John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 17
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
Three books of "Endymion" are in the hands of the publisher. With the fourth still to revise he goes for a tour in Devon, "the splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod country." Here he wrote the fine fragment of the "Ode to Maia." Here he lay awake in the dark, listening to the rain with the sensation of rotting like a grain of wheat. On this trip, too, he saw the Devonshire girl at the inn-door, the picture of whom, in imagination, kept him warm during a chilly ride.
Where be ye going, you Devon maid?
And what have ye there in the Basket?
Ye tight little fairy just fresh from the dairy,
Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?—
This is the phase of his "yeasting youth." It has its revels and raptures. But the heart-aches and agonies are not far distant. Finance is grim-staring. His brother George is about to emigrate to America and break the family tie. Poor Tom also will soon emigrate to his final home. Already Keats is brooding on that theme which so fascinated him later,—the thought of his own death.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned the teeming brain—
That bodeful sonnet belongs to these days. The "Chamber of Maiden Thought" is darkening. Its windows are revealing "the mist—the burden of the mystery." Misery lurks upon the horizon. But the joy of life is still dominant, the burning of desire and the brightness of dream. It is against the background of these earthly lights and shadows that we must define the iridescent fantasies of "Endymion."
There is a tradition, started by Gifford, that "Endymion" is unreadable. The world at large quotes the first line as a proverb. Literary critics garnish their essays with a few of its scintillating phrases. Polite society knows that the poem deals with the classical myth of Diana and the sleeping shepherd. Some lovers of poetry may have a mild enthusiasm for the hymn to Pan and the learned may tell them that Wordsworth pronounced this "a pretty piece of paganism." "Endymion," as a whole, has lain neglected like a vein of low-grade ore. Even the biographers have failed to mine this gold-bearing quartz.
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It is our present purpose to analyze the poem and then to look at it with the eyes of Keats.
The action begins with a procession in honor of Pan. Endymion, prince of the shepherds, enters last. He is moody, absent in mind from the ceremony. For he has beheld a celestial vision in the moon which has inspired him with the ardor of a mystical love. His sister Peona later prevails upon him to struggle against this luxurious brooding and to cherish his worldly fame as a chieftain. But mysterious agencies are more influential than his resolution. The vision haunts his memory. A butterfly lures him into the forest. A naiad in a pool imposes a pilgrimage. A voice bids him descend into the hollows of the underworld.