John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 58|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The ambition of Keats was certainly audacious. "Hyperion" is almost a leap at the stars. Little is known of the war of the Titans and the Olympians; the incidents of the epic would have been largely the inventions of the poet's brain. From a few hints he had to re-create a mythology which the genius of a race had evolved through many generations. Keats dared again, as in "Endymion," the test of unaided originality. Shakespeare had his copious sources. Milton had Vondel, the scholarship of a life and the theology of a living church. Tennyson had the richest collection of romances in mediæval literature. Keats went back to prehistoric time with only a few patches of information. The first cause for wonder is that the conception of "Hyperion" is neither loose nor thin.
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We shall presume that every reader is acquainted with its obvious merits: the line crowded with imaginative values; the power of sustaining the level of the heights. There are no lapses into mere intellectualism. The poem is of imagination all compact. The auroral glow and the rumbling thunder of the passages make all appreciative comment seem feeble. Our purpose, in the following review, is to bring one feature into clear relief and to let the poem make its own direct appeal.
Saturn is dethroned, in exile. In a vale of primæval silence he sits, with closed eyes, listening for comfort from the ancient mother Earth. Thea draws near; the sorrow of impending doom is on her face,—
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice and the sullen rear
Was with its stored malice labouring up.
The rebel dynasty has invaded their serene domain, despoiling it like a barbaric horde. She has no consolation for the nerveless king. Her futile words end in regret for violating his slumbrous solitude; she bows her forehead to the ground.
One moon, with alteration slow, had shed
Her silver seasons four upon the night,
And still these two were postured motionless,
Like natural sculpture in cathedral cavern;
The frozen God still couchant on the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet.
At last Saturn lifts his eyes and speaks. He is only a feebly animate body; the martial spirit forsook him on the way to exile.
"Search, Thea, search! and tell me if thou seest
A certain shape or shadow, making way
With wings or chariot fierce to repossess
A heaven he lost erewhile: it must—it must
Be of ripe progress—Saturn must be king.
There must be Gods thrown down and trumpets blown
Of triumph calm, and hymns of festival
Upon the gold clouds metropolitan,
Voices of soft proclaim, and silver stir
Of strings in hollow shells; and there shall be
Beautiful things made new, for the surprise
Of the sky-children."
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