John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 62|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The critics are at odds about the probabilities of success, if the epic had been completed. Keats gave artificiality and Miltonic inversions as the reasons for discontinuance. In the light of posterity's judgment—Mr. Colvin calls it "one of the grandest poems in the language"—these reasons seem trivial and inadequate. Mr. Paul Elmer More has found the fatal defect in the conception. "Hyperion," he urges, was intended to be a pæan of new beauty; but in spite of the poet it became a dirge for the passing of the old. After describing Hyperion and his palace he could not make a greater impression with Apollo. This criticism points out the inherent danger. Apollo, as conceived, could hardly carry out a sympathetic rôle as the protagonist of the victors. If Hyperion were to be an ill-fated Hector, his rival gave promise of being, not an Achilles, but a Paris. Our theory is that Keats began with an evolutionary idea of beauty as triumphant over crude force. When two books were finished, he found himself delivered of a poetic strength which he had not fully anticipated. The splendor of Hyperion made Apollo an impossible epic hero. Heroic valor, as the world still goes, is superior in appeal to grace, however beautiful. To force the superiority of the latter would be artificial, and Keats saw this. The issue has been demonstrated more than once. Satan is the real hero of "Paradise Lost." Klopstock's "Messias" is an epic failure. Dante's "Inferno" brands the imagination with power, while the "Paradise" leaves it in luminous haze. The epic demands dominating strength. Beauty triumphant is essentially lyrical.
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This speculation about the artificiality inherent in the conception of "Hyperion" finds further warrant in the fact that in the recast, or "Vision," Keats rearranged the setting and the action; and the change weakened the dramatic impressiveness of the Titans. The "Vision" has been regarded as evidence of "a loss of artistic power and perception under physical decay and mental agony." But it is by no means certain that the second draft was made after the physical collapse. A more logical assumption, in view of the actual changes, is that the "Vision" is a clumsy attempt to avoid the inevitable anti-climax in the first design.
Now for the main feature. "Hyperion" first conquered respect and admiration for the ludicrous "Johnny Keats." And why? Because here, for the first time, Keats controls something new; something which always commands the attention of the Anglo-Saxon. Except in faint promise, nothing like it has been found in any of his previous poems. Matthew Arnold, in his comparison of the literary spirit of the English and the French, touched the truth when he said that the genius of the English lies chiefly in energy. "Genius is mainly an affair of energy, and poetry is mainly an affair of genius; therefore a nation whose spirit is characterized by energy may well be eminent in poetry." Ruskin has berated his countrymen because they have remained indifferent to the fine arts. Yet the nation that has shown neglect for sculpture and painting is preeminent in poetry. Poetry, better than statuary or pictures, is the artistic form for the transmission of energy. The Anglo-Saxon is particularly receptive to the genius of energy. The poets who have been scant in energy have had to wait for recognition. Think of Wordsworth, waiting forty years; and Byron, awaking one morning and finding himself famous. Run down the long line from the unknown scôp of "Beowulf" to Kipling. Tennyson won the laureateship chiefly through "Ulysses." Read Taine in confirmation of Arnold.
The author of "Isabella," "Lamia," "The Eve of St. Agnes" and the odes would have been accepted, in time, as a great poet—great as an artist of beauty in repose. But his devotion to this type of beauty could not obtain immediate response from the English. In those days of masculine antipathies, men like Byron, Scott and Christopher North actually despised him. He seemed to lack masculine energy. The expression of his genius lagged behind the latent strength in his character. With "Hyperion" he lifted the beauty of repose into sublimity. But he did more. The "terrier courage" of his pugnacious character, as his genius developed, found an outlet at last in his art. There is in "Hyperion" a rousing masculinity. It vibrates with mass power in action. Keats' principle of beauty in repose has been liberated into the beauty of dynamic energies.
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