Hyperion: by John Keats Summary & Analysis

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Introduction

      Keats’s Hyperion is one of the most magnificent fragments of English literature. It is a fragment, yet it is magnificent. Having taken a very simple story from classical mythology, Keats gave it the touch of bis masterly handling and produced a marvelous piece of literary, art. The poem deals with the story of the dethronement of Titans by the Olympians. Keats wanted to raise the poem to the epic grandeur of Milton’s Paradise Lost. There is no denying the fact that as far as epic perfection is concerned, Keats’s poem does not come anywhere near Milton’s poem which unquestionably ranks on the top as an epic in English literature. Hyperion lacks two fundamental characteristics of an epic, great action and great characters. It has only the elevated style which again happens to be another pre-requisite of an epic.

Summary

      In Book I we see Saturn, king of the primeval gods or Titans lying prone and paralysed in a deep dell, having been struck down from his throne by his son Jupiter with the very thunder-bolt he has wrenched from his father. Thea, the wife of the sun-god, Hyperion, beholding his plight, sinks down at his feet weeping. Shivering and faltering, he asks her as to what has happened to that sovereign power which once reigned as Saturn—an ‘influence benign’ over creation. In agony he cries:

“Cannot I form? Cannot I fashion forth
Another world, another universe,
To overbear and crumble this to nought? where is another chaos? Where?”

      The words kindling a glow of hope, she leads him to the den where the other Titans lay stricken, either chained in torture or imprisoned in a stifling air. But among the mighty brood of Titans, there was one who still kept his sovereignty—non others than Hyperion, who still throned on his one sniffed the incense mounting up from the world of man.

      But even he reads the portents of the coming catastrophe. While Saturn and Thea are on their way to the murky defile where the Titans lie prostrate Hyperion enters his palace and thunders out his defiance of rebel Jove. He “would advance his terrible right arm, scare that infant thunderer and bid old Saturn take his throne again.” Six hours before the dawn he would commence the day, but even a god cannot lawlessly disturb the order of Nature. As he sinks on his couch, grief-stricken at the humiliation, his mother, Coelus, (the Heavens) counsels him the way of wisdom. It was a pity he had allowed himself to be torn by rival passions, like a frail man: “Sad sign of ruin, sudden dismay and fall.” Nevertheless, she says: ‘do not be ruled by events, anticipate and seek to control them before they become too formidable’:

Be thou therefore in the van
Of circumstance; yea, seize the arrow’s barb
Before the tense string murmur

      Book II, opens with the description of representative Titans in their prostration and despair holding council; presently we come to its main theme, the speeches of Oceanus and Clemence (his daughter) and by way of reply to Saturn’s demand for counsel: “Tell me, all ye brethren Gods, How we can war, how engine our great warth?” Oceanus explains the significance of the change that has come on the Titans. They have fallen by course of Nature’s law not by force of thunder or of Jove. Saturn himself was but an episode in an evolution of Heaven and Earth to fairer and fain states. He was neither the beginning nor the end. They, the fallen gods, had succeeded to an elder world of Chaos and parents Darkness. Even so they must perforce be succeeded by powers fairer far than they. Wisdom lies in facing all naked truths unblenched—in calmly 'envisaging circumstances'. Clymense reinforces the argument with her own experience, how she had to throw away the shell from which she used to evoke her melodies, when Apollo’s enchanting strains fell upon her ears. Enceladus, follows with his Moloch-like wrath and defiance, and his words put new hope into some of his listeners, including dejected Hyperion, who shouts forth Saturn’s name-calling him to action.

      In Book III we see Mnemosyne (the goddess of Memory) rallying Apollo, Hyperion’s successor, from a benumbing dejection and a strange forgetfulness. He feels the travail of latent powers, far brighter, and far more benignant than Hyperion and the elder gods had known. But he cannot understand the why and wherefore of that travail and he asks Mnemosyne to help him to that new consciousness. We see him as he undergoes the struggle and the ‘sea-change’

Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions
Majesties, sovereign voices, agonies.
Creations and destroying, all at once,
Pour into the wide hollows of my brain,
And deify me, as if some blithe wine
Or bright elixir peerless I had drunk,
And so become immortal.

     The poem breaks off abruptly as Apollo emerges resplendent from the throes of his agony.

      “Hyperion begins in the middle of the story. Saturn and Oceanus are already deposed, and many of their colleagues (most of them it may be remarked, Giants, not Titans, who therefore, took part in the later war and nut properly speaking in the I Titanomachy at all) are already chained in torture (L. 18); the kingdom of Hyperion himself, though as yet unassailed, is filled with portents of its coming doom”.

Critical Analysis

Theme of the struggle between old order and new

      We have pointed out two very major weak points of the poem but the loss is more than compensated by what Keats had in his store to add to the poem. Rising above the limitations of an epic, he interwove into its fiber his entire philosophy of life and his poem shall always continue to be loved and remembered for the depth of its thought and feelings. Keats was absolutely alive to the spirit and cause of French Revolution. He knew that people were sacrificing their lives for the cause of equality and liberty. His sympathies were with those who were making an untiring struggle for the replacement of the tyrannical old order by a new order based on justice, liberty and equality. Keats wanted to bring home the message that old order must yield place to new and it is this struggle between two systems that Keats represents through the struggle between Titans and Olympians, whereby the story of the poem assumes an allegorical significance. Keats makes use of Oceanus to give expression to the philosophy of old order versus new. Oceanus puts it in very unambiguous terms before the fallen Titans that they must accept the supremacy of the new order that has established its superiority over the old. He says:

‘‘On our heels, a fresh perfection treads.
A power more strong in beauty, born of us And fated to excel us”.

Theme of beauty as a creative force

      The other hallmark of Hyperion is its handling of Keats’s oft-repeated theme of beauty and in this case also Keats chooses Oceanus to be his spokesman. Ocean us explains to the fallen gods that their fall was inevitable because they had started lacking in the creative force of the universe (that force being beauty) and their successors had surpassed them in it. Oceans says that power is associated with beauty. Loss of beauty means death of civilization and creation of beauty in its life. He has this to say about the new generation of gods, who do tower
Above us in their beauty, and must reign
In right thereof, ‘tis the eternal law
That first in beauty should be first in might.

Personal element in the poem

      The third book of Hyperion gives an added significance to the poem in so far as it touches upon Keats’s personal life. Apollo is no other than Keats himself. While describing Apolio’s morning walk Keats is in fact giving expression to his own favorite occupation of gazing on, listening to 'nature’s gentle doings'. This is how Keats gives a description of Apollo’s schedule in the early hours of morning:

In the morning twilight wandered forth
Beside the osiers of a rivulet
Full ankle-deep in lillies of the vale.

      In these lines, Keats is giving vent to the feelings that he had in his own heart for the beauties of nature. In fact it is his own close and vivid observation of nature. Thus by introducing an element of the personal and lyrical in Hyperion Keats marks it with a stamp of his own which makes the poem all the more lovable.

Style of ‘Hyperion’

      And finally a word about the style of Hyperion. To give to the poem, the proper style of an epic Keats kept Milton before him as his model. He gave it the intensity and restraint of an epic, the discipline and structural coherence, firmness and integrity, the connotative intensity and richness of imagery. No doubt Keats himself admits that his Muse is weak at singing heroic and war poetry (which also explains why the poem was left unfinished) yet he has been able to elevate the style to a large degree though it can- not match Milton’s maturity and perfection. If Keats has less than Milton’s imagery, he has more than his magic, if he has less of dramatic passion and movement, he has more of sculpturesque repose. His blank verse is fine.

Critical Appreciation

      Amid the solemn grandur of the figures and scenes, Miltionic in their magnificence and boldness of outline, we have the subdued tints and alluring lights and shadows that are of Keats's own native inspiration. It is like catching sight of flowers and streams and coy graces peeping out amid the clefts of a reeky foreground. Before we have read the overture of fourteen lines we have the chaste and pure outlines of a Greek statue:

The Naiad mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips.

      Presently, after a score of lines we have the Keatsians association of Beauty and Sorrow and the discernment of beauty in sorrow:

How beautiful, if sorrow had not made
Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty’s self.

      We know we have heard something very like it before; we pause a moment and recollect the roundelay on sorrow in Endymion (iv), and perhaps this stanza:

Come then, Sorrow!
Sweetest Sorrow!
Like an own babe I nurse thee on my breast:
I thought to leave thee
And deceive thee
But now of all the world I love thee best.

      We have not to proceed far before we light on lines that take us to the very heart of the Romantic Movement with its sense of my story of the past in “the green-rob’d senators of mighty woods, it is a call to the imagination to think of these gigantic lords of the forest as providing a proper mise-enscene for the gods of infant world; we are made to feel along with it the enchantment exercised by the stars in the stillness of the summer night on the branches hushed and held by their dream of them:

Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir,

      The simile we know is pure Keats, and for a moment we are far away from Milton.

      In the comparison of Saturn and Thea to “natural sculpture in Cathedral Cavern” we recognize an image suggested by some o the Parthenon sculptures (which had produced an indelible impression on Keats) applied to what he had observed at first-hand in Fingal’s Cave. Then in the description of Hypenon s palace (LI. 176-181), we have mythology dissolving m a gorgeous picture of sunrise heralding a stormy day. If this picture is some-what remote from the Keats of the Odes, something tated—the lines describing the slow breathed melodies played by the Zephyrs and the portals of Hyperion’s palace opening like a rose in vermeil tint of shape’—‘in fragrance soft and coolness to the eye’—give us a glimpse of the innermost chamber of the world Keats loved.

      In Book II the central thought of the poem is not given in Keats’ habitual style, but in lines that are austere and heightened as befits its tone. The scene at the beginning is vague and shadowy. Suddenly, we come upon a vivid and striking image, drawn from personal recollection,

Of the dismal crique
Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor,
When the chill rain begins at shut of eve
In dull November

      It is not till he comes to Clymen’s description of Apollo s ravishing music that Keats gets a chance to indulge the lyric picture of fused melody and color. The ‘rapturous hurried notes fall like pearl beads —

Each like a dove leaving its olive perch,
With music wing’d instead of silent plumes,
To hover round my head, and make me sick
Of joy and grief at once.

It is like the breaking in of Lydian airs on Dorian.

      In Book III Milton goes down and Keats is on the saddle. In the clouds of morn and even floating like voluptuous fleeces o’er the hills; in the red wine boiling cold as a bubbling well; in the maid blushing keenly—as with a warm kiss surpris’d; in the patient brilliance of the moon; in the silver splendor of the star panting with bliss, we have the intense and impassioned phrases with Keatsian magic on them.

Conclusion


      With all its drawbacks, Hyperion is a lovable epic. It gives us a thesis of life in a concrete shape. Dealing with super-human beings, the poem retains its human character. It does not take us away from the world of man rather it helps us look at life with greater insight, and more than that poem has its artistic worthy It has its. own artistic beauty which makes it a memorable literary piece.

      In Endymion Keats had trailed the reader through an endless labyrinth of dreaming narrative and cloying description of amorous ardors. Its languorous beauties seem to smother us under rose. In Hyperion he decides to discard them, and adopts a style of bracing economy and concinnity, There is no loading here of ‘every rift Avith ore’. In place of irrelevant episodes and phantom journeyings through subterranean corridors and submarine palaces through which we were led such a wild goose chase in Endymion, we have here a narrative that stands out in classical pure and simple outline; and we have scenes and figures standing out sculptural relief. Hyperion presents a Greek theme in the Greek manner, with Miltonic echoes—nevertheless a new and original creation, with merits and drawbacks all its own. In Hyperion, as in Endymion, a symbolic meaning enter to quicken an ancient myth to a new life. Before we consider that meaning we must glance at the theme itself.

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