In the old Grecian world, the myth of Endymion and Selene was one deeply rooted in various shapes in the popular traditions both of Elis in the Peloponnese, and of the Ionian cities about the Latmian gulf in Caria. The central feature of the tale, as originally sung by Sappho, was the nightly descent of the goddess to kiss her lover where he lay spell-bound, by the grace of zeus, in everlasting sleep and everlasting youth on mount Latmos. The poem of Sappho is lost, and the story is not told at length in any of our extant classical writings, but only by way of allusion in some of the poets, as Theocritus, Apollonious Rhodius, and Ovid, and of the late prose-writers, as Lucian, Apollodorus, and Pausanias. Of such ancient sources Keats of course knew only what he found in his classical dictionaries. But references to the tale, as every one knows, form part of the stock repertory of classical allusion in modern literature: and several modern writers before Keats had attempted to handle the subject at length. In his own special range of Elizabethan reading, he was probably acquainted with Lyly's court comedy of Endimion, in prose, which had been edited, as it happened, by his friend Dilke a few years before: but in it he would have found nothing to his pupose. On the other hand I think he certainly took hints from the Man in the Moon of Michael Drayton. In this piece Drayton takes hold of two post-classical notions concerning the Endymion myth, both in the first instance derived from Lucian, - one that which identifies its hero with the visible 'man in the moon' of popular fancy, - the other that which rationalises his story, and explains him away as a personification or mythical representative of early astronomy. These two distinct notions Drayton weaves together into a short tale in rhymed heroics, which he puts into the mouth of a shepherd at a feast of Pan. Like most of his writings, the Man in the Moon has strong gleams of poetry and fancy amidst much that is both puerile and pedantic. Critics, so far as I know, have overlooked Keats's debt to it: but even granting that he may well have got elsewhere, or invented for himself, the notion of introducing his story with a festival in honour of Pan - do not, at any rate, the following lines of Drayton contain evidently the hint for the wanderings on which Keats sends his hero (and for which antiquity affords no warrant) through earth, sea, and air? -
"Endymion now forsakesFletcher again, a writer with whom Keats was very familiar, and whose inspiration, in the idyllic and lyric parts of his work, is closely kindred to his own - Fletcher in the Faithful Shepherdess makes Chloe tell, in lines beautifully paraphrased and amplified from Theocrits -
"How the pale Phoebe, hunting in a grove,The subject thus touched by Drayton and Fletcher had been long, as we have seen already, in Keats's thoughts. Not only had the charm of this old pastoral nature-myth of the Greeks interwoven itself in his being with his natural sensibility to the physical and spiritual spell of moonlight: but deeper and more abstract meanings than its own had gathered about the story in his mind. The divine vision which haunts Endymion in dreams is for Keats symbolical of Beauty itself, and it is the passion of the human soul for beauty which he attempts, more or less consciously, to shadow forth in the quest of the shepherd-prince after his love.
The manner in which Keats sets about relating the Greek story, as he had thus conceived it, was as far from being a Greek or 'classical' manner as possible. He indeed resembles the Greeks, as we have seen, in his vivid sense of the joyous and multitidinous life of nature: and he loved to follow them in dreaming of the powers of nature as embodied in concrete shapes of supernatural human activity and grace. Moreover, his intuitions for every kind of beauty being admirably swift and true, when he sought to conjure up visions of the classic past, or images from classic fable, he was able to do so often magically well. To this extent Keats may justly be called, as he has been so often called, a Greek, but no farther. The rooted artistic instincts of that race, the instincts which taught them in all the arts alike, during the years when their genius was most itself, to select and simplify, rejecting all beauties but the vital and essential, and paring away their material to the quick that the main masses might stand out unconfused, in just proportions and with outlines rigorously clear - these instincts had neither been implanted in Keats by nature, nor brought home to him by precept and example. Alike by his aims and his gifts, he was in his workmanship essentially 'romantic,' Gothic, English. A general characteristic of his favourite Elizabethan poetry is its prodigality of incidental and superfluous beauties: even in the drama, it takes the powers of a Shakspere to keep the vital play of character and passion unsmothered by them, and in most narrative poems of the age the quality is quite unchecked. To Keats, at the time when he wrote Endymion, such incidental and secondary luxuriance constituted an essential, if not the chief, charm of poetry. "I think poetry," he says, "should suprise by a fine excess:" and with reference to his own poem during its progress, "it will be a test, a trial of my powers of imagination, and chiefly of my invention - which is a rare thing indeed - by which I must make 4000 lines of one bare circumstance, and fill them with poetry."
The 'one bare circumstance' of the story was in the result expanded through four long books of intricate and flowery narrative, in the course of which the young poet pauses continually to linger or deviate, amplifying every incident into a thousand circumstances, every passion into a world of subtleties. He interweaves with his central Encymion myth whatever other pleased him best, as those of Pan, of Venus and Adonis, of Cybele, of Aplheus and Arethusa, of Glaucus and Scylla, of Circe, of Neptune, and of Bacchus; leading us through labyrinthine transformations, and on endless journeyings by subterranean antres and aërial gulfs and over the floor of ocean. The scenery of the tale, indeed, is often not merely of a Gothic vastness and intricady; there is something of Oriental bewilderment, - an Arabian Nights jugglery with space and time, - in the vague suddenness with which its changes are effected. Such organic plan as the poem has can best be traced by fixing our attention on the main divisions adopted by the author of his narrative into books, and by keeping hold at the same time, wherever we can, of the thread of allegoric thought and purpose that seems to run loosely through the whole. The first book, then, is entirely introductory, and does no more than set forth the predicament of the love-sick shepherd-prince, its hero; who appears at a festival of his people held in honour of the god Pan, and is afterwards induced by his sister Peona to confide to her the secret of the passion which consumes him. The account of the feast of Pan contains passages which in the queality of direct nature-interpretation are scarcely to be surpassed in poetry: -
rain-scented eglantineWhat can be more fresh and stirring? - what happier in rhythmical movement? - or what more characteristic of the true instinct by which Keats, in dealing with nature, avoided word-painting and palette-work, leaving all merely visible beauties, the stationary world of colours and forms, as they should be left, to the painter, and dealing, as poetry alone is able to deals, with those delights which are felt and divined rather than seen, with the living activities and operant magic of the earth? Not less excellent is the realisation, in the course of the same episode, of the true spirit of ancient pastoral life and worship; the hymn to Pan in special both expressing perfectly the meaning of the Greek myth to Greeks, and enriching it with touches of northern feeling that are foreign to, and yet most harmonious with, the original. Keats having got from Drayton, as I surmise, his first notion of an introductory feast of Pan, in his hymn to that divinity borrowed recognizable touches alike from Chapman's Homer's hymn, from the sacrifice to Pan in Browne's Britannia's Pastorals, and from the hymns in Ben Jonson's masque, Pan's Anniversary: but borrowed as only genius can, fusing and refashioning whatever he took from other writers in the strong glow of an imagination fed from the living sources of nature:-
«O THOU, whose mighty palace roof doth hang
In the subsequent discourse of Endymion and Peona he tells her the story of those celestial visitations which he scarce knows whether he has experienced or dreamed. In Keats's conception of his youthful heroes there is at all times a touch, not the wholesomest, of effeminacy and physical softness, and the influence of passion he is apt to make fever and unman them quite: as indeed a helpless and enslaved submission of all the faculties to love proved, when it came to the trial, to be a weakness of his own nature. He partly knew it, and could not help it: but the consequence is that the love-passages of Endymion, notwithstanding the halo of beautiful tremulous imagery that often plays about them, can scarely be read with pleasure. On the other hand, in matters of subordinate feeling he shows not only a great rhetorical facility, but the signs often of lively dramatic power; as for instande in the remonstrance wherein Peona tries to make her brother ashamed of his weakness:-
«Is this the cause?In the second book the hero sets out in quest of his felicity, and is led by obscure signs and impulses through a mysterious and all but trackless region of adventure. In the first vague imaginings of youth, conceptions of natural and architectural marvels, unlocalised and half-realised in mysterious space, are apt to fill a large part: and to such imaginings Keats in this book lets himself go without a check. A Naiad, in the disguise of a butterfly, leads Endymion to her spring, and there reveals herself and bids him be of good hope: an airy voice next invites him to descend 'into the sparry hollows of the world': which done, he gropes his way to a subterranean temple of dim and most un-Grecian magnificence, where he is admitted to the presence of the sleeping Adonis, and whither Venus herself presently repairing gives him encouragement. Thence, urged by the haunting passion within him, he wanders on by dizzy paths and precipices, and forests of leaping, everchanging fountains. Through all this phantasmagoria engendered by a brain still teeming with the rich first fumes of boyish fancy, and in great part confusing and inappropriate, shine out at intervals strokes of the true old-world poetry admirably felt and expressed:-
«He sinks adown a solitary glen,or presences of old religion strongly conceived and realised:
«Forth from a rugged arch, in the dusk below,After seeing the vision of Cybele, Endymion, still travelling through the bowels of the earth, is conveyed on an eagle's back down an unfathomable descent, and alighting, presently finds a 'jasmine bower,' whither his celestial mistress again stoops to visit him. Next he encounters the streams, and hears the voices, of Arethusa and Alpheus on their fabled flight to Ortygia: as they disappear down a chasm, he utters a prayer to his goddes in their behalf, and then -
«He turn’d - there was a whelming sound - he stept,Hitherto Endymion has been wholly absorbed in his own passion and adventures: but now the fates of others claim his sympathy: first those of Alpheus and Arethusa, and next, throughout nearly the whole of the third book, those of Glaucus and Scylla. Keats handles this latter legend with great freedom, omitting its main point, the transformation of Scylla by Circe into a devouring monster, and making the enchantress punish her rival not by this vile metamorphosis, but by death; or rather a trance resembling death, from which after many ages Glaucus is enabled by Endymion's help to rescue her, and together with her the whole sorrowful fellowship of true lovers drowned at sea. From the point in the hero's submarine adventures where he first meets Glaucus,-
He saw far in the concave green of the seafrom this passage to the end of the book, in spite of redundance and occasional ugly flaws, Keats brings home his version of the myth with strong and often exquisite effect to the imagination. No picture can well be more vivid than that of Circe puring the magic phial upon her victims: and no speech much more telling than that with which the detected enchantress turns and scathes her unhappy lover. In the same book the description of the sunk treasures cumbering the ocean-floor challenges comparison, not all unequally, with the famous similar passage in Shakspere's Richard III. In the halls of Neptune Endymion again meets Venus, and receives from her more explicit encouragement than heretofore. Thence Neirids bear him earthward in a trance, during which he reads in spirit words of still more reassuring omen written in starlight on the dark. Since, in his adventure with Glaucus, he has allowed himself to be diverted from his own quest for the sake of relieving the sorrows of others, the hope which before seemed ever to elude him draws at last nearer to fulfilment.
It might seem fanciful to suppose that Keats had really in his mind a meaning such as this, but for the conviction he habitually declares that the pursuit of beauty as an aim in life is only justified when it is accompanied by the idea of devotion to human service. And in his fourth book he leads his hero through a chain of adventures which seem certainly to have a moral and allegorical meaning or none at all. Returning, in that book, to upper air, Endymion before long half forgets his goddess for the charms of an Indian maiden, the sound of whose lamentations reaches him while he is sacrificing in the forest, and who tells him how she has come wandering in the train of Bacchus from the east. This mysterious Indian maiden proves in fact to be no other than his goddes herself in disguise. But it is long before he discovers this, and in the mean time he is conducted by her side through a bewildering series of aerial ascents, descents, enchanted slumbers and Olympian visions. All these, with his infidelity which is no infidelity after all, his broodings in the Cave of Quietude, his illusions and awakenings, his final farewell to mortality and to Peona, and reunion with his celestial mistress in her own shape, make up a narrative inextricably confused, which only becomes partially intelligible when we take it as a parable of a soul's experience in pursuit of the ideal. Let a soul enamoured of the ideal - such would seem the argument - once suffer itself to forget its goal, and to quench for a time its longings in the real, nevertheless it will be still haunted by that lost vision; amidst all intexications, disappointment and lassitede will still dog it, until it awakes at last to find that the reality which has thus allured it derives from the ideal its power to charm, - that is after all but a reflection from the ideal, a phantom of it. What chiefly or alone makes the episode poetically acceptable is the strain of lyric poetry which Keats has put into the mouth of the supposed Indian maiden when she tells her story. His later and more famous lyrics, though they are free from the faults and immaturities which disfigure this, yet do not, to my mind at least, show a command over such various sources of imaginative and musical effect, or touch so thrillingly so many chords of the spirit. A mood of tender irony and wistful pathos like that of the best Elizabethan love-songs; a sense as keen as Heine's of the immemorial romance of India and the East; a power like that of Coleridge, and perhaps partly caught from him, of evoking the remotest weird and beautiful associations almost with a word; clear visions of Greek beauty and wild wood-notes of Celtic imagination; all these elements come here commingled, yet in a strain perfectly individual. Keats calls the piece a 'roundelay,' - a form which it only so far resembles that its opening measures are repeated at he close. It begins with a tender invocation to sorrow, and then with a first change of movement conjures up the image of a deserted maidenhood beside Indian streams; till suddenly, with another change, comes the irruption of the Asian Bacchus on his march; next follows the detailed picture of the god and of his rout, suggested in part by the famous Titian th the National Gallery; and then, arranged as if for music, the challenge of the maiden to the Maenads and Satyrs, and their choral answers:
The strophes recounting the victorious journeys are very unequal; and finally, returning to the opening motive, the lyric ends as it began with an exquisite strain of lovelorn pathos: -
«Come then, Sorrow!The high-water-mark of poetry in Endymion is thus reached in the two lyrics of the first and fourth books. Of these at least may be said with justice that which Jeffrey was inclined to say of the poem as a whole, that the degree to which any reader appreciates them will furnish as good a test as can be obtained of his having in him "a native relish for poetry, and a genuine sensibility to its intrinsic charm." In the main body of the work, beauties and faults are so bound up together that a critic may well be struck almost as much by one as by the other. Admirable truth and charm of imagination, exquisite freshness and felicity of touch, mark such brief passages as we have quoted above: the very soul of poetry breathes in them, and in a hundred other throughout the work: but read farther, and you will in almost every case be brought up by hardly tolerable blemishes of execution and of taste. Thus in the tale told by Glaucus, we find a line of strong poetic vision such as -
«Ææa's isle was wondering at the moon,»standing alone in a passage of rambling and ineffective over-honeyed narrative; or again, a couplet forced and vulgar like this both in rhyme and expression -
«I look’d - ’twas Scylla! Cursed, cursed Circe!is followed three lines farther on by a masterly touch of imagination and the hear: -
«Cold, O cold indeedOne, indeed, of the besetting faults of his earlier poetry Keats has shaken of - his muse is seldom tempted now to echo the familiar sentimental chip of Hunt's. But that tendency which he by nature shared with Hunt, the tendency to linger and luxuriate over every imagined pleasure with an over-fond and doting relish is still strong in him. And to the weakness native to his own youth and temperament are joined others derived from an ecxlusive devotion to the earlier masters of English poetry. The crative impulse of the Elizabethan age, in its waywardness and lack of discipline, and discrimination, not less than in its luxuriant strength and freshness, seems actually revived in him. He outdoes even Spenser in his proneness to let Invention ramble and loiter uncontrolled through what wildernesses she will, with Imagination at her heels to dress if possible in living beauty the wonders that she finds there: and sometimes Imagination is equal to the task and sometimes not: and even busy Invention herself occasionally flags, and is content to grasp at any idle clue the rhyme holds out to her:-
«- a nymph of Dian's
«Does yonder thrush,Chapman especially among Keats's masters had this trick of letting thought follow the chance dictation of rhyme. Spenser and Chapman - to say nothing of Chatterton - had farther accustomed his ear to experimental and rash dealings with their mother tongue. English was almost as unsettled a language for him as for them; and he strives to extend its resources, and make them adequate to the range and feshness of his imagery, by the use of compund and other adjectival coinages in Chapman's spirit - 'far-spooming Ocean', 'eye-earnestly', 'dead-drifting', 'their surly eyes brown-hidden', 'nervy knees', 'surgy murmurs' - coinages sometimes legitimate or even happy, but often fantastic and tasteles: as well as by sprinkling his nineteenth-century diction with such archaisms as 'shent', 'sith', and 'seemlihed' from Spenser, 'eterne' from Spenser and William Browne; or with arbitrary verbal form, as 'to folly', 'to monitor', 'gordian'd up', to 'fragment up', or with neuter verbs used as active as to 'travel' an eye, to 'pace' a team of horses and vice versa. Hence even when in the other qualities of poetry his work is good, in diction and expression it is apt to be lax and wavering, and full of oddities and discords.
In rhythm Keats adheres in Endymion to the method he had adopted in Sleep and Poetry, deliberately keeping the sentence independent of the metre, putting full pauses anywhere in his lines rather than at the end, and avoiding any regular beat upon the rhyme. Leigh Hunt thought Keats had carried this method too far, even to the negation of metre. Some later critics have supposed the rhythm of Endymion to have been influenced by the Pharonnida of Chamberlayne: a fourth-rate poet remarkable chiefly for two things, for the inextricable trailing involution of his sentences, exceeding that of the very worst prose of his time, and for a perverse persistency in ending his heroic lines with the lightest syllables - prepositions, adverbs and conjunctions - on which neither pause nor emphasis is possible. But Keats, even where his verse runs most diffusely, rarely fails in delicacy of musical and metrical ear, or in variety and elasticity of sentence structure. There is nothing in his treatment of the measure for which precedent may not be found in the work of almost every poet who employed it during the half-century that followed its brilliant revival for the purposes or narrative poetry by Marlowe. At most, he can only be said to make a rule of that which with the older poets was rather an exception; and to seek affinities for him among the tedious by-ways of provincial seventeenth-century verse seems quite superfluous. As the best criticism on Keats's Endymion is in his own preface, so its best defence is in a letter he wrote six months after it was printed. "It is as good," he says, "as I had power to make it by myself." Hunt had warned him against the risks of a long poem, and Shelley against those of hasty publication. From much in his performance that was exuberant and crude the classical training and now ripening taste of Shelley might doubtless have saved him, had he been willing to listen. But he was determined that his poetry should at all times be the true spontaneous expression of his mind. "Had I been nervous," he goes on, "about its being a perfect piece, and with that view asked advice, and trembled over every page, it would not habe been written for it is not in my nature to fumble. I will write independently. I have written independently without judgment. I may write independently and with judgment hereafter. The genius of poetry must work out its own salvation in a man. It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulfness in itself." How well Keats was able to turn the fruits of experience to the benefit of his art, how swift the genius of poetry in him was to work out, as he says, its own salvation, we shall see when we come to consider his next labours.