Imatges de pàgina



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, Apollonius 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 bis 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 bave found nothing to his purpose. 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 bis 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 forsakes
All the delights that shepherds do prefer,
And sets his mind so generally on her
That, all neglected, to the groves and springs
He follows Phæbe, that him safely brings
(As their great queen) unto the nymphish bowers,
Where in clear rivers beautified with flowers
The silver Naides bathe them in the bracke.
Sometime with her the sea-horse he doth back
Among the blue Nereides; and when,
Weary of waters, goddess-like again

1 In the extract I have modernized Drayton's spelling and endeavoured to mend his punctuation : his grammatical constructions are past mending

She the high mountains actively assays,
And there amongst the light Oriades,
That ride the swift roes, Phæbe doth resort:
Sometime amongst those that with them comport
The Hamadriades doth the woods frequent;
And there she stays not, but incontinent
Calls down the dragons that her chariot draw,
And with Endymion pleased that she saw,
Mounteth thereon, in twinkling of an eye
Stripping the winds—"

Fletcher, 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- 1-Fletcher in the Faithful Shepherdess makes Chloe tell, in lines beautifully paraphrased and amplified from Theocritus,

“ How the pale Phæbe, hunting in a grove,

First saw the boy Endymion, from whose eyes
She took eternal fire that never dies ;
How she convey'd him softly in a sleep,
His temples bound with poppy, to the steep
Head of old Latnius, where she stoops each night,
Gilding the mountain with her brother's light,
To kiss her sweetest."

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 shepherdprince after his love.'

The manner in which Keats set 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 multitudinous 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 Sbakspeare to keep the vital play of character and passion upsmothered by them, and in most narrative poems of the age the quality is quite unchecked. To Keats, at

1 Mrs. Owen was, I think, certainly right in her main conception of an allegoric purpose vaguely underlying Keats's narrative.

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the time when he wrote Endymion, such incidental and secondary luxuriance constituted an essential, if not thé chief, charm of poetry. “I think poetry,” he says, “ should surprise 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 inventionwhich 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 Endymion myth whatever others pleased him best, as those of Pan, of Venus and Adonis, of Cybele, of Alpheus 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 intricacy; 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

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