Hyperion as an Epic by John Keats

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What is an epic?

      Before we sit down to discuss Keats’s Hyperion as an epic, let us see for a while as to what an epic itself is. An epic is a narrative poem, organic in structure, dealing with great actions and real characters, in a style commensurate with the lordliness of its theme, which tends to idealize these characters and actions and to sustain and embellish its subject by means of episode and amplification.

Keats’s failure

      Judging Keats’s Hyperion on the standards of the above written definition of an epic, we cannot but be objective and harsh enough to say that Keats’s poem fails to stand the least entirely. His poem is in very bad need of great action and great characters though its theme is lordly, and style elevated. In fact, before Keats, Milton had written such a beautiful epic that Paradise Lost became a touchstone for a study and analysis of the later epic poems. Milton’s tremendous success in Paradise Lost had filled the minds of the succeeding poets with an obsession that they must write a long narrative poem if they wanted to be remembered well by the posterity of readers. Keeping this in view Alexander Pope’s, The Rape of the Lock and Dryden’s Absolom and Achitophel, these poems met with success because they were moderate in length. Keats did not become successful because he had planned to write a full-fledged epic with twelve books and unfortunately he could not complete even three of them.

Want of great action

      Keats’s Hyperion does not have any great action. Whereas the fallen angels of Milton are the uncompromising enemies of God and are prepared to undergo any eventuality to avenge their defeat, Keats’s fallen gods show their complete submission to the defeat and it is only for a moment that their dead spirits are awakened at the idea of a revolt, under the banner of Hyperion, (the idea being put across by Enceladus). Just at that moment, a virtually shaken Hyperion appears on the scene and the fallen gods are again as fallen and as passive as ever. In direct contrast to this, the fallen angels of Milton have taken a vow that it is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. Even after their fall, they are not prepared to accept the superiority and supremacy of God. Keats’s fallen gods are more than convinced by the idea put forward by Oceanus that the race which has succeeded them is definitely much more superior to the race that it has dethroned. So, the question of taking up a revolt becomes out of place.

Want of great characters

      Since Keats’s poem lacks great action, consequently it fails to attach greatness to its characters, because characters can become great only by virtue of the action that is ascribed or attributed to them. Keats’s characters, being superhuman are big and huge in size and stature but Keats has not been able to proportion their physical greatness with character—greatness as such, and this marks, the poem with still another lacuna.

Style of the poem, in epic touch

      We have talked at length about what is missing in the poem of Keats, but this must not make us prejudiced against its those qualities which have more than compensated the loss. Having learned a lot from the qualities of Mil ton’s style, Keats made his poem, equally rich in expression. Keats has made an occasional use of Milton’s inversion. He has elevated the language of the poem to Miltonic heights. He has used every word with restraint and not a thread is loose. The rhythm is stately. We find in the poem lucidity of outline and dignified march of narrative. The figures of Naiad and Saturn have been portrayed as if in a sculptor’s art. The council of the fallen Titans has echoes of the assembly of Milton’s fallen angels. Keats’s. Enceladus reminds us of Milton’s Moloch recommending open war to the fallen angels and again Oceanus, like Belial makes an attempt to cool the Titans down. The description of Hyperion’s palace is in the right epic tradition: “Glared a blood red through all its thousand courts”.

Hyperion: its individual character

      Apart from these similarities of Hyperion with Milton’s epic, Keats’s poem has an added beauty of its own and that is its lyrical quality. No doubt introducing an element of lyric in a poem that is expected to be a pure epic does not do favor to the poem when it is vested on epic standards but one must not forget that Keats’s poetic genius vas primarily lyrical. He himself admits that his, Muse is weak at singing war or heroic poetry:

“thou art weak to sing such tumults dire”

      So Keats takes lip Apollo as “Once more the golden theme”, and in fact Keats is narrating the history of his own soul while talking of Apollo and Keats does it excellently. The third book of Hyperion has a charm of its own. There is a whole panorama of flowers giving a sweet fragrance. We share with Apollo his experience that gives him “knowledge enormous” and “makes a God of me’’. Thus we see that Keats again comes on the top while displaying his natural talent. In fact, the irony with Keats is that he is too great a writer of lyrical poetry, especially of Odes, and it is a natural tendency of the critics to look at the entire work of a writer from the general standard of his writing. Keats is more than marvelous in his Odes, therefore, we expect him to be equally good in epic poetry also, Might be, if Hyperion had been written by a lesser poet, it would not have been considered as big a failure as we consider it now when Keats has written it, but as we have already examined in our analysis of the poem, we shall like to re-emphasize the fact that with all its drawbacks Hyperion is a lovable poem. It lacks a few ingredients of epic poetry but it does not Jack all of them. Even without the God-gifted organ voice of Milton, Keats’s poem will continue to yield pleasure to its readers.

An Epic Fragments?—An Evaluation

      Hyperion, then is a fragment of heroic narrative, dealing with a mythological theme and embodying an allegorical significance. The sustained elevation of style invests it with an epic quality. The gigantic figures that spring up before our field of vision like specters of Brocken are on the scale of nature’s vast stage, and suggest an epic stateliness. How far do these elements entitle us to call the poem an epic fragment? Has it the essential feature of an epic poem? How do we recognize an epic? We may define it with Macneile Dixon as “a narrative poem, organic in structure dealing with great actions and great characters, in a style commensurate with the lordliness of its theme, which tends to idealize its subject by means of episode and amplification.’’ The Epic has a lordly style because it has a lordly theme—“great action’’ with an organic structure, that is, action which, as Aristotle said, should be single, great and complete, with a beginning, middle and an end. The greatness of the characters follows from the fact that they play their part in great action—action started by a momentous cause, involving the fortunes of many, and leading to far-reaching results. The episodes should all be subordinate to this action or plot. Such an action is the live wire of on epic.

      Now, what is the action in Hyperion? The fallen Titans are in as prostrate a plight as Milton’s fallen angels; while these rally at Satan’s exposition of a hopeful plan of campaign, the Titans, with the solitary exception of Enceladus, are in the grip of a despondency too strong for them to throw off. Saturn, Beelzebub and Moloch have the fighting spirit that promises conflict. The attitude of the Titans is not very different from pure defeatism: they are made to realize by their sagest counseled Oceanus, that wisdom consists in submitting to the altered condition in a spirit of philosophic resignation to the eternal Law of the Universe. The central idea of Hyperion is the unwisdom of revolting against it. The best way to help themselves and the world’s progress is to welcome the lot of being scrapped and lid on the shelf, making room for a better race. Clymene underlines and drives home her father’s exhortation by citing an experience. When the ravishing strains of Apollo’s lyre are heard it is time to fling a side the primitive sea shell: She is also for showing a clean pair of heels from the battlefield: Thus apart from the fact that “the story plunges not even in the middle, but near the close,” the very ‘philosophy’ of the poem cuts off the chance of a conflict or action. The story is strangled by its philosophy. By the very law that “on our heels a fresh perfection trends”. Hyperion was foredoomed to fail. Against that law, he has not the ghost of a chance. Under the very conditions of the initial situation, there cannot be any development of events. We need not hold our breath for what may follow. This ‘magnificent torso’ could never have been completed up an epic scale. We may for clearness re-state the thesis in Professor Herford’s words:

      “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 recognized 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 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 mightly archangel from his fall, and the slow, sad awakening of aged Saturn, is typical In other words, the poem starts with a moral that is uncongenial to the animating spirit of an epic and epic action.

      To complete the story he might have made Hyperion join forces with Enceladus, and roused his comrades to fresh struggle. But he has burnt his boats by depicting Hyperion as already tainted, by mortality:

Divine ye were created, and divine
In sad demeanor, solemn, undisturb’d,
Unruffled, like high Gods, ye liv’d and ruled:
Now I behold in you fear, hope, and wrath:
Actions of range and passion; even as
I see them, on the mortal world beneath.
In men who die.

      In order words, symptoms of the coming death are on him already. And yet, he is exhorted to “seize the arrow’s barb before the tense string murmur’’ Enters now Apollo, not like a hero, but ‘weeping and raving’.

      The lack of action in the poem altogether takes away from its epic quality. As Bridges say?, “the subject lacks the solid basis of outward event by which epic maintains its interest; there is little but imagination, and a one-sidedness or incompleteness of that; a languor which, though it has how generally left the language, lingers in the main design.’’ No question arises now as to whether the action is “single, great and complete”. The crucial feature of an epic, its differentia, is missing.

      If great action is not here, great characters too are not here, though the figures may be stupendous in physical size. Episodes and amplification are out of the question in a small fragment.

      But we have the uplifting style appropriate to an epic. The very opening is impressive; and though its promise may not be quite vindicated by the mournful dialogue between the discrowned Saturn and the Titaness Thea, his would-be comforter”—because it comes as a cold douche on our hopes of a rousing story—the similes and the description of these doleful characters sustain the exalted style. The rhythm is stately, the diction and the phrasing is kept with it:

As when, upon a tranced summer night,
Those green-rob’d senators of mighty woods.
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all nigh without a stir—

      Nevertheless, it is a lugubrious strain; but just when we need a change comes the heroic tone and we have scenes that glow with the dazzling old and crimson of Hyperion’s place, which

Glar’d a blood red through all its thousand courts.
Arches and domes, and fiery galleries:
And all its curtains of Aurorean clouds
Flush’d angerly.

      “The wrath and terror of the sun-god to his flaming palace” comes at the psychological moment to sustain the epic illusion. In the last two hundred lines of the first book the Miltonic note sounds clear, though the Keatsian overtones are here as in the rest of the poem. In spite of some exaggeration, there is truth as well as felicity in Mr, Ridley's appraisement of this passage: “But now we have had enough, and perhaps more than enough, of Saturn and Thea. The poem shows signs of flagging, and there is need of a change of scene, and still more imperative need of action. And the change and the action both come. With the entry of Blazing Hyperion on his orbed fire, the poem, like Milton’s noble and puissant nation, rouses itself like a strong man after sleep and shakes its invincible locks. Through two hundred lines, to the end of the first book there is hardly a moment’s slackening in the sustained power of its movement and the swelling flood of its harmonies. Again and again the ear catches the clang of the hammers on Cyclopean anvils. Here is a passage which leaves no doubt what master Keats had determined to acknowledge. (Mr. Ridley here cites the passage already cited: “His palace bright...Flush’d angerly, (176 82). This time both voice and imagination are Miltonic. And as we should expect, the reminiscences of Milton, both verbally and in idiom, are frequent.”

      If most things essential to the epic are missing in Hyperion, it has indubitably the epic style in which features it come closest to Milton, though the Miltonic cadence and verse paragraph are far ahead.

      When the stately rhythm-and phrasing are in harmony With the character of the scene or figure described, or with the emotion-tone, it has the rightness of a great art. The couple of hundred lines describing the dazzling splendor of the sun-god roused to wrath and terror by the omens he perceives possess this harmony of form and content. But discord creeps in when the philosophic surrender to the new powers has to be presented in exalted language by Oceanus. His style in relation to his message is like Goliath’s armor on David’s body. He begins with a roar: “O Ye, whom wrath consumes...ire.”—but ends like an inoffensive nightingale or sucking-dove. So in Book III, the poet realizes that his Muse is too “weak to sing such tumults dire”, and comes down to his own native accents with realization:

A solitary sorrow best befits
Thy lips, and antheming a lonely grief,

      The organ notes die away and we hear “the soft warble of the Dorian flute”; we hear the Samson like wail of: “For me, dark, and painful vile oblivion seals my eyes”.

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