John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 28
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
This confusion is most striking in the conception of the characters. A pining lover, incapable of self-determined action, cannot be made successfully the protagonist of an epic. Endymion fails as a man; he lacks will. A goddess cannot act like a nymph, with the love-lorn weakness of an earthly maid, without losing her celestial dignity. Diana fails as a deity; she lacks divine reserve. In both characters, where infatuation is unrelieved by any intellectual force of personality, the effect is necessarily mawkish. Keats confused amorousness with real passion. The leading motive of his poem, therefore, could not command deference or stir enthusiasm. He over-estimated the possibilities of his theme; at least his own powers of creation within the limits of such a fable. After the poem was finished he saw that his mistake was insuperable. He refused to redraft it, as futile, and preferred to let "the youngster die."
Judged by the finished products of the masters, "Endymion" as a whole is dead. Yet parts may be treasured like the Elgin marbles, and the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. But whatever the fate of the poem or its fragments as art, it is certainly a rich living autobiography of Keats during the happiest, the most energetic year of his life. During this time, he came into the unrestricted possession of his great inheritance of genius. From inexperience, not from native vice, he proceeded to spend that wealth foolishly. He was a prodigal son, wasting his substance in riotous living. He soon perceived his folly and became wise. Therein lies the moving beauty of the story of the prodigal son.
In Devonshire, after the release from "Endymion," Keats wrote some occasional verse and a poem that is a part of his enduring fame. The "Ode to Maia," an exquisite fragment, expresses the sufficiency of art for the artist and reveals the ancient mood of the Greeks for religion. It breathes the easeful content with the passing day, another evidence of his paganism. For though he longed for immortality, his mind was not vexed by the tremendous eternities of Christian theology. The joy of the ancients entranced him. "I never cease to wonder at all that incarnate delight," he once said to Severn. "It is an immortal youth, just as there is no Now or Then for the Holy Ghost."
PAGE 28 OF 81.
Besides this fragment there are several songs of graceful erotic laxity. One reads them, as coming from the author of "Hyperion," with a slight qualm of regret. Keats is too near us, too much like ourselves. Time gives the sanction of other ages and other manners; it has done this for Herrick and the amorous Elizabethans. A hundred years hence these trifles by Keats may be read with similar pleasure as the pardonable byplay of a genius. He never authorized their publication.