements in Hyperion we may remember that we have in it a great deal of Keats’s own invention, besides his ‘philosophy’; and that he mixes up Latin conceptions and nomenclature with Greek.

Keats’s fascination for Greek mythology in “Hyperion”

      Keats knew no Greek, and his classical attainments extended no further than the Aneied; and yet it is sober truth to say, that the contemplation of the ancient myths filled him with the same creative rapture as they did the Greek in the twilight of history when he clothed the wonders of Natural phenomena with human forms and character and made them the dramatic personae on a cosmic stage. Romantic in every fiber of his being, Keats was also in a sense what Shelley called him—‘a Greek of Greeks’. In one of his early poems, I Stood Tiptoe, by a sort of empathy he becomes for the moment the nameless poets of Hellas’s imaginative dawn, those who first told the tales of Cupid and Psyche, of Narcissus add Echo, of Cynthia and Endymion—which last evokes the yearning:

O for the words of honey, that might
Tell but one wonder of thy bridal night.

      Not in a ‘creed outworn’ was Keats suckled, but in one that throbbed with the life-blood of his own mind.

      “He realized instinctively,” as Dr. de Selincourt says, “the spirit in which the legends had taken their rise, and by that same artistic sense which led the Greek to incarnate in human form the spirit recognized by his religion in the beauty and the power about him, Keats made it his own.” To Keats, a mythological simile was also in very spirit, a simile from nature; while the phenomena of nature stood for him as symbols of human emotions. The flower lifting its head at Apollo’s touch was to him symbolical of the revival of dropping hearts and withered frames through the sovereign power of Beauty and Love. Cynthia, described in Endymion as pale-cheeked, shedding a wan loveliness on “Neptune’s blue’—with “a stress of love-spangles”

Dancing upon the waves, as if to please
The curly foam with amorous influence

      Is something more than the shimmer of pale moonlight on the sea: it images the power of love on the dusky face of life; and “the yearning of human passion”. It is the same mythologizing imagination that makes the poet in his ode To Autumn incarnate the spirit of autumn in ‘the figures of the reaper, the gleaner, the maiden at the cider-press.’ We see the suffusion of nature with human emotion in. his last great sonnet of his, wherein he speaks of the star in lone splendor watching with eternal lids apart

Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite
The moving waters at their priest-like task
Of pure ablution round’s earth’s human shores,

      Keats contemplated the powers of Nature with something akin to the unsophisticated imagination of the Aryan mind standing at gaze before her inexhaustible witchery of loveliness, her endless surprises of mood.

      But, if in a sense he was a Greek, he was by study and instinct the foster-child of Elizabethan poets, whose spirit had a fresh lease of life in him. As with Spenser and his followers, so with Keats myth and romance were alive with allegoric significance. Thus the tale of Endymion became in his hands a parable of the indissoluble union of Love and Beauty, and of “the adventures of the poetic soul after full communion with the spirit of essential beauty”

      These facts must bear closely on our appraisement of Hyperion.

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